Sunday, February 27, 2011

Prototype2Publisher: PORTO CARTHAGO

When Bernd first moved to Berlin and joined our gaming group in 2005, Porto Carthago was the first prototype he brought to our group. Furthermore, we were the first ones to play it. Needless to say, this one has been a labor of love for him, and I have had the privilege to play many iterations of the game during the past 6 years. I'm proud of him for sticking with it. After years of working on it, it had become a "monster" of a game, and I give credit to Bernd for being willing to trim down the rules and cut some of the details in order to make the game more accessible. Following is the story of the game, in his words. - Jeff
In 2005 I saw a documentary on TV about the rise and fall of ancient Carthage. I found the history surrounding the harbor especially stunning. It was far ahead of its time and was the major reason that Carthage became such a successful and important economic and military power. 
Already while watching the documentary, a game materialized in my head around the idea of loading goods onto foreign ships as they come into the harbor of Carthage.
The first prototype was created very quickly, but before the first play-tests in my gaming group, I played the game innumerable times by myself. In late 2005 the game was ready for the first tests with other players, which went very well—so much so, that Peer Sylvester gave Porto Carthago his award for the best unpublished prototype in 2005.

I was so motivated by this, that I did not make any more changes to the game. I was very sure that a publisher would want the game as it was.
 But the first feedback brought me back down to earth: the game was too complicated, full of too many little details and much to long. The good thing was that I received this feedback quickly, and the publisher also made some helpful suggestions in how to structure the rules better.
Despite having the game turned down initially, I was not discouraged from working on the game further. I wanted to streamline the game and take out some some of the details in the rules. Unfortunately, I did not realize that, in trying to improve the game, I also added in other details, and so the next versions were not any shorter or easier to play. I was too blind to see that at this stage.
In 2007 I once again tried to send Porto Carthago to another publisher. At the same time another publisher also asked me for the game, so I made a second prototype to send out, and my hope to see the game published grew. I made an appointment with one of the two publishers at Spiel 2007 in Essen to demonstrate the game in person. They showed a lot of interest, but after playing the game, they informed me that it had too many "if-then" conditions in the rules, and that six game rounds were too long without enough noticeable progress. So I shortened the game, changed some of the details, and continued to correspond with that publisher for awhile. Meanwhile, the other publisher gave me the “run-around” without any substantial feedback.
In early 2008, I the game was finally rejected from the first publisher, and I finally asked to have my prototype returned from the second publisher, since I had still not heard anything concrete from them (other than, “We have 80 quality prototypes here already”). I felt like I was back at the beginning again.
After a few months of frustration, I restarted the work. My head was free again, and I had new energy for the project. I was finally able to let go of some of the mechanisms that made the game drag. For example, each player could only choose between a maximum of 4 different action cards, which had too high of a luck factor for this type of game. Furthermore, it was sometimes impossible for a player to do something meaningful on his turn. In working on this I was able to modify the way cards were chosen to the current format, and I put the privileges directly onto the ship cards, which saved me a complete game phase. The possibility to end the game one round earlier was a new feature and the “path of intrigue” was also added, which greatly improved the game. Now it was possible to get 3 additional places in the palace (one more strategic option), on the other hand this strengthened the dilemma around the servant-management aspect. Additional play-tests showed that the path of intrigue was used very differently each time: In one round it remained nearly empty, while in another, a kind of group dynamic emerged so that all the spaces were filled.
At the end of 2008, the work for Peloponnes, my first self-published game, became my priority. During that time, in which I got the first orders for Peloponnes, it became clear to me that Porto Carthago should be the Irongames-game for 2010. Directly after the Essen fair in 2009, I was looking for an artist and stumbled over Oliver Schlemmer, who was not well known in the boardgame scene until after his success in early 2010 with Fresco.
From then on, I entered an intensive phase of play-testing that included “blind”-testing the game with external gaming groups. Their feedback was almost all positive and assured me that this would be a good follow-up game to publish. Up until the deadline, I was making rules tweaks and, at one point, I even thought that I would run out of time. Peloponnes had been ready to print much earlier. However, can thank my beautiful wife for finishing the layout for the rules very quickly, so that the game could be printed just in time. - Bernd Eisenstein

Photo courtesy of Andre Kretzschmar

Cover and prototype images courtesy Bernd Eisenstein and Irongames.

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