The Evolution of Player Aids in Akrotiri

Here’s an interesting look at the development of a game – all through the changes made to the player aid! We’ll take you through the changes we made throughout the development of Akrotiri. There were more iterations of the game than just these because sometimes the player aid wouldn’t change but something else would.

You can read the full story in our Akrotiri Designer Diary Part 1!

OK, let’s get to it!

January 2010

aid1-jan2010

Our first player aid came about 5 iterations in since we didn’t need them before this point. In this version players could have multiple ships! This stayed in the game for awhile, until we realized that you can move so fast in this game that multiple ships weren’t really needed. We had huts which were a way of claiming islands – but they didn’t have to be located like temples are now – you simply sailed to an island and built a hut!

The market was more of a stock market concept where players could affect the price of each good. It took us awhile to figure out the current market as we were toying with other market mechanics.

Pirates! We had pirates! You could move a pirate ship for an action and it did various things throughout the development…I think they could block you from even moving into a certain area – or they would steal resources from your ship! This version of the game was all about shipping resources – that’s it – so pirates were a way of creating some tension.

February 2010

aid2-feb2010This is where we implemented the temples! They started off pretty easy – like “East of 2 Mountains”. Apparently we allowed people to buy a lot of map cards as well! Makes sense that we reduced that to a maximum of 3 in the final game! The market was still a stock market style system.

March 2010

aid3-mar2010OK a few things we tried here (that ultimately didn’t work):

1) We tried different capacities for shipping. You could upgrade your boat so that it could hold more resources. It’s not a bad idea but meant more components since they’d physically have to actually hold that many resources!

2) You could place a flag on an island! Weird. You got points for flags on contiguous islands – but you couldn’t place a flag on islands with your opponent’s flag. This did add an element of interaction as you’d be racing to get to specific areas before opponents so you wouldn’t be blocked off. Then you were motivated to place your tiles in your area more to make more islands…so by the end it actually did the opposite of interaction since each player was in their own sector of the map.

Things we added that stuck: Gaining more actions based on the number of temples you’ve found. While the number of actions changed through each iteration – the concept stuck! It really motivated people to build temples fast! But once you got one or two – it was tricky timing when you should find a harder temple – and that decision still remains in the game.

Another thing that stuck: Different levels of difficulty for temples. The point values changed a bit, but the fact that we had three levels of difficulty stayed until the final game.

May 2010

aid4-may2010In this iteration we gave bonus points for temples that were built further away from the main island of Santorini (Thera in the final game). The idea is interesting and it made it into the final game but only as goal cards.

Wow – looks like we had a lot of temples in this version! Interesting that the actions go up and then back down. That was our idea of a negative feedback loop (catch-up mechanic) as you had to time it right when you wanted to build those last few temples. Ultimately we found it anti-climactic and had it only increasing in actions.

Another stab at doing the market. This time each player would have a token for each resource and would place it on their own player aid. I can’t remember how players would impact their own market – but since it was individual, it just didn’t work.

You can see some things starting to take fruition – like how to excavate temples. That’s exactly how it is in the final game – except that now you can excavate on any tile, not just the one you placed.

The Worshippers were the same things as the flags in the previous versions. A way to get other points.

August 2010

aid5-aug2010

This one added back the bonus for finding temples further away from Santorini as well as the flags/worshipper bonus. The star at the end of the Actions track meant the game was over.

September 2010

aid6-spet2010The game has now changed from Santorini to Akrotiri! We saw that there was already a game on BGG called Santorini so we changed it to Akrotiri – which is an archaeological dig site on the island of Santorini.

New things in this iteration:

1) Added the pre-turn actions to the player aid: add a tile and place 2 resources.

2) Temples can be found on any island – as long as your boat is there…just like the final game

3) Atlantis! What?! Yeah we added this whole other element of Atlantis. Many people believe that the volcano that erupted that created the island of Santorini also sunk Atlantis! So we thought we’d use that in our game. Basically in this first version of having Atlantis in the game you just used one of your map cards – but you paid 12 gold and it only gave you 3 points – but it ended the game. Atlantis will stick around for a few more iterations…!

October 2010

aid7-oct2010Check this out! Now we’ve got a pretty fancy player aid! Everything has been turned into a graphic or an icon! Pretty sweet!

New things:

1) Pick a role? Yeah we had these different role cards that gave bonuses and made certain things easier. You would choose a new one each turn.

2) The actions are very close to the final version of the game. There’s no oracle yet (that was one of the roles!) and maps cost 2 gold each instead of being able to buy more for one action at a higher price.

3) Game ended when Atlantis was found or one player found 7 temples and 5 gold gave players a point at the end.

November 2010

aid8-nov2010

This is the version that was first pitched to Z-Man at BGG.con in November 2010. This one had Atlantis still but now you had to find rumours in order to locate Atlantis! Whenever any player every found a temple, they would take a random rumour token and place it face down on top of the temple. Then any other player could go to their island and pay the owner of that temple some gold and get the rumour token. That player would place the rumour token face up on one of the ordinates on their player aid around Atlantis. The rumour token would have terrain icons on them and once you got a rumour token on all 4 ordinates (N,E,W,S) then you had a map to where Atlantis was located! Whew – crazy! Also the Oracle makes an appearance! It even took more actions to use the Oracle the further you were along – which seemed fair!

We also implemented the concept that your actions per turn only increased.

April 2011

aid9-apr2011

This version had something called Offerings and for the life of me, I can’t recall what that was about! It seems like it was something about rumour tokens. Yeah – you would get more money for each successive rumour that someone bought off of you. This meant players tried to find rumours from players that hadn’t ‘sold’ many yet. We also tweaked how many actions you could get per turn.The end game gave 1 point for each 10 gold – which is how it is in the final game.

October 2011

aid10-oct2011

OK bye bye Atlantis. Maybe we’ll see you in an expansion one day! We had received feedback from a different publisher that the Atlantis part felt tacked on – which it really was – so we removed it. We added the ability to buy more map cards for one action at a higher price. This is pretty close to the final player aid. We even added the free actions on this one.

The one change that was made after this was to make it a two player game and to add more goal cards to some of the action spaces.

So that’s it! A tour of how a game came to be, as seen through the perspective of the player aid!

-Jay Cormier

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Akrotiri is 100% official!

If that title doesn’t make sense to you, then let me explain…

Sen and I designed a game called Santorini. It’s a tile laying exploration game that has a pretty clever new mechanic that’s used to find hidden temples. Once we got it to a point where we wanted to show publishers, another game designer pointed out that there was already a game out there called Santorini – by a fellow Game Artisan of Canada no less (we were just new to that wonderful group of game designers at the time).

So we were a bit bummed because that was a cool title. We did some more research and found that the name of an archaeological dig site on Santorini is Akrotiri. We liked it and that became our new title for the game.

The game made it to the finals of the Canadian Game Design of the Year and the first publisher I showed it to was Zev from Z-Man games. I was at BGG.con (a convention in Dallas that’s run by http://www.boardgamegeek.com) and I only had time for a 5 minute pitch. He liked it enough to want to investigate it further.

Then the waiting came. We kept prodding with emails asking about their thoughts and kept waiting to hear from them. Then a few months pass and Filosofia acquires Z-Man Games! So now there’s a whole whack of time that passes as they figure out their new structure and who’s doing what. We do get word from Zev that the people at Filosofia like the game though – so that’s good!

Old prototype of Akrotiri

In the middle of all this, Quined expresses interest in checking it out. We get permission from Z-Man to show it to them (very important! Never show your game to more than one publisher at a time without their knowledge!). They play it and like it, but they don’t like the ending. We explore some other options and we scrap the entire ending we had and find something that feels a lot more organic and obvious. In the end, Quined passes because it’s not heavy enough for them. But we’re happy because we have a new version that plays even better than the old one! We share this with Z-Man Games.

