In this first designer diary, Andrea Chiarvesio gives us some insight into the wildly popular Kingsburg.
What was the original inspiration for Kingsburg?
I was driving home from Lucca Games (the main Italian Con), and as usual I was pondering new ideas and similar thoughts. I was thinking about the last game I played: long, boring, totally random resource allocation and the opportunity for the other players to completely hose you, so that you almost watch them playing for 2 hours.
So I said to myself "There must be a way to design a resource allocation system dice based that is not totally random but allows you some degree of control on which resources you get, and where all players get some resource at every turn, no matter what." From this speculation, the main dice "influencing" system was born during the trip. The first thought was "I should be able to spend my points as I want, like currency", then I passed to "What if the dice result was similar to a hand of cards? I can have a lucky hand, but I still need to play well." I found it very silly that on forums I sometimes read things like "This game was clearly inspired by game X or Z" and those games were not even heard of at the time I was creating the main mechanic of what later become Kingsburg, and on the other hand nobody usually grasp the similarity with one of my preferred games War of the Ring, at least in the idea that dice are just like cards and you have to play with what you get.
At that point, I had a nice and original way to collect resources through dice rolling, but I obviously needed something to do with the collected resources. I have always been a fan of Civ games, so it seemed quite logical to add a system with buildings and their upgrades. Not too many, since I wanted the game to stay in the gateway category, so that I could play it with my not geek friends
Then came the setting. The first setting I actually thought was science fiction. You have the Galactic Senate to influence, and what become later provinces were ideal planets, totally independent and far away one from the other (this was perfect and coherent with my "avoid direct interaction between players" plan). It was just difficult to explain why planets far away had to face a simultaneous invasion.
So, my backup plan was (still with the Senate thing in my mind) late Roman Empire, with the players trying to defend the frontier, the boundary provinces, asking Rome for reinforcements.
At the end I was really undecided, so I made a first prototype in a generic fantasy world, mostly because I had a couple of fantasy themed card to use as the pictures of the first advisors.
Later on, the Italian publisher (Counter/Stratelibri) had seen the first prototype, and there were too many games with a late Roman theme coming out (Tribune, Constantinopole, etc…), and science fiction is not so popular in Italy, so we decided to stick with the fantasy theme. The name of the king, "Tritus", is a joke because the game is literally full of fantasy clichés ("Tritus" sounds like the Italian word for "well-worn"). This gave me the opportunity to put in the game many tributes to fantasy books or games I love: from the obvious A Game of Thrones tributes (enemies coming during winter, the jester being indeed one of the most powerful characters), to ones less evident, to Dragonlance books, etc…
How long did the entire process take, from your design concepts to the final product?
Since that evening (it was November 2005), I brought the prototype with me at some small Cons or just in my regular gaming nights. Immediately it pleased the players, also because at that time "eurogames with dices" was something almost unheard of (if not for the first one, Settlers of Catan).
When it was clear to me that the game needed a good balancing, I brought the prototype to my friend Luca, the balancing master. From that point further six months were necessary, and the game had still a couple of changes and additions (most important the "+2" tokens, which were Luca's creation). We signed the contract in December 2006 and another year was necessary to develop the graphics and to come to the final product, released at Essen 2007. So the whole process took almost 2 years overall.
What are you most pleased with about the game design?
The basic game is designed in a way that tries to keep the game interesting up to the last turn. I know some hardcore gamers may complain because a disastrous battle on year 4 or 5 can "steal" an almost certain victory, but what most gamers don't understand (silly, because casual gamers usually see it immediately) is that Kingsburg is essentially a risk management game, it's not just a resource management game where, once you have put together a stronger economic engine than anyone else you cannot lose. I am fully convinced that compared to other games where you obtain resources through dice rolling, Kingsburg is the one better balanced, where even low rolls keep you in the game, since there is plenty of compensation for bad luck in the game, something usually missing from other acclaimed dice-based games. Still, it’s a dice game, so some luck factor is involved of course, but you can always choose how to manage the risk in Kingsburg, you always have choices.
Another aspect I am really proud of is that the game is appealing to both casual gamers and the hardcore gamer. The hardcore gamers, if they will have the patience to wait and try the expansion will probably find a more "deterministic" and appealing game for them, too. And casual gamers and average gamers will find variety and lovely addictions in the expansion, too.
What can you tell us about the upcoming Kingsburg expansion?
I already anticipated something in my previous answer: the expansion is like your favorite restaurant menu.
Are you found of deterministic games? Soldier Tokens are there for you.
Do you find the basic game has not so many different strategies? Try the additional buildings and the alternate building lines.
Do you want a less repetitive game? Try the Destiny Cards.
Are you found of individual player powers? Governor cards will be there for you.
You can even put them all together and play the "Great Kingsburg", and it works!
Which pathway in Kingsburg do you feel is the most underrated?
I have heard many different theories about "this strategy is the strongest" that probably every game group plays differently. The most underrated actually may be the Farm + Merchant's Guild, at least I have this feeling. The –1 in battle (a penalty added to the Farms during development, until then by far the strongest building line of all) scares many players. I love to play with the Farms just to prove that with a good defense is not only as good as the other strategies but could prove to be stronger. But really, reading comments on the web, it seem that every group of players has its own theories about the game and the strategies. It would be funny to have them all meet in a massive Kingsburg tournament.
How do you change your strategy when playing with 3 players as opposed to 5 players?
I love to experiment with 3 players. In a 5-player game, the Market is almost mandatory, done with that I choose depending on what the others are doing. Usually if there is a "preferred strategy" in a gaming group, I try to do something different, just to demonstrate that the strategy they may believe is the best one may not be so, or at least that other strategies can have a fair chance of winning.
What is your favorite councillor on the board? Which councillor is overlooked the most?
How can I say that my favorite is not the Alchemist (#6)? After all, he just looks like my ugly older brother… well, I love the transmutation effect, so from a design point of view he really is my favorite. When it comes to playing, the two beautiful ladies (the Lady #12 and the Queen #17) are of course always winning choices (even for a date). Some players underrate #13, #14, and the Jester, that is probably the best councillor when it comes to the cost/award ratio. I like #14 because of the opportunity to build what I need when I need it. Some players do not realize if not after many games that Kingsburg is not that much about what to build (with 20 buildings and 15 construction opportunities you will end up making most of the buildings very often), but when to build.
What is your favorite story about Kingsburg?
I usually tell how the game had initially a science fiction theme, then an ancient Rome theme, and only later came the fantasy setting. Or about the meaning of the king's name. But I already wrote all of this earlier, so I am left without favorite stories… I can briefly write about my favorite Kingsburg experience:
IMHO, there is nothing better for me as a designer than teaching the game to casual players. Almost 90% of casual players seem to love the game and understanding the mechanics in 5 minutes. Kids love it, and female players too. Basic Kingsburg was designed as a gateway game, and should not be compared with gamers games…
Next week: JR and Jay interview Luca Iennaco, Andrea's "Balancing Master"