Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Prototype2Publisher: PAX

I enjoy very much the opportunity to see and play the creative game ideas that our group of designers brings to the table each week.  Some people I've met do not care too much for playing "unfinished" games that might have game-breaking flaws, but I like to see the potential in each idea, and I savor my role in providing feedback that will spur the designer on to realize that potential.

Even so, there are very few games that I get excited about after the first playing as much as this card game by my friend, Bernd Eisenstein.  In fact, I eagerly looked forward to playing the game in each iteration, and was bitterly disappointed on those evenings when he did not even bring the prototype with him.  When we did play it, we almost always played a second game back-to-back.  It's that addictive.

Yes, there were some challenges at the beginning--especially making sure the different elements were balanced.  Since the tension of determining a Roman or slave revolt victory was at the heart of the game, Bernd had to get this right for it to work, and it was never guaranteed that it could work with the other mechanics he had developed.  But we can all thankful for Bernd's persistence, as this will undoubtably be one of my favorite strategic card games from now on, heavy enough for my Spielfreak friends, but with enough luck to keep it from becoming a brain-burner.

The game is scheduled to be released at Bernd's Irongames stand in Essen this year, and following are his design notes.  - Jeff

During the time between the Essen gaming convention in October and the end of 2010, I had a relatively simple idea for a card game. The main concept was for a multi-player game about a two-sided conflict, with the winner of that conflict determining the winning conditions for the players.  Because I am a fan of games about antiquity, I chose the theme of the Spartacus slave revolt against Rome.

I was inspired by Scripts & Scribes in designing my card-distribution mechanic:  each turn, a player drew 3 cards, 1 at a time, and decided to add it to his hand, add it to the market, or slip it back under the deck.  Then he could buy cards from the market, add cards from his hand to his display (for a price), and collect income.

I finished the first prototype in lightning speed, and the first playtests that I conducted by myself showed much promise. In fact, for a time, I focused almost exclusively on Partacus, which was my working title for the game back then.

After having high hopes to have the game ready for Essen 2011, however, further playtests with others showed weaknesses and the design did not progress to my fullest satisfaction.  Instead, I focused more on my other card game, Pergamemnon, as the next Irongames release.

For a long time, the main problem was getting the card combinations right, and balancing their special powers.  After reaching a break-through in this area, the next challenge was to achieve a balance in the conflict between Rome and the revolting slaves.  I knew that Rome always needed to have the possibility of winning, so that the slaves could not count on their own victory. It also had to be possible to intentionally play for a Roman victory, and it also had to be possible for the other players to try to prevent this.

As this slowly came together through extensive playtesting and design tweaks, my hopes were restored for a 2011 release. Even so, I was still balancing the game up until shortly before the delivery of the illustrations by Klemens Franz (illustrator for Agricola, among many others) to the printer.
Card Illustration by Klemens Franz

And just before the game was sent out, during another playtest round at the Spielwiese gaming café in Berlin, a notable guest inspired another last-minute change.  Mariano Iannelli of Italian publisher What’s Your Game? suggested the better title, PAX, and fortunately it was not yet too late to change it.  - Bernd Eisenstein

Photos courtesy of Bernd Eisenstein and Irongames.

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