Designer Diary

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In Q4 2014, Five Tribes will start appearing on game store shelves worldwide. I am often asked to talk about the game creation process, so I decided to take this opportunity to try to lay out on paper, as closely as I could in an admittedly long journal entry, the entire thought process that led to the creation of such a game, writing things down in the exact order in which they occurred in my head – and perhaps most importantly, going beyond explanations that I would qualify as purely mechanical and attempting to share my deepest personal motivations and the reasons behind each of my choices vis-à-vis the gaming experience that I sought to create this game.

Bruno Cathala, high in the French Alps – May 2014

How it all began
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In January 2014, with the opening of TricTrac's pages to contributors of all kinds, I wrote a first article on how to engineer fun and encapsulate it in cardboard. That article dealt with a subject that is dear to my heart: the intimate relationship between playful fun and frustration. So I have to admit I found it quite funny and ironic, after taking a step back, to come to realize that it is again a personal frustration that was for me the trigger for designing Five Tribes. Let me explain...

I have now been a game designer for almost twelve years as my first game got published in October 2002, and my work has been revolving around games exclusively since April 2004 (following the sudden disappearance of the "real" job I had until then in a military-industrial complex).

I consider myself very fortunate among game designers: Up to this point, every single year has seen several of my games published. Believe me, I measure every day the opportunity and luck I've had, and I dread the day when my own desires may no longer be in tune with those of game publishers and players worldwide.

So I'm one of the happy few, yet a sense of frustration has been slowly building up inside me in recent years for in spite of these multiple yearly publications of new games, and despite garnering some real critical success among the public, my royalties have never quite followed suit and given me financial serenity or independence. So, in parallel with the development of my own creations, I am required to work as a game developer – sometimes going as far as supervising the actual manufacturing of some titles – on behalf of different publishers for games designed by other authors.

This work is exciting and brings me a reassuring economic stability, but it has a counterpart: It is time consuming. In fact, when I am commissioned to work on a "big" game for a given game publisher, it requires a profound intellectual immersion on my part in this subject. Immersion that prevents me from having the time to develop a project of the same magnitude for myself. As former manager of French TV Channel TF1 Patrick Le Lay would have said, "all my available human brain time" is completely absorbed by the task at hand.

So, in the middle of this process that is as time-consuming as it is exciting, I let the pressure off by designing "small", "fun little" games – lots of them. Note that I do not mean "small" in a pejorative way; I mean "small" in regards to the time it requires to create, develop, and playtest such short little games. And thus were born The Little Prince, Noah, Sobek, Okiya, SOS Titanic, etc... Let me be clear: I love each of these games and do not disavow them in any way.

Worse, sometimes while doing this, I take mental note, in a corner of my head or in one of my notebooks, of an overall architecture or design idea for a beefier game, one that would require more work. And I keep it for later when I'll have time. And then I get mad and frustrated when I see another very successful game based exactly on this idea come to market, nipping my own design in the bud. This is, for example, how I caught a severe case of the blues when Trajan came out more than a year ago, for I had put on paper all the architecture of a game based on exactly the same mechanisms for initiating different actions. The exact same game, basically!

This is how little by little over the years this frustration, born out of my own lack of time for my personal involvement in larger projects, has grown, boosted by the feeling sometimes that I had been outdone yet again on a great game design idea I had had.

 This frustration, and the brain turmoil that accompanied it, grew and grew – until it erupted in late 2012. 

For him, it all started on a dark night...
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Overall, my working time is organized as follows: From Saturday to Friday, I work on various projects in which I am involved, usually a dozen in parallel, all at varying levels of progress: Updating and prototyping (files and other components), file validation before printing, rules writing and editing, image sourcing for other projects, various and varied coordination with authors / illustrators / publishers / manufacturers connected to these projects (Skype is my friend)... then Friday night, off to Annecy for an evening of gaming in "The Lair", an aptly-named brewery in the city center.

There, each Friday night, players of all stripes meet. It begins with a drink (or four or twelve, it depends), telling bullshit (here, the degree of stupidity varies with the number of glasses), eating together (do not ask for the duck salad with no salad but french fries, just say a "Cathala" instead), and after a coffee, it's time for games until one in the morning. It's in this small, cozy cocoon that I've had the opportunity to assemble a team of always enthusiastic playtesters ready to validate my projects from the past week.

Late December 2012, a Friday morning: Lots of work... Too much of it. I badly want, no, need a break!

For the past few days I have been thinking about my old project stifled by Trajan again. I want to use Awélé's system of sowing for...something else. The night that just ended was a sleepless one, so I began to run a game in my head, a game for two (I swear, it's not on purpose):

  • Some tiles, laid in a square. Say nine tiles.
  • On these tiles, some pawns of three different colors, randomly placed three to a tile.
  • On your turn, you empty a tile and drop its pawns on adjacent tiles, one at a time, without backing up on your move. (Still following, at the back of the class?)
  • For a movement to be valid, there must be already be at least one pawn of the same color as your last pawn on the final tile you end your move on. Much easier to explain with an illustrated example than it reads!
  • On that final tile, you grab all the pawns matching the color of the last pawn you dropped (so a minimum of two)
  • The game ends when no more moves are possible. Each captured pawn is worth as many victory points as the number of pawns of that color still on some tiles.

