Friday, October 3, 2014

Versailles - A paradigm shift in game design

It's time to talk about Versailles - the latest release from NSKN Games at Spiel '14 Essen - a game which came with a significant change in the way we make games.

Many of you do not know this, but initially Versailles was called... Exodus 2: Terranova and it was created as a sequel for Exodus: Proxima Centauri.

Maybe we should first go further back into history... When we created Exodus: Proxima Centauri, we started building a quite complex universe which would cover a trilogy of games following the evolution and struggles of humanity in a dystopian future, starting with the exodus from Earth to Proxima Centauri and then following the struggle for survival against a powerful, eclectic race called the Centaurians.

While Exodus: Proxima Centauri - the first games of the series - is an empire building game, the second game was planned from the very beginning as a heavy euro, a game built around the worker placement mechanism, with several twists and a a lot of strategy to gain the scarce victory points.

Early prototype of Versailles

The first round of play testing was encouraging, it went on a little too well. You're probably thinking now "What is this guy talking about?... Is he crazy?" and in a way you're right, there should be no such thing as too good first impression when it comes to testing a board game. Let me explain...

Every game I made or contributed to had to have something special, unique, be it the theme or some mechanic. Agnieszka and I were... are very fond of the Exodus universe and I must admit that the games planned in this trilogy are targeting the heavy gamers, experienced players who like a tough challenge. 

As it turned out, the prototype we've shown was... too short. Many people, too many people liked the game as it was, found it not so difficult and while this was a great feeling for us as designers, it was not falling into our grand plan for a sci-fi epic.

Here comes "into play" Daniele Tascini - the designer of Tzolk'in - who we had the pleasure to meet in Cluj at the local convention TIG Con. We played together and - long story short - he liked the game and did not fully agree with the theme. He also suggested a few twists, some of which are now part of the final game.

Fast forward a few weeks... Agnieszka and I were talking during a long road trip and considering to actually change the theme into something which would appeal to a broader category of people, experienced games and newbies alike. But this is not like us, at NSKN Games we used to do things differently!

This is the shift in paradigm which I had mentioned earlier in the tiles of this article (and as a point of interest, I have been warned I should not be talking about this in public, warning which I carefully decided to ignore). As a designer you can afford to make the game you like, while as a publisher you have to make those game which sell, especially if your survival depends on it. 

As designers, both Agnieszka and I wanted to make the most interesting games possible, inventing themes (I had already strayed away from this principle with Praetor) and we always stayed away from the typical medieval theme - games named after a famous European city or a beautiful island which very few people can actually place on the map (a bit off topic,I offered some of my friends 10 euros if they could place Bora Bora on the world map in less than 10 seconds and I am just as reach as I was before the challenge).

Final box and game components

As publishers, we must listen to the gaming community, including the less loud voices. There is a reason for which so many games have "common" themes, they attract the casual gamers who are much less likely attracted by a science fiction or a fantasy universe, but they can picture themselves building a city or a castle... say... Versailles.

With the risk of stating the obvious, one cannot place any game in a familiar Euro-style universe, but if a game has the right mechanisms and interactions and this kind of theme is suitable, then why not?

I have personally accepted that for most of the board games, they game play is at least as important as the theme (the big exception here is represented by... thematic games) and even if there should be no compromise when creating either of the two, there is nothing wrong in walking the wide and well traveled path.

This shift in paradigm was the result of talking to many people, some with a lot more experience in board gaming than the whole NSKN team put together and some just casual gamers who happened to stumble upon one of our games. As many people, as many different opinions, but the majority shared a common point when it came to Versailles - a "normal" theme would make the game more attractive.

After all this ranting about the universe of Versailles and its evolution, maybe a few words about the game itself would bring the long awaited ray of clarity.

In Versailles, each player control several workers (between 4 and 7 , depending on the number of players). Every (very short) turn, the active player must move 1 or 2 workers to an adjacent location, thus activating it and taking the respective action. The locations form a network, being connected by one-way streets, thus generating a large but limited number of possibilities. Each location provides either resources or ways to spend them, with the ultimate goal to build the palace of Versailles and score victory points. 

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  1. Is the game for sale? If it isn't for sale now when will it be available?

  2. Versailles will be released in Essen and it will reach stores in Europe and North America in December