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Designer Diary: Rats of Wistar

by Simone Luciani

Diary written by Danilo Sabia and Simone Luciani

Danilo: A few months after the release of Wendake in 2017, the same publisher asked me to think about a “family” game with the same action-selection mechanism as the “tris”, which was a distinctive feature of Wendake.

I already had an idea for a worker-placement game in which you never get the workers back, but instead move them from one area to another to optimize the action you want to perform at any moment. For the setting, I thought of creating a spin-off of Wendake (specifically, focusing on beavers), and I introduced a mechanism similar to Connect Four for building the dam. That’s how “The Beavers of Wendake” was born in 2018, a game for only two players with strong interaction in the dam’s construction, i.e., the Connect Four grid.

But during that same period, we had already started working on the Wendake expansion New Allies, so the beaver prototype ended up in the drawer. When the Anunnaki: Dawn of the Gods project was nearing completion, I uploaded this prototype to Tabletop Simulator and asked Simone Luciani to try it.

First draft of the idea of ​​workers moving to different areas

Personal board from the first prototype with “tris” action selection

Simone: When I tried the game, it was an intermediate version that worked quite well. The turns were fluid, the mechanism from Wendake led to interesting choices, but what intrigued me right away was the mechanism of workers moving between the areas. Being forced to combine actions and worker movements to maximize your results was a challenging and satisfying experience.

However, the rest of the game still seemed a bit rough, and it was a two-player game, so I proposed to Danilo that we reinvent it together.

Danilo: We immediately started working on the design, and since it had to become a game for up to four players, we removed Connect Four and transformed the dam construction, which now took place on a hexagonal map.

New hexagonal common board

Simone: The first steps during the development were to simplify the action-selection mechanism without changing its core and replace Connect Four with a hexagonal grid in which players built pieces of the dam. There was a scoring system that combined competitive and collaborative elements. Finally, I developed the cards from the initial prototype, wanting them to be a bit more structured.

New tiles for the action-selection mechanism

Danilo: Then, one day, Simone proposed a new setting inspired by the animated movie The Secret of NIMH. From there, except for a few elements (including the worker-placement mechanism), we practically started from scratch by combining mechanisms and setting, as well as introducing the exploration of the farm and the construction of inventions through the cards.

Simone: I’m not sure what mental association there is between beavers and The Secret of NIMH. It’s a movie I love very much, and while we were thinking about the beaver setting, which was perhaps a bit too light for a game that was becoming medium weight, I thought this new direction could work.

We worked a lot on the exploration system to create a narrative sense of “discovery” while also developing the cards, which now represented the inventions of intelligent rats. We created an initial set with many combos and icons, making it a challenging puzzle to fit all the elements together, and month after month, we developed new cards until we reached 180 cards, each different from the other.

From beavers to rats: evolution of the workers’ common board

From beavers to rats: how the cards have changed — and they have changed a lot!

Danilo: The game worked and convinced us, but during some tests, we noticed that for some players, the game created frustration due to a series of constraints caused mainly by the action selection of Connect Four and the lack of resource storage freedom, so we decided that we needed to make the action selection easier. After a brief attempt at a Great Western Trail-like path, we arrived at the current one, which is simple but has a new twist that adds depth to the game.

First sketch of the rondel action-selection mechanism…which had a short life

Simone: When we decided to embark on changing the central action-selection mechanism, I was a bit desperate. We had little time, and the change was significant. The first attempt failed and was abandoned after only a few tests — but the second attempt turned the design into a worker placement in which each space had two combined effects, and the pairing of the main and secondary actions changed from round to round.

From the very first tests, it seemed like a simple but truly convincing system. Many of the testers who tried it only in this version found this system to be one of the strengths! We stressed the game with numerous tests, with some balancing and refinements along the way, and in the end, we got a game that we really enjoy!

First prototype with nearly finished graphics

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