Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Prototype2Publisher: WAMPUM

Since becoming enthralled with the variety of modern board games, I have been inspired in many different ways to create games of my own. Sometimes the first spark comes from an experience or fun activity, and I wonder how the fun could be relived and reproduced for others through a set of game components. At other times, it’s a particular challenge – like climbing a mountain – that gives me a sense of satisfaction for having accomplished something I had never done before. Sometimes I want to take a good game mechanic further, and other times I want to make it more accessible.

Most often, however, it is a theme that grabs me, and I will hunt for years until I find the right mechanics that fit. The inspiration for my upcoming card game, Wampum, however, was something entirely different…

One Fine Day: An Unexpected Challenge
For some time, the youth gaming night I had organized in our neighborhood met in one of the boy’s family’s apartments. I had just become a father of twins, who, together with my wife, needed peace and quiet at home, so we crammed around a small table in a tiny room every week to try out new games from my collection along with whatever prototypes I was currently working on.

As we were testing one of those prototypes one evening, the host’s mother walked in and noticed that I had made quick playing cards using plastic card sleeves (unlike the laminated cards I make for late-stage prototypes). She left for a moment, then returned with a pile of unused sleeves from her other son and said, “Here, you can have these, too.”

“Now I’ll have to use these to make a game for you!” I proclaimed, not being one to miss an opportunity for a unique challenge. “Just tell me your favorite theme.”
She thought for a moment, then concluded decisively, “George Clooney.” My head dropped as I realized what I had gotten myself into.

Not being one to go back on my word, however, I began thinking about a card game that was simple enough for a casual gamer like herself, yet with enough strategy and originality that I would enjoy designing and playing it. And it had to incorporate a famous American actor in some way.

O Card Game, Where Art Thou?
I knew I could get away with simply borrowing mechanics from other games and throwing something together, just to complete the assignment, but that would be too easy – and not very fun, either.

I finally settled upon the idea of a game called I’m Your Biggest Fan, with players travelling around the world to collect props from George’s films as well as the personal items he left behind in hotels, nightclubs, etc. For example, a player could acquire the cigarette he smoked in Good Night and Good Luck or the prison uniform he wore in O Brother, Where Art Thou? She could even collect a martini glass from a night club he frequented in his time between takes. Together with autographs and mug shots, there were four types of collector’s items for which players would compete. Then there were movie cards that depicted eight different films in which he starred, and players would also compete to be the one who saw each film the most.

I made five different city cards where the items would be available each round, and where the films would also be showing. The number of cities in play equaled the number of players. Each round, one player would be assigned to each city. To accomplish this, I borrowed (with permission) an auction mechanic that Bernd Eisenstein was using for a prototype he was working on called Peloponnes: One player bids for a city, but if another player outbids him, he must move his bid to another city. As with Bernd’s game, the bids are locked and cannot be raised or lowered.

But I wanted to try to make my game work using only cards with no added money chips for the bidding. I appreciate card games like San Juan and Bohnanza that use cards as both currency and goods (and sometimes even more), and I wanted to make an auction game where cards also served different purposes, depending on their position (in a player’s hand, as a bid on the table, as the cards on offer in a “city”, or in a player’s score pile). Finally, I wanted to give the players some control over how the cards would by cycled through this system. For example, although the number of cards in a bid determines where a player will win their bid, the type of cards in the bid determines the action the player will take with that bid – and also have some influence on what will be available in that location in the next round.

This basic principle was present in the first set of rules, in which a player could either trade the cards in her bid for the cards in the “city” where she won her bid, or she could take her bid cards as points, adding one of each type of “good” from her bid to the cards in that city. Trading for the other goods could take place only if the player had at least one good from her bid matching at least one good in the city, and trading for points could happen only if a player did not have any card from her bid matching those in the city. A third alternative was to trade the cards in the bid in order to “watch” the films showing in that city, which meant taking the film cards and collecting them for possible majority points at the end of the game.

Three Kings: Searching for Gold
Once these ideas started to come together, I knew I had something fun and unique that a publisher might even be interested in, so I began to look at other themes. Since the game was mainly about trading in the different cities, I considered different trading themes. Since there already were scores of games about European traders in the Middle Ages, I revisited American history and, in particular, the trade amongst the Native American tribes. I had always been fascinated by the intricate bands of beads they crafted and how those had often been used in trading (among other things, of course).
In fact, further research revealed that some European settlers who traded with the Natives also used the beads as a form of currency – even amongst themselves. The bands were, of course, called Wampum – a very catchy word, in my opinion, and one that had not yet been used in the title of a well-known game. The Germans also have a very romantic view of frontier America and the Native Americans, and I thought this would be something that would appeal to them. And, of course, the theme might stand out among all the latest games about European Hansas and Händler.

