Versailles — November 28, 1973
American publicist Eleanor Lambert and Versailles curator Gérald Van der Kemp hatched the idea for the Battle of Versailles to raise money to restore the famed palace. The event was a face-off between old-world French fashion designers and relative newcomers from the U.S.
The grand event, staged in November 1973 in the Royal Opera of Versailles where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette held their wedding festivities, would soon take on a life of its own: Liza Minnelli was scheduled to perform on behalf of the Americans, while ex-pat Josephine Baker — accompanied by burlesque dancers — would represent the French. More than 700 guests would make their way to the event, including Andy Warhol and Princess Grace.
This being fashion, there was considerable drama: The Parisian couturiers — who presented a two-hour show with elaborate sets that included a spaceship, a pumpkin-inspired coach, and a wooden Cadillac — regarded their competition as mere sportswear designers. The set designer for the United States calculated measurements in inches instead of centimeters, so the sets didn’t fit into the planned space and had to be scrapped at the last minute.
Each American designer was to submit eight women for consideration in the show — and designer Stephen Burrows’s final picks were all black models. The audience was equally impressed with the fresh, modern clothes, tossing their programs in the air at the end and erupting in applause. American style had its official coming-out party — and the black models, with their irrepressible energy and undeniable glamour, introduced a new standard of beauty to the runway.
In June 2022, after successfully publishing our game Take a Seat with Salt & Pepper Games, we received an intriguing proposal from the editor, Gonzalo Maldonado. He suggested creating a game based on the historical event of “The Battle of Versailles” that took place in 1973. Gonzalo had come across this event in a television series and was reading about it in a book. At first, we were hesitant and declined his idea twice, thinking it was a playful suggestion. However, Gonzalo’s persistence and genuine belief in the concept eventually persuaded us to give it serious consideration.
What intrigued us most about this challenge was the opportunity to explore new territory. Designing a game around a subject we were not familiar with posed an exciting prospect. Moreover, Gonzalo envisioned The Battle of Versailles as a card-driven game, a mechanism we had never explored before. This double challenge of diving into a new historical theme and embracing a novel gameplay mechanism piqued our interest and fueled our enthusiasm for the project.
The year 2023 marked the fiftieth anniversary of this event. With this milestone in mind, we saw it as an opportunity to create a game that not only provided an enjoyable gaming experience, but also conveyed the essence and importance of this iconic fashion event.
One of the first prototypes
In 1973, the historic fashion event known as “The Battle of Versailles” took place at the Palace of Versailles in France, leaving a lasting impact on the world of fashion. The event’s significance lay in the different conceptions of fashion between the American and French designers, the contrasting durations of their presentations, and the challenges faced by the American team during late-night rehearsals. When we embarked on developing The Battle of Versailles, our primary objective was to ensure that these pivotal elements became the main driving forces behind our game mechanisms from the beginning.
Our intention was to authentically capture the essence of this iconic fashion showdown by incorporating these significant aspects into the core pillars of the gameplay. By intertwining the contrasting fashion styles, the distinct show durations, and the struggles faced by the American team into the mechanisms, we aimed to deliver an immersive and engaging experience for players. Every decision made during gameplay should reflect the tensions and triumphs of that historical event, allowing players to relive the excitement and drama of it with each playthrough.
With the invaluable guidance of Susana Molina, our vision came to life. As a seasoned fashion expert, she shared insights into the cultural nuances and historical context of the event, enriching our understanding of the fashion industry during that era. Her expertise played a crucial role in shaping the game’s thematic elements, ensuring an authentic portrayal of this iconic fashion showdown in the game.
Working on a Card-Driven Game
Working on a card-driven game was an exciting challenge for us. We began our exploration by delving into games we were already familiar with, such as Twilight Struggle and Watergate. These games served as inspiration, especially Watergate, which provided a structural framework of atomic actions with significant decision-making potential. However, we were determined to add our personal touch to the game mechanisms.
Drawing from the tension elements present in 7 Wonders Duel, we sought to introduce parallel elements of tension in The Battle of Versailles. This approach allowed us to infuse the gameplay with strategic depth and anticipation, making each move critical and engaging for both players.
We aimed to evoke sensations similar to those of a real battle, staying true to its name. In our vision, we drew inspiration from historical conflicts like Germany’s invasion of Russia, in which one side begins with an advantage and must hold their ground while the other, possessing significant power and strength, strives to advance rapidly to secure victory in time. This dynamic created a thrilling and strategic experience in which players faced intense decisions and tension akin to the challenges of an actual battle on the gaming board.
Throughout the design process, we faced challenges and had to rely on trial and error. One crucial realization was that every event card needed to have a defining impact. We wanted players to feel the weight of their decisions, ensuring that each card played influenced the game’s narrative and direction significantly.
Furthermore, we wanted the abilities on the event cards to be impactful enough that the opposing player would think they were “broken” or overpowered at times. This added an exciting dynamic to the game in which players had to carefully assess and strategize to counter the potent effects of their opponent’s moves.
The game before the introduction of moving tiles
Working for Unbalance
Resolving the different durations of the fashion shows for each side was a thrilling challenge. To capture this aspect authentically, we wanted to create a real asymmetry in gameplay mechanisms. Players representing the United States play three cards, symbolizing the 36-minute duration of their show, while players representing France play five cards, representing the extended two hours and thirty minutes of their spectacle. This disparity in card play effectively reflects the distinct show durations, adding a strategic layer to the gameplay.
Initially, we considered reflecting the time difference between the French and American teams’ rehearsals, in which the French had ample time to practice and went first, while the Americans, unfortunately, had to rehearse in the late hours of the night after the French had finished. This mechanism also allowed players to strategically decide whether the United States would play a fourth card or not after rehearsing too late. However, although we found this thematic mechanism intriguing, after careful consideration and playtesting, we decided to streamline the gameplay and focus on other engaging and interactive mechanisms instead.
Addressing dress representation, we designed different prestige scoring mechanisms. American dresses offer substantial prestige points individually, emphasizing their importance. In contrast, French dresses are less impactful individually, but they provide higher accumulation potential. This approach captures the essence of French fashion’s reliance on multiple intricately designed dresses for a lasting impression, compared to the American focus on standout pieces.
Moreover, event cards played a vital role in enhancing historical context and thematic cohesion. Carefully selecting twelve events for each side, we ensured alignment with the fashion show competition’s overarching theme. These events create challenges and opportunities reminiscent of the historical event, enriching the gaming experience with thematic depth.
Additionally, we designed various actions in the game, including drawing cards, playing cards from either side, conducting fundraising, gaining prestige, and using designer abilities. Initially we defined turn order in playing those actions, but in order to enhance usability and clarify the action order in the prototype, we introduced movable tiles between the players, with a model character walking on top of the different tiles to indicate the actions being taken. Unintentionally, this decision led us to incorporate the bonus fight mechanism into each action; this allowed for a management aspect in which players could permanently modify the action order by moving the tiles. We are happy that a simple usability point was the base to enrich the gameplay, offering players more tactical options and adding variability of the dynamic to each playthrough.
We also designed the Versailles board to reflect the initial state of the palace under construction, filled with scaffolding and hidden tiles. As the game progresses, players gradually finance the reconstruction, revealing the familiar grandeur of the palace as they uncover the tiles. This gradual reveal provides a sense of accomplishment and a thematic journey as players witness the palace’s transformation. Additionally, we introduced one-time-use bonus tiles that players could uncover during the reconstruction process. These bonuses offer strategic advantages and enhance the confrontations, adding a tactical element in the game.
The first version of the runway
Development and Playtesting
As a team of two designers, the majority of playtesting was conducted between ourselves, allowing for rapid and intensive iteration. Each of us brought a different but valuable contribution: Eloi led the overall vision of the game’s cards, balancing their strength and gameplay arc, while Ferran focused on graphic design and usability, analyzing how the various mechanisms interacted with a lateral thinking approach to propose solutions.
We also enlisted the help of invaluable playtesters who confirmed what worked well from the outset, such as the asymmetry and the eagerness to try the other side. Additionally, they helped us identify and refine dominant strategies that required calibration. This playtesting process allowed us to fine-tune the gameplay, balance the mechanisms, and ensure that the game offers an immersive and strategically rewarding gaming experience.
During the playtesting process, one of the key aspects we addressed was the inclusion of early game ending conditions. We defined two common conditions for both factions: reaching 15 prestige points or filling all seven seats in the hall with celebrities from your side.
Additionally, we added a specific condition for each faction: leading the fundraising at the palace for French pride, and presenting dresses that incorporate the six stylistic innovations for the Americans. With these conditions in place, all the thematic mechanisms of the game are seamlessly interconnected, compelling players to carefully manage and not neglect any aspect to prevent their opponent from taking advantage.
Throughout the development process, we maintained regular checkpoints with the publisher to ensure that our game’s core concepts aligned with their vision for the product. This collaboration allowed us to confirm that the game’s major ideas resonated with their goals and objectives. Additionally, these checkpoints served for the publisher to share any specific aspects that may not have fully aligned with their vision, enabling us to make necessary adjustments and refinements to deliver a product that met their expectations.
In the final stages of development, we had the pleasure of collaborating with two talented individuals who brought our game to life in their respective roles. Malen Company, an illustrator with experience in the world of fashion magazines, provided her expertise to create a coherent yet surprising aesthetic for the board game. Her illustrations not only captured the essence of the Versailles fashion show, but also added a touch of elegance and beauty to the game, enhancing the overall player experience.
The runway with the final art
Additionally, João Duarte Silva achieved the ultimate goal for any graphic designer: designing the game to be so effective that it seamlessly blends into the overall experience. His thoughtful design choices and attention to detail ensured that the game elements were both functional and visually stunning, enhancing the game’s overall presentation without distracting from the gameplay.
The Palace of Versailles
Waiting for the Fashion Show
As we eagerly anticipate the release of The Battle of Versailles, we are filled with excitement and pride for the journey that led us here, drawing inspiration from the historic fashion event at the Palace of Versailles in 1973. The expertise of our team members, including Susana Molina, Malen Company, and João Duarte Silva, has enriched every aspect of the game, from its cultural nuances to stunning illustrations and seamless graphic design. A special thank to the publishers, Gonzalo Maldonado and Michael Sullivan, for their unwavering support and belief in the concept, their collaboration and trust in our vision.
We cannot wait to see players immerse themselves in the world of fashion, history, and strategy, reliving the excitement and creativity of this iconic event. Let’s celebrate history and fashion together as The Battle of Versailles graces gaming tables in 2023…
Eloi Pujadas and Ferran Renalias