We finally managed to get together last night to play test the game. We forced ourselves to keep it simple and just test the small iteration we planned, rather than jump ahead into the new and shiny ideas we already have in development. Here are the key takeaways:
Problems with Cards
- Cards that ask you to bring a landscape region to an exact number of tiles are very difficult to achieve. (Mainly due to my bad tile set)
- We often had a hand of cards that were of no use. We ad libbed that you can skip your turn, toss your hand, and draw new cards.
- The cards were the only way to add followers to the map and it wasn’t happening very often.
- Cards that reward you with “Move 1 follower 1 space” is pointless if you don’t have any followers on the map, or more notably, if there’s no reason to ever move them!
- Having 3 cards in your hand with multiple rewards to choose from really kept our focus away from the map. We had a long discussion about this tug of war between the cards and the tiles. (more on this below)
- We didn’t care for the cards rewarding points. We think points should come from the map.
Problems with Tiles
- Everything hills can do, mountains can do better.
- There are too many terrain types (again), which makes placement less flexible or strategic.
- We weren’t awarding points (yet) for completing forests or mountain ranges, and without this core piece, your tile placement doesn’t matter. I think this is crucial DNA for a tile placement game and we can’t move forward without it. Rewarding players for making the artwork connect is good, right, and proper.
- We often had a tile that didn’t fit with the cards in our hand, so we ad libbed that you can skip your turn, place that tile on public offer, draw 2 tiles, discard one, and hopefully you get something you can work with. (A lot of these issues are due to the tile set not being flexible and the cards not relating to them in the right ways.)
- I was messing around sketching different shapes of tiles and tripped into a much cleaner look (without hills, more on this later).
- The bodies of water are the biggest obstacle to flexible tile placement, by far. They prevent A LOT of tiles from being placed near them. So we’re removing them entirely.
What can we learn from Carcassonne?
We spent a lot of time discussing our mutual desire to not just recreate Carcassonne-but-with-hexagons and the fear that we’re trending in that direction. We spent a little time thinking about the differences between the Carcassonne tiles and our tiles. The simplicity of the Carc tiles makes that game possible. There is a lot of visual clarity when I draw a Carc tile and scan the map looking for options on placement. The pattern recognition side of my brain kicks in and I start weighing the merits of one placement over another. That’s the headspace I want to be in with our game. Fjords does this a little, too, as you look for allowable spots first, and then try to identify ways you can manipulate the landscape to wall off your opponent.
I think what both games have in common is that with each tile placement, the player must decide in that moment if they want to commit with a worker or not. We weren’t doing this in our play test because your ability to place a worker was decided by whether you could resolve a card! The separation of worker placement from tile placement made the tile placement wholly contingent upon the cards in your hand, pushing the focus almost entirely to your hand of cards and not to the map you were building. Worse, the tile you drew might have nothing to do with the cards in your hand, making both sides pointless. The scale was tipped too far in the card direction. (That’s hard to articulate, I hope it makes sense).
Tile Placement + Worker Placement = Peanut Butter + Jelly
Maybe I drew a tile that doesn’t fit with what I was already working on.
Where else can I put this tile?
I can put it over there and mess up whatever you’re working on.
Or I can put it over here and commit another worker and start working on a second project.
I have choices right now and my choices are not dictated by my cards. My cards only offer bonuses if I make clever choices. I should be able to make clever choices on my turn with and without cards.
The Trouble with Tiles
Our tiles need to be simple enough that there’s almost always a choice that is within the player’s control on where that tile gets placed, and through that placement they are deciding what impact it has on the game.
Bodies of water were a huge obstacle. Hills are just extra. I’m ditching both of those.
The new tile terrain types will be:
- Rivers (the only attachment you must obey)
- Sacred Sites (sort of like Cloisters in Carcassonne for now).
The terrain shapes and quantities in the tile set are really important!
If you don’t have the right mix of landscape shapes in the right quantities, your chance of drawing a tile that has a high probability of fitting on the map in a place you want, is a total crap shoot.
I believe there are certain constraints on the shapes of tiles in Carcassonne and Fjords that encourage this sort of compatibility. You won’t always draw a perfectly fitting tile, and that’s okay. But you should seldom draw a tile you can’t do anything with.
For my tiles, I’m going to try reducing the number of edges with “things” on them to less than or equal to 3 most of the time. Certain shapes will be common and certain shapes will be rare. We will have a few unique tiles (temples, sacred sites) that are noticeably different, reminding players of their special rules.
Here are some sketches I made while exploring the shapes and styles. (please disregard the bodies of water, as they won’t be in the next version). I don’t have it all figured out yet, but this feels a lot closer to me.
