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Svarog's Den - Board Games

Designer Diary: Art Society

by Dave Chircop

In December 2022 I went to PAXU for the first time. It was Mighty Boards‘ first U.S. appearance, us being from the little island of Malta (Europe). It was also one of my first times in the U.S. in general. There was a lot for me to absorb and learn, and a lot of memories: Philadelphia as a city, the food, the people, how U.S. fairs differ from European ones.

Two things I will never forget are the moment Mitch Wallace approached me and the smile I could feel creeping onto my face the first time I started playing what would become Art Society. I had flashes of images in my head of what the game could look like, what the game could feel like. I instantly loved what I saw.

I think our team really managed to execute on that vision thanks to Mark Casha’s art direction, Max Kosek’s graphics, and the excellent team of six illustrators who made this very art-heavy game happen. Most of all, I think we have managed to create a tactile, engaging, and satisfying experience that will hopefully give you just a little bit of what I felt the first time I played.

I’m going to pass the floor to Mitch, who will take us through his design process and how Art Society came to be. The game was pre-released at SPIEL Essen 23 and will hit retail stores in November 2023. —David Chircop, publisher

•••

Beginnings

I started designing board games in early 2018, and from my second prototype on, I focused on tile-placement games. At the time, games beget games. Art Society came from another game of mine — or at least the seed of it did because it is quite different from what that prototype was. Let’s get into it.

“Prototype T”

I have a tile-placement game of matching colors and shapes. In pursuit of a new game, I challenged myself and asked, “How would this work if you didn’t want anything to match?” I made a quick prototype and brought it to my local playtest group, Game Designers of North Carolina. The feedback was (1) more player interaction was needed and (2) the puzzle was really hard. Effectively the design was “3-D Sudoku”, a complicated Latin square. Each tile had multiple pieces of information, and the puzzle needed to be reduced. This was one week before Covid started.

Two versions later, the game has a rondel with new rules and the same artwork. The feedback then was that the tiles have more information on them than the game is asking for and it was distracting. That feedback was so right!

A few weeks/months(?) later, I brainstormed with my wife new settings that fit with the mechanism and goals of the game; the result was a salon wall gallery. I sketched on a sheet of paper how the game would work, and it was ready for me to tackle with a new prototype.

Fun twist: At this point in my board game design journey I was burnt out designing tile-placement games, so I stopped. For the next two years I worked on dice games, roll-and-writes, trick-taking games, and other card games. After that time away exploring other game styles and gaining design experience, I was ready to return to the “salon game”, refreshed.

Art Collectors

When I returned to my notes of the “salon wall game” and how it worked, two things occurred to me:

1) “Art Collectors”, to use my working title, was based around square tiles that fit nicely into each grid cell. All the images of salon walls I found in my research had paintings of different dimensions and sizes, which created beautiful visual rhythms and possibly interesting challenges for players. It would be a missed opportunity to not include that as an aspect of the subject matter into the game.

2) I was a different game designer than I was two years prior, so I disregarded my notes and started anew. If I were to design a spatial-puzzle game about a salon wall, how would it work? What should be in the game? More specifically:

• What’s the value of art?

Who am I to say? The players should figure it out, just like art buyers do in real life. At the time I was fascinated by games like Hats and Bites, games in which you collect a quantity of a suit but the value of the suit is determined by players and is unknown until game’s end.

The “one remaining from draft” mechanism was a good way to implement that in this game. That mechanism mixed with four resources to create interesting draft decisions for players. They must determine what is valuable to collect “now”, while also balancing what is shifting in the market. How the remaining tile affects the value of the categories of art would be the biggest design question to answer through testing.

• How do players acquire paintings?

With money at an auction since that fits the setting. A sealed bid auction allows the game to move along at a good clip. High card wins — or picks first. More money, more options. If you want to affect the market, bid low. (I say money in this section as at this time players bid with money cards. The paddle-shaped bid cards came later.)

• Why doesn’t a player collect all the most valuable paintings?

Because if paintings are adjacent to paintings of the same style, they won’t score. Society just doesn’t like that faux pas. This was becoming another game that employs the four-color theorem, which is great because there is a solid math backbone on which to rely.

• Does it matter where the art is placed?

Through the research I did on salon walls, I learned that art hung closer to the eyeline is considered more important. I had to get that in the game.

The above was some of my initial thinking towards the design challenge. It quickly became an art auction game mixed with a spatial puzzle. To stand out amongst the crowd, I wanted to focus the game’s setting in private galleries and collections as many games already take place in museums. To my surprise, I didn’t find any existing games that focus on hanging art on a wall in your house, so I thought it would be something that would resonate with people.

Paintings and the Gallery Wall

For the gallery wall, I started with a 9×9 square grid. It needed to feel big. I created a variety of dimensions and played in Adobe Illustrator. I realized most real world paintings are not based on square proportions, thus changing the gallery wall to a 9×14 rectangular grid. This also makes it so that players can’t rotate the art because art has an orientation. For asymmetrical play, the gallery became 10×14 so that there is no center column or row.

Grid 1 Concept

This game was “playing” like a polyomino game made of rectangles, so I removed the 1×1 tiles to be earned through gameplay to fill in the gaps, i.e., the circles in the diagram. How will they be earned?

A) The paintings could have frames that matched earn a player a 1×1.

B) The painting categories could be double-encoded with frames so that it would be easy to read which category the art is in, allowing the art to shine because the frame is the necessary information, e.g., a gold frame is always a portrait. If you complete a row or column using only one frame color, you receive a bonus. That sounds nice and easy, so let’s start there.

Prototype 1

The first internal and external tests went well. The game clocked at a good rate with clear changes for the next version. The 1×1 tiles were wildly unbalanced in how they were earned and valued, so I had to implement concept “A” above for the 1×1 tiles; I recreated all the prototype art to incorporate the picture frames into gameplay.

V1.2.1 – v1.8.2

For this next part, I’ve pulled out some aspects of the game and how they evolved from early stages to the pitched version:

• 1×1 tile / wall decor

In Version 1, the 1×1 tiles were paintings earned by completing rows and columns. The scores for paintings ballooned out of control for the player with the most 1×1 paintings, and the columns/rows were confusing for some players. After making the 1×1 tile only wall decor, the next discoveries were their value, their value in relation to the art, and what was the best way to earn them.

• Empty spaces at game’s end

Many polyomino tile games have penalties for not covering your substrate. In early versions of Art Society, this was explored — and failed remarkably. Many players would be within a close range of each other when scoring positive points, then fall back 10-20 spaces because of negative points earned for an uncompleted wall.

• The first painting and restrictions

In the beginning, players started with no paintings, and new paintings could be placed anywhere. Players needed more motivation from the start to care about the first auction as currently the puzzle was either too easy or players felt aimless.

• Bidding ties

The game’s first tie-breaker for bids was a set of ranked tiebreak cards that got passed around the table for tied players to resolve the order. This approach had been done before in other games, yet for some reason it caused a lot of confusion or fiddliness in “Art Collectors”; playtesters urged it be fixed. Many solutions were suggested, yet they all had their own flaws, so I looked for the easiest solution, which turned out to be the previously played bid.

• The change of painting values

The prestige values and how they moved on the track was the biggest focus for the design of the game. The prestige track was always going to move by what remained from the auction but by how much? And what determined its value? In the first version it was correlated to the lowest money played — wowzers.

Somewhere in the middle of testing, the painting type located highest on the track was valued the least. That was counterintuitive. The eureka moment was when I figured out the formula for the values of 3,4,5,6,7,8,and 9 tiles, creating a system that ensured the game had both volatility and limits.

PAXU

I attended PAXU in 2022 and spent most of my time in the Unpub room testing my games. This was the first time outside of my local group to test “Art Collectors”. The reaction was great. I answered a few rules questions, but it felt more like people were playing the game, not testing it.

For “Art Collectors”, much of the feedback beyond the gameplay was, “This game must look amazing. I really hope the published version has amazing art.” Only a handful of publishers consistently make the art and production of their games stellar, and Mighty Boards is one of them. When I met David on Sunday, he immediately picked up on the concept of “Art Collectors”. He shared his vision for the production, and it was in line with what I had in mind, so I could tell it would be a good partnership. He also wanted to change the name of the game.

A Late-Stage Insight

Whenever possible, I like to test my games with two extremes of people: those who will find strategies quickly and expose weaknesses of varying aspects, and those who play unexpectedly. The latter will show you where all your “clever” thinking is confusing or what happens when something totally breaks.

After the game was signed, on one occasion family and friends visited. Excited to hear the news of my game contract, they wanted to play. This play was enlightening. Previously, the most excess paintings anyone earned was one. This playthrough had four and two excess paintings with different players, which created an imbalance of play at the table between the players who did and did not have excess paintings. The key insight was to stop the game before the excess paintings get out of hand, so I added a third game-end trigger.

Current

Art Society is being shared at conventions, and I have seen photos of people playing. It is an incredible feeling to see it on the table and hear some of the initial reactions. Mighty Boards did an amazing job with the art and production. I am pleased to share the design process with you, and I can’t wait for more people to play it.

Mitch Wallace

•••

David here again! We’d like to finish off with a small showcase of some of the art and components of Art Society. When you see it in person, it really does make an impression…

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