That's... That's all. I "mentally" played a few virtual games in my head throughout the night, and since they felt fun, the next morning when I got to my office, before moving onto heavier stuff, I really wanted badly to revisit my nocturnal thoughts to validate these ideas.

For the nine tiles, no need to look too far. A few beer coasters from my own personal collection should do, flipped face down so as to offer a neutral background color.

For pawns? Piece of cake... I have a stock of cute and colorful wooden dino-meeples. They come from an incomplete box set of the first version of Evo – a great game... Philippe, if you read me... you know how big a fan I am of this one – purchased for ¤1 in a garage sale just to scavenge cardboard and wooden pawns for prototypes.

Once set up, all this stuff looks cute and makes me want to play. The tiny dinos give a semblance of theme that is useless at this point, but that just enhances the thing. I play against myself.

 No, I'm not schizophrenic!
And neither am I ;-) 

This game feels right: It's simple, seems rather clever, and even though playing alone necessarily lacks pizzazz, I feel there is enough to do something with. Already from the get go, the system works well, so I want to add a little variety to the game. I decide to give a specific effect to each tile in the game: The player who empties a tile at the end of his traveling MUST apply the effect of that tile. Fun + replayability.

At this stage, here's what it looks like on my computer. (Yes, I use PowerPoint rather than Photoshop, showing my age and laziness, no doubt):

So on that Friday night, it's with this minimalist prototype in my pocket that I head out to "The Lair", and there, over drinks, five or six plays follow in rapid succession.

My morning hunches are confirmed: The game is quick (5-10 minutes), intense, and with an evil twist that is far from displeasing me.

In short, there is probably still some development to do, for even more variety in the tiles' effects and to ensure, for example, that there is not a game-breaking advantage for any of the two players, but these are details for the most part, easily solvable. By the end of the evening, I'm confident that I have a game that is already done, by and large, and showable to a game publisher.

Except that...I stay awake all night because once again it's a game for two, which I like a lot already, but that does not fill my need to work for myself on a project of larger scope! And I've got a nagging feeling this little game engine that could might be the foundation for a much beefier, more ambitious project.

In short, the ideal jumping board for a different, bigger and bolder adventure...

Along a lonely road...
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That thought continues to haunt me well beyond this second night.
But what story could I couple with such a mechanism? What pitch?

And then, all of a sudden, it all becomes clear. Colored tokens present on the playing surface in the early game must be... workers. Yes, that's right, rather than just another workers placement game, why not work on a game in which ALL workers are already present on the board at the start of the game, and in which it is their displacement that will generate the different tactical options available to players.

Yes, it is clear, that's what I want to focus on:

A GAME OF WORKERS DIS-PLACEMENT!

This being established, I must now rebuild the game. And to build it, at this stage, I need a story... These "workers", what is their function?...In which world do they evolve?

At first, for convenience, I decide to settle on Ancient Egypt. Ancient Egypt is good: it speaks to everyone, I don't need to worry about being realistic, there is a sizeable shared fantasy in the collective unconscious, the gods are all-powerful and can be used as alibi for all conceivable effects I may need, images are easy to find. At this stage of progress in my work, it's perfect. And there will still be time to consider something more original later.

In this universe, the workers will move from tile to tile... Quite logically, I come to think of these tiles as different neighborhoods in a city in full development. Workers will move from neighborhood to neighborhood. A quick search on the web and I come across the story of the city of Heliopolis. Stories full of gods, castes and legends... The soil is fertile; even better, this name will do just fine for a prototype. (well I admit, I also briefly considered calling the game "The Village Meeples"... sorry... ;-)

Even at the prototype stage, I want this game to be beautiful on an aesthetic level, varied and fun to play on a tactical level. These different neighborhoods should have different functions. Naturally enough, in a city in these latitudes , I am thinking about souks, oases, temples, gardens... For what purpose, I'm not sure at this stage, but I want variety. But not too much. Otherwise the game will be too long to explain, and too difficult to master.

As for the workers themselves... First, I place an order for a sizeable set of colorful Meeples. Because it will be much nicer to have the feeling of seeing "real" characters move from neighborhood to neighborhood rather than having colorful wooden cubes standing in for my characters!

Again, I want and need variety for the richness of the game, but not so much that the game loses half of its potential players mid-way through the learning curve. The crucial question is: how many "colors", i.e., how many different jobs for these famous workers?

Impossible to pick less than 3 colors: When you want to balance a multi-player game (because of course, by now, I've decided not to confine myself to a two player game), it takes a minimum of three variables. It's like a seat: with one or two feet, it will be super unstable and reserved for high-flying acrobats. As soon as you add a third leg, it all immediately and permanently stabilizes itself.

But it's also difficult to go beyond 7 colors: in fact I remember an interesting discussion with someone who worked on the memory of humans. He'd told me we could demonstrate that for 80 % of the population, it was quasi-impossible to reliably memorize more than 7 different elements, no matter how simple and different each of these 7 elements might be.

