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Svarog's Den - Board Games

Designer Diary: Mandamina

by Peter Jürgensen

Scandinavian designIn 2019, I went to the toy fair in Nürnberg. I enjoy those fully stocked halls full of colorful stuff, I enjoy the evening events, and I also had some meetings with publishers lined up. Halfway through, I started to feel bad, went back to my Airbnb, and spent the next two or three days in a feverish delirium, sweating myself through a flu.

My parents invited me to come to their place for a week for recovering, and once I could travel again, I went.

The next morning during breakfast, we had a conversation regarding one of my nephews, who is diagnosed autistic among other things. While I am certainly not him, I tried to put in words how I imagined that the world looks from his perspective. I recalled how we walked through a park and he just fell over his own feet while there was absolutely nothing happening that could have stolen away his focus from walking.

Well, except for all those leaves, the sounds of a suburb, the sun breaking through branches and creating flickering lights in the eye, and all this extra-detailed dirt surrounding us. The more I looked, the more irritating and unpredictable things I found right there. Imagine that you see all the branches of a tree at the same time instead of the assembled tree. Of course you would stumble over your own feet; the filter just needs to slip for a split second.

On the other hand, I’ve seen my nephew operating Minecraft where the perceived input is predictable, and I can say he is very fast in the processing. I started to think that he just might have a way more granular perception than me, while also being good in putting all those scattered pieces of information together.

As I tried to put this interpretation of my nephew’s worldview into words for my parents, I had a sort of vision: a giant Go-style board that was filled with colorful stones all over, with all these stones relating to each other. A translation of being overwhelmed by information, projected onto a game board. Going forward, I spent the day trying to get a game out of this idea.

Around that time I was fascinated by “sorting things” as the main gameplay feature. I had been introduced to that idea by Hartmut Kommerell and his game Finito!. (To this day, I am still an avid player of Friedemann Friese‘s Finished! as well.) Sorting also made a lot of sense with my core idea since the scattered pieces from my vision needed to have meaning somehow, so why not sort them together by color after starting with a random distribution. Frankly, I also had no alternative plan of what do with the core idea.

In order to be able to sort the pieces, there needed to be a free spot as the necessary wiggle room for gameplay logic, as known, for example, from Solitaire. Otherwise, one would be limited to swapping the position of two pieces. With a free space, however, one could move any piece on the board onto the free space. Neatly, this does allow for an overwhelming possibility space if you attempt to think all options through.

To reduce the complexity to a humanly processable level, I decided for a relatively small board and found that 7×7 was a good number. I like the symmetrical look, and it has a good amount of pieces but not too many, and it is an unusual size. It has a well-defined middle spot since seven is odd. In order to have one space free, I would need either six groups of eight pieces, or eight groups of six pieces. (Because x^2 = ((x+1)(x-1))+1 where “x” is the grid size and “+1” is the missing free spot. Oddly enough, I remembered that mathematical detail from earlier in my life when I had developed some interest in prime factorization.)

In contrast, a me-design

Over the following days of my recovery, I tried both versions and found that the eight-piece groups were easier to wrestle with at first, but frequently caused the endgame to be absolutely horrendous since you are likely to lock yourself in by a bad decision in the beginning. The six-piece groups were a bit more tame, with fewer possible shapes, and the resulting eight groups interacted more with each other. Eventually, I decided that the eight groups of six pieces felt better. I also tried using diagonal connectivity for groups, but orthogonal adjacency was way more intuitive, and it also would mean that you are basically trying to build hexominoes.

After realizing that all puzzling and thinking becomes quite pointless if you just recall an easy-to-memorize end distribution from the beginning, it was clear that the game needed the additional rule of “do not repeat the same shape twice”. Otherwise any efficiency pressure would fall victim to a trivial geometrical pattern for which the play can easily be optimized. In other words, I needed to ensure that planning for the end state would happen during play, not before.

In hindsight, this new rule of “unique shapes” made the groups of six a pretty obvious choice since the 35 possible hexominoes have a more interesting possibility space than the 369 octominoes.

Back in Berlin, I showed the game to some fellow designers and received the feedback that they wanted to have a measure of whether they became better over time, i.e., they wanted points. At first I was reluctant to that idea because I did not feel the gameplay should be about score of any sort — but I gave in and there are nice benefits from the scoring system: It gives a measure people like, it introduces the possibility for a losing condition, and it allows the modeling of the “not the same shape” concept through an incentive instead of through an arbitrary rule.

Hence, my scoring system ended up giving positive points for every unique group. (In my original rules, the number would go as low as 3 points per unique group for expert play.) I added extra points for having the central spot free when the game is over — yes, OCD is an important thing to consider — and you deduct points based on the number of moves you take (to model the efficiency of play).

It seemed to me that the mood of the game and the strong symmetry of the board and the shapes would appeal to people who like things organized. For the prototype, this inspired the idea of using marbles that would fall into the right place on the board. Being a little overconfident in the pull of the game, I contacted Gerhards Spiel und Design and ordered custom wooden boards, which I populated with glass marbles from a specialized online shop. This resulted in a really beautiful prototype that seemed to be too costly to produce, but was very useful for pitching and for playing.

It also sounds nice…

One addition to the gameplay was the introduction of advanced game modes. These were based on the 35 possible hexominoes that I printed on transparent cards. The transparent cards were useful for explaining to new players what a group looks like and how many there are, as well as demonstrating how mirroring and rotating a group still counts as the same shape.

