Thursday, September 6, 2012

Prototype2Publisher: NIEUW AMSTERDAM

It's difficult to believe that a city as renowned throughout the modern world as New York City started out with a completely different name. All the changes that the original colony – New Amsterdam – went through to become the iconic American metropolis is actually an accurate metaphor for the evolution of a board game design that looks very different from the first prototype I pitched to publishers. Following is a logbook of my own voyage of discovery.

Inspiration in the Old World

It was 2007, and I finally had my foot in the door with several German publishers, anxiously awaiting my first game releases scheduled for the following year. I had a flood of other ideas I was working at developing, but I was distracted by the interesting new dice mechanisms appearing in European strategy games (and I was testing my own dice game, to be released later as Alea Iacta Est). Then I read about Andreas Seyfarth's new game Airships and was intrigued by yet another unconventional use of dice. It challenged me to think about other ways dice could be used in creative ways.

The Bright Side of the Plague

Then, suddenly, "the plague" hit my family. For a two month period, every member of my family was sick with something, and my twin one-year-old sons went through cycles of everything from scarlet fever to bronchitis to stomach flu. It was a very difficult time for us, and we could not have survived without the help of our German friends.

Although I missed quite of bit of work during that time, I could not let my mind become idle as I rocked ailing children back to sleep in the middle of the night or sat with them in our doctor's packed waiting room several times each week.

I used some of this time to think about dice games again, and I came up with the idea of having dice colors represent actions, while the numbers on the dice could determine how those actions were grouped together. I decided to have three different areas of influence in the game and thus three colors, with four dice in each. I would roll the 12 dice at the beginning of each round, group them together according to their numbers – e.g., the blue "6" with the two red "6's" – then players would bid on the groupings of actions along with the player order tokens. Furthermore, I had always wanted to design an "engine-building" game, and I decided that this would be its core action-selection mechanism.

Discovering the New World

Although these first ideas were purely mechanical, I am usually most inspired by interesting themes, so I began thinking of something appropriate early in the process. A colonization theme usually fits engine-building games quite well, but so many of them had already been used in other games. Then, in one of those late-night rocking-chair sessions, I remembered a grade school textbook that had fascinated me with detailed drawings of the founding of New Amsterdam, the colony that later became New York. Excitedly, I researched the history further online, and I discovered that it was even more fascinating than I had remembered.

Nieuw Amsterdam, as it was officially called, was actually founded by the Dutch West Indies Company in order to encourage the lucrative beaver pelt trade with the local Native American hunters (mostly from the Lenape tribe) along the Hudson River. To establish a trading post there, they needed a town and a fort, which was built on the tip of Manhattan Island. To encourage European patroons – settlers of means or noble birth – to populate the colony, they granted them both land and indentured servants. The patroons became the lords of a new feudal system not unlike that seen in Europe.

Now I had my theme – one that, surprisingly, had not yet been used in a modern board game. It fit my dice mechanism beautifully as I made the three areas of influence (and thus, the three types of actions) the city, the land, and the trade along the Hudson River. I even found an antique map of the original colony online, which I modified for my prototype game board.

It was clear at this point that this was to be a "gamers' game" design with a higher level of complexity than most of my games to date. A rich historical theme can do that to a game. However, I was still entrenched in the German school of design in that I wanted the theme abstracted enough for players to easily internalize the rules and maintain a good pace.

Building from the Ground Up

Now that I had an overall vision for the project, as well as a central mechanism, I was ready to start putting the other pieces together. Actually, it was more like weaving an intricate narrative in which several stories diverged and converged at different points.

For example, with a City action die, the players could build businesses in the city for financial gain (money) and compete with each other in elections for victory points – but they would also need food to sustain them. With a Land die, players could add to their land for VPs and develop it so that it would produce building materials and food – both of which were needed in the city. And with a Trade die, the players could trade along the Hudson River with the Lenape Indians and ship the Furs back to the Old World for VPs and money. However, the trade with the Lenape was connected back to the acquisition of land by the players. The more land taken by the players, the farther each player had to go to trade with the Lenape as the tribes were forced to move their camps farther up the Hudson River. I found all of these elements and interrelationships fascinating from the perspective of a historical narrative as well as the mechanisms of the game.

