Thursday, October 9, 2014

Designer Diary - Praetor (part I)

I must start by confessing that I am an avid euro-gamer and that worker placement games rank very high in my preferences. It has been my dream as a board game designer to make such a game myself, one that will stand out between the many good games of this genre.
Praetor is a strategy game evolving around the worker placement mechanism, set in the Roman Britannia. Even though it is not the most complex game I have ever designed (that honor is still held by Exodus: Proxima Centauri), Praetor is the game I have been working on the longest and the game that got most of my attention over the past 18 months.

Ever since I started playing modern board games and fell in love with “euros”, I felt that one thing was constantly lacking, the fact that no matter how much I used a worker he would never gain any experience. It was always the same worker, no better and no worse than at the very beginning of the game. I thought to myself that this is one idea worth considering and if I would ever design such a game it would overcome this lack of realism in worker placement games.

Ancient history

I started working on Praetor in August 2012 with this single idea in mind, to create a mechanism in which the workers would slowly gain experience. My first worker was represented by a fairly large wooden disc and his experience by additional wooden cubes. Don’t get scared just yet, seeing the ridiculous amount of parts a player would have to manage with just a pair of workers, I soon realized that there’s a reason for which in most games workers are wooden meeples or cubes or discs or, at best, plastic miniatures. I was not very proud of this initial idea so I chose to stay quiet and “forget” to share this even with the members of NSKN Games.

The first concept of experience (image source:

Shortly after dust had settled over Essen 2012 and the euphoria of such a great event, I realized that dice are the most elegant implementation for the experience of workers. My initial idea was to simulate real life and look for a non-linear evolution of the experience in time, but I did not want to push my luck and people mathematical skills above an acceptable limit. So, I went with the dice and I started building the whole game around them.

By December I had already figured out most of the concepts of the game. Since it all started with an abstract idea - workers gaining experience - I went along the same path and built the game around abstract concepts. The workers would help generate up to 5 – 7 resources which would be used to build “stuff”. Now, “stuff” was way too abstract and I went with the idea of buildings. In just a few days I had a list of 60 buildings which would all be tied together, allowing the exchange of resources for points, give special abilities and allow players’ workers to gain experience. The mathematical model quickly became very complex and difficult to follow. The first time I presented the concept to the outside world I lost people about half way through the explanations. Abstract games tend to have simple rules and my project was far from that.

The search for the theme

When it came to finding a theme, all I knew at first was that I would not name my game after some famous medieval city or country and the workers would not be farmers. It’s not that I don’t enjoy farming in Agricola, but there are simply too many games with in this limited universe. Since I love history and for a worker placement game a historical theme is a plus, I started a process of researching relevant moments in our past when people built something… relevant. Starting in the ancient times, I went through the world history and the first thing that I stumble upon and liked was the Chinese wall. 

Great Wall of China (image source:

Sadly, my knowledge of that specific part of the world was limited so I had to admit defeat and look for something new. Just a few hours later I rediscovered the Roman Empire with its impressive coliseums, aqueducts, amphitheaters and legions and it felt like a revelation – that was the theme I was looking for.

Hadrian's wall (image source: Wikipedia)

The process of “dressing up” abstract concepts into Roman constructions was very intense and I will not bore you by describing every step of the way. What I can tell you is that I had to discard more than half of the mechanisms I had built and to add a few more to make everything fit together like a giant puzzle. And speaking of puzzles, that was also the moment when I discovered that “the game” would also be a tile-laying game.

I called it “the game” because back then it was still missing its title. My first impulse was to name it Caesar, but that would create huge confusion and mix-up with computer games with a similar name and theme. Plus, it would not fit the theme. I knew that players would strive to become the “big boss of a Roman city” and that position was either a Magister or a Praetor. I chose between the two and, from that moment on, my project became Praetor.

Praetor 1.0

Because of my background of computer programming, I have the habit of numbering every single version. Praetor 1.0 was the first prototype and probably the biggest breakthrough because every relevant abstract concept found its way into this themed board game prototype.

The core concept of Praetor did not change ever since, even though I put it through “fire and axe” in multiple sessions of play-testing over more than one year. Every player starts with three workers which he uses to build new districts into the city or to activate already built districts and thus gain various benefits, usually resources and favor points. Players can recruit new workers while the old ones gain more experience and retire, being a burden rather than an advantage. At the end of each turn, player will pay wages for their active workers and pension to the retired ones – a system which resembles the modern world but was first defined as a similar concept by the Romans.

Praetor 1.0 player board

What I must admit is that Praetor 1.0 was quite heavy, significantly more than I realized in my solo tests. The very first 2-player game took longer than one hour and the first 4-player game… well, I won’t really say because I don’t want to scare you off just yet.

Hexes from the first prototype

Praetor 1.0 was meant for 2-6 players and had almost 85 hexagonal tiles. Each tile had a cost to build, an instant reward made of a number of points and some initiative and an activation area. The activation area contained a benefit which was sometimes dependent on the experience of the worker and a cost that would be paid by the player activating the tile to the player owning the tile. With the exception of the initiative, every other concept can be found today in the box.

That's all for today, stay tuned tomorrow for part II!

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