The modes I went with were simple: In the first one, you play with the same rules, but you draw three random shapes that you must include in the end distribution in order to win. (I spent quite some time looking for a combination that would not allow you to have six unique shapes while having the middle free, but I did not find any.) In the second version, you draw six random shapes, and you must not build any of them to avoid losing, which resulted in a true brainburner of a game. I felt these additions should prevent gamers from quickly coming to the conclusion that they had cracked how to play the game correctly.

It became clear that this game was strongest for two players. I do think the design offers a satisfying puzzle-solving experience when you’re alone — after all, you are basically building and optimizing polyominoes efficiently — but having two players playing adds a completely new dynamic to the game. Both players usually have different plans for how to proceed with the game. Even if both players “do the math”, they are likely to come up with different conclusions, both of which may be equally viable. For example, the next four turns will mathematically offer more than five million possibilities for how to go about them.

Players coming to different conclusions will happen only if the players do not talk about their plans, so that subsequently became a necessary cornerstone of the experience and the ruleset. With this communication limit in place, one needs to communicate and negotiate the proceedings solely through their actions, then later adjust to the obviously horrendous moves that one’s partner continues to play.

The game puts players in an almost meditative state of contemplating the possibility space of the game and keeping awareness for each other as it is simply not practical to find the optimal play through brute force. The puzzle gets deeper the closer you look, and an observer would see a board with randomly placed colorful marbles that carry a meaning to two silent players staring at it. I witnessed one game in which ten minutes of perfect silence was suddenly broken by one player yelling, “ARE YOU STUPID OR WHAT?” (The sentence has a more significant ring to it when hollered in German.) This outburst inspired me to promote and pitch the game under the placeholder name of “Marie Kondo’s Anger Management”.

While I was confident in the game, I was not confident whether any publisher would ever sign it. The game does have a strong table presence, but it is drop dead abstract and making it right might turn out to be expensive. To my surprise, it was not hard at all to find a publisher who was on board with the game and saw a raw potential in it, wanting to create something with great production value. I signed a contract in 2019 on my birthday with a projected release date of end of 2020.

Well, that did not work out.

The exact reasons are not important. A lot of games fall through for numerous reasons, get delayed for years, or are terminated. In the summer of 2021, [user=WuerfelUndZucker]Silke[/user], who owns one of the eleven wooden prototypes as well as the Würfel und Zucker board game café, showed the game to [user=ranita]Anita[/user], who runs the Austrian games agency White Castle, and Anita fell in love with the design. She really wanted to have it, which meant she would pitch the game to publishers for a share of the royalties in case she succeeded.

Since I had already signed a contract, I did not feel I should go around and pitch it to anyone else, but on the other hand the game was clearly not getting made. I approached the original publisher, and despite the game being almost a year overdue, there was neither a timeline for the release nor a timeline for when there would be a timeline. By the looks of things, it would take at least another two years until I could hope for a release, while the possibility of cancellation seemed real.

I pursued and struck a weird three-party deal between the original publisher, White Castle, and myself: White Castle would get the opportunity to pitch the game for one year, with SPIEL ’21 upcoming. If they succeeded with their pitching, they could sign a contract only if the game would be released by the end of 2023. This way, I could have my cake and eat it, too: I wouldn’t violate any of my agreements (in fact, I had the right to terminate my existing contract due to the game not being released on time), the game would get released earlier than with the original publisher, and if White Castle didn’t succeed, I still would have the old contract and the original publisher had more time to figure out their side after receiving a clear warning sign.

I will not make that joke here

The only problem with this construct was that it is a pretty bad deal to take for any publisher that might be interested in publishing the game. Releasing a game within 1.5 years is possible, but usually would not line up well with the planned-out slots and the overall business plan, especially if the game in question does not fit any pre-existing product line or box size and is costly to produce. Given that the game does not follow a well-introduced genre — “co-operative open-information abstract with limited communication” is not a thing I believe — it would appeal only to anyone who would like to take a risk.

Apparently Anita’s pitching was fruitful. She used the prototype from my sister, who thankfully let her borrow it for this purpose, but while the game was considered by a company that likes to do high-production value games, it fell through. The boss liked it, and their spouse liked it, but the editors did not like it and found it to “not have enough game in it”.

However, Anita also showed it to the Finnish publishing house Martinex, which publish board games under the brand Peliko. Their first reaction that I heard was this quote: “We especially like in this game that you do not have to talk” — which might be the most Finnish compliment ever.

After they tested my sister’s prototype internally, they had questions at first, but once it clicked, they wrote an email entirely in caps lock indicating their interest in the game. They did not only agree on the sporty release date; they even signed their contract before the calculation was finished. In other words, they committed to the game in an unusual manner.

Many tongues for a language independent game

For the product development, Martinex needed to crunch the costs down. Hence, the released version will have punched cardboard for the board instead of wood. The marbles got replaced with wood after their research showed that they do not like the ingredients that get put into marbles. They came up with the name “Mandamina”, which I believe is Malagasy for “arrange differently”, and they slightly adjusted the scoring mechanism. Sadly, they decided to cut the challenge cards — but hey, you can still make some yourself if you think they might suit you. The list of shapes can be found on Wikipedia under “Hexomino“.

Mandamina is being released in Scandinavia and France, and maybe, just maybe, there could be a future version as wooden as the prototype if it becomes an economic success.

Peter Jürgensen

And this is what Mandamina looks like now


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