More time passes and I attend the Gathering of Friends last year for the first time. I had connected with Sophie from Filosofia before attending and we agreed that it would be a good place to play it together and come to some sort of agreement. We played a 5 player game of Akrotiri (tip: unless your game plays best with 5 players, always choose to play with fewer!!). Like most tile-laying games, a lot can change before it’s your turn, so Sophia thought that she had to wait until it was her turn to pay attention. Not good.

But she thought the game would be a good 2 player game…! They took the game back with them and tried it a few more times as a 2 player only game – and they liked it! They wanted to do it! Huzzah! They wrote up a contract and sent it to us – and we signed it and sent it back….but it still was never 100% official until this week. Why? Because we got back the signed contract – with their signatures on it too!

So now Akrotiri is happening! It will be a 2 player game, in the same box as the Agricola 2 player game. We’re not sure exactly when it’s coming out, but the artist (the amazing Chris Quilliams!! Check out his stuff!) has already been in contact with us to ask us questions about our thoughts on things like time period and whatnot. Super cool!

So three cheers! We’re super pumped to partner with Z-Man Games on this! We’ll share more news about potential release date as soon as we know more.

-Jay Cormier

Recent Playtests

Spent this past week playtesting a bunch of our games.

Played RuneMasters: our 2 player card combat game.  This is quite the different game for us as it’s not even the kind of game we usually like to play, but we have a pretty cool idea for it and we are trying to see if we can make it happen.

The playtest was OK but there were some issues with not having enough cards, some slowdown in casting creatures and confusion around order of events.

Overall there’s still something very interesting about this game as was evident in a couple of the individual battles.

Played Akrotiri (previously named Santorini until I learned another game is coming out next year with the same name): This is our Tile-laying, Pick up and Deliver, Find Hidden Objects game.  I forgot a couple things I was meaning to playtest and so had the same issues I had the previous time I playtested it.  There was little tension, which would have been increased if I remembered the 2-3 things I was supposed to remember to include in this playtest.  Oh well.  Overall – it wasn’t the best time I’ve had with the game, but it was still fun and interesting.  The 2-3 minor tweaks should help out a lot.

Lost for WordsPlayed Lost for Words: This is our quick party word search/creation game.  It used to be part of our Games on the Go series, but we had thoughts on turning it into a larger complete game – and so I did!  There was a lot of fun to be had as we shouted out words.  The brainstorming session at the end lead to an even better scoring mechanic that I can’t wait to playtest soon.

I also playtested my friend, Matt’s game called Bordeaux: a game about gathering grapes from the Bordeaux region in order to make specific wines.  We played it a few times over the past couple days and each time it got a lot better.  The last time I played it was tense and interesting and very Euro-y.  It has a few more tweaks to balance out the goal cards, but it’s almost a publisher-ready game!  Good job Matt!

-Jay Cormier

One of the things Jay and I will invariably do when we’re stuck on a game is ask ourselves a few questions:

The first one is a two-parter:

a) What do we absolutely LOVE about this game and b) how can we make the rest of this game feel like that section?

We tend to focus on the positive as opposed to the negative – that way, we don’t try to fix things by…err…fixing things, if that makes sense. We fix things by highlighting the positive aspects of the game so much so that the downside seems less onerous, takes less total game time, and (in some cases) gets elimintated entirely.

In making most of our games, we have a common habit of adding on little mechanics here and there to the main game as we develop towards a final product. Usually, what happens is that the game becomes cool, but cumbersome and we have to ask ourselves the above questions. From there, it’s a process of separating the wheat from the chaff. This doesn’t mean that the so-called chaff is bad or filler or redundant. It usually means that it feels “tacked-on” and doesn’t really add anything to the game as a whole. But those sections often provide us with inspiration for possible future expansions if not whole other games. And many times, what seemed cool at one point in the design process becomes more cumbersome or limiting that it is worth. We have to prioritize what stays and what goes, but not necessarily by focusing on just the negative – by fixing only the negatives, you may end up with a working game of boring mechanics, but by highlighting the best parts of the game, you are more likely to end up with a game that not only works but shines in it’s playability.

