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Svarog's Den - Board Games

Designer Diary: Nilo

by Guillem Coll

Game Concept

The seed of the game Nilo, which is due to be released at SPIEL ’23 by GDM Games, is one of those ideas you keep in your notebook until you find the right way to bring it to life. In this case, the desire to represent in a board game how water always seeks the lowest point stemmed from my memories of playing Minecraft when I was a teenager. This video game needs no introduction, but in a nutshell, Minecraft is a 3D world made up entirely of cubes. I was fascinated by releasing water from a high point and watching the paths it took as it descended towards the lowest point.

In fact, as I was writing this designer diary, I realized that the physical phenomena of the world around us often inspires my game designs. The desire to represent and capture these physical phenomena began with my first published game, Cazamanzanas, in which gravity plays a role in directing apples into your baskets. You achieve this by assembling structures that create a circuit for the apples to fall through, almost like a pachinko machine.

Returning to the concept of water, as I mentioned, the idea of portraying this phenomenon had been on my mind for a while, and I tried to implement it with various game mechanisms, but none of them convinced me entirely.

The first idea that came to mind was to create a terrain of tiles that could be stacked, forming a 3D environment. The main problem was that it reminded me too much of several games based on volcanic eruptions and lava flow, such as Carcata by Roberto Fraga.

Lava flows in Carcata

I believed that I should harness the positive aspects of water, which make it unlike lava. When lava flows onto a terrain, it typically results in destruction. In contrast, water can be beneficial, even when it floods you. I had to play with this duality…but how?

A few months after shelving the idea, I had a eureka moment regarding a mechanism that could be used to implement it. There was no need to stack tiles to create elevation; instead, each tile would have a marked height, and when it got flooded, it would be flipped. By doing this, tiles become active components since they not only come into play when you place them on the table, but they have a second role when they get flooded. This concept also added an element of uncertainty as the central map constantly changed, with no tile being safe, requiring players to continually assess the situation to control the flooding.

To explain how Nilo works, the tiles have two elements: a number indicating their height and three structures in your color or other players’ colors. These tiles are placed adjacent to the river, which causes floods, always starting from the active river tile, which is the last tile previously flooded. When a flooding condition is met, the active river tile moves to the adjacent tile with the lowest number, which then gets flooded and becomes the new active tile.

Three (or Four) Structures to Rule Them All

When I was designing the first version of the structures that would earn you points and control the tiles, I was clear that they had to reflect various ways of interacting with the river and how it grows and changes. All structures should benefit from being near the river (or near structures that require the river), although there’s always the danger of not controlling the risk correctly and ending up flooded.

Originally, the tiles had 1-3 structures on the dry land side, which could be in your color, your opponent’s color, or neutral. However, when they were flipped to the flooded side, all the structures disappeared, leaving only the ship. (The dry side already indicated which ship would be on the flooded side.)

Here’s summary of the structures:

• Ship: This one was easy; it gives you points if the tile gets flooded.

• Mill (which became the sphinx): For this structure, I wanted to incorporate a press-your-luck element. Originally, the mill scored points if it was adjacent to only two flooded tiles, but later it changed to earn a point for each flooded tile it touched, the more, the better. This change was due to several reasons, primarily because the transition to hexagonal tiles increased the points of contact between tiles, making it difficult to control the exact number of floods.

Additionally, this scoring system caused confusion among players as they had to keep track of a specific number of flooded connections, so removing this requirement relieved players of the extra burden. The goal was to force players to try to keep the river close to their mills to score more points, but with the risk that a miscalculation or flooding could lead to them losing the mill.

• Harbor (which became the obelisk): Originally, harbors scored points for each ship on the river adjacent to them, while also requiring you to place them near the water to score, albeit with the risk of flooding.

When the game transitioned to hexagonal tiles and expanded to allow up to four players, all tiles ended up having a ship, rendering this victory condition obsolete and too similar to the mill/sphinx. The harbor then changed to interact with the other structure, the mill/sphinx; each obelisk gave points for each adjacent sphinx, adding a new synergy.

• Watchtower: In the original two-player-only game, structures could be the color of either player or neutral (white). Neutral structures scored the same way as the players’ colored ones; for example, a neutral ship also earned points if its tile got flooded. At the end of the game, control of the neutral structures that scored points was determined by who had more adjacent watchtowers. In the final version for up to four players, neutral structures and the watchtowers disappeared, leaving only three types of structures.

Finding a River…

I conducted extensive research on rivers that historically had to change their course, and I gradually leaned towards setting the game in 14th-century Holland at the moment when they removed the dam, and the water began to flow again. The famous dikes (the height of the tiles) would serve as our guide for the river’s course. The name? The river that flows through Amsterdam: “Amstel”.

DAU Barcelona Contest and Editorial Contact

By late summer 2021, I had a well-defined game with the theme implemented. It was an strict two-player game with square tiles and fast-paced matches. I was pleased because it met one of the conditions I value most in a game: having few rules, but with enough depth and strategy to challenge your mind.