After applying the new theme, I also decided to trim some of the mechanics, getting rid of the "movie watching" alternative and focusing on the two types of trading. Although I would later toy with the idea of bringing it back in, this time as a "hunting" option, I have yet to playtest this version.

The first playtest with Bernd and Peer went remarkably well, but revealed a single glaring weakness. Although trading for wampum was never a sure thing, the temptation was too great for players to hoard cards until the end of the game. The obvious solution, however--a set hand card limit--made the game uninteresting, as players would simply collect up to that limit every time. I needed something more dynamic, and finally hit upon the idea of a changing hand card limit that was dictated by the highest bid from the previous round. This not only solved the problem in an elegant way, it also added a tension to the game that was previously lacking. Now, the timing of the trades was essential to a winning strategy, and players had one more way to foil the plans of their opponents--by bidding low when others had large hands of cards.

The Perfect Storm: The Difficulties in Finding a Publisher
Wampum was one of the games I took to my second Göttingen Game Designer’s Convention. I had quite a few prototypes to show that year, including what later became Alea Iacta Est and Piece o’ Cake. Wampum also generated some interest, and several publishers requested a copy to playtest, including Pegasus Spiele, which had given me my first game contract the year before with Eine Frage der Ähre. Months later, however, they all passed on the game.

Since there are a limited number of German publishers who produce card games regularly, I began looking at up-and-coming American publishers. One of them tested the prototype, but also passed. Out of options, I put the game in my closet.
Some time later, the Hippodice Gaming Club in Germany was announcing its annual competition, and I realized that I finally had a couple of games that were not presently being tested by publishers. I had always wanted to enter the competition to see what it was like, but Göttingen had given me such good connections with publishers that I always had several of them interested in playtesting my prototypes as soon as they were finished. I was curious to see how the Hippodice Club would receive Wampum. It was worth a try, I thought.

I was excited – to say the least – to learn that it had made the final round of the competition--along with the prototype to Hansa Teutonica and my soon-to-be-publihsed co-design with Bernd Eisenstein entitled Artifact. Even better – it had been awarded second place by a jury made up of publishers (many of whom had already seen the game), and two publishers wanted to have copies for playtesting.

The Good German: A Second Chance
The competition copy of Wampum was snagged by jury member Andre Bronswijk, a game developer who is under contract with Pegasus. He worked with me on my two previous games for that publisher, but had not yet started working there when they initially passed on Wampum. He was, of course, surprised to learn when he returned to Pegasus that it had already passed on the game once. I encouraged him to see whether he could change their minds, and he was so enthusiastic, he was able to convince them to publish this time.

Oceans 11: Not All Plans Work to Perfection
I was very happy to publish again with Pegasus, as the company did a top-notch production of my previous two games, and Wampum would join Circus Maximus in its beautiful tin-cased card game line. In contrast to the other games, however, Pegasus moved quickly on this one, working on the art even before I had returned my signed copy of the contract. After several years of development and playtesting, shopping around and entering a competition, it was wonderful to finally see the art and graphic design come together. No further development needed, no major changes to the theme – except two.

Andre wrote to me, telling me that they wanted to change one of the five goods from horses to alcohol. The change made sense as the traders travel from village to village in canoes (thus, the hand card limit is called the “canoe limit") – how many horses could fit in one of those? Some time later, however, I realized the historical significance of that “good” on the Native American tribes, and that my light-hearted card game might now have the potential to revisit old wounds – or worse, reinforce negative stereotypes, which is quite the contrary to the purpose of my Postcards From Berlin article series. Furthermore, Pegasus also changed the traders to white Europeans rather than the Native Americans-trading-with-Native Amercians of my original prototype. Unfortunately, however, I did not react quickly enough, and the game was already too far along to be changed. Hopefully, if it is ever picked up by one of Pegasus’ U.S. partners, they will be able to change the game again in order to be more sensitive to the Native American population, for whom I (and Pegasus, I’m sure) have the deepest respect.

As I have written in previous articles, I do believe there is a time and place for games that bring up serious historical issues. Wampum, however, was always meant to be a lighter card game with an upbeat and, admittedly, pasted-on theme. I hope that the tragedy of real historical events will not be glossed over by a game that has little to do with it, and that most players will be able to enjoy the game the same way they enjoy other games that have a thin historical veneer.

Oceans 12, 13…Postlogue
There is one more question, of course, as yet unanswered: “How did Gamer-Mom like the game I made for her?” Well, she absolutely loved the cards with the humor, selection of Clooney’s films, and a starting player figure with George’s mug shot glued onto its head. As for the game itself, it was a little bit outside of her “casual gaming” sphere, and to my knowledge, she has played it only once.

Her son, however, loves Wampum and playtested it numerous times over the years. Both are mentioned in the credits at the end of the rules, as I could not have published it without them.

Photo of box cover courtesy of Pegasus Spiele GmbH

No comments: