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Designer Diary: Kutná Hora: The City of Silver

by Ondřej Bystroň

Kutná Hora: The City of Silver is a historical city-building Eurogame for 2–4 players that features a real-life supply and demand experience in which every action you take has an impact on the game’s dynamic economic systems. The game is being published by Czech Games Edition, and it will debut at SPIEL ’23.

In this designer diary, Czech author Ondřej Bystroň (who co-designed the game with Petr Čáslava and Pavel Jarosch) shares the challenges and joys of working on his first published project.


“Why Don’t You Put It on the Table?”

The idea for a board game was kicking around in my head for a long time, but it took a while before I became serious about designing it. Occasionally, I took some notes or made a couple of sketches, then let it go after a while to pursue something else. However, even at this early stage, all of my thoughts were wrapped around medieval towns. I love medieval towns. I love to walk through them and read about them, and I particularly enjoy imagining how people lived back then.

Everything became more serious a couple of years ago. I believe it was my mom (and fellow gamer) who asked when we’d get to see the game I talked about on the table. That question came during a period when I was between two jobs. I had some spare time, so I took my notes and started designing.

I just didn’t know where to start. As many of you are aware, loving board games and designing them are two very different things — but I felt confident, and I had plenty of project management experience from leading creative teams. “How different can designing a game be”, I thought. I was a true “sweet summer child” — totally ignorant.

Art references and sketches of historic Kutná Hora architecture alongside one of the final building tiles in the game

Telling a Historical Story Through Board Games

All of my initial ideas centered around a nearby city in the Czech Republic. I wanted to share the story of Kutná Hora. As my first steps of game design, I read everything I could get my hands on about the city. For me, board games felt like a great medium for telling the story of Kutná Hora, and I wanted to have it be as real and historically accurate as possible.

A photograph of St. Barbara’s cathedral and the city of Kutná Hora as it stands today (photo by Josef Čáslava)

Based on my research, I was able to piece together what felt like a good baseline of a game concept. I spent months fleshing things out in my notes and on my computer, but in hindsight I realize I should have just gotten it to the table as soon as possible and invited people to try it out much earlier in the process. I was naïve.

When we finally played the game for the first time, it didn’t really work the way I planned. I discussed the prototype with my co-designer Pavel Jarosch and my wife Katya, made some changes, and we played it more — and it didn’t work again. Every “fix” we made created more bugs in the design. It was pretty broken. But after those initial games, we were hooked and wanted to create a great game. Pavel and I began to develop the game together. We created a bug list, tackled it point by point, and began looking for some outside help.

An early prototype of Kutná Hora

For example, when I was struggling to understand some details about the city’s history, I picked up the phone and called the museum in Kutná Hora. Much to my surprise, the lady I spoke with was extremely helpful. She was great about explaining important details to me and answering all my questions…and she wasn’t the only one.

Throughout the design process I was often helped by others who were kind enough to take a moment to share helpful insights, including many in the board game community. Lots of designers are sharing their learning and point of view on various podcasts, too. I’ve found that the board game industry as a whole is extremely friendly, which is something I’m grateful for. Our early playtesters were fantastic, and their enthusiasm gave us motivation to push forward.

It took us more than half a year to get to the point where we believed that we had a good game, but it was nowhere near complete just yet. Around this time, we connected with Czech board game designer and developer Petr Čáslava, who tested the game and politely showed us — all within his first turn — that our concept needed more refinement. We were at a crossroads.

Another old prototype, with this one showing some of the thematic and visual progress

Economy in Design

Soon it became clear that we needed to make hard decisions about which direction to take. Petr gave us many good ideas and recommendations, and I spent a month reflecting on the options in front of us. During that period, I played a lot of new games, took a lot of notes, and did a ton of reading.

And then it suddenly started to make sense. Kutná Hora is an economics game at heart, but the economy at that time was just a thin layer. I wanted to go deeper.

This was the moment when the idea for the dynamic supply and demand economy mechanism came to me. When the supply exceeds demand, prices go down, and when demand exceeds the supply, prices increase. The economy had to be built around silver ore and silver. It was, after all, a game about a medieval mining city.

From there, adding in bureaucracy was a logical next step. Historically, Kutná Hora was a major source of the king’s income, and the royalty soon understood that they must get a clear overview of how much silver was produced.

On the other side of that equation were the people. Nobody knows for sure how many people lived in medieval Kutná Hora, but estimates put it well above 20,000 inhabitants. From today’s perspective that’s not much, but in the 1200s that was the population of London. People need food to eat, buildings to live in, and places to have entertainment, so I decided the other branch of the game’s economy must be driven by the population and its needs.

The final design for one of the games two resource tracking systems. Here, we see the population increase by one, which adds demand and increases the value of wood and beer. However, in the third image a wood producing building is constructed, which fulfills some of the demand and reduces the wood value.

Across several weeks, I prepared four major versions. It felt like we were constantly testing, discussing, developing, preparing prototypes, and testing again. And it worked. The game changed in the ways we wanted. It became more serious, suddenly there were clearer decisions, and it was ever-changing.

That ever-changing element I liked a lot. The fact that the economy wasn’t fixed made the game more dynamic and always different with each play. I wanted more of that. Around that time, the idea of dynamic neighborhood pricing was born, with the cost to reserve a plot of land being determined by the highest adjacent neighboring building. Again, it was something that made good sense, thematically. When you want to build next to a church, the plot of land is going to be more expensive than if you are buying land next to smelly limekiln, for example. As much as this was realistic, it quite naturally led testers to build mostly in cheap neighborhoods. I didn’t like how the city looked.

A look at the final design of the city board and several city structures

The inspiration for a solution to this came again from reality. Kutná Hora is a real city, with real quarters. It was built in a certain order, which inspired me to implement neighborhood symbols that brought a new scoring layer to the game, a layer that introduces interesting decisions. Players now had to consider more carefully where to build. Yes, you can build the town hall next to the sawmill, and it’s going to be cheap. However, leaders of the town probably won’t be happy to work next to the noisy workshop. Because the symbols on those two buildings don’t align, you wouldn’t be scoring points at the end of the game from them if you built them next to one another.

A look at the visual evolution of some of the early prototype building artwork

Momentum and Changes

Throughout that time we kept consulting with Petr, and he kept providing ideas, direction, and challenges. The biggest challenge we ran into was the economic model itself. At that time in the game’s development cycle, the economy was represented by different bars and tokens. It wasn’t easy to operate, and it was hard to understand what the current price of different commodities was. Plus, the economic board was huge.

One of the first iterations of the dynamic economy tracking system

The idea to simplify the system into rotating wheels came quickly once I was able to identify the issue. This early solution was just a different expression of the same supply and demand system, brought from two-dimensional boards to moving wheels. However, it took some time to make it work outside of my head. Once it was done, it was possible to operate the economic side of the game easily and read the commodity prices on first look.

Everything was on the move around this time. My third kid was born; the game economy was moving, literally; and the newly developing Covid lockdowns were changing our reality from one day to another — but that was just the beginning.

An early implementation of the wheel version of the economic tracking system

After another visit with Petr, we decided to ask him to work with us on the game as a team member. At this point the game was already heavily influenced by him, and it felt natural for us to have him on board. Petr agreed and brought new energy into the development. As we all live in different places, we moved the development to a digital version. This was particularly fitting since this was during a period of Zoom meetings and long-distance co-operation for many people.

As much as we had a good core for the game, we weren’t there yet. We had invested lots of energy in the economic mechanisms, but other parts of the game felt underdeveloped and chaotic. The game, when pushed a bit harder, was breaking on multiple levels, so we continued the endless circle of testing, brainstorming, thinking, arguing, prototyping, and testing again. In a way it felt surreal. One of us would leave an idea on our Discord during the night, another would build on it during the day, and in the evening we’d be playesting.

It took us several more months of testing and countless updates, but the game was getting into the shape we wanted. My wife redrew the prototype completely. It was time to start with open testing and to talk to publishers.

A much prettier hand-illustrated version of the wheel prototype

That One Event That Changed It All

It was a Sunday afternoon, and we were in the car, leaving for a gaming event where Kutná Hora was tested heavily. There were a ton of people testing the game across the four-day event, and we got great feedback. We should have been happy, but we weren’t. What we didn’t like was the “loan” action — not that it wouldn’t work mechanically, but it was more that we didn’t like the emotion that players had when taking the loan.

Petr went straight to the point: “What if we cancel loans? People hate them.” Okay, but that doesn’t solve what to do when players run out of money. He suggested we let players take multiple incomes per round, whenever they want, as an action that would tie into the current market value of the resources they could generate.

Just like that, things clicked. I had gotten so used to the fact that income is something that normally comes at the end of the turn that I had closed myself into a small box. That solution was great! Need more money? Did beer just jump up in price, and you are able to produce plenty? Then trigger your income action and re-fill your coffers. Brilliant.

Kutná Hora being tested by some of the CGE development team during an internal testing event

We were not done yet. During the testing event, we also realized that end-of-turn scoring tends to get predictable. Players knew what is going to be scored when and adjusted their playstyle. That’s okay, of course, but our concern was that it would get boring after a while. We had a dynamic game that played differently each time, yet the end-of-turn scoring was predictable. That didn’t feel right.

“Why Don’t We Let Players Decide What and When to Score?”

After that, the idea of patricians came almost instantly. In the game, they are your relatives who are lobbying for your interest in the town hall. Are you mining a lot? Well, then you might want to influence town hall to better appreciate your efforts, but you must pay to get them to council. We liked that a lot. The medieval world was not too different from ours, and people were giving bribes in exchange for influence. Of course, to save their immortal souls, they later became beneficiaries of the church.

The final visual design for the patricians

What surprised us was the reaction of many players. They were not happy that scoring conditions could potentially be valid for all players. They wanted patricians to work exclusively for them. Some people had a mental block about activating a patrician and providing another player with points. We even got quite a bit of feedback that it doesn’t work and that we should scrap the idea.

I’m very happy that we didn’t. Patricians eventually became one of the key elements of the game, and they contributed strongly to the great replayability of Kutná Hora.

As much as we were happy with introducing patricians, we lost the St. Barbara cathedral in the process. From the early stages of the game, the cathedral’s construction was connected to end-of-turn scoring. We couldn’t lose the most iconic church in the city. We wanted to bring St. Barbara back, and our goal was to have it as a more active and important part of the game. This ended up being a change that was much appreciated by testers as the more active approach we took with St. Barbara opens alternative paths for players and tempting options to explore.

A look at the final card design for the action-selection cards

All those changes meant constant updates to the prototype. As much as we knew this was making the game more interesting, it was also making it more difficult to manipulate, so at the pinnacle of all the changes we introduced action cards.

What started as an attempt to improve the flow of gameplay and reduce cardboard elements turned out to be so much more than that. Action cards brought a totally new decision layer to the game and gave players much needed planning possibilities. Plus, the cards look great. I learned that when can possibly improve the experience for players, you have to go for it. It’s always going to improve the game on so many other levels that you can’t predict up front.

And that was it. We had a game we wanted, the game we imagined. We were ready. Right? Oh, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Working with CGE

When we made an agreement with CGE about publishing our game, they were quite busy. This was just before launching the Lost Ruins of Arnak: Expedition Leaders expansion (that later became super successful). Plus they were developing two games at the same time: Deal with the Devil and Starship Captains. They were literally buried under the work and not as focused on Kutná Hora at the time due to the busy production schedule. That changed after SPIEL ’22.

Right after SPIEL, more prototypes of Kutná Hora were produced and massive testing started — and with massive testing came massive feedback from every direction. And, of course, many comments contradicted one another. In the morning one tester reported that reputation is too weak only to, later that day, report that acquiring reputation is a clear winning strategy. Testers were trying to break the game on many levels and that generated a continuous stream of comments.

CGE team members brainstorm intensely during a design meeting

I must admit that this period was extremely confusing to me. I believed we had the game tested, that it was solid and great fun, yet there was a continuous flow of input. It took me a while to learn how to work within that structure, to sort out what was relevant, what was a good suggestion, and what was a personal preference. We, as authors, had long evening calls, then tested and adjusted on a daily basis. This heavy period took about three months. It was intensive and exhausting. However, what came out of it was good. We have confirmed all the core mechanisms and agreed that our focus should be on balancing some components.

I’ve always considered myself a spreadsheet fan, and the economy model was present in the game from day one. However, next came the real heavy calculation number crunching. Tests brought tons of data that was collected and analyzed. Necessary adjustments were made. I remember one testing event during which people were playing prototypes, having fun, and discovering the game…while Petr, Tomáš “Uhlík” Uhlíř (author of Under Falling Skies and one of CGE’s developers) and myself were closed in a room and doing adjustments based on the last analysis for twelve hours straight.

That was just one of many days like that. Our goal was to identify and adjust elements that were unbalanced. We were trying to find the sweet spot between having the game be edgy and be “fair” but slightly boring. You can imagine that people differ in their opinions over where that fine line is, and since the mechanisms are connected, each “small” change influenced the game on many other layers.

Those were hectic months for all of us. At the end, we all adjusted to one another and finished Kutná Hora. That was possible only because as much as we had different opinions and working methods, at the end of the day everyone related to the common goal: to deliver the best experience for players.

When Black Is Too Black

Even if you haven’t played a game before, it’s easy to develop an opinion on it based on its visual design. This was exactly what happened with Kutná Hora. To be honest, we as authors had different opinions on how the game should look. When Radek, our lead graphic designer from CGE, approached us with a request to give our suggestions for an artist, it took us some time to agree.

We wanted the look of the game to align with its mechanisms and overall mood. Easier said than done. What was clear, however, was that we wanted to use darker tones. The city was built on mines, and there was continuous smoke from smelters. We wanted a medieval Stahlstadt style visually. The idea was that the dark board gets lightened as the game progresses and as players start to build out mines or buildings. We wanted the game’s buildings to have strong colors and high contrasts. The game feels fast and creates unexpected situations and dramas. We wanted to have that expressed in the visual style — and as you might guess, that raised some eyebrows.

During CGE’s spring testing event, what started as a small conversation between a few people about the game’s board style turned out to be an event on its own. At one point there was the highest quantity of game designers per square meter in the known universe — Matůš, Mín, Tomáš, Adam, Vlaada — all of them around the table, each having their own opinion of how our game should look. It must have been quite a spectacle since many players interrupted their own games, came to our table, and listened to the conversation and had their own opinions, too, ideas quite different from what Petr and I wanted. The discussion expanded further into general aesthetical principles and color theory. It was one of those special “CGE moments”, but as with the majority of things, it turned out in a good way, and it was great to see how many people took a personal effort in delivering Kutná Hora the best possible way.

A close-up of some of the final RE-Wood components used in the finished game

What is great is that Radek really knows his job. He was keen on providing visual clues for players, having visually impaired people on top of his mind, while always keeping the overall direction in mind and creating a unique visual style for the game.

What Does It Take to Be Ready?

The biggest surprise? It takes lots of time. I was lucky that along the way so many people helped me on so many levels, yet the design and development took every free moment we had. Another surprise was how intensive design and development felt. It was like trying to run a marathon with a series of fast sprints. Whenever you catch a breath, it’s time for another burst.

Of course, it wouldn’t be possible without family and friends. My wife supported me the whole time. Without her, I wouldn’t have moved beyond the first prototype, and the same goes for my cousin Jiří and other early testers, who spent hours and hours playing raw early versions.

For me, it wouldn’t be possible without my co-designers. It was easy to build on each other’s ideas and lean on each other’s expertise.

The biggest learning experience, personally, was in realizing that the greatest source of inspiration comes from the real world. Whenever I was stuck and couldn’t find the solution, the easiest way forward was to look at how things worked in real medieval Kutná Hora. Once I understood that, it was easy to find the path forward.

Ondřej Bystroň

What the finished game looks like today after a long journey of iteration


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