by MATHIEU Rémi
Ancient Knowledge is my first creation, so it might be interesting for some to get an idea of the whole creative process behind this game. It took me six years to create this game, with ups and downs, disillusionment, and tears of joy.
I started playing modern board games about fifteen years ago. At the time, Puerto Rico, Agricola, and Twilight Struggle were battling it out for top spot in the BGG rankings — but it was Carcassonne that really launched me into this passion.
When I learned that BGG existed and that Carcassonne was only 45th in the world rankings, I bought and tested all the games in the top 20. It was a phenomenal blow.
It was at this point that the story of Ancient Knowledge really began. A game designer needs to be familiar with a large number of games to know what’s being done, what needs to be improved and what still needs to be invented.
I’ve always been fascinated and impressed by ancient civilizations and their ability to build with the very few means at their disposal. I wanted to write a book on the subject, but my girlfriend at the time told me, “Don’t write a book, it’s boring. Make a board game out of it!”
The idea for Ancient Knowledge was born.
A Leap into the Unknown
Creating a game from scratch is no easy task. You move shapes around in your head or on paper without really knowing what direction to take.
At the time, I had only one game in mind: Race for the Galaxy! With over 500 games played, it was my favorite board game. I couldn’t have been more impressed by the purity of its game-design: just cards, a few tokens, and great depth and replayability. This was exactly the kind of game I wanted to create.
Because I wanted every monument to exist and be visitable, I decided to take four types of constructions from our past that exist all over the planet: pyramids, cities, megaliths, and artifacts.
I’m a designer who needs to touch and move elements, so I first created fifteen blank cards of each type. After a few months, I came up with a playable prototype and began testing and creating the card deck. By now I’ve created and balanced over 120 cards.
The game worked, but it was very close to the Race for the Galaxy game system: a choice of simultaneous actions with a bonus for the one who chooses the action.
And it was a bit far-fetched: the megaliths produced energy that had to be transferred to the pyramids, the cities produced knowledge that had to be transferred to the knowledge cards, and the artifacts could stock cards under themselves (like Wingspan but before Wingspan).
It was at this point in the prototype that I was selected for an author competition in France: Paris est Ludique. I met a lot of publishers, but Matagot was the first to be interested and kept a prototype.
After much feedback from Matagot, one thing became clear: The game worked, but it wasn’t innovative enough. It used the same system as Race for the Galaxy, but without its purity of game design.
For a designer, it’s hard to get your first idea out of your head. After many more iterations, I was completely stuck. I couldn’t change anything without changing everything, so I decided to stop working on it.
I put the prototype aside for almost two years.
The Click: The Timeline System
I’d almost forgotten about Ancient Knowledge, but a friend I hadn’t seen in a long time asked me one day, “How’s your game coming along?”
I told him I’d stopped working on it, and his reply was scathing, “Are you going to finish one of your projects for once in your life?” I thank Nicolas for being so hard on me because just a few days later I had a flash in the shower: I imagined the monuments aging on a timeline…
Testing with my old prototype, I quickly realized that if you put cubes on the cards when they come into play, logic would dictate that you have to remove them when they reach the end of the line. I had just found the main mechanism — and unlike last time, the mechanism matched the theme.
A New Prototype in Two Weeks
As I’d already researched all the monuments, creating the cards was easy enough. Unlike the first version, I immediately decided not to create too large of a pool of cards. This would allow me to adjust the balancing with new cards in the future. It also left room for new power ideas. Of course, I left the same family division — megaliths, pyramids, cities, and artifacts — and it seemed natural to place the monuments on the timeline (since they age), with artifacts serving as a perpetual engine.
But before creating any cards, I had to establish the possible paths to victory.
Megaliths: I created them with two possible strategies. The first is to take lots of lost knowledge, but that lost knowledge gives different bonuses. The second is also to take lost knowledge, but this time with a way to remove it. I also wanted to make the rush strategy possible to play on the end-of-game timing.
