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Svarog's Den - Board Games

Designers Diary: Terracotta Army, or Two Heads Are Better Than One

by Przemysław Fornal

By Adam Kwapiński

It is most interesting for a designer to try to do a game with a fellow creator. It is actually quite a paradox as the creative process is — by nature — an extremely individual thing. It is always a form one expresses themselves. That makes it something that at least should cause some problems when shared with another person. At the same time, though, it is the best way to develop one’s skills, to look at an established process from a different perspective and, last but not least, to design a game that we would not be able to design on our own.

I was attending a convention in Poland when Przemek came to me and asked if I could give his prototype a look. At that point, nothing indicated that we will end up doing a game together. At that time, I had already known him quite a long time, and our paths had crossed in both professional and private senses multiple times; let me just mention my book, Głowa pełna gier, that Przemek published in Poland (after having first talked me into writing it). Even though we had never had a chance to design together, we did play each other’s prototypes and gave feedback on them on a couple of occasions. It looked like one of those cases at first… [Editor’s note: Board&Dice has announced an English-language version of this book to be published under the title “Board Games on my Mind”, with a crowdfunding campaign starting at the end of May 2023. —WEM]

To be honest, I don’t know what impressed me so much about the first Terracotta Army prototype that Przemek showed me back then. The game didn’t really work — or maybe it did since we were able to play it, but it lacked any kind of reasonable action-selection system. At the same time, it contained many smaller and bigger things that truly impressed me — and it was so elegant!

I realize that players know me mostly thanks to large and elaborate titles whose rulebooks look like small books, but the truth is that for me, elegance is one of the most important aspects of a game. To be able to reach the maximal depth of play with relatively simple rules — to be honest, this first prototype of Terracotta Army had it, very visible and promising. At the same time, the game was deeply set in its theme, and that is another thing I really value in games, even in Euro ones. Drying clay, the idea of a mausoleum, where the players set their built figures. It all came together as a very interesting concept.

At this point, after playing it once we didn’t decide on co-designing. That came, quite naturally, a bit later. After this one play, the prototype couldn’t get out of my head. Instead of working on my own games, my brain would throw new ideas and solutions at me, on how to make a better game out of what I had seen — and because I already knew how corruptive it can be to hold such ideas in my head, I simply sat down and made a new prototype. I kept the general concept plus most of the mechanism of setting the figures in the mausoleum. I focused mainly on the action-selection system, added the dynamically moving inspectors, and somewhat sorted the resources appearing in the game.

When I had everything ready, we met with Przemek and played this hybrid of our work. Of course, the game still didn’t work…or at least it didn’t work as well as we both wanted it to, but at the same time it was clear that the potential for what Terracotta Army could become was much greater. It was also the moment of Przemek’s decision. I told him that either he could take my feedback and the prototype I made and use what he found suitable, or we can work on the game together as co-designers. What was the answer is not difficult to guess looking at the fact that the Terracotta Army box bears the names of us both.

Usually in the creative process, after the first creative spurt comes a moment of stagnation. The designer produces an incredible amount of ideas, turns them into a mediocre prototype, and is just running on fumes a bit — at least that’s how it works for me quite often. After this stage (if you are not amazingly lucky and the first version of the game doesn’t turn out to be something very close to what you wanted to create) comes this tedious process of making corrections. Very often you have to throw away quite large parts of the game and replace them with something completely new. Two steps back, one step forward. All of this makes for what is probably the most difficult moment for a designer. Instead of seeing the game progress, we see more things not working as intended, and we have the overwhelming feeling that we’re moving away from the finish line.

And that’s where the magic of creating a game with a second designer comes in, especially if you think about games in a somewhat similar way. Everyone’s stagnation comes at a different time, which means that usually, at least one person is still very enthusiastic about the project. What’s more, the exchange of thoughts leads to truly amazing outcomes, where someone’s idea, after being bounced off another person, becomes something completely different — very often better from the original concept.

(image: Marek)

This was the case with our action-selection mechanism. Przemek initially proposed a dice-based one, but more importantly it was set up on a big wheel — and just as the action mechanism itself was lame, not giving too interesting choices, the sight of the wheel itself was something that inspired me to create a version very similar to what we have in the game now. After several iterations and corrections, that was it! The action wheel provided fairly simple, but at the same time meaningful decisions. The player still had a maximum of twelve available actions from which to choose, so it wasn’t overwhelming and didn’t ruin the game’s elegance, but at the same time the fact that the actions could be dynamically changed by the players gave the game the necessary depth. It was basically the biggest leap in the creative process since I joined the project. After that, there were countless smaller tweaks, like adding a time axis, changing the round structure, etc., but once we added the action-selection mechanism to the mausoleum concept, everything else went pretty smoothly. Most importantly, we both had a very similar vision of the game, and we knew exactly what we wanted to do.

I don’t know exactly how long it took us to finish the project before we decided to show the game to publishers. Anyway, it’s hard to tell because we worked mainly remotely, and the game was being created as the Tabletop Simulator (TTS) version. There were moments when not much was happening, but there were also weeks when we spent hours, day after day, on the phone and in front of the computer screen, polishing our project. I do know, however, that I was constantly having a great time and, to my surprise, the passion for this title would not leave me for long — and even when that did finally happen, I always had Przemek on the other side, who could put me in the right mood and belief that what we do makes sense — all within one conversation.

Moreover, thanks to the fact that TA was created by the two of us, I found testing the game really satisfying, a feeling that usually disappears at some point for my own games. Here, and especially in two-player games, I had a true opponent on the other side, and I was able to play the game just like any other released title — enjoying it and trying to win with all means provided by the game.

There was one more pivotal moment in the development of Terracotta Army before the game found its final publisher. One of the few positive effects of the pandemic is the fact that our gaming and publishing community has “shrunk”. There is no need to drag the prototype to the other end of the world and try to snatch 15 minutes from the publisher at some fair to make them look at our creation. Thanks to this, we had the opportunity to present the game to Jamey Stegmeier, and although the game did not quite fit the publishing profile of Stonemeier Games, after only an hour of the presentation we received incredibly insightful and analytical feedback. I must admit that I am impressed to this day with how deeply Jamey understood what our game was and what we could do to make it even better without becoming something completely different. It was certainly this unique kind of feedback that really influenced the final shape of the game, and I am extremely grateful that we had the opportunity to present Terracotta Army to Jamey. I’ve always believed that at the end of the day, it should be all about bringing better games to the market, and indeed, Jamey’s contribution has definitely made our game better than it would have been without him.

It seems that without going into details that would probably bore readers, that’s all I can say about the process of creating Terracotta Army. Of course, after the game went to Board&Dice, they went through the next stages of development and got it prepared for the final release, but that’s a completely different story. And of course, you have to remember that this is only half the story; the other one belongs to Przemek and is certainly a bit different from mine. And just like Terracotta Army has been created as a result of combining our ideas and work, only the combination of our two perspectives can create the full story of the creation of this game.


By Przemysław Fornal

The Beginning

As a designer, I often hear the question, “Where do you get your ideas from?” The answer is quite simple: from broadly understood art and culture. The wider the scope of these fields, the better. For example, while visiting the Tate Modern recently, two contemporary paintings inspired me to design a spatial puzzle game. The inspiration was very similar when it comes to Terracotta Army.

Visiting the Terracotta Army exhibition a few years ago impressed me in more ways than I could have hoped for. I remember wondering at that moment why something so amazing is relatively so little known! Wanting to explore the subject more, I bought several books on Amazon.

Photography from the exhibition

The moment of reading and looking at those books was the actual beginning of the game design. History, customs, production, and technological processes provide ready-made solutions that can be used in full. As designers, we didn’t even have to wonder what resources should find their way into the game! Moreover, we can take advantage of their properties. Coming up with wet and dry clay in the game was not a special challenge because it is a natural feature of this material. There are more examples, but this one is very representative and shows what is the most important in transferring parts of the “real world” onto a game board.

The First Prototype

When I start designing a theme-based game, I’m trying to imagine the entire thing as the final product. What experience do I want to provide to the players, and what emotions should the game evoke? I try to choose the right mechanisms and solutions for my initial idea. The Terracotta Army game could have been, for example, about sculpting individual figures or could have told the story of the process of making individual parts, then baking, assembling, and painting them.

However, the mausoleum itself seemed to be a more interesting path. It is the scale and diversity of the army that impresses people all over the world. Having the goal of the game established, I proceeded to “encapsulate” the game with mechanisms. Worker placement and using aging cubes as workers seemed to be a natural idea. After making the first prototype, it was high time to test it.

As a rule, I don’t need players who’d give me any kind of proper feedback for the first test. With their help, however, I can check whether the game works at all and whether it makes sense to collect constructive comments. If the game works and I can see any elements that I am happy with, even to a small extent, I try to play it with my designer friends whose opinions I respect very much. Adam Kwapiński is most definitely one such designer. Adam’s feedback was very informative and inspiring at the same time. It looked a bit as if an art adept had come to Michelangelo. Having my batteries charged with positive energy, I started making corrections and implementing new mechanisms.

First prototype


I was so excited when I realized that from that point on we would be working on the project together! I knew that working alongside one of the best boardgame designers in the world could be an amazingly educational experience for me. Of course, there were several concerns, the biggest one being related to differences in temperaments and a possible discrepancy in the product vision. Fortunately, we shared an extremely convergent one. We knew what had to stay in the game and what could get rebuilt completely. Having that established at the very beginning of our co-operation eliminated the fear of possible misunderstandings.

The final prototype we showed publishers

We worked on the project for about three months, and it was extremely educational for me. The game, during its development, went through several iterations. We have tried a lot of ideas that didn’t make it to the final version. However, each change was like a much needed breath of fresh air and let us not get bored with the project. At this point, I could still describe some details of the creation of individual mechanisms, but for me, the overall message is that I will remember this project as a great joint game design journey, enriching my designer’s workshop forever.

If I were to advise anyone after having worked on this project, it would sound more or less like this:

• Expand your curiosity about art in general; stay open-minded and curious about the world!

• Don’t keep the idea of the game in your head for too long, just try to come up with the first prototype quickly.

• Two heads are indeed better than one, so try working with another designer — preferably one better than yourself!

(image: Mike Board Game BBQ)


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