New Shape of Play
- On your turn, you always PLACE A TILE and then choose 1 additional action:
- PLACE a follower on one of the specific terrain types shown on that tile
- MOVE one of your existing followers 1 space (but not across a river!)
- DRAW a card
- If your tile placement, follower placement, or follower movement resolves the condition on one or more of the cards in your hand, you may gain the rewards shown on those cards.
- Card conditions trigger when you complete a landscape feature or add/move a follower to a specific terrain type.
- Cards provide instant effects that primarily manipulate followers on the map:
- Providing additional movement right now
- Letting you swap the positions of 2 followers on the map right now
- Letting you remove an opponent’s follower from the map right now
- Giving you an extra turn right now
- Letting you add an additional follower to a specific terrain type or to any vacant tile right now
- At the end of your turn, draw 1 new tile and 1 new card.
- You earn points during the game for
- completing landscape areas
- completing sacred sites
- gaining control of a temple?
- removing opponent followers?
- You earn points at the end of the game for
- controlling temples
- the number of followers on the map
- your god’s scoring objective
- incomplete landscape areas you control?
There is no hand limit
You may keep drawing as many cards as you want, increasing your chances of finding a combo, but the longer you delay, the fewer followers you’ll have on the map. You can factor this into your strategy, amassing a big hand of cards for the late game stage in the hopes that you can trigger a lot of rewards allowing you additional map manipulations before endgame scoring.
Temples (formerly Ruins)
There are only 6 TEMPLE tiles in the bag. When you draw a TEMPLE tile, you place it on the map. You may NOT place one of your followers onto this tile. Since you cannot add a follower to the map this turn, you may choose to MOVE one of your existing followers toward this temple. This begins an on-going struggle to control the temple.
When you have at least 2 AND a majority of followers around a temple (2-0, 3-2, 4-2, etc), the temple is now under your control. As a reward, remove the token covering the Level 1 Power on your Player Board, unlocking your new ability for the rest of the game, and place that token onto the Temple. This indicates you have control over the temple. As your followers faith grows in strength, so does your influence over the world. Losing control of this temple later in the game will not remove your power, the newly controlling player simply places their player-colored-token on top of yours, indicating they have control now.
To unlock your 2nd, 3rd, and 4th powers, you will need to gain a majority around the other temples as they appear. You cannot regain control of the same temple to unlock your 2nd/3rd/4th power.
When a temple tile appears, all players shift their attention and it’s a sort of race to see who can get their next power first. How long do you struggle to maintain control over that temple, denying your opponent their god power? When do you return to reclaim it for endgame points? (Later, of course, when they aren’t looking and forgot all about it!).
Aside: We toyed around with alternate ways of constructing a temple and whether each god should have their own method special to them, or if players should follow the same pattern. We opted for the latter thinking it was too much to remember if everybody had their own approach. One version was if three followers made a triangle, you’d place the temple at the nexus. But no.
An earlier idea allowed each god to gain additional powers as they added followers to the map. It was a meeple-based progression. I love this concept, but the form factor had a few problems. There just isn’t a lot of room under a meeple to visually explain what each power is. Could I solve it a different way? Yes, but I didn’t want things to get too complicated.
We also had an idea that each god had their own 3 Legendary Actions, but by using these game-breaking powers, you uncover negative points. I still like this idea, but it’s extra for now.
Further, each god would have its own special scoring criteria (+1 point for each follower on the river at the end of the game).
I shifted things to be more about the construction of temples, where each temple is a sort of milestone that unlocks the next power. I’m happy with this direction because it connects what you’re doing on the map with what you’re able to do on your player board. As you do more on the map, you are empowered in new and interesting ways. I imagined chonky temple tokens with unique architecture for each god, but that’s a bit excessive. It did give me more room to explain what each power is, though. (Think of the text under the mechs in Scythe)
Each player will have 4 unique powers to unlock, providing them with interesting new abilities to manipulate the map, new methods for gaining points, and new strategies to gain dominance around temples.
Some examples of god powers off the top of our heads:
- Gain +1 point per follower on a specific terrain
- Your followers have additional movement speed (2 hexes per movement instead of 1)
- After each turn, draw 2 tiles, keep 1
- Gain extra points for controlling X-number of temples at the end of the game
- Your followers can push opponent followers out of a hex
- When you extend a forest/mountain/river, you may place a 2nd tile
- Draw an extra card each turn
- Your followers can travel the length of a mountain range / river segment / forest as 1 movement
- Place additional followers on specific tiles
- Your followers count double for temple majorities (a bit overpowered!)