So I opt for 5 colors. It is entirely arbitrary, but at the same time, it feels pretty consistent and comfortable in terms of balancing richness and accessibility, and then there is exactly 5 different colors in Magic The Gathering... this can't help but make me confident!!

Now these workers, I need to find a job for them all. Let's see... We shall have:

  • The Merchants in green, of course
  • The High dignitaries in yellow
  • The Architects in blue
  • The Priests in white
  • And in red... the Assassins of course (can't go wrong with a little direct interaction. I don't like it when everyone plays alone in his own little corner... we'll see what to do with it later, but I WANT murderers. Na!)

And in regards to how many of each type... Well, let's start with the same number of characters in each category.

Now back to my beloved city, Heliopolis. First, how large should it be?

There are five classes of workers, all in equal quantity. We start the game with 3 workers on each tile (since this was the basis of my small initial prototype). Therefore the number of Tiles x 3 must be a multiple of 5!

An area of 3 x 3 tiles won't work , nor would one of 4 x 4...

But 5 x 5 = 25 tiles and 25 x 3 = 75 Meeples will work, with 15 meeples in each category. That doesn't seem bad. Let's start with that.

So 25 neighborhoods in total... Just like I did with the other elements of this game, I begin running some game situations in my head, and decide to divide these tiles into two main categories:

  • Monuments (that will include Temples and various other Buildings)
  • Popular areas (Markets and Oases)

Of course, there should be more popular areas than monuments. In addition, aesthetically, it will look better and be easier to read, not a bad thing. So let's go with 15 Popular areas and 10 Monuments. For a first test run, this should work.

The setup will be random: the 25 tiles will be randomly arranged into a 5 × 5 square, with 3 Meeples randomly grabbed from a bag and placed on each Tile. The background and stage are now all set, and the actors all in place.

Now let's try and breathe some life into all of it.

A man too tired to pursue his journey...
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At this point , I must start thinking... about the player. And what will happen in his head. What gaming experience will she live through when playing? What emotions do I want to try and stir inside her?

I realize that the awele-like "sowing" game mechanic, this "workers' displacement" with 5 different colors of Meeples on 25 tiles is both very easy to explain, and extremely rich in movement opportunities. So I have to help the player by not adding any unnecessary complexity around this central mechanism. It is important that the player be able to focus his attention on this essential point, basically "forgetting" almost everything around it. The choice is clear: I must lean on the simplest possible elements. To make sure that for everything else the player feels on familiar territory, despite playing a fundamentally different game with its own unique identity.

Object of the game... well, of course... to become the top guy instead of the top guy, in the City of Heliopolis.

And to do so, gain the largest number of points of influence, to demonstrate your ability to take control of the city. Granted this choice is clearly not the most original I've ever done, but it has the merit of being simple and obvious.

Now let's start thinking about what the player will be/will have to do during his turn.

To stay focused on the core game mechanic, the player will have to start... by moving workers! As a reminder for those who fell asleep near the radiator in the back of the class, and for those who didn't read any of the previous chapters yet, a tile is emptied of its workers which are then sequentially "sowed" one at a time on adjacent tiles in a journey of sort, without ever going back and forth between two adjacent tiles. The last tile of the route MUST already contain at least one Meeple of the same color as the last Meeple that will be "sown" on this tile. On that tile, the player will remove ALL the Meeples of the same color as the last he just dropped... but to do what?

I can't just keep the scoring system of my little initial prototype: On a game that will probably take about an hour to play, trying to figure out from the first round of play what would be the final distribution of meeples remaining at the end game is impossible (unless you're middle name is Rain Man...) So the players would feel they're playing blindly, with no idea of the outcome of their actions, for at least the first two third of the game. Unbearable. I need to find something else.

Something simpler: The player will... apply the power of the Worker type of the Meeples he is removing from the last tile. And while we're at it, why not apply this power with an intensity proportional to the number of Meeples he removes? Yes! That's great. Because obviously, right from the start, it will offer the players local tactical choices that are readable and understandable by everyone, and which can then be part of a comprehensive longer-term strategy. And it will give players the little dilemmas that I love: I kind of want and need to do the "blue" workers action, but right now it has an intensity of 2... The yellow action looks tempting, with its intensity of 4... Arrrrrghhh... which one should I choose??

So now I must figure out what the powers of each Worker's class of Meeples will do.

I need something simple and logical for the role, so that it'd be easy to remember:

