by Nick Murray
If an old game has a user rating of 6.5 on BGG, is it even worth reprinting?
Many publishers would likely (and justifiably) say no. Why bother fighting an uphill battle of convincing today’s gamers that such a design is fresh and exciting when there are higher-rated classics or entirely new concepts that don’t come with potential baggage? On the other hand, some publishers have built their entire company on this challenge and been very successful at it. Just look at Restoration Games, which has taken Top Race (6.8, 1996) and turned it into Downforce (7.2, 2017) or Buried Treasure (6.0, 1992) and turned it into Berried Treasure (7.0, 2021) or Dark Tower (6.9. 1981) and turned it into Return to Dark Tower (8.6, 2022). Of course, Restoration seems to have a keen eye for selecting nostalgic titles of the past and preserving that nostalgia as they work their development magic to modernize the mechanisms.
But the thing is that these nostalgic games are generally highly thematic. Do dry, old-school, German-style Eurogames carry the same level of nostalgia? Probably not. To me, marketable nostalgia requires a combination of vivid memories, settings, and sensations, and thus pure mechanisms are a tough sell from the sentimental approach.
On top of that, some hobbyists won’t even bother touching games that are rated below a 7 on BGG. Why should they when so many other options are statistically more likely to satisfy their gaming groups? Of course, those of us who are willing and able to put in the extra research, time, and risk will often find “hidden gems” that become favorites in our collection. For me, these include games such as Stephenson’s Rocket (6.9, 1999), Condottiere (6.9, 1995), Orongo (6.7, 2014), Municipium (6.7, 2008), and more.
The way I look at games that are rated below 7 on BGG is not so much that these titles are “sub-par” or “okay at best”. Rather, this tells me that a game really works for a lot of folks (fans who rate it 7, 8, 9 or 10), yet for one or more reasons there is a decent chance that it may not work for everyone (those who rate it 5 or lower). But if a sub-7 title presents a mechanism or theme from a creator I love, then perhaps it’ll be right up my alley!
So as a publisher, when analyzing and reimplementing a game that falls in this range, this presents an opportunity for evolution. As we’ve seen recently, a legendary and universally acclaimed game like Ra (7.5, 1999) merely needs a great new coat of paint and some thoughtful production decisions to soar in today’s tabletop crowdfunding landscape. On the other hand, a cult-classic such as Quo Vadis? (6.5, 1991) probably needs a little something more.
A couple years back, I found that my appreciation for tabletop gaming was growing exponentially. Part of this was thanks to the fact that I was honing my tastes and preferences and finding plenty of thrilling designs (new and old) to feed my focused appetite. Two key preferences included Reiner Knizia‘s design style — that of simple rules, elegant gameplay, layered strategies, tense decisions, and emergent interactions — as well as negotiation games. So it was only natural that I soon sought out a used copy of the out-of-print game Quo Vadis?, the design that fans point to as Knizia’s preeminent take on negotiation.
Despite it appearing as perhaps the world’s driest board game, my first play of Quo Vadis? was everything I could have hoped for. The competing incentives of racing to the inner sanctum (so your points actually matter) before you are blocked out versus hanging back to wheel and deal with your opponents to earn laurels (points) presented a dramatic, tense urgency within a satisfyingly quick (45-minute) romp.
In this game of Roman elections, players are aiming to advance their Senator pawns up through political committees of various sizes by convincing their opponents to vote them onward through the use of bribes, deals, and promises. The winner will be the player who gets at least one of their Senators into the inner sanctum and earns the most laurels along the way. In classic Knizian fashion, the challenge here is about playing your opponents just as much as you are playing the board. It was obvious that when this little box hit the table, it would consistently pack a punch…but that was perhaps the hardest part — getting something so beige to the table when so many vivid boxes on my shelf could excite my gaming groups more easily.
On top of that, this thirty-year-old design seemed to have developed a bit of an identity crisis over the course of its several reprintings. Variants within the rulebook and online were like an overwhelming — even paralyzing — sprawl of menu options. All I wanted to know is what is the best way to play Quo Vadis? With public points or secret points? As a three-act game or one quick round? With a laurel supply quantity tailored to the player count, or with everything always available? With or without the special disks from the Mayfair Edition?
