Made in Britain Designer’s Diary – Ragnar Brothers are working on Promised Land for a Kickstarter project

Made in Britain – Ragnar Brothers are working on Promised Land for a Kickstarter project

I’m very pleased to present you with the first of a series of posts from Steve Kendall of Ragnar Brothers, long-standing British game designers, who will be providing us with the inside story of their design process for their upcoming game, Promised Land.

Promised Land

Designer Diary (part 1)

Which land in A Brief History of the World has been conquered the most? Probably ‘Levant’ – that strip of land that lies on the ‘Kings Highway’ between Asia, Africa and Europe. The Egyptians, the Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Sassanids, Arabs, Turks, Mongols… the list of Empires that might travel that way goes on.  Then there’s the Canaanites, Phoenicia and the Crusades; all events that feature in BHOTW. Last but not least, ‘Israel’ itself.

As with Viking Fury (Fire & Axe), Ragnar Brothers have now focussed on a corner of history to create a new game on a relatively un-explored theme: Promised Land.

Promised Land re-tells the epic story of Joshua’s conquest of lands between the Jordan river and the Eastern Mediterranean. The story continues through the periods of the Judges and thence to the monarchies of Saul, David and Solomon. The great schism of the Hebrew kingdom is followed by revival. But then the northern kingdom (Israel) is destroyed by the onslaught of the Assyrians. Finally, the southern kingdom (Judah) disappears into Babylonian captivity.

Returning from a holiday to the Isle of Man, the Ragnars decided to jettison earlier design attempts. This diary picks up from that point.

Several features were considered essential and their inclusion would shape the game:

  • Theme

If the history is painted in broad brush strokes, then the game must have conquest and kingdom building at its heart. The main protagonists (the Hebrews) start from ‘nothing’, rise to hegemony and then return to a mere remnant.

  • Player combinations

Two sides in this game; the Hebrews and the rest (Heathens). The Heathens include Canaanites, Philistines, Edomites, Egyptians, Phoenicians, Assyrians, Babylonians. Two teams then, but if at all possible 2-6 players.

  • Replayability

With the single theme, there is a need for randomisation of events and  variety of player objectives from game to game. Similarly, different strategic options must be available in each and every game.

  • Game length

An epic feel, but playable in an evening session. 2 hours would be good, 3 hours maximum.

One of the highlights of designing a game is throwing previous ideas in the air and then looking at what comes down. I had in my head an image of the land stretched out with various kingdoms at its margins. I hope you’ll forgive the eccentric art-work of these mock-ups, but here is one portion of this image idea.

PromisedLand1

As you might surmise, the Phoenicians here have a resource collection system for culture, trade and farming. This allows the Phoenicians to buy Artefacts, which in turn generate advantages or victory points for that kingdom. Each kingdom operates similarly. This was duly mocked up, played and immediately binned. Far too slow, far too many exceptional cases, far too fiddly.

But …. from this false dawn a second idea emerged. What if a player collected resources not for a particular kingdom, but for a particular individual positioned in that kingdom? A character; Priest, Merchant or Farmer: a Patriarch.

Here then is the key design element that enabled us to complete the game. Whilst previous designs had focussed on trying to balance different kingdoms against one another, now each player has essentially the same scoring potential in the form of three Patriarchs. The kingdoms themselves ebb and flow, whilst the Patriarchs float across that surface.

Quite quickly pieces of the puzzle now began to fit into place. A card system to introduce kingdoms chronologically was reduced from six, to four and then to three ‘Books’ of eighteen cards each (9 Hebrew and 9 Heathen). Only twelve (6 + 6) of these cards are played per Book in any one game; enough to ensure the semblance of historic accuracy in each game (e.g. the Assyrians / Babylonians will always appear and do their stuff). Game length reduced as game intensity increased.

PromisedLand2

PromisedLand3

You can see from the examples that card information is quite simple; a colour-coded character (Hebrew) or kingdom (Heathen), a number of units, the cards position in the chronology, and the combat ability.

The latter shows the number of dice that kingdom would roll if combating in hills or plains (the two types of land terrain featured on the map). The defender generally rolls one dice, adding an extra one dice if in a city, if an extra unit is stacked or if in its own start-land (homeland). The attacker adds +1 for repeat attacks. Those of you who have played A Brief History of the World will recognise the ‘best of dice’ system which Ragnar Brothers first used in Angola many moons ago.

The advantages granted by Artefacts successfully superseded a previous rondell system. Now the awarding of victory points was added to the same tokens, so that for 12 farming resources a player could buy an Artefact giving three extra units and three victory points. Sounds very simple and is, but these things don’t always happen easily.

I need to say a little more and then you will have the bare bones of the game. A player may build a city by spending one unit. There are only six cities available all told, so in order to build players will also have to destroy. Similarly players can build a temple in a city at a cost of two units; there are only two temples available in the game. The Ark of the Covenant (not to be confused with that built by Noah) adds a defence dice for the Hebrews and removes a defence dice for the Heathen.

Cities, temples and the Ark generate culture resources (1,2,1 respectively). Ports (2) and roads (1) generate trade resources. Plains (2) and hills (1) generate farming resources.

Here then is the player turn as realised somewhere back in the Autumn of 2012.

  • Declare the card
  • Take units
  • Conquer / Build / Stack Units
  • Move the Ark
  • Place Patriarch
  • Collect Resources
  • Buy Artefact

Part 2 of this Designer Diary explores some of the major developments that happened prior to Ragnar Brothers deciding that the game might be fit for production.

Steve Kendall

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