In green, the Merchants... will do business!
Well, we will make them draw as many resource cards as the number of Merchants they removed from the tile. These resources will arrive in a queue face up. There will be 3 different levels of rarity, with 9 different resource types in total, and each "collection" of all different resources will give a number of Influence points. And then there will be slaves. Because in ancient times, we still need a little slave at home. They will not serve in the collections mentioned just before. But we can make them useful for some other task. Almost like some kind of joker maybe.
The blue Architects will... take care of the Monuments!
(yes I know I have a brilliant imagination). Since the Temples and other Buildings are already on the table at the start of the game, the Architects will be paid for their work on buildings surrounding the Tile from where they came from. Let's keep it simple: count the number of building tiles among the nine surrounding tiles (i.e. including the center tile from which the Architects are removed) and multiply the resulting figure by the number of architects removed from the board: This gives the number of gold coins the Architects will receive for their work. And to keep it simple, at the end of the game, 1 gold coin will equal 1 point of influence! (Okay , so, I must also find some Gold coins for my prototype)
In white, Priests... will invoke the gods!
Gods are nice. Thematic and they can provide a variety of surprising effects. So I thumb through my copy of "Egyptian mythology for Dummies", and here I am creating a dozen different gods all of a sudden. I begin imagining their powers, and giving them influence points. Based on a simple precept: The more powerful and aggressive a God is, the less influence he will have at the end of the game. A blessing in disguise... Another of these principles that I love because it automatically provides some self- balancing, and secondly, also generates small, if important, dilemmas for the player to solve.
On the other hand, and to stay in theme, it seems more consistent if one could invoke God only when in a temple. This idea tempts me for two reasons: thematically of course, but also from a game mechanics standpoint: this would give a role to Temple tiles. (Note to self: make sure assign a different role to each type of Tile, at some point in the design).
While waiting for the Priests to find a temple in which to perform their affairs, the player will store them in front him. And if he has not found an occasion to call on their "spiritual" powers before the end of the game, these Priests will give him some influence points in compensation. A lesser amount, of course, but still some.
In yellow, the high dignitaries. Well as dignified dignitaries... they will do nothing at all!
Or rather just give influence points at the end of the game. Introducing a light element of majority system into the game. As there are only 15 yellow meeples, the likelihood of some ties between players is quite high. And I do not want to add another 3 lines of rules just for deciding how to split ties. I always want to make sure that the players can focus their attention on the choices they have to make rather than on remembering some obscure points of the rulebook. So let's keep it simple: 1 point per dignitaries... plus 10 points for each opponent who has less dignitaries than you! Maybe more ties, but a system that seems simple, and rather devious.
And last but not least, in Red, the Assassins... they will obviously remove a Meeple.
Either from an opponent (by killing a dignitary or priest) or on the tiles.

But why kill a Meeple still on the board? Well... by now I've had something running through my head, insidiously, all while looking for images and beginning to create cards for goods, servants, resources and neighborhoods.

The game that is now gradually taking shape in my head is both a set of workers displacement game of course, but also one where things progressively disappear from the game. That is to say everything is in profusion early in the game, and as the game progresses, all things get sparser and sparser. I like this kind of playful method because it allows me to create in the minds of players a sense of urgency ("If I do not do this or that now, I may no longer be able to do it later"). And it also helps generate a real crescendo of tension in the game: the more time passes, the fewer the options and the more tense the struggle to take those remaining. Essential for me. As smart as a game mechanic might be (and I'm talking in general, here, not for this particular game), it should still remain a tool to create some fun and enjoyment first and foremost, not an end in itself. Somewhat the same way that a technically perfect guitarist can play 3,000 notes a minute without generating an emotion, while John Lee Hooker, with a single note on an untuned guitar can bring you to tears.

A game where things progressively disappear, was I saying before my digression... Well then I may just draw the player's attention to that very fact. Give him the opportunity to take control of any tile completely emptied after all its Meeples have been "displaced". (Of course, I'm not referring to the tile the player starts his move from this turn, since that one automatically gets emptied of all its meeples). So for example, if the player finishes with a green meeple on a tile with just one other green meeple, he will empty that tile... and take control of it, by placing a... Camel of his own color – I like Camels – on this tile, which will then give him a number of victory points at game end. And the Assassins in all this? well, they will be have the power to remove a meeple from any other tile, located at a maximum distance equal to the number of adjacent tiles away from where they stand, and take immediately take control of that tile! So 2 Assassins could remove a meeple from a tile that is 2 tiles away from the one they reached at turn's end! So sometimes it will become possible to take control of two tiles in a same turn! ( I bring a red meeple to a tile that only already contained a single red meeple... I remove these 2 red meeples since it's the end of my move, taking control of their tile, and I use my 2 red Assassins power to take out a single isolated meeple 1 or 2 tiles away and take control of that 2nd tile).

I like it: because now if I give a limited number of camels to each player and decide that the endgame occurs when there is no more valid movement possible OR when a player has placed all its camels on some tiles, I offer the players the opportunity to try and rush to close the game down on their opponents, which again will bring choices and add a nice mutual "I'm keeping an eye out on you guys" tension to the game.

Phew... just in looking at the effects of each worker's type, it feels like I have pretty much laid the rules for the whole game already.

Before saving all my notes in a file, a mental note I made to myself earlier on reminds me that I still need to assign a role to each type of neighborhood.

Which leads me to define the game turn structure as follows:

  1. I move workers
  2. I do the action of this class of workers with the adequate intensity
  3. I apply the effect of the neighborhood where I ended my move!

Now onto the neighborhoods:

  • On a temple, one will be able to "spend" his priests to gain the favors of a God who will help him until the end of the game.
  • In a market, one will be able to buy more resources to complete his collection. I decide to create two categories of markets, with different access to resources.
  • In the oasis... one will be able to grow some palm trees. No specific effect, but each palm tree will increase the value of the neighborhood in question. Providing for tiles with a variable value, in effect.
  • On construction sites, as with the oasis, but using castles or pyramids this time... this will give the board a nice 3d effect and some sense of verticality.