So, for Rune Masters we asked ourselves the question above. And what the answer was is that we want the battles to be fast, furious and fun, not cumbersome, plodding, and boring. Jay and Matt had a few really exciting battles where spells were flying, stones were used to power their heroes and creatures, and the tide of battle swayed too and fro. What made it fun? The possibility of high levels of back and forth action. What is not so fun? The building up phases (the arms race, so to speak) are technical and slow, though interesting.

We therefore want to keep what see-saw battles we have and create the opportunity for more. In fact, we’d love it if every battle ran “hot” like the ones that Jay and Matt found really exciting. That’s Goal 1.

The next question we ask is:

How do we make this game go faster / run smoother?

These are some things we want out of all games

– less downtime when you’re not the active player / less analysis when you are the active player
– engagement during everyone’s turns, whether it be that you have to watch what other people are doing in order to play most effectively or that you are an active participant on another player’s turn

There’s a fine balancing point in many games where the designer must choose whether to be simple or complex. Is it a die roll or a complex algorhythm with a appendixed look up table cross? Is the player playing the game or is the game playing the player?

We try to subscribe to a Japanese term “shibumi”, which means “simple, yet complex”. We want the strategic application of a mechanic to be the crux of the decision as opposed to mechanic itself. We want enough variables in play that there are decisions to be made, that there are options to choose, that there are different paths to take, different ways to victory. There should be some “best decisions” at each point, but there should be as few “no brainers” as possible – and the “best decisions” should be based on cards in hand, the state of the gameboard at the time, etc., that the decision a player made was the best for him at that time based on the information he possessed.

Goal 2 for Rune Masters is to find a way to simplify the relatively complex mechanic we’ve created to cast spells. It’s a very unique and intriguing mechanic, but it needs to be simplified in some way to decrease the brain drain and increase the speed. And to further answer this question, Goal 3 is to maintain a flow in the game. We found in the last few playtests that players had to pass an awful lot just to get cards to play and/or clean up their workspace for casting spells. We’re hoping that a few simple fixes will increase the cycling of cards and make the casting of spells smoother.

Still on the question of smoothing out the kinks in games, Jay and I love tile laying games and that is a really fun part of Akrotiri. In the past, we’ve had feedback about the tiles in this game and how sometimes it is nearly impossible to place the single tile you get access to in a way that is beneficial to you. This is based on how the tiles connect via trade routes. We’ve redesigned the tiles now such that any tile can connect to anyother tile, but the routes may still not lead where you want. The playtesters who have tried this game in multiple iterations have told us that they like this incarnation of the tiles the best so far as there is less analysis. While it sounds like there may be more as all tiles fit together, there is actually less as, before, players would spend time trying to make things fit by rotating the tile around to see if there was a way. In accentuating the positives, we hope to make a better game!

For Lost For Words, the question always has been one that’s a bit different that the ones above:

How do we add more strategic decision making to this game?

There is a difference between a game and a puzzle. And there is a difference between a good game and a poor game. A poor game is purely mechanical without input from the player. Conversely, we want to make games where the players are making decisions as much as possible – some easy, some difficult, but constant decision making is really what gaming is all about. It’s about making decisions, executing them, and seeing how those decisions affect the outcome. Add in as much interaction with the other players to force you to decide in different ways and you’ve got the start of a good game.

Lost for Words was originally simply a race to see who could spot words within an ever-growing array of tiles. We’re trying to “gamify” it a bit, as the decisions you make are minimal, at best – the most you will have to decide is if you want to score less for a short word, but score quickly or try to find a longer word for more points risking that someone may score on the tile before you. Jay and I have wanted to add a type of score tracker to the game to try to add some other strategic elements. But Matt and Jay have thought up an even better idea that Jay and I will refine further to ensure that players aren’t always going for the quickest word using a score tracker and some goal tokens. That will help take this from a puzzle race to more of a true strategy game. We’ll have to see whether that, in fact, makes it more fun when all is said and done!

