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Once upon a time there was a Venetian politics game simmering gently in my games design cupboard. It was to be a monumental resource management and politics game (most game designers have at least one of these; military game designers have their own version, the 'generic battle system' game). A small segment of it was a Grand Council, represented by a pyramid of spaces, 7 at the base and 1 at the top. Players would alternate placing pieces and by promoting from two adjacent pieces, could reach higher up the pyramid and therefore gain more points in the council than their opponents.
The Venetian politics game never happened, because Borgias, Medicis and Doges were becoming popular topics. Besides the challenge would be to design something better than Canal Grande, and that's shooting at the Moon.
The very theoretical basics of a game system still existed though, and over a spicy meal after a games session at Essen Spiel '02, SSG decided to develop it further. Baby TSoK was born.
Meta game design
I have found there are two main ways I come up with game design ideas. Either I have a mathematical or logical construct, upon which a theme will eventually be grown or grafted, or a theme I would like to explore, which will suggest a style of mechanics. Tara, Seat of Kings was certainly one of the former, a game system with a theme.
What's the point?
TSoK was to be Surprised Stare Games' first board game. The objective was to design a 'German style' game of medium length (more than ½ hour but less than 2 hours), aimed at the serious gamer. Target complexity was more Puerto Rico than Alhambra. However as with our earlier games, we wanted a twist, because as a company strategy, we always try to be innovative. I wanted the game to have some luck, but to permit skilful and thought-provoking strategy too.
The main features of Tara, Seat of Kings were to be:
I particularly wanted the game to be a 'raiding strategy' game, rather than a traditional 'conquest strategy' game. This might help to explain the somewhat quirky position you get in, once you have a King in one region.
Getting on top of the theme
Our first game, Coppertwaddle, had a Medieval theme, so our initial instinct was to repeat ourselves; as a minimum we came up with a working title and a semi-working theme. This was "King of the Castle", which captured the basic idea of scrambling to the top, climbing over your opponents. As we were looking for a dual language, English and German game, we were pleased that our translator found a nifty German title too: "Wer wird König?" (literally 'Who would be king?"), which is constructed in the same fashion as the German version of "Who wants to be a millionaire?" - always good to have a TV tie-in.
The KotC theme lasted for the whole of 2003, long enough to get its
acronym. No-one was terribly thrilled by it though, especially when we
started to consider potential artwork. Inspiration was in very short supply.
We wanted a theme that wasn't over-used, but would both give the game
a historical flavour and give Tony, our artist, a chance to spend hours
and hours in his studio.
When I design new games, I'm notorious for using badly hand-drawn sketches and very 'representational' components. I am myself fairly indifferent to the visual look of the thing at playtesting stage, but in an era of InDesign, Photoshop and Quark Xpress, there is an increasing expectation amongst play testers that the game will look presentable, as well as play properly. Also it is relatively easy nowadays to get hold of the buckets of wooden pieces and cardboard tiles with which German style games are populated. We stock up each year at the Essen Spiel with ridiculous quantities of weird shaped bits and pieces that just might come in useful for some not-yet-dreamed of agglomeration of game mechanics. We even used a figure of a blue top-hatted rotund man in one of our board game designs once, but that's a story for another day.
KotC had coloured plastic cones as playing pieces (remember Coppit?), which were left over from an earlier game. These had the advantage of being easy to stack and manipulate, even with the average gamer's clumsy fingers, but the disadvantage of - to put it bluntly - being made of plastic. After experimentation, we decided to adopt the more conventional wooden cylinders, which are in fact cheaper and have a much more German style look; they also work fine in the game.
While KotC used 4 separate boards for Provinces, we moved to a single 4 region board in TSoK. A single board gave a better visual focus and allowed us to put the whole of the island of Ireland on it.
Extensive playtesting led to the development of a fairly balanced card set which identified the placement positions. Even at the earliest stage of the design, you could not play pieces into the top two ranks, these had to be filled through promotion. But we started with 6 ranks, and the game was far too long, so we quickly decided on the now familiar 5 ranks. In KotC they were called Peasant, Artisan, Squire, Merchant and Noble, with the final winning rank being the King. Very logical and very medieval, and easy to find clip art!
One of our blind play test groups was not happy with the large number of cards, because they were not able to track them and have their strategy influenced by the likely remaining cards. This wasn't a problem I had expected, being more concerned with the balance of the deck than with card counting. The comment was bang on the nose though, so I redesigned the deck around fewer cards. I experimented with having different size decks for different numbers of players, but discarded that idea, because it would have made the set up of the game much more complex. I settled on the current deck of 36 cards, which allows those with large memory banks to remember which cards have been played, but will always have some unrevealed.
The last addition to the components was the King pieces. These were introduced to replace using a stack of two pieces to represent the King, which was easily confused with a fort, especially as the mechanism for removing a King was very different from that for removing a fort. The inclusion of two King pieces in the game is strictly unnecessary, because you win when you occupy the two King positions not when you have two King pieces. It seems more aesthetically pleasing to have two King pieces: naturally these two pieces are adjacent to each other in the centre of the board and promote to High King.
There were a few design problems, which either made the game too stable or too unbalanced. Initially we had too many very powerful cards, such as two positions in one rank, which allowed radical 'ripple upwards' promotions; the only one of these to survive is card 9, two Farmers. The original game didn't have money either, which meant promotion was automatic. Having to pay to promote introduced a resource management element, and we played around with various methods for generating income, before alighting on the current one, which encourages spreading out across regions, as well as winning individual ranks within a region.
I wanted to keep resources tight, both in terms of numbers of pieces and quantity of money, so that players are forced to make difficult choices. If you're thinking "I could have won, but I ran out of pieces!", then you've probably made an error.
A mechanism to restrict the number of cumals available was the forced payment of two cumals to deploy to an empty region. This payment prevents you from taking a simple early drop into an unchallenged region by depriving you of the means to promote quickly. Another mechanism was that if you have equal numbers of pieces at a given rank in a region, then neither player is paid, rather than both receiving one cumal.
The introduction of forts gives players an opportunity to adopt an element of conquest strategy, although the game is primarily a raiding strategy game, as explained earlier.
Dealing 6 cards, and choosing 3 for the current round and 3 for the next, reduces the luck factor. Without this mechanic the luck of the draw became too great. I think this aspect of the game is the hardest and has most influence on winning and losing. While there are some obviously powerful cards (e.g. the 2 Farmers, the Stones of Destiny), the power of most cards depends on the situation.
By the time of Essen Spiel '05 we had our finished prototype, play tested, blind tested and ready for action. But we hadn't had time to produce it; this took us the better part of a further year - find out from Tony and Charlie how we did that.
We had a lot of fun at Spiel '05. We hired what they call an 'author's prototype table', which allows game designers to present their draft products to an unsuspecting audience. While I've always thought that the area set aside for these tables was a bit off the beaten track, I was gratified to find many enthusiastic players prepared to play a prototype for an hour or so. I was also happy to find that the game scored highly in the Fairplay ratings, reaching an average of 1.5 across 18 votes, two votes short of winning the best of show rating.
And now for Spiel '06.