Around that time, the deadline for entering the DAU Verkami contest in Barcelona was approaching, and I thought it could be a good opportunity to show my prototype. It’s one of Spain’s most important prototype contests, with 167 games submitted that year. I had the luck and great honor that, after various deliberation phases, my game was chosen as the winner.

There, I had my first contact with Pak from GDM Games. A few months later, we signed the game and began the development process that eventually transformed “Amstel”, designed for two players with square tiles, into Nilo, a game for up to four players with hexagonal tiles.

GDM Games and the Evolution Towards Nilo

Under the guidance of GDM Games, the game has undergone a development process that has helped it grow, reconsidered the product, and refined its edges.

Theme

During the prototype process, we discovered that when the name “Amstel” was mentioned, the majority of people thought the game would be about beer due to the popularity of the brand of the same name.

Therefore, with the goal of making the essence of the game and its contents clear to the audience from the title alone, GDM proposed setting it in Egypt. Considering the game’s mechanisms, the theme was quite appropriate: the Nile River is especially known for its floods and inundations, which the local population used for agriculture. Thus, the theme helps reinforce the original idea of the game that floods don’t have to be bad as long as you can devise a strategy to control them, highlighting the duality of water.

Put an Hexagonal Tile in Your Life

Another significant aspect that changed during the game’s development process was the transition from square tiles in the prototype to hexagonal tiles. The testing and development team found that square tiles too often limited the options for interacting with the river since the active river tile always had one of its four sides already flooded (where the water had to flow), leaving only three spaces to place terrain tiles before the river would flood again.

Therefore, we considered the possibility of changing the tiles to hexagons, which expanded the range of possibilities and made the tiles more interconnected, giving the river more options for growth.

At this point, a significant problem arose. As mentioned earlier, all tiles had a unique number indicating the height of the dam. The game had only one placement condition: You could place a tile only if all the tiles adjacent to it were within ±10 points. In other words, number 12 could be adjacent to tiles from 2 to 22. This limited the players’ possibilities and allowed for control and restriction of certain areas, considering specific turns ahead.

However, it also led to some players taking longer to make their moves as they had to consider many more factors. With square tiles, this mechanism worked well because diagonals were not considered adjacent, so the restriction it imposed was limited. However, when playing with hexagonal tiles, we found that the river almost always grew in a straight line because the only space that was not limited by the tiles placed around the previous flood tile was the one that formed a straight line.

Less Is More

I spent several weeks stuck in the process of changing from square to hexagonal tiles without knowing how to solve the problem of the river growing in a straight line. All the solutions I could think of overly complicated the game and your decision-making process, increasing the downtime while waiting for an opponent to play.

I met with GDM’s development team to try the game with the new hexagonal tiles and discuss the approach we wanted to take. As soon as I arrived at the meeting and presented the issues I had encountered, they gave me the simplest solution that I hadn’t thought of applying: “Why don’t we try playing a game without the numeric restrictions of ±10?” Surprisingly, the game not only improved the issue of the straight line that I had encountered but also retained the depth, strategy, and decision making that I believed the restriction brought. It also significantly reduced the risk of downtime from players who got stuck during their turn. A win-win.

From the meeting, I learned that often designers and those who have been working on a game for a long time internalize certain mechanisms and parts of the game so much that they can overcomplicate the game because they find it challenging to gain perspective and realize that some parts they consider important and well-integrated can be removed without the game suffering.

Up to Four Players?

With the range of options opened up by hexagonal tiles, the number of players also adjusted, going from being exclusively a two-player game to being playable by 2-4 players. The transition was smoother and more organic, requiring no major adjustments. In the exclusive two-player version, there were structures of three colors:

• Blue and red: one color for each player.

• White: these were neutral; at the end of the game, it was determined which player controlled each neutral structure. There was one specific structure, the watchtower, that didn’t give points but served to exert power over the neutral structures.

With more players, we expanded the number of player colors to four so that each player would have their own color. Adding a fifth (neutral) color would have introduced too much information on the table and reduced the presence of each player’s structures on the board, so the neutral structures — and the specific structure, the tower, used to control them — were removed, leaving only three types of structures: ships, sphinxes, and obelisks.

Finally, it was necessary to populate the tiles with more structures so that everyone had their color represented on as many tiles as possible. Whereas tiles originally had 1-3 structures, in the final version, all tiles have three structures.

All Roads Lead to Rome or All Rivers Lead to Essen

I am very excited to present the game during the SPIEL ’23 fair with GDM Games in a multilingual edition (Spanish, English, German, and French). I am proud of the journey this game has taken and all the changes that have made it completely different from what it was initially. I believe you will find an easily accessible experience with a short manual and few rules, yet with depth and extensive decision-making that will challenge your thinking.

Thank you for reading — I’m really looking forward to your thoughts about Nilo.

Guillem Coll

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