Last point – For Akrotiri, the first thing we should have done after the last playtest was written a note to ourselves on the box itself of the things we wanted to change the next time around. A simple “To Do” list could have made the playtesting much more productive! That’s a habit we need to get into!

-Sen-Foong Lim

Step 9: Importance of Solo-Playtesting

You’ve got a prototype made and now it’s time to try it out.  The first person you should always try a brand new game out with is yourself.  If it’s a four player game then simulate all 4 players and play as each one when it’s their turn.  Play as if you had no knowledge of the other players’ cards or information.  This will give you a general idea if your concept is working.  Sometimes you don’t need to play the entire game to understand if something’s not working.

Santorini is a tile laying game we designed that involves shipping resources around islands on ships.  I wanted to make a tile laying game that had different rules on how you could match tiles together.  The first prototype allowed players to place tiles such that it covered up one corner of a tile already in play.

After solo-playtesting it I soon realised that this would lead to a riducolous amount of Analysis Paralysis (a state where gamers spend more time analyzing what they should do rather than playing – not good!).  Back to the drawing board! As mentioned in a previous post, this is why it’s good not to put too much effort in your first prototype.

Through Solo-Playtesting you will almost always find something about the game you can improve.  For Night of the Dragon players play cards to move their pawn in the direction they want to go – towards the mountains, desert, sea or forest.  When I printed out one of the first prototypes I realised I couldn’t fit the entire board on one sheet, so I printed each of the four land type areas separately.  When I cut them out and laid them next to the board I realized that we could add a whole new aspect to the game where players could rotate the world and have each land type area move one spot clockwise.  This ended up being a crucial aspect of the game that came from Solo-Playtesting.

The good thing about having a partner in designing games is that you always have 2 playtesters!  The trouble with our situation is that we’re on either side of the country, so we still rely on Solo-Playtesting before taking it to the next step.

-Jay Cormier

While Jay and I do a lot of the design together via the internet, we both engage in solo playtesting sometimes once a first prototype has been made – we will share the artwork and will each print and cut out a copy. Playing with yourself isn’t as silly (or explicit!) as it sounds. There are a ton of relevations you can have just by making the prototype and moving pieces around on the board. Jay’s example re: NotD is a good one because if he never made the prototype, we never would have come up with the very interesting rotating knives…I mean map…er…rotating map concept. I have to admit, though, that Jay is the king of making the prototypes and trying them out, moreso than I am. Some of it’s incompatibility of software. Some of it’s lack of time. But we always post our findings to each other via our forum and work through the issues with each other online.

There is honestly, however, nothing that takes the place of actual hands-on game play to really work things though. In playing things solo, you can work out many kinks prior to you bombard your friends and relatives with the inevitable call of “Hey, I got this new game I want you to try out…”; very rarely (exception: “The Dig”) do Jay and I get anyone else to play our games without at least one of us (or both) spending a ton of time playing though many many turns of a game to see if it’ll stick. So solo playtesting is a great step to ensure that what you unleash on an unsuspecting gaming public is at least worth their time and effort to come to games night!

– Sen-Foong Lim

Step 5: What Comes First: Theme or Mechanic?

I don’t think we even need to discuss where ideas come from. If you’re really looking for game ideas (and many times when you’re not) you will find them in almost everything. Eventually, when people know that you like to design board games, you’ll find that they often recommend turning a current situation you’re in with them into a board game.

Some people have asked what comes first though – is it the theme or the mechanic? Well there are actually a few more variables that could come first, such as: Title, Genre or Components.

Theme: I would hazard a guess that a lot of games start with the theme. “Hey wouldn’t it be cool if there was a game about trying to escape a mall infested with zombies?” Theme is what gives the game a unique flavour and often will help drive some of the mechanics.

I used to work for 7-11 back in the day and I remember learning that candy bar manufacturer’s pay more money to 7-11 to be placed on the top shelf, instead of a lower one. Makes sense – and it was the theme I liked that motivated us to make our very first finished board game called Top Shelf. It’s never been published, but it still has its place in our history of game design as being our first design! With just that theme we came up with a tile placement game where you’re trying to make matches to get more of your product sold than your competitors.

