I'm Making a Board Game! Functional Design and Instruction

Happy Lunar New Year! For this week's post, I want to talk about functional design in Of Duchies and Polities, how it has evolved over time, and its impact on playtesting. Since this is going to be the last of these Dev Diaries before I release the Beta (yup!), I also wanted to talk about the design of the instructions/manual, and how it will all fit into the grand scheme of things.

Map Design

Yup, another look at map design. Of course, since the map is so ubiquitous to the experience playing Of Duchies and Polities, it's difficult to avoid taking another look at it!

In the second development diary, I showed off this map as a picture that was printable to an 11:17 proportion:

The original map, as seen in Pixelmator

This first iteration was made so that I could get to playtest the game as quickly as possible. But as soon as I started playing with friends and family, a couple of obvious oversights revealed themselves.

First, there was no key, so I had to explain which regions represented what as World Events cards were drawn, and explain which coastal territories were connected to allow troops passage by sea.

Second, at exactly 11x17 inches, the map was TOO SMALL. As can be seen from some of my previous posts and pictures, being so small, the game pieces and assets could barely fit onto it. This congestion wasn't a large inconvenience at first, but as more and more game pieces moved onto the board, it became very cumbersome, and at times claustrophobic.

And so, I decided to make a second iteration:

The second map, appropriately titled "big"

This second iteration is much bigger, proportionally 6:7, but printable as a 24x28 inch board. And of course, the key, sea routes, and game title are now a part of the whole board.

Yet, despite the map's larger real estate, the Isle of Man has always seemed too small. And given its centrality between nearly every region, this may be something that I will continue to look at in the future. For now though, and for the beta test, the map functions quite well.

Asset Design

Again, as seen in previous posts, the assets used so far were a mix of different game pieces from Risk, a previous iteration of the game, as well as new cards and pieces made for Of Duchies and Polities.

Assets from its previous iteration: How to Build an Empire

Repurposing old assets from a previous iteration was easy. But it meant that a lot of the old designs came with it. Namely, the assets had an octagonal shape like a “gem”. I like this design, but the size meant that each item needed to be explained somewhere in the instruction manual (which we'll get to later), since the full names of some of the assets can't fit in the little shapes.

As we played, a friend suggested that, while the full names wouldn't fit, some description of the asset would still be good. For example, Diplomat agents have a dice base roll of 1-4, Orators (upgraded from Diplomats) had a base roll of 1-7, and Philosophers (upgraded from Orators) had a base roll of 1-10. These base rolls determine how strong they are in converting popular opinion to your side. But that information wasn't made obvious on the pieces themselves. And so, in the current iteration, these pieces have their primary function written under their represented letter:

Old Look (Left) vs. Current Look (Right)

These changes are still being made. For example, the City assets haven't been changed yet, even though those are the ones that probably require it the most. It's a strange balance, really, to know what information to put versus what to keep in the manual.

This leads us to the use of Risk game pieces. In our playtests, in order to represent the population of each of the various counties and duchies in the game, we've been using the small little army tokens that Risk comes with. This has actually been pretty great and fun overall. But, leading into the upcoming Beta, I have to now factor in that not everyone will have access to these pieces. And so, I racked my brain trying to somehow come up with ideas on how to represent population on the map.

At first, I thought it would be easy to just use multiple dice (which is used A LOT in the game already). This gets rid of two things: the need for a ton of different population tokens and the easy of use of simply turning a die to increase or decrease population. It turns out, though, that many actually enjoy the tactile feeling of placing new population onto the map. So that idea went out the window.

The next (short-lived) idea was printing out citizen tokens which were made similarly to the other Agent, Army, and City assets. This proved to be a MUCH worse idea, since now, not only was the map more congested, but it was also more difficult to distinguish between all the different pieces on the map.

Of course, many good ideas come from looking at how other games have done things well. And so the final idea came while thinking about and playing another game, called Keyforge. In this game, players attempt to forge keys through interacting with and collecting 'amber' during a match. One of its ways to keep tabs on damage to creatures is the use of damage tokens, which look like this:

Damage tokens from the card game, Keyforge

This gave rise to the idea of using different, but small population tokens which represented different population. The shape of population tokens, however, came from (once again) How to Build an Empire. In that game, I used origami stars to represent Capital Cities. For Of Duchies and Polities, I've repurposed them into representing population.

Sam, defending the old tokens from How to Build an Empire

The idea is to use origami stars, which have different numbers on them, representing population. So just as Risk had pieces represent different army sizes, and Keyforge had numbers representing damage, these origami stars, which look completely different than any other asset, will also have numbers representing the various populations.

Ah, the Instruction Manual

All that being said, right now, most of the current work is going into making sure the instructions for Of Duchies and Polities is understandable and easy to follow. This is an easy task to get wrong, as seen in this Extra Credits video on proper tutorials. In summary, as the creator, it's easy to miss certain things that are necessary to teach in tutorials or manuals because they have become second nature while playing.

To that end, I'm striving to make the instructions as easy to follow as possible. As I showed in a previous post, the very basics of how to play fit, including an entire round with each turn's phases, fit on a single page so far.

The current "How to Play" page

This is a good start, of course, but the entire game is much more complicated than just the steps to take in a round. There are assets to be purchased, movement mechanics that need to be spelled out, and war procedures that require explanation. These details are all currently written down in a nearly 8-page document. A document that, while clearly outlined and labelled, isn't the easiest to follow when people are trying to learn the game without the creator beside them.

Of course, this will be an ongoing process, especially during the beta. I fully expect that feedback (especially from my family and friends) on where there are points of confusion when I ask them to teach me and others how to play the game.

And I believe this is an advantage of having the game released in the way it's been planned so far. As said before, I'm planning to release Of Duchies and Polities for free, with the instructions for play on this Coil blog. If there are any changes or additions that must be made to the game, they will be easily updatable for everyone to read and be notified of. In this way, the game will have the flexibility of “patching” just like video games do today, while still retaining the simplicity and tangibility of board and card games. Even if, in the future, I decide to put Of Duchies and Polities on its own website, it will retain this multi-domain quality.

And that's it for this week! Next time, it will be the first beta release for Of Duchies and Polities!