Cities: The main strategy of cities is to build large monuments with a lot of knowledge on them to earn a lot of victory points.
Pyramids: The pyramids were to act as catalysts for many different strategies. They can help remove knowledge, obtain knowledge cards easily, move monuments on the timeline, etc.
Artifacts: These were designed as permanent engines. I tried to find powers that were each stronger than the next, with some guiding the strategy of an entire game.
The game is a card-driven game, and you have to follow the cards you draw, so I also created each type of monument to work with each other…
First Tests vs Myself
I think every designer goes through this: playing against oneself. It’s a bit crazy, but this step is necessary before presenting the game to real players. After many games against myself (I won every time!) and a few adjustments, I started playing it with other people. It was while playing against other people that I found the rule about being able to discard cards to place monuments in other locations on the timeline (in order to speed up or slow down their decline).
I was pleased with this version as it ticked all the boxes: simple rules, quick installation, only one resource, and lots of unique cards.
It was one of the most enjoyable creative periods. Every game brought new card ideas, and balancing the game was exciting because I had so many levers at my disposal on each card: change the abilities; increase the number of knowledge or the VP; change the location, etc.
When I got back in touch with the publishers I’d contacted with my first version, I was quickly promised a signature. It was Bad Taste Games, a small French publisher. I could have let them have my baby, but I knew the game had more potential than a French-only release. That’s when I got it into my head to self-publish the game.
I began searching for all the royalty-free images for each monument. I called town halls to obtain permission to use them and contacted archaeologists to use their photos. In my mind, all I needed to do was pay a graphic designer, and that was it.
But after talking to my agent (the Ludique team) about this idea, he promised to get me a meeting with IELLO. I’d never thought of showing them the prototype as I didn’t yet know they were working on an expert line.
IELLO Appointment and Tears of Joy
I went to IELLO’s offices with a knot in my stomach. I explained the rules a little shakily. However, I had learned a lesson from my previous meetings with other publishers: Never beat the publisher by many points.
So I gave advice to the testers, explaining the ins and outs during the game — and it worked! The game ended in a perfect tie: 44-44-44 — and as all three of us had gone for a totally different strategy, I’m sure this helped IELLO’s project managers to appreciate the game.
One month later, a project manager called to give me the good news: Ancient Knowledge was to be published by IELLO. When I hung up, I shouted at the top of my voice! Then I cried with joy for two consecutive hours. The tears wouldn’t stop.
After six years of work, I could release the pressure…
COVID and Development
Shortly afterwards, the COVID crisis hits. I quickly created a module on Tabletopia and created many cards with my best friend. We played over four hundred test games, gradually balancing each card.
Ancient Knowledge is not a game you can balance with an Excel spreadsheet. Most balancing is done by feel, game after game. Indeed, I’ve designed each card to be strong, with a variety of powers, and unfortunately hard mathematics is no use in these cases. I’ve balanced the game from the top.
It was around this time that I started receiving the first visuals of the monuments. This was an important part for me as I wanted the illustrations to be as faithful as possible. The project manager, Adrien Fenouillet, gave me the three roughs for each monument, and I gave my expertise and advice. It was a moment of intense joy as I saw my baby gradually take shape.
I think a lot of people underestimate all the work that goes on between the signing and release of a game. I’d like to thank the IELLO team for all their hard work, especially Adrien Fenouillet (project manager) and Vincent Mougenot (graphic designer).
Ancient Knowledge will hit the tables at SPIEL ’23. I’m proud that the game has been awarded with the Dice Tower seal of excellence, and I hope many people will enjoy my baby! It’s not for everyone for sure, but i hope you’ll try it.
I’m now working on the first expansion and thinking about the next!
Board games have changed my whole life: I’m now an internal game designer for IELLO, and I have the chance to create board games for a living…
Thanks for reading this diary, and take care!