From the mechanical standpoint, although I had two possible actions connected to each action die, I realized that I needed several other actions available to all players every round. I added one of these to each city district, and a player could purchase one action there every turn. Having a majority of businesses in a district meant a discount on the corresponding action. The nature of these actions changed quite a bit over the course of the game's development as they were vital in providing ample opportunities for players when they did not have an action die, yet they still needed to be subordinate to the dice actions.

And although the historical theme was important to me, I needed to abstract the game as much as possible to make it easier to understand and play. This is especially apparent in the resources: Corn is used to represent all food, and wood to represent all building materials. Goods represent all items imported from Europe for trade with the Lenape. And finally, there is money earned in various ways and furs to ship back for victory points.

Playtesting the game with Michael Schmitt in his Spielwiese gaming cafe in Berlin

Playtesting Complex Games

I found that it is a real challenge to find the time and the players to test longer, complex games. With multiple game designers attending our playtesting sessions in the Spielwiese gaming café in Berlin each week, when a longer game was played someone would have to sacrifice getting his game to the table that night. Sometimes my colleagues were gracious enough to do so, but I also set up private testing evenings for those who were interested in being part of the process, and that was very helpful. I also played the game by myself quite a bit, although it is always difficult to get a feeling for a game with auctions when playing it solo. (How do I bid against myself?) Nevertheless, the game was progressing well, and friend and fellow game designer Bernd Eisenstein even started calling the game "Jeff's masterpiece" on his blog.

Publisher Involvement

I took the game with me to Nuremberg in 2008 to pitch to several publishers I knew who released complex games. One even took the prototype to the Gathering of Friends that year, and I was able to get feedback from Larry Levy, who playtested the game there. Another publisher playtested it for a year after that, and I redesigned the game from their feedback, testing the new version with my group intermittently.

Pitching the game to Hanno Girke of Lookout Games in Nuremberg.

Then I noticed that White Goblin Games was also interested in publishing complex games, and I pitched another game to them that Bernd and I had been doing together for some time. Not only were they interested in that game, but they had also read Bernd's blog and were interested in Nieuw Amsterdam as well. Within a few months of receiving the prototype, they sent me a contract.

At the convention in Essen last year, I decided to--er--dispose of the old prototype bits after getting a pre-production prototype from Josh Cappel.

Istanbul, Not Constantinople

Even though I had a contract, I wanted the game to be as good as I could make it. I began testing it again heavily and I began a new round of development. With the motivation and time pressure of publication looming, I was able to smooth out more, cutting quite a bit of unnecessary complexity after taking a hard look at what was really necessary.

I could not get the game design out of my head:  even at soccer practice, I had to scribble some notes onto a tournament bracket sheet. It was here that I worked out the engine-building mechanisms for the wharf, all while waiting on the bench for my turn to play.

I also noticed some problems that could occur in specific circumstances, and I had to break down and chart the interrelationships of the mechanisms in order to correct any imbalances.

Charting the interrelationships in the game early in the process...

...and then again towards the end of development

The biggest change of all was to the core mechanism, the one that was the impetus of the game idea itself. I finally realized that the dice were not the best way to determine the action groupings, and they even presented some imbalance issues if one number was rolled too often, especially in the first round of the game. Replacing them with tiles was much easier to balance, and this change also proved more cost-effective for the publisher, allowing us to produce other more lavish components.

A late prototype that would get tweaked quite a bit even after Josh Cappel began working on it

I could write endlessly about the many other tweaks, cuts, and redesigns, but these notes would be difficult to understand without knowing the game – and probably not much fun to read either. Suffice it to say, I am very grateful for the enthusiasm and patience of both Jonny DeVries of White Goblin Games and graphic designer Joshua Cappel, both of whom contributed to the process. Up until now, in fact, I had never worked so directly with an illustrator of one of my games, and Josh's feedback and graphic design even influenced some of the final mechanisms. I was impressed with his keen understanding of the game and my goals in creating it, and his development of the rulebook shows that.

A mockup from Josh of the finished game components

The design of Nieuw Amsterdam has been a long and complex journey, with a cast of interweaving characters and story lines as varied as the history of New York itself. I began with an original mechanism around which I thought I could build a game, but the rich historical theme eventually became the driving force in the design. I hope that players of the game will enjoy participating in that narrative, as well as being able to create some stories of their own.

Jeffrey D. Allers

Start of a five-player game, with five longhouses in the Lanape camp and five Trading Posts along the Hudson river

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