That last variant in particular, the special disks, is especially notable because I included it in my second play of Quo Vadis? when I introduced the design to a different group of gaming friends. Fortunately, they all seemed to enjoy the game. As for me, I found that I strongly disliked this variant. While the special disks appear to add excitement — presenting players with an additional action option of drawing an exciting ability such as gaining a bonus vote or canceling an opponent’s vote or more — I found that they actually detracted from what made Quo Vadis? shine: the reliance on your opponents and the negotiations that naturally emerge from this reliance.
Quo Vadis? is not the only victim of such decades-long tinkering and dilution. On the one hand, these many variants represent a legacy of ideas, creativity, and passion from fans and publishers alike. On the other, they can be off-putting to newcomers who don’t want to invest so much energy in eliciting the “ideal” way to play. As a publisher who desired to shepherd Quo Vadis? into the modern tabletop gaming industry, the main challenge was in seeing through the weeds and truly understanding Quo Vadis? — What makes this design special? What do raving fans love about it? Where and why doesn’t it click for those who played it and rated it below 7? How can we adapt it to a modern audience and help it to reach its full potential?
To answer these questions, I turned to a fundamental tool that is used within the world of business. Although I don’t remember everything I was taught while pursuing my bachelor’s degree in business administration, at least one principle that has stuck with me is the SWOT Analysis. It’s funny…I always thought that I’d primarily be applying my business education to managing a dental practice — yes, our publishing company is called Bitewing Games because it was started by two dentists: myself and Kyle — but I’ve actually found myself putting this experience to use far more frequently as a designer, publisher, and developer of board games.
The SWOT Analysis is typically used by companies to evaluate their brand or a specific product within its market. It’s a way to analyze and understand the internal Strengths and Weaknesses of the subject as well as the external Opportunities and Threats in its industry. For Bitewing Games, I’ve found that it is perhaps our best tool in evaluating, developing, and marketing our games. This is a topic that I discussed more thoroughly on the Board Game Design Lab Podcast in June 2021.
While a SWOT Analysis works for every project we’ve taken on, the nice thing about doing it on a game like Quo Vadis? is that we have over thirty years of data (primarily from BoardGameGeek’s database) from which to study and learn, so I did what any sane person would do and consumed it — all of it. I combed through the 800 comments, clicked through the 106 forums, soaked in the dozens of reviews, explored the countless ideas and discussions, collected the numerical data, and presented my findings to the legend himself, Dr. Reiner Knizia. By using the SWOT Analysis, we were able to maintain a focused perspective and condense all of this information into something more clear and actionable. Importantly, I restricted this analysis summary to a single slide:
This slide gave us an overhead view of where Quo Vadis? was at as well as where we should take it. Naturally, our main focus was on the weaknesses and opportunities of the game which we dove into further..
Let’s skip to the second bullet point and start with the “dry” look and theme. One pattern that stood out to me while perusing the comments on Quo Vadis? was that many players (including myself) found the presentation to be bone dry. This is even considering the fact that Roman Senatorial politicking is in many ways the perfect fit for the mechanisms of Quo Vadis?. The problem is not within the pairing of the design and theme; rather it is within the presentation and crowdfunding appeal of such a game.
So how do we moisten up this good old game in a way that attracts newcomers, yet doesn’t ruffle the feathers of long-time fans? Well, the answer is simple: That’s not possible. As we’ve seen in recent examples such as Libertalia -> Libertalia: Winds of Galecrest or Colossal Arena -> Equinox and so many more, a change in theme or presentation is always going to lead to polarizing opinions. While I wish we could satisfy everyone, we ultimately have to follow the most logical branches on the decision tree. And as we all know, that naturally leads to one crowning answer. Indeed, this is the answer to the great mysteries of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The answer? Anthropomorphic animals.
