Sunday, October 12, 2014

Designer Diary - Praetor (part II)

To read the first part of this designed diary please follow this link.

Praetor 1.1

Decreasing the number of tiles was an obvious choice. The game play was sound, but simply too long. Making less tiles of one kind (e.g. Gold Mines which would provide currency for players) did not decrease the number of choices, it simply made the game easier to grasp. The first “hair cut” left Praetor with less than 60 city tiles.

To avoid any scalability problems from the very beginning, I created a core set of about 25 city tiles which were used for the 2-player games and with each extra player several more tiles would be added. With each extra player there were more workers and more resources in the game and thus the play time would not increase significantly since more workers plus more resources meant faster building.

The one test I was the most afraid of was the first 6-player game. I knew that in theory the game should scale nicely, but I also knew that sometimes there’s a big difference between theory and practice. To increase the difficulty of the challenge even further, I chose a group of very casual gamers, people who would usually settle for game as complex as Monopoly. To my surprise, the game only took two hours and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Version 1.1 had passed its most difficult exam and the game was deemed ready for mass testing.

Nürnberg 2013 and the long months of testing

I had big doubts whether to present the prototype of Praetor to W Eric Martin of BoardGameGeek at the Nürnberg Toy Fair or not. I knew that showing a rough version with no graphic design could trigger negative opinions, but the team decided to go for it and see it would spark any interest. And it did!

Praetor 1.1 hex tile

It suddenly became a lot easier to find groups of testers and it also created the right expectations. People were playing an illustration-free game and they were giving feedback only to the game mechanisms which is exactly what I needed.

After I became convinced that the flow of the game is right, I added the last piece of the puzzle, the mechanism of tile placement. Every corner of each city tile was painted in one of four colors. When a player would build a new tile (district), he would also have to choose its place in the city. The more corners matched the neighboring tiles, the more extra points that player would get. It was another level of strategy and it also made the modular board look nicer, at least in my mind since there was not even a hint of illustration on the city tiles.

We took Praetor to a few small conventions and to the UK Games Expo in May 2013 and slowly drafted what looked like the final version. The last major decision was to limit the maximum number of player to 5. I won’t get into many details, it had a lot to do with the tradition in the industry, many games of this genre being limited to 4 or 5 players and a bit to do with adding diversity and limiting the chaos with a large number of players.

The last significant change in the game play was dropping the concept of initiative. At first, each tile would provide an amount of a resource called “initiative” which determined the order of play. This allowed the most developed player to play first in a subsequent turn, hence no catching-up mechanism. With the initiative out of the way, every turn the order of play was based on the number of favor points, from the lowest to the highest. I knew that it was a common thing in board games, but at that moment I felt like I discovered the wheel because the last shadow of concern related to the imbalance of the game disappeared.

Summer, public display and the first days of winter

We announced that we’d present Praetor in Spiel ’13 Essen quite long before we had any final graphics prepared. After extensive feedback, I was finally convinced to give up the hexes and use squares. The game play did not change, the tile placement mechanism became simpler and the work of the illustrator and graphic designer significantly easier. I had to accept that I was in love with my own concept and that I had to give up and embrace the fact that when many people tell you that you’re wrong it’s probably true.

One day last autumn I was chatting with a good friend on Skype and with a very casual voice he told me that he has heard of another game fresh on Kickstarter which employed “the same idea with worker which get experience”. I turned first red, than white, thinking that the last year of my life was in vain. How could this happen? Is the project dead? I don’t stress easily, but I must admit that I don’t remember much of those next ten minutes. I looked for the rules, browsed through, had a cold glass of water and ultimately calmed down. It was a different game (and I apologize for not even remembering the name, all I can recall is that it did well with its crowd-funding) and in my mind there could not be any sign of confusion. I finally replied with arrogance “great minds think alike” but I must confess that I had cold sweats just thinking that I took too long to design a game that I can be proud of and someone else beat me to it.

Illustration for Praetor City Tiles

Well, we made the deadline for Essen with all the illustration for the city tiles ready. On top of that, we increased the size of each city tile from 2.5 x 2.5 in to 3.2 x 3.2 in so the illustrations are more visible. Even as a prototype Praetor got a lot of attention and we had many offers from people willing to purchase our only prototype. I was convinced we were on the right track, so I spent the late autumn and the first days of winter working on the final rules and making sure that we’d have the final graphic design to complement the beautiful illustrations.

 Ready, Set, Go!

Praetor punchboards during the manufacturing process
In April 2014 we were able to touch the final product. With yet another graphic design update made by a professional designer, we released Praetor in seven languages and over 7500 copies, making it the largest title from NSKN Games to date.

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