Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Prototype2Publisher: ALEA IACTA EST

A Friendly (Design) Competition:

Back in 2006 I heard about a game design competition on the internet for 2-player games using components that were common in every household (playing cards, dice, pawns, poker chips etc.). Each year, they also had a theme for the competition, and that year it was “dice games.” Since I had been designing games with Bernd Eisenstein, I thought it would be fun to challenge him to a “contest within the contest” to see what each of us could come up with. Because they were 2-player games, we could easily play-test our ideas. I came up with two different games, and Bernd came up with a cool take on Tug-o-War using dice and pawns.

One of my games was titled Castles and Crowns and involved placing groups of dice in order to win various cards: Castles which were worth a set amount of points, and Nobles who were worth more as sets. There were also special dice, such as Mercenaries, Captains, and Traitors, that had special functions along with each player’s 8 Knight dice.

Transformation to a board game:

As it turned out, I missed the deadline for the competition, but it must have been discontinued anyway, as no results were ever posted. I put the idea to the side while I worked on other projects, but after a year, I came back to it. I began thinking of more dimensions I could add to the original framework. The idea of making a full-fledged board game out of it became exciting to me, especially when it combined two of the hottest current mechanics in gaming at the time: dice and worker placement.

The important thing in developing the game further was to provide enough placement options to players so that they could do meaningful things with any dice roll. My next prototype was called “Feudal Dice” and included a board with 3 different areas where dice could be placed. The battlefields, where Castle Cards were awarded to the player with the most dice in each, were very similar to my original idea. To that, I added a Court, where lower dice would be more valuable in winning Noble cards. The Nobles were only worth points, however, when housed in a castle of matching color. A maximum of two nobles could be housed in a castle, one male and one female. There were also special nobles who provided end-game bonuses. This added a set-collecting element to the game. The third area for dice placement was the Market, where dice of different numbers could be placed on various stands to earn money. This was important to give players another option when they rolled dice of different values. The money earned from the Market could be used to pay for extra dice (the Mercenaries) or as bonus victory points at the end of the game.

After several playtests, I felt that there needed to be further uses for the money in the game, and I also wanted cards that allowed player’s special rule-breaking powers when rolling and placing their dice. I created a fourth area of the board, the Building Site, where two special buildings were up for sale each round, costing one die each and an amount of money (which decreased each round, since the buildings could not be used as often if built late in the game).

The Die is Cast...with a Publisher:

I sent the game to a German publisher, who liked it very much, but their program was so full at that time that they recommended I shop it around for a few months and possibly enter it in the Hippodice competition. Another German publisher playtested in for half a year, and it just missed their final cut, so I took it to Nuremberg, where I showed it to Stefan Brück of alea.

He was very interested, and even suggested we change the game to a Roman theme and name it “Alea Iacta Est” to go with the publishing company’s title. But I had to move back to the U.S. for 6 months, and Stefan likes to work closely with his designers. I asked Bernd if he would be interested in becoming my co-designer since he was familiar with every iteration of the game and had participated in its development from the start. He gladly accepted and worked hard together with Stefan in fine-tuning the game and play-testing it extensively.

A Triumvirate: Three Heads are Better Than One:

The first thing to go was the money, as the dice were the real “currency” in the game. Instead, the nobel cards that offered special end-of-game bonuses were moved to the market area of the board (renamed the “Church”), where “straights” of dice would continue to be placed. The winner there chose from 3 face-down cards, however, so that the other players would not know which bonuses were in their opponent’s hands.

The special dice—the captains, mercenaries, and traitors, were also removed from the game. Forty dice were the maximum that Stefan could include, and that was just enough for the 8 dice per player in a 5-player game.

The battlefields, which previously held one castle card each, were reduced to one battlefield where the winner had first choice of the face-up cards, second place could choose next, etc. This increased the competition considerably.

The court went through several iterations, ranging from guaranteed seats for each player to the final mechanic of the lower dice pushing the higher ones out the back door! The court also awarded players who were placing dice later in the round, which provided a nice balance to the battlefield, where it was advantageous to place dice early in the round.

And finally, Stefan thought that it was too frustrating for players to invest large amounts of their dice on the board only to come up empty-handed, so we added “re-roll chips” that could be used by players later in the game or turned in for bonus victory points at the end.

At the end of the summer I was also able to test the game in its current form with a couple of different gaming groups in South Carolina. They were very gracious in trying out a prototype from a complete stranger! This allowed me to develop the Senat cards further, increasing their number to 19, and to bring my own feedback to Bernd and Stefan as I prepared to return to Berlin in October.

Examples of the Building Cards which were cut from the game

Then in November, Stefan came to Berlin for two days of intensive play-testing. We had finally decided that the building cards, which had provided special actions when rolling or placing dice, added too many rules without enhancing the game play significantly. But we needed a fourth area for dice placement, so Bernd and I came up with four different options to try. They were all interesting in their own right, but in the end, we did not use any of them because they detracted from the heart of the game. Instead we developed a fifth option during play-testing that we decided to use in the finished design. In any case, there are plenty of ideas for expansions!

And of course, we finally made the changes in the theme so that the battlefields were now the barracks or “Castrum”, the court was now the Forum Romanum, the church became the “Senatus”, and the market became the “Templum.”

Photo of finished game courtesy of Alea and Ravensburger