All right, I apologize for trolling the naysayers. To you fine folks, please give me these following paragraphs to explain our decision. Our priorities as a publisher are the following:
1. To publish a game with a theme and presentation that offers the most hooks to the largest number of backers (so the game can successfully fund and actually reach your table with the best quality possible). I’m sorry, but plain old Roman Senators just don’t typically stand out in the crowded field of crowdfunding.
2. To design the box and components in a way that lowers the barriers to entry and increases your likelihood of getting it to the table. I’d say there’s roughly a 99% chance that if I pull Quo Vadis? and any other game off my shelf and let newcomers pick one to play based on their boxes, they will choose the other game. So next time you pull a gorgeous box with a vivid theme off your shelf and players go “Oooooo!” don’t forget how easy it was to get people excited about playing it.
Now to be clear, I was being cheeky earlier. I’m absolutely not saying that all themes should be anthropomorphized, and I can empathize with the exhaustion that comes from too many animals or too many zombies or too much Cthulhu in our hobby, but I can assure you that Zoo Vadis wasn’t born from the desire to shoehorn animals into the art. Rather, the solution to my above priorities (while maintaining a theme that was true to the gameplay) was in essence a zoo in which the zoo animals run the zoo like a civilized Roman government. You have exhibits where species coexist and campaign their way up to the star exhibit. You have laurels being earned from raving fans (visitors) and envious rivals. You have a zookeeper (the Caesar token in the original game) who lets animals advance freely. You have glorious political zoo artwork by Kwanchai Moriya and Brigette Indelicato. This setting even fits the other gameplay changes better than the original Roman Senator theme would have (more on that later).
Some early concept art and a mood board of the zoo map — Kwanchai studied retro zoo maps as inspiration and had the brilliant idea of making the game board an actual zoo map that sits atop a table and is surrounded by objects
Work-in-progress game board
A near-final version of the map
Animal concept art
Box cover concept art — we wanted the animal factions and their political ideologies to be the focal point of Zoo Vadis, yet as you can see, Kwanchai and Brigette worked hard to preserve the Roman roots of the game in its graphic design and zoo architecture
Final box cover
The next issue was blatantly obvious from an analysis of the data. Quo Vadis? has the capacity for 3-5 players, which is a narrow count to begin with, yet most players felt like it was essentially a 4-5 player game. If you want your publication to have legs, then you need to make it easy for players to get it to the table and have an enjoyable session. This narrow player count is an even bigger issue when comparable negotiation games such as Bohnanza will satisfy its participants from three all the way up to seven players.
So how do you address that in a pure design like Quo Vadis? I certainly had some ideas…
Credit where credit is due: The idea of a neutral figure to improve the three-player game came to me as a result of my recent plays of the then newly released Renature by Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer. One of my favorite aspects of Renature is the neutral plant color that players can use in absolutely savage ways to negate the area influence of opponents — and if neutral figures can help improve the lower player count experience of an area majority game, perhaps it could do the same for a negotiation game…
As for the 6-7 player possibility of Quo Vadis?, my thinking was as follows: If you look at the recommended player count stats like a bell curve, Quo Vadis? is less of a curve and more of a ramp up toward higher player counts that drops off a cliff after five (because that’s all the game supports). If this is (currently) the kind of game that has a “the more the merrier” vibe to it, then perhaps a game board that supports 6-7 players could work just as well (if not better).
My ideas sounded great in theory, but ideas are worth nothing in game design if they aren’t properly implemented. Fortunately I had one of the world’s greatest problem solvers ready and eager to conjure an answer. The heavy lifting of these changes came from the design, development, and playtesting all done by Knizia and his testers. What he eventually came back with was even better than I had expected. (Note: This pattern of Reiner, Kwanchai, and Brigette exceeding expectations continues through every aspect of their work on Zoo Vadis.)
Here is what Reiner wrote to me via email when he first introduced me to the changed rules. (Note: While this communication was meant to be a private conversation between designer and publisher, Reiner has granted me permission to share these quotes in this publisher diary.)
1. We now have a second board for 6 and 7 players. This plays very well!
We decided to stay as close to the original design as possible, which helps the orientation when playing with varying player numbers.