- If your followers completely surround a single opponent follower, remove that follower from the game.
- Your followers can cross rivers.
Control over a temple will shift several times during the game as players move their followers and remove yours (changing which player token is on top, indicating control), all in a race to unlock the powers on their player boards. You will earn a bunch of points for each temple you control at the end of the game. There are 6 temples in the game and 4 powers per player, so not all powers will be unlocked in each game.
SACRED SITES operate like Cloisters mixed with Cathedrals in Carcassonne (for now).
In Carc, when you draw a cloister, you may place your worker on it. When you completely surround the cloister, you get the worker back and gain 1 point for tile (9 points). At the end of the game, incomplete cloisters still earn 1 point per tile.
A cathedral modifies a city to earn 3 points per tile only if the city is completed. If the city remains incomplete at the end of the game, it earns zero points instead of the regular 1 point per tile.
When you draw a Sacred Site, you place it on the map and you may claim it with one of your followers. That follower is stuck there forever! Think of them as hermits devoting themselves to a life of solitary worship. When the sacred site is completely surrounded AND that terrain type is completed, gain X points per tile in the connected/completed terrain type. It’s a big commitment, but if you can make it happen you’ll gain a lot of points. (I’m okay using Carcassonne as a crutch until this game can stand on its own two feet. We’ll probably change this to something more interesting at some point, but this will work for now while we focus on other areas of the game. We just wanted a different kind of thing to fight over or commit to.)
How do these changes resolve the issues?
- Your ability to earn points is tied to the map because you are in control of when and where you place followers. It’s up to you now, not the cards you randomly drew. Don’t screw it up!
- Your tile placement matters because you have followers on the map now. You are incentivized to complete those regions to gain points and regain your follower for later use. A limited supply of followers encourages a completion mindset and adds a risk/reward thought process when committing them.
- Cards are simpler to understand and provide instantaneous effects, which give you a little boost on a given turn. They require less of your focus and are positive side effects to things you’re already planning to do on the map, or worthy side quests to seek out.
- You no longer have the option to socket a card for an on-going buff effect. That got relegated to the unlockable god powers and is woven into controlling a temple. (I like when the mechanisms feed into the theme and there are reasons for things being connected.)
- Your followers on the map can move! …and this is the means by which you unlock your powers. This is a key differentiator from Carcassonne in my mind. With this one rule, you can abandon that forest, repurpose that follower to worship at the temple, gaining you the majority, unlocking your power, and now you get to place 2 tiles per turn for the rest of the game (just an example). On a future turn, you can move him back into the forest to resume that project, but he’s stuck on the map until he’s part of a region that gets completed.
- Your opponent’s followers can move, too! …so when you abandon that forest to go worship at the temple, there’s nothing stopping him from walking right in and claiming that forest for himself.
- All of this combined brings the map back as the focal point for strategic thinking. Cards become opportunistic side quests that can boost your momentum on a given turn. Finding the right balance here is key, because it should still feel satisfying to resolve multiple cards on a turn and feeling that sense of control over your followers on the map, moving them into position, unlocking new abilities, gaining points.
Where should I put this tile? If it can’t benefit me, how can it hurt my opponent?
Without workers on the map committing to projects, I have no targets to attack and I am not vulnerable to attack. We do not exist in this world. Workers committing to incomplete projects in the hopes of completing them to gain points is a key aspect to this conflict.
Should I place a worker or move a worker?
Maybe my tile couldn’t be placed near the temple, so instead of placing a worker, I’ll migrate one in the temple’s direction hoping to get there before my opponent does.
Should I skip all that and just draw an extra card?
You always draw a card at the end of your turn, so this way you’ll gain 2 cards this turn, which might give you something unexpected to think about with your next tile placement, leveraging the reward to gain extra actions on the map.
- Revise the cards (again). They’ll be simpler this go around.
- Keep Steve from getting distracted with a new idea and veering off course.
- Schedule the next play test.
- Revise the tiles (again). They’ll be simpler this go around. (Hmm…. curious trend).
- Remove hills and lakes.
- Add temples, sacred sites, and simpler terrain shapes.
- Create player boards with 4 unique powers on each.
- Make temple markers.
- Remember to take photos during the next play test so I have some visual context for these design diaries.
Questions for the Audience
- That was a lot. You okay?
- I think the biggest takeaway was related to the balance between cards and tiles. I want the map to be the focus of most of your thought and the arena in which you struggle for victory. We couldn’t find a way to have the focus be your hand of cards and still end up with a map that mattered. What are your thoughts on this? What do you think of our solution?