Voilà... This whole process has taken just about a full week. From Sunday to the next Friday morning, while continuing to manage some of the other projects mentioned at the beginning of this article. I've managed to find all the images for everything I needed. I print it all and am sitting on the floor, gluing and cutting pieces to make a first prototype for the evening. At the same time I'm doing my gluing and cutting, I'm already playing some game turns in my head.

And it seems quite clear to me that I am going to need to think about the order of play, each turn...

Indeed, based on the possible movements of Meeples on the tiles, it will be difficult, nay – impossible to calculate 5 moves ahead; on the other hand, I can already envision some specific situations where some moves may prove themselves disproportionately beneficial. In a game of this genre, nothing is more annoying than seeing an opponent rob me from a carefully planned victory just because I was sitting at the wrong spot around the table! The order in which the participants will play must be something that can be challenged at each turn, allowing everyone to adapt according to their plan and the current situation. Since players can earn gold coins with architects, and these gold coins also count as victory points, I might as well start all players with a bit of money in hand, and let them pay at the beginning of each round to determine the order in which they will play this turn. An auction system of sort, in which one will spend victory points to get a more coveted position in the order of play this turn.

That said, I'm suspicious of auction systems and tend to avoid them like the plague. Not that I do not like them – quite the contrary, one of my favorite games of all times is undoubtedly "Modern Art" ( I love the version Matagot published); a game that is for me the quintessence and absolute synthesis of auction games. But bidding for an auction, to be effective, requires a high degree of expertise and assessment of the situation. One really needs ALL players around the table to converge towards the same overall assessment of the value of things. With playmates at that same level, auction games can shine and reveal all their subtlety. On the other hand, if even just one of the players consistently makes irrational bids, this can quickly break the game: that player's irrational bids will unbalance the game, often giving the keys to victory to a player who didn't deserve it. Sometimes that player will realize his "mistake" but too late, and the game will then turn into a long wait for the game to end, for him, with no hope of ever catching up.

Since I don't want this game to be played only by experts, I have to tackle this issue differently, somehow. I need to guide the possible bids a bit, limiting how much one could spend in a round. And I don't want this phase of the game to take for ages so let's keep this bidding to a single round each turn.

An "auction" yes, but with no possible outbid.

So I just have to have a track with a number of boxes, each with a specified value. During the first turn of the game, the order in which players bid for their starting position will be at random, but beyond this, no luck. When bidding for his order of play, the player will place his piece on an empty square AND immediately pay to the bank the corresponding amount of gold coins. But he won't yet know what his position in the turn will be, since other players after him may decide to pay more to grab a higher (earlier) starting position. A method that will, in any case that is the goal, both address the need to control spending, and make all players tighten their butt a bit, thinking "let's hope she does not pay more..." Once everyone has bid and placed their pawn on the track, the game turn will begin, with the player who paid the most starting this turn. And as a bonus that player will also be the first player to bet first for the starting position, come next turn. Thus, the first player could, at least in theory, pay so much each turn so as to try and always start 1st throughout the game. But since that will cost him gold coins, i.e. victory points each turn, this strategy would be very unlikely to yield victory!

So I print and cut a little track with price values for various starting positions and arbitrary costs for each, to experiment. All is not calculable. It's now Friday 3:00pm. It will soon be time to move to the first trial by fire. The overall prototype looks like this when deployed on my table. And it's not that bad (game designer complacency: ON).

An abandoned inn...
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Late December. The atmosphere is festive at the Lair for the final Friday game night of the year. After our traditional meal around a large communal table, it is time to get serious.

I open my box of Heliopolis, and begins setting the game up.

First observation: the theme catches people's attention. The profusion of components, the images I scavenged to set the mood, the palms, pyramids and plastic camels from "Sacré Chameau" (a French retheme of Worms Up!), the Meeples galore, all contribute to make people want to play.

François, Sébastien (Matinciel and Xseb on Trictrac forums) and Mael (my son) are the first to volunteer as cobayes in my company. That's because I always participate as an active players in all of my games initial playtests, at least for the first few sessions. In parallel to the impressions of each of the other testers, I need to build my own impressions as a player. My own personal creativity stems from rather selfish sources since I am my own first client and only work on games I'd want to play. Thus, by comparing my testers' feedback with my own personal impressions of the game, I can quickly figure out who and what to listen to, and also (perhaps more importantly?) what not to worry about.

The rules are quick to explain and easily assimilated by my partners. That is good news. Immediately after the first "auction", everybody seems on board and engaged. Again, this feels good. But most importantly, we discover, little by little, some interesting possibilities. Depending on the number of Meeples on each tile, some interesting moves arise; Provided one sees them. I like that too, as it becomes quite clear this game has a real learning curve. I like games that do not necessarily reveal all their secrets during their first play. At the same time, I realize that these days, it is imperative that a game's first play be fun enough to make gamers want to give it a second chance, even if they didn't fully master it on their first play, so that the game doesn't immediately ends its career gathering dust on a shelf. I make a mental note to myself:

Maybe write some sort of Strategy guide before the game's release, if I find a publisher.

