The Daily Worker Placement

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

What’s All This, Then?: Bailey’s Designer Diary #1

by | published Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Well, it’s happened. I’ve played board games long enough that I think it’s time for me to try to make one. 

Oh no.

My ancestors judging me for my poor decision.

I want to create a civilization game I want to play, because, well, I don’t like civ games. Western Empires / Advanced Civilization feel too focused on the economic trope these games carry, and frankly, it’s a tableau builder more than a civ builder. Also, its forced lying to trade cards limits who can play the game effectively. Both Twilight Imperium and Eclipse have engaging tech paths, but combat is frustrating and the randomness of the tiles leaves much to be desired. Clash of Cultures is probably the closest there is to Meier’s traditional civ game model that I’ve liked, and its best strengths are also its biggest flaws: non-combat paths are viable, until one war faction ruins it for everyone. 

Besides the fact I don’t particularly like them, all the games above are so. Long. To. Play. One of my favorite features of the Civilization series on PC is that I can play the game a turn at a time and save, making it so I can play five minutes at a time. Nearly all of the 4X civ games take 3 hours minimum, with the longer ones taking 12+ hours. 

But those aren’t the only flavor of civ games out there. 7 Wonders is themed around building a civilization, even if I never thought about it, but the game is very much not focused on that at all: there is no engagement with what’s going on, because a red card and a green card feel no different from one another. Same goes for Tigris & Euphrates: you’re technically building a civilization, but I have never once thought about that. Through the Ages is themed right, and probably my favorite game to play that I’ve named so far, and I find its use of theme pretty great, but the mechanics don’t make a lot of sense in the civ sphere.

But all that doesn’t mean I don’t like any civ games. Besides the computer game series, here are the three civilization games I have enjoyed the most: Age of Civilization, Tapestry, and Race for the Galaxy.

Age of Civilization is an underloved small-box, card-based, worker placement game. Your objective is to draft up to three different civilizations over the course of the game to gain different temporary or permanent powers to improve your overall abilities, all for the sake of victory points. It is a worker placement Euro through and through, but due to its scope, there’s fewer resources and tighter action spaces, which is a welcome addition in this current market. 

The biggest design takeaway from Age of Civilization is its civilization building. Being able to craft your own civilization is so much fun. It’s never even properly addressed either: it’s not like the game is saying you’re the Romans and you’re stealing the abilities from the Egyptians and Carthaigians; rather, it’s saying the Baileygans are now defined by the attributes of those civs. Being able to fine tune your abilities like this is a great way to inject flexibility as well as tons of variety.

Beyond what it brings to the gameplay, this Frankenstein’s Monster of a civilization you’re building really adds to the strength of the character of a civ game. In most games, if you focus on one and exactly one aspect of your society, such as science, then you will not win the game. Age of Civilization is no different, but its shining feature is that most will not even internalize this point because the game never draws attention to it. The civs that each player drafts aren’t labeled as “Economic”, they just provide an economic benefit. It makes the player feel extra smart for being able to find and execute on the best combinations instead of them being signposted into the exact same strategy. 

The second civ game I wanted to bring up is Tapestry. This game’s reputation is far too sour! This game is just the mechanics of nearly every civ game, but just laid out in front of everyone without any chrome on it. I love the fact that Tapestry does not hide its progression system, nor how to work each track with one another. It’s quite an adaptive way to build your own civ as well: you aren’t necessarily railroaded if you invest all of round one into one field of study. Being able to react and adapt is what the best civs throughout history have done, and yet a lot of civ games take a narrow minded approach towards progression: it’s the set path from the start, or pivoting is far too difficult. This lack of inertia for change may be more found in reality, and thus a better model for a civilization, but that’s another conversation for another day. 

Tapestry’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness: the lack of identity for its civs really sucks the air out of the room. While its mechanics are some of the absolute best in a civ game, the theming is atrocious. First, the civs themselves are fictional, and are only defined by flavor text. This is not inherently a bad thing: I think fantasy civ games are great, as long as those themes are enforced by gameplay, which they very much are not here in Tapestry. The Tapestry and Tech cards, the only other real flavor in the game, are mostly items and concepts from our world, going against the grounded fantasy of the mythology established by the civ cards. Besides that, the Tapestry and Tech cards often contradict one another by presenting technology and societal practices in an anachronistic way. This isn’t inherently bad either, as history as we know it in the West is not how it happened everywhere in the world. But, the issue is this is nearly all the theming there is, and for it to be so thinly laid on top of the game, really brings it down. 

Race for the Galaxy is an actual masterpiece and I want to make a game 1/100th as good. That’s all.

Ok, but for real. Race for the Galaxy is an actual masterpiece and I want to make a game 1/100th as good. Its view on civilization building is unusually devious. There are no pre-set decks: rather, each player will be drawing cards and choosing what to play from the same central deck. I have become absolutely smitten with this mechanic. Sure, there’s games like Terraforming Mars or Ark Nova that have tons of cards in their games to add variety and give people more options for how to build their tableaus; however, those games do not feel very different if you give or take 50 entire cards. Race needs every card. 

