“Dad, Dad, come quick! Look at what I built!” Paul called out.
My family and I were visiting my mom in the house where I grew up. Paul, the youngest of our three boys was playing with an old set of big wooden boxes and blocks, the kind that "they just don't make anymore". Not really true I suppose, but I had a fond memory of those blocks and I was happy to see him playing with them. He had just built a tower, taller than him, and he was very proud. It had a large base with multiple spires and as I stood there looking at his castle and his proud smile, I thought to myself that there must be a game in there somewhere.
Within the past year I had rediscovered games. Carcassonne was a favorite for my brother and me and a tile-based mechanic seemed the right choice for a game about building your own castle. I enjoyed the pattern-matching in Carcassonne and the way the city grew and evolved differently each time we played. In Carcassonne, this organic growth is a by-product of the gameplay as players strive to win points from tile-placement and meeple-placement. I decided early in the process that I wanted players to build their own individual castles and to be rewarded for making them large and beautiful. This second metric proved tricky to quantify. I considered a voting mechanism; however, while this can work well for light party games that are played in multiple rounds (Apples to Apples) it proved inadequate for a 20-30 minute game with a single voting session. Furthermore, I had yet to figure out exactly what patterns to match.
I tend to work out game designs in my head for a long time before starting a prototype. I usually start a Google Doc and record different thoughts and ideas and imagine how the game will play out in different ways. Castles started out in this manner and at some point I decided that the theme would involve some magic spell that went wrong and tore up a number of very different yet beautiful castles, requiring the players to rebuild their own castle using any pieces they could get their hands on. This would lend itself well to different artwork and a pattern-matching mechanism inspired by Carcassonne.
I was not sure how else the game would play. How would players obtain their tiles? What would trigger the end-game? But I had established the core of the game so I started making prototypes!
In Castles of Caladale, players build their own castle using tiles from three different themes, gray stone, tudor-style (also known as half-timber) and an organic tree structure. Players take turns selecting a tile from a group of nine face up tiles and place it in their castle. When all tiles have been used the game ends and players may rearrange their tiles as needed. Points are awarded based on the number of tiles in each castle and each castle's "completeness". In order to avoid negative points, you want to use "edge" tiles around the perimeter of the castle - these are tiles that show a natural end to the castle and have sky on the remaining portion of the tile (this was the metric I came up with to quantify a castles' beauty, and it worked really well).
It took many iterations to come up with the right balance and quantity of tile types, but I knew I was on to something. My three young boys and I had a great time drawing prototype tiles and laying them out into different castle patterns. It took several months for the gameplay to evolve into something like its current form and then several years to refine it, develop the art with an artist, attend conferences, and seek out publishers . . but more on all of that later. I had hit a wonderful milestone - I had a working game with rough components, rules, and most importantly, it was fun to play!
Next: finding and working with an artist
An email from a good friend arrived in my inbox in the summer of 2010.
"Dave, any chance you are up for the inaugural game of The Settlers of Catan this Thursday night?"
My response: “Sounds great Dan! I’m there! What’s Settlers of Catan?”
Dan had read an article in Wired magazine a few weeks prior and was inspired:
“Monopoly Killer: Perfect German Board Game Redefines Genre”
There were four of us that night, good friends equipped with beer, chips, and a big fat rule book that looked really daunting. None of us were gamers, but like a good host, Dan had studied the rules ahead of time and did his best to teach us all how to play. We had a blast and that night I was hooked.
The game stuck in my head for days afterwards and I started poking around the internet to see what else was out there. Over time I started discovering new games, both with the same group and also with my three young boys. As an engineer I have always loved creating and building things and solving complex puzzles and problems. Once I was introduced to modern games, it was only a matter of time before I started thinking about creating my own. How hard could it be?
Most designers will say their first ideas are just too complex. I was no exception.
Imagine an alien world, with a map broken into hexagons. Each player is a different species, slowly evolving, collecting resources, discovering new lands, attacking and dying, and struggling to stay alive and thrive, with political tracks, economic cycles, catastrophic environmental events, and . . .
Yup, I had "invented" the 4X game and a pretty complex one. After a few weeks (months?) went by of creating hex tiles, landscape maps, event cards, and who knows what else, I realized I was in way over my head. My creative side kept going though, with games and game ideas moving through my consciousness until one day, I got that spark I had been searching for.
Next: Spark of Inspiration!