The first game goes well, very well. All right. Obviously, there are a ton of imperfect things that I will have to correct. More on this later. But I've witnessed something rare during this first play: early into the game, it became quite clear that, under the current rules, the game was unbalanced in terms of the different ways to earn victory points. Specifically, the merchants are clearly overpowered. Usually, when something like this occurs, the game immediately stops, I correct this bug during the following week, and the next Friday we're back to testing the new version. But that's not what happened here! Despite the obvious imbalance, everyone wanted to not only finish the game, but also immediately start another (I did a quick on-the-spot fix, trusting my guts after the first game, but it turned out not to be enough). To sum things up: a great evening, which boosts my confidence in the viability of this project... and as often on Friday, once back home, sleep eludes me as I can't help but think of the different elements that I will have to adjust for next time:

Game turn structure:
nothing to report – it's just perfect as it is. You pay to choose your turn order, then move some meeples, do their action, then the action of the tile. Simple. Effective. You always need a solid foundation on which to build a game. The foundation is there, it will not change.
Game duration:
We arrived quite quickly to a situation in which there was no valid moves left. Since it would have been too frustrating to stop the game so early, I imagined a system mid-way through that first test, where one would place 3 Meeples again on all empty tiles, the first time a state with no legal moves left was reached. The game then ended the second time there was no legal moves left. Sure, it worked, but first this wasn't elegant, mechanically speaking, and second it added a random element in the mid-game that feel wrong for this kind of game. So I need to add more tiles instead; while making sure to preserve the color split of the meeples. Another 5 tiles minimum. 5 x 6 tiles is where we ended.
Spending Victory coins to determine the Turn Order:
this system works well, introducing just the right amount of tension at the start of a turn. Inevitably though, there is still a "But...". My initial betting track for this is 0-1-3-5-8-12. Before our first play-test, paying 12 gold pieces, ie 12 victory points to be sure to play 1 turn before everyone else, seemed monstrously expensive. And then gradually as the parties progressed, and our "reading" of possibilities and situations at hand became more accurate, we realized that there were, at times, terrific move opportunities which could yield up to 30 victory points at once. And in those situations, paying 12 coins to start was comparatively cheap, and got you to play first too. So what to do... return to a free auction system? out of the question for the reasons mentioned earlier. So add another higher-cost spot to the betting track? Yes, absolutely. And this is where I added the an additional spot with a cost of 18! I remember very well the look on the face of my gaming acolytes the first Friday night I showed them this new track with its 18 coins spot. They thought I'd gone crazy. At best they were mocking; at worst, they were looking to intern me. And then we played. And this additional most expensive spot on the betting track produced exactly the effect I wanted. Certainly during the first game, nobody used it. Then why did it still satisfy me? Just because of the possibilities that it introduced. Particularly when a player who bets first decides to spend 12, because now, it is still unclear whether she will get to play first or not. The possibility that someone might opt to pay more, exceptionally, forces that player to consider the follow-on players bets more closely... and when two games later, I finally narrowly lost only because during the very last turn I did not want / dare to outbid a 12 and pay 18 , this additional spot on the betting track definitely earned its position and inclusion in the game!
Money, money...:
Since the players spend money to determine their turn order, the question arises of how much to give to each player at game start. This question may seem trivial. It has actually proved crucial. From the get-go, I wanted to create a real tense situation around this phase of the game. So initially I thought that this tension would be higher the smaller the amount of money players started with; they'd have to manage their cash carefully, keeping some in reserve for later turns. Then I noticed that having too little money at game start had the opposite effect: players preferred not to spend at all, going against the very effect I had hoped for. So, play-test after play-test, I increased the original amount, before ending up with 50 gold coins per player. With this larger initial amount, paying 3 or 6 coins didn't seem like much; the fight for position each turn became that much more tense and excited. Just like I wanted it to, when I envisioned this bidding mechanic!
Access to Gods and Resources:
Arbitrarily, for starters, I opted for 6 Resource cards and 3 Gods to be available, face up. When a player drew one of these, it was immediately replaced, giving everyone equal access to the same number of resources and gods. But this turned out to go against the very idea of paying to choose the order of play: in fact, if I pay to, for example, play first and be the first to choose some resources only to see the next resource cards drawn be even better than those I grabbed, I'll be left with the unpleasant feeling of having paid for nothing. Worse, I'll probably end up learning not to pay and just wait. So I changed this. Now those Gods and Resources do not get replenished until the the end of a full turn once each player has played. This means putting a larger number of resource cards face up to draw from initially (we increased this from 6 to 9). But still only 3 gods: After all, if there is a God you really absolutely want, simply pay for it by making sure you play first!
Balancing victory points:
I need to tweak the points gained from merchants, increase a bit those gained from controlling tiles, and a whole bunch of other small micro-adjustments +1 point here, -1 point there. This balancing was initially somewhat empirical, but as we played more and more games, I began compiling a database of points scored in each manner, to track progression and ensure that no one strategy would come to dominate the others. The resources remain attractive but there are other, equally effective ways to achieve victory. And it is tempting to choose not to pay for your order in the turn, but victory smiles to those who choose to invest wisely, in this regard.

