Although Peer Sylvester often tested prototypes with Bernd Eisenstein from my game group, I did not really get to know him until we both went to Goettingen for the annual Game Designer's Convention a few years ago. It was there that I was first exposed to his prototype, King of Siam, which had not yet found a publisher. I'm glad it did--after playing a 30-minute game in Goettingen, I could not beleive the tension it created in such a short span of time. For someone who enjoys tough decisions throughout--but likes the game to be short enough to have an immediate rematch, King of Siam is one of my favorites.
Now Peer is part of our group of game designers and playtesters, and we always enjoy the wide range of prototypes he brings to the table. Following is the design process for King of Siam, in his words. -Jeff
Teaching in Thailand
Everything began in Thailand: I was employed there in 2003 as a teacher and was naturally interested in its history. But that wasn't easy, since the International schools where I was working did not teach Thai or Asian history, but only European history. Thus, there were no books for me to read and no teachers for me to question. However, what information I was able to gather fascinated me. Especially intriguing was the fact that Siam was successful in averting colonization. By the start of the 20th century, all of Southeast Asia was colonized except for Siam. How did the Siamese accomplish that?
From this interest, the first idea developed: I wanted to make a game about the struggle for power between the different political factions of Siam. And since there was no actual civil war, it should involve only a battle for influence. An area-majority game became the obvious mechanic for this theme.
With area-majority games, it is always important to decide how ties in a region are broken: should the points be divided, or is there a tiebreaker? I found that the threat of colonization could be expressed best if the British would take over a province in the case of a tie in that province. In other words, “If you are not united, we will take advantage and attack!” Siam should demonstrate unity against invaders, and accordingly, all players should then lose the game if the British win half of the provinces.
At this point, however, the idea still had little in common with the finished King of Siam. Each player had his own color (faction), and the player with the majority in a province received one of three goods. The goods were also used to bid for control of the provinces, and only one could be used for each province. In other words, when one player started the bidding with one elephant, any other players who wanted to bid on the province could only use elephants. But I was not really convinced by all of this. In particular, it had a clear „runaway leader” problem, so I put the idea on ice.
The Game Comes Together in Berlin
About one year later after moving to Berlin, I played an unusual prototype of Bernd Eisenstein. It was an area-majority game in which all units were on the board at the beginning and each round players were required to remove some of their own units. Through this came the breakthrough idea for my game: instead of players having their own colors, they gain influence in the different factions by taking pieces in those colors from the board.
As I wrote out the idea the following day, I discovered another mechanic that fit well: that players take actions using cards that are no longer available to them, once used. That fit well, because the map was small and too many actions would have produced too much arbitrariness. I drew a free hand game board and tried it out a little bit. Originally the three political factions had three different special actions, but I soon realized that it was not at all necessary. After some more playing around, the game almost took the form that it has in its published version.
On the next day, I tried it out with three players and was excited to see how everything fit together. Unfortunately it did not function very well with four players. No one had much influence and there were too many ties. Since I love partner games, however, I devised a partnership variant and the problem was not only solved, but a very interesting four-player game developed from it. What did not function very well, however, were the three actions cards in the faction colors (Malay, Lao, Thai).
At this time, there were not yet capital territories for each faction on the map, and so whoever played a a card in a faction’s color before that faction had won a territory ended up discarding the card without any action taking place. The result was that players often discarded cards at the beginning of the game for the factions they did not want to support. That was unsatisfactory, therefore I introduced the rule that one may only play these cards after the corresponding faction had won a province.
Finding a Publisher
That was about what the game looked like when Histogame became interesting in it. Before that, two other publishers had rejected it—one because the game was too unforgiving, and the other one, because of the need to play as partners with four players. Richard Stubenvoll took the prototype with him and tested it frequently and, after it became clear that he would not have a successor to Friedrich in 2007, decided to publish it.
Sanding off the Remaining Rough Edges
There were still some things that needed refining. The supporting cards, for example, could only be played after the corresponding faction successfully took control of a region. This had an accumulating effect. In particular, if a faction could not win a province until late in the game, it was very limiting to the players. In addition, the cards matching that faction would then be played by all players at the same time—that was unsatisfactory.
Another issue was to make sure that the game would not end in a draw. And there was a “kingmaker” problem in the 3-player game. If the player with the last action could not win, he often had to choose which of the other two players would win.
Richard solved the first problem with the capitol regions for each faction. We solved the other two together with the idea that in case of a draw, the last action does not count. Thus, a player can no longer force a draw with the last action. It’s the other way around with the British, as it is not as easy to produce a British victory and that should be rewarded.
The rules were now finished, and it was time to design the components. That was naturally the publisher’s primary responsibility, but I was allowed to help in designing the game board. For my prototypes, I used a rectangular game board, and the scoring track was laid out beside the board. When we placed the scoring track on the right side of the Siam map on the board, the country was no longer centered and it did not look good. We pushed everything back and forth and after one hour (!) we came upon the idea to simply place the scoring track to the left of the map. So simple and yet so efficient! Now Siam was where it should be.
But one problem remained: Siam is a very long country, and the game board was square. All possibilities which we discussed had disadvantages: if Siam was to be seen in its entirety, the provinces become too small for the cubes. When we zoomed in to far, everything fit but Siam could no longer be recognized.
We called it a day. Then a friend of Richard’s who is actually a cartographer suggested breaking the frame around the board to accommodate Siam’s shape. It fit well, looked good, and we were all content. And at Essen 2007 we were able to harvest the fruits of our labor!
Box cover image courtesy Histogames. Prototype and final photos courtesy Peer Sylvester.