I showed Top Shelf to a company at a convention and they liked it enough and asked us to send them a prototype. They asked us to take the theme out of the game and just make it a completely abstract game as that was the kind of publisher they were. We obliged but as we did so I felt the game lost some of its magic. Possibly that’s just me as I’m more of a fan of theme-based games than abstract games that have no or minimal theme. I like to feel like the game is telling a story as we’re playing it.

Mechanic: Sometimes we come up with a mechanic first – like tile laying, pick up and deliver, resource management etc… As we fine tune some of the concepts, we throw around some possible themes that might fit. Eventually we lean more to one theme and progress from there.

I had this idea for a tile laying game that had some pick up and deliver mechanics to it. As I started to develop it I made it about delivering various meats on something I called a Smokeboat. Later as the game kept improving we moved the theme over to the Greek Islands and the game became Santorini. It still has the pick up and deliver mechanic but it fits much better with the theme.

Title: Sometimes you come across a title and you think,

“Dang, that should be the name of a board game!” Well, I think that at least! For us we’ve had these titles way before designing any aspect of the theme or mechanic: Pants on Fire (seemed like it would be a great game with bluffing), Mage vs. the Machine (seemed like a cool battle game concept),Hog the Remote (seemed like some sort of quick reaction game about TV) . Some of these made it to prototype phase and Hog the Remote has ever been to a couple publishers already. We actually have a thread on our forum dedicated to possible game titles.

Genre: Since we’re trying to be as well rounded as possible when it comes to designing board games, we want to explore every possible genre of games: kids/family, dexterity, Euro-strategy, war simulation, party games. In my other spare time I work as a children’s entertainer as a character named Bertolt. I thought it would be great if Bertolt had a game of his own. So we set out to create our first kid’s game. We toyed with an idea about Bertolt packing clothes for a trip, but it didn’t work. We then came up with this concept of quick reaction mixed with audible clues. It turned into Bertolt’s Jungle Jam. Eventually it became just Jungle Jam when we pitched it to publishers as they wouldn’t know who the heck Bertolt was. Currently it has been retitled again as it shares the name with a game that was in a court battle against Jungle Speed. We don’t want to be associated with that at all! But our game does actually involve making jam, so we’re now calling it Jam Slam. It’s currently in the semi-finals of a contest for best Canadian Game Design!

Game Components: This is more rare, but it’s possible an entire game can be started because of seeing something you’d like to see in a game. Often Sen and I will go to school supply stores and just walk up and down the aisles. Those stores are great because they often have things in the main primary colours – and in huge quantities. One great example is seeing these miniature coloured popsickle sticks at a dollar store. We bought them for no reason except they seemed like they could be cool.

These sticks have sat in our supply box for a couple years doing nothing. Then just about a month ago I had this idea on how to use these sticks in a game. We’ve spent the last couple of weeks working hard on it and we’ll need to spend many more to get the balance just right, but we’re excited about our new game, possibly called Rune Masters.

So there is no correct answer as to what should come first when designing a game. I think that’s part of what makes designing board games so interesting. Anything can get you started about making a game.

Starting with this post I’m going to add some Game Design Challenges. If you want to flex your designer muscles then give them a whirl. The goal is to be a more well rounded game designer who is able to design any game if requested (imagine having that job?!).

-Jay Cormier

This post brings back a lot of great memories, but even moreso, it brings to light an important aspect of our design philosophy. The “V” from your MVP mnemonic – being able to see the possibilities in all sorts of things and to be able to take the mundane, turn preconceived notions on their ears, and make something fun out of a bunch of cubes and a piece of cardboard is what game design is all about. And then, from that sandbox-type free-for-all, being able to reign things in and create a viable ruleset…wow. It’s a process, but a great one.

-Sen-Foong Lim
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Write a description of 5 possible games. Each game should start from a different point: Theme, Mechanic, Title, Genre and Component. You don’t have to design the actual game or even any rules, just write a sentence or two about how each would work.