4 Lessons from Twilight Imperium for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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Twilight Imperium is among the greatest board games of all time according to BoardGameGeek. Within that notoriously hard-to-please community, it holds a staggering 8.7/10 rating.

It’s also got an absurdly high complexity rating of 4.2/5 and a play time of 4 to 8 HOURS. Oh, and it costs over $100 on Amazon in the US.

Today, we must ask ourselves how this extremely long, extremely complicated, and extremely expensive game captured the attention and undying affection of the hardcore hobbyist board game community. There are a hundred good answers to that question, but today, I’ll give you four based on my own experiences with Twilight Imperium.

But first, let’s talk about what exactly Twilight Imperium is. I’ll borrow the description from its Board Game Geek page since I think it says it best:

Twilight Imperium is a game of galactic conquest in which three to six players take on the role of one of seventeen factions vying for galactic domination through military might, political maneuvering, and economic bargaining. Every faction offers a completely different play experience, from the wormhole-hopping Ghosts of Creuss to the Emirates of Hacan, masters of trade and economics. These seventeen races are offered many paths to victory, but only one may sit upon the throne of Mecatol Rex as the new masters of the galaxy.

No, dear reader, I did not copy and paste a whole passage from Frank Herbert’s Dune just then. Twilight Imperium is that rich and complex in premise