2. I wanted to enhance the 3-player-game (and the 4-player-game) in a natural way, without the introduction of awkward special rules. We finally found the solution in the [neutral] figures which we now use for all player numbers. By varying the number of [neutral figures] in the game, the tightness of the board can nicely be adjusted to the different player numbers.
In addition to bribing the “neutral” [figures] for votes, the [neutral figures] also introduce a nice play option: you may move a [neutral] figure instead of an own figure, even into the [Star Exhibit], to obstruct other players.
I can’t help but laugh in noticing that Reiner calls the opportunity to “obstruct other players”, i.e. brutally block someone from even qualifying for victory, a “nice play option”. It warms my heart to see him stay true to his cold-blooded design tendencies.
Anyway, you’ll notice that this modified prototype from Reiner features a double-sided board (depending on player count) that elegantly keeps a similar structure (as he noted) while displaying start spaces for the neutral figures to be placed (also depending on player count). Thrilling changes, indeed!
The 6-7 player game board
The neutral figures are introduced in Zoo Vadis as a fourth action option where you can choose to advance one to the next enclosure (no majority vote needed!) and earn 1 laurel in doing so. Furthermore, you can bribe these figures with a single laurel token (worth 2 points or better) to gain a vote if they are in your enclosure and you desperately need the majority support. Perhaps my favorite aspect is that they can also be used savagely to clog an exhibit or even block a player from entering the Star Exhibit!
While deciding which animal the neutral figures should be, my wife, Camille, brilliantly suggested peacocks as an option. If you’ve been to a few zoos, then you’ve likely encountered roaming peacocks who strut up and down visitor paths or in and out of various enclosures as if they own the place. The fact that peacocks can be your greatest ally or your worst nightmare according to the bribes and whims of players is a concept that delights me to no end.
After playing and witnessing three-, four-, five-, six-, and seven-player games of Zoo Vadis, I’m ecstatic to find that all counts are a blast. While I’m generally very sensitive to “optimal” player counts in games I play — I’ll actively avoid playing games I love if it’s not within my preferred player count — Zoo Vadis is one that I would happily at the entire range of 3-7 players thanks to the new game boards, roaming peacocks, and asymmetric animal abilities.
But before we get into the the animal abilities, let’s look at what led us to them. Of all the 800 comments of user reviews that I read on the Quo Vadis? BGG page, there was one that stood out to me the most:
Now many Kniziaphiles (myself included) tend to roll our eyes when anyone suggests that a Knizia design is too simple or needs more depth or complexity. More often than not, these types of comments are born from a person’s single play (i.e., superficial experience) with a game where they never uncovered the subtle strategic layers lurking underneath…yet whether Chg21012 played Quo Vadis? only once or dozens of times doesn’t matter because in this case his comment struck a chord.
The important thing is that they came into a “pure negotiation” game with expectations, and Quo Vadis? didn’t quite meet those expectations. As a fan of the genre, I totally get what they mean. For me, the highest highs of negotiation come from designs like Chinatown or Sidereal Confluence, which offer delicious flexibility in what you can trade and how those deals are made. You get exciting moments like three- or four-way trades between several players at once. With more experience, you realize that future promises can be even more valuable and interesting than immediate exchanges. And you’re not simply bribing somebody else with a couple of points or a bit of cash, but you’re actually exchanging favors. These games are dynamic enough to allow players to creatively conjure value out of nothing for everyone involved in the deal.
Contrast this to something like Bohnanza or Quo Vadis? and you’re more likely to disappoint folks who have tasted the forbidden fruit of more dynamic negotiation games. Don’t get me wrong — I think both of these games are great, but the opportunity for strategic negotiations here are much more limited when all you can do is basically trade some beans or offer some votes or points.
So how do we keep the purity of Quo Vadis? while breaking through that negotiation ceiling? Here was my idea:
Those who have tried the special disks from Quo Vadis? will recognize a few of the ideas that made it into my proposal, but the key point here was the possibility of turning special abilities into tradable items. If players had rule-breaking powers that could be added to their negotiation utility belt, then perhaps the game could reach the highs that Chg21012 was looking for.