Besides needing every card, every card is playable by everyone. Sure, maybe not at the moment you draw it, but if you want to play the card that requires 7 military, then you could get to that requirement! It captures the “Marketplace of Ideas” Milton told us so much about? Warned us about? Fought for? Either way, it’s here, and it’s breathtaking. It’s a tabula rasa where players can build their civs from scratch, from a common pool of cards, and define themselves concretely. It feels like a magic trick the way Lehmann was able to pull this off.

So, that’s an info dump of things I like and dislike from civ games. Let’s recap:

Good:

  • Innovative ways to deal with the inevitability of combat and/or conflict
  • Adaptability and creativity regarding the design and functionality of your civilization
  • A shared pool of cards
  • Quick playtime

Bad:

  • Pasted-on theming
  • Combat superseding all over paths of success
  • Lack of input on intra-game civilization design
  • Key, engine-breaking luck

With these key points in mind, I started to see my game shape into a place: a competitive, two-player, Living Card Game (LCG). 

Here’s (roughly) how it will work: each player will bring to the table their own deck of cards (within the parameters of the metagame rules). Then, at the start of each round, each player will draw the top two cards off of their deck, creating a pool of four cards. Each player will choose to use any card in that market to affect their own civilization. These cards will be chosen in a snake draft, meaning player 1 – player 2 – player 2 – player 1. Oh, and if the players don’t like the cards presented, or want to burn one, then when they take the card they can pitch it for n number of resources, depending on the round.

Here’s what our prototype Action cards look like, one from each era. Even though they’re rudimentary, we wanted all cards to be textless and use symbols, on both the top and bottom.

Thinking about this main mechanic has me so giddy. The sheer variety each player can bring to the table with their own deck of cards to draft from and then either NOT being able to choose them because they were taken before them, OR realizing that the card that lets you win the game didn’t even come from your own deck! The adaptability that can come from this format, including before, during, and AFTER a game, really opens up the game. It creates a mindset of being a philosopher of a potentially great civ, just for you to get into the game and ignore all of your own cards because who the *&%^ put those cards in my deck?!

Ok. So there’s the action mechanic: draft a card from the card market, do the thing. But what will be happening in the game?

Right now, in the earliest phases, we (meaning my partner and I) haven’t thought a ton about it. We came up with a simple idea to test the main mechanic, and honestly, it’s been quite fun so far. Here’s what is currently happening: each civ has five different resource types (anything from food to religion) and the action cards are letting you gain/spend/convert/etc. some of each type. At the end of each round, say after each person has drafted ten cards, then each civ can “bank” some of each resource. Then, at the end of the game, whichever civ has a majority in three out of the five resources wins. 

Who knows if this will change, but having these resources that players score, and each having relative and concrete weights, has already created some interesting interplay and trade-offs.

It’s a simple idea, one that could be left alone and the game would be quite good. Honestly, if we did some number crunching, we could commission some art and work towards a pitch or a Kickstarter. And I really, really love how simple it is. 

But it’s. I don’t know. If I look at my three biggest pet peeves with other civ games, I’m making sure to stay away from those. Luck is mitigated by having a pool of cards to draft from; you can pivot what your civ is accumulating and spending rather easily; combat is only present in the draft/counterdraft mechanism: I think it’s the theming that I’m worried about.

What’s the point of this being a LCG if the civs don’t operate pretty differently? If someone buys the Egyptian clamshell of cards, I want it to feel like any other deck. I want it to feel different from other agricultural and religious civs! Yet, I want those cards to be combined with other civs to create a weird mutant civ. Do I need to drop the idea of emulating existing civs to focus more on archetypes?

But seriously, outside of the theming and further direction for the project, Robin and I already crunched the numbers for the fourth and fifth iterations of the game so we can continue to go down the path that we’ve started. Because honestly, the backbone of the game is so solid that I can’t see the whole resource conversion idea being taken out wholecloth.

So, you may be asking yourself, “why is Bailey telling us all about this?” I want to encourage everyone to think critically about their games. Even though I do give my opinion quite often on here, it’s never my job to be a saleswoman: it’s my job to get you to the point of making an informed decision on your own. And if you’re here, if you’re reading this article, you should make a board game too. You have the brain and the interest and the care and capacity to do so. Even if you don’t want it published, or never want to pitch it. I think you’ll be shocked at how fun the entire process really is.

Whew. I know that’s a lot. And if you’re interested in learning more about the project, please comment below or email me! I’d love to get some early playtesters, especially if you have a strong opinion about civ games, either positively or negatively!

Next time I will go into further detail about the mechanics, the math we’ve done so far, Tom Lehmann, Mindbug, and maybe even touch on the pitfalls and spike traps of this theme.

Author

  • Bailey D

    Bailey is a long-time board gamer, short-time writer. She’s been playing board games all her life, “hobby” board games for a decade, and “crusty grognard cardboard war simulators” for the last two or three years. When she’s not obsessing over the next indie 18xx release, she can often be found refreshing online games stores and publishers’ sites for new releases. Her top games include Age of Steam, Power Grid, the COIN Series, and Camel Up.

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