In the end, the bulk of these tweaks were done in the space of a month. By the end of January 2013, a little more than 5 weeks after the first test of my initial small prototype, I'd accomplished what I had set out to design: We play, we carefully evaluate and eye each other, we groan, moan and curse. In short the game lives. And with each new game we play we all discover little tricks and new possible moves to exploit. I'm happy, really.

Now the time has come for me to go knocking on some publishers' doors...

Convincing an incredulous crowd
that the nightmare has begun...
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Ah, the (in)famous quest for a publisher! Let's face it, this is not the moment I prefer in the course of bringing a game to life, from its initial design spark to reaching a shop's shelves. I have to swap my game designer hat for a salesman one. If during the first phase, I am free of my choices, and the rhythm with which I proceed, during the search for a publisher, I must necessarily defer to the decision of others, at a pace of their own choosing.

But first, an important question... Who am I going to show this game to? Usually, I work as follows: when a prototype is ready, I present it in parallel to several publishers, all chosen based on the adequacy between the nature of my game and the editorial focus of the publisher. And the quality of their editorial work. I attach great importance to the aesthetic quality of the final game object. As I know I won't have more than an advisory role in what the final illustrations will be (something which I find normal: to each its own prerogatives and field) , I try to steer away from those publishers whose visual style I don't share (this is not a value judgment, just a matter of personal taste).

In short, I offer my prototype to a wide range of potential publishers, and then, clearly, I sign with the first of them offering me a suitable publishing contract. Not because I want to put pressure on publishers along the lines of "answer me quickly; otherwise if you snooze, you'll lose", but simply out of respect for everyone, and so that I don't end up telling a "small" publisher "Thank you, it's nice of you to offer to publish my game, but before I give you my final answer, I'll still wait to see if Ravensburger or Hasbro might not be interested!".

But for this game, it turns out I will opt for a different approach: The game components I have put together to get a playable prototype are substantial, to say the least. This means that in order to produce a game with such a plethora of components, I need to focus on a publisher with the means to print a sizeable first run. Not 3000 copies, which would guarantee a suggested retail price of $90 or worse. And since I really believe in this project, I also need to make sure this publisher will have sufficiently deep pockets to be able to immediately reprint the game should it take off and encounter commercial success right from the start.

By then, I've come to an evidence: I should try my luck with Days of Wonder. I know the team well (we have already worked together on several games), I have great confidence in their artistic direction led by Cyrille Daujean , they publish very few games and, thanks to locomotives like Ticket to Ride, Memoir '44 and Small World, they seem to have the wherewithal required to produce this game; and, as a nice additional bonus, again thanks to the locomotives already mentioned above, they have access to an impressive worldwide distribution network, guaranteed to give my game some visibility should they decide to publish it.

On the other hand, and for the same reasons, I know the obstacles that I face well, in trying to convince them:

  • Although I know them well, I have no special access and this is no guarantee. In recent years, I presented several projects to them, that they did not hesitate to turn down. Normal. This is the rule of the game.
  • They generally publish about one game per year. And are constantly solicited. The competition will be tough. Very tough.
  • And worst of all... my project does not easily fit their editorial policy: DoW is well known for publishing family games, clever ones that might appeal to gamers, but family games nonetheless. And generally-speaking, even one could certainly try and play Heliopolis lightly, I know this is definitively more of a gamers' game; At least one or two notches above their usual fare.

But a race is never lost before it even starts. So I decide to try my luck and present my game, at first, to Days of Wonder exclusively. Before approaching them frontally, I want to see if I can manage to arouse their interest with an advanced pitch only. So, I (shamefully) borrow the technical resources of one of my play-testers, François (matinciel), who runs the blog lerepairedesjeux.fr. On his blog, François offers explanations of various game rules in short video stories that help convey the fun of a game via the web. As a result, in his garage, he's assembled a makeshift video studio that allows one to shoot quality videos on a green background. All this in Annecy, a few minutes from my home. Thanks to his equipment and know-how I record two mini-videos of my prototype, one describing the general material, the other one explaining the rules. François helps me produce a few video overlays to better explain the ins and outs of the game. This allows, me a few days later, to send links with passwords to the appropriate members of the DoW team in Paris to test the waters...

Very quickly thereafter, I get Adrien (Mr. DoW France) on the phone. He tells me that à priori this game system looks very interesting, but he remains very careful at this stage. Anyway, I would be highly suspect of any publisher who'd tell me they want to publish this game just based on an explanation of the rules. The good news is that my video presentation has made him want to play the game. We make an appointment and I take advantage of a planned trip to Paris to visit their office and play a first test game with the team.

We're in mid-February 2013 when I show up at the Paris offices of Dow. We play two games back to back. This is a good sign but it does not guarantee anything. I sense that much of the team in Paris would be excited to work on this project. But I also know that the final decision rests with the parent company in the United States.

A few days later I get a phone call from the big boss in San Francisco, Eric. He just wants to say Adrien gave him a favorable report of my visit in Paris, of the games they played, and the rather favorable impression he left them with. He tells me he wants to play the game for himself to get a first-hand opinion, and they will do so in several weeks, in May, when their two teams meet. Personally, it suits me well. We had discussed this a bit with Adrien already. There were two options: either send the proto quickly to the U.S. and let the team there discover and play the game on their own; or be patient and wait for their upcoming company gathering, allowing the players in Paris who have already digested the game system to present it to their US colleagues in person. The second solution diminishing the risk of completely missing out on the game for whatever reasons, it suits me perfectly. I take Eric's call as an opportunity to discuss. I said my "concern" among the target audience of the game and the usual range of Dow the issue of this game's complexity in complete transparency. And there, good news, I hear Eric tell me: "Right now, I'm thinking we might be at the right juncture in time to publish one truly great gamer's game, as opposed to one more family game"... which gives me hope things might come together!

Between that day in mid-February and Dow's future response in May, I have two important events awaiting me:

  • the now-incontournable Cannes Game Festival first: The off-festival will be a comfortable place to play a few games with experienced players (a friendly wink to Francois Descamps of Descartes Bordeaux, the Paris East game team, and Martin Vidberg who all volunteered to be my guinea pigs). I know the DoW team members present at the show are looking at the players' reactions from the corner of their eyes, even asking some for their first impressions. Again, the reactions are uniformly positive.
  • Bruno Faidutti's famous Ludopathic Days: imagine 60 or so players, most of them veterans, half of them either authors themselves or game publishers, meeting in the middle of nowhere for 48 hours of non-stop gaming. Heliopolis gets played without interruption. And the best sign is that when I am not available, busy playing or explaining another game, the players who have already played with my prototype all volunteer to explain it themselves to their new partners.

Another surprise – the following week, I get an email from a foreign publisher that has played the game in Etourvy, giving me a firm publishing proposal, even though I wasn't actively looking for a publisher during this week-end! A publisher with whom I also love to work with, but given the progress already made with Dow, they have the priority.

In early May, the long-awaited phone call arrives. It's a YES. I know I'm going to have to wait a good year before the game gets on some store shelves. But I'm in heaven. And what makes me most happy is that I have the impression they are as excited as I am!

But first I need to revisit the theme. Indeed, the big boss at DoW has told me that given how few games DoW publishes, it would make no sense for them to release two titles with a similar theme. And they have already released "Cleopatra and the Society of Architects". A game I designed, to top it off! So we need to find something else...

And this other thing is... the 1001 Nights! Quite honestly, today I can't remember if this idea came from me or them, but it doesn't matter, because I really like it! The adaptation is obvious: Merchants, High Dignitaries, Architects and Assassins can remain what they are. Priests can become Fakirs. And the Gods be replaced by formidable Djinns... And then the mysteries and flavors of the Orient, the 1001 nights, all this lends itself perfectly to a warm and colorful graphic atmosphere.

And now what?
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Here we are... the story ends.
Here's how a small prototype first played on a wintery Friday night has grown and matured into something much more substantial.

The story ends, or rather, it's just about to begin.... Because the game is now entering another phase: the edition of the game itself. Choosing an illustrator, doing the graphics, etc etc... and above all, soon, the game will begin living its own life, in the hands of players worldwide. By then, it will largely be out of my hands...

A bit like your children grow and begin to leave the cocoon (I write these lines the day of the 20th birthday of my son... the parallel is only louder).

I confess that I await this confrontation between the game and its public with as much impatience as anxiety. What if the game is misunderstood? If it doesn't find its public, or if the first review it receives is a devastating one that nips this game's potential in the bud? Or if the year it's published, there also comes out the absolute must-play game of world famous author Antoine Felzia?

I really love this project; I poured so much of myself in it, I cannot help but be anguished at the thought that it might become forgotten only a few months after its release...

I find myself somewhat in the position of the guy who bet 12 to be first... but who can't help think there might still be someone who bets on 18!

Waiting for the game to come out, I'm going to spend this year touring game festivals. Well, a lot of festivals at a minimum (my family is tolerant but I can't be gone all the time): Cannes, St Herblain, Ludinord, Toulouse, Etourvy, Gencon, Roanne (yes, Roanne!). I'll take the prototype with me, for sure. So don't hesitate to come out and play (yes I say play, because the tests are completed now) so that you can make an opinion for yourself.

Alors n'hésitez pas à venir jouer (oui je dis bien jouer, parce que les tests, ils sont terminés maintenant) pour vous faire votre propre opinion.

If you like it, talk about it around you and once it comes out, go buy it for yourself and your friends! And if you don't like it, go and buy it for your enemies!

Postscript
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Mid-February, after completing the bulk of Heliopolis, I looked back on my very first little prototype. Because if I carried over the system of seeding moves à la Awele, I have not used its vicious system of final scoring. Suddenly, with that same small initial prototype, I see how I can keep the scoring system which I loved, while dropping the "seeding moves" system that is now part and parcel of Heliopolis. Leaving me with an idea of a game for two, and introducing a system of mutual constraints between the two opponents, I will come up with... Longhorn! But that's for another story...