This feels like a good time to get back to Reiner’s email to me about the new rules:
The solution was to make the player powers only applicable to other players but not to yourself. This also led to making the player powers non-tradable. They are truly your personal ability – and we really love the variety and interaction they bring into the game!
This will go nicely with the individual animal characteristics in Zoo Vadis!
The player powers make the game more dynamic and even more dramatic. Due to the increased urgency, it turns out that we never entered more than 5 senators during the games. Reducing their numbers from 8 to 6 will be safe even for other play styles and will save a lot of components while widening the player range.
Finally, we have used the new features ([peacocks] and powers) as an opportunity to introduce some special laurel tokens, similar to those allowing an additional [zookeeper] movement.
After a rather long and time-consuming process, we are now very happy with the results. The [additions] are elegant enhancements of Quo Vadis? and introduce exciting new features without overloading the play. The features are well tested, and we love them.
As the man so often loves to do, Reiner took this interesting idea and flipped it on its head. Yes, he added asymmetric ability tokens, BUT you can’t use your powers on yourself and you can’t even trade them to other players! No, Zoo Vadis is a negotiation game, and the best way to elicit negotiation is to force reliance and interdependence upon the players, do all you can do with your powerful ability tokens is offer to spend your power on another player during their turn.
Faction token concept art — Brigette did a killer job taking Kwanchai’s animal illustrations and running with them for the emblem designs and color schemes
Physical prototype of the Ibis tokens and screen
The player screens gave us a way to spotlight the unique animal factions while providing players with all the information that can be useful during gameplay: action options and animal abilities
And rather than give a player more power tokens to spend to compensate for a weaker power, players are instead awarded laurel tokens (points) for spending their abilities on opponents. Thus players are incentivized to use their abilities on each other, yet stronger abilities (that can earn you more lucrative deals) reward you with fewer automatic laurels.
From a gameplay standpoint, these abilities are perhaps the most exciting new feature in Zoo Vadis for how they absolutely blow open the doors of negotiation possibilities. You have the armadillo faction that allows opponents to use their underground tunnels as free shortcuts into higher exhibits. You have the marmoset faction that, like any good monkey, helps opponents retrieve any laurel token of their choice from the board rather than the weaker token they are advancing over. You have the rhino faction with the strength to transport two figures at once during a movement. And that’s only three of the seven powers!
I’ve seen some truly transcendent deals made between players such as the following:
In the original version of Quo Vadis?, that would often be the end of the story because the voting player would demand too steep of a payment from the advancing player, so no deal would take place.
Fortunately, this is Zoo Vadis, so the crafty Crocodile sees a mutually beneficial opportunity thanks to the animal abilities. You see, Ibis is also in that next exhibit that Crocodile and Rhino both wish to enter, and Ibis desperately needs two votes to advance onward, which the three neighboring Hyenas have thus far stubbornly refused to offer.
So here is Crocodile’s proposal to these fellow animals in need: “Rhino, if you vote me through, then you can also spend your ability token on me and I’ll use your power to bring you along with me. Since there is only room for one of us, we also need you, Ibis, to spend your ability token on us which allows an extra animal to enter a full exhibit. Then, because you helped us both fit into the exhibit, we’ll vote you through on your turn.”
All three parties are happy with this agreement and the deal goes through.
Zoo Vadis is the endless discovery and thrilling execution of creative negotiations — in a more vibrant setting and for a wider range of group sizes. This kind of experience is exactly what instills in me (and hopefully many fans) an insatiable hunger to play and enjoy many games of Zoo Vadis. Rather than dilute or detract from what made Quo Vadis? special, these changes amplify the strengths of the design and help it evolve into its fullest potential. Just like the starry-eyed animals who are aiming to reach the Star Exhibit and become the zoo mascot, it seems that Quo Vadis? was always aspiring to be Zoo Vadis.
P.S. The Kickstarter pre-launch page for Zoo Vadis is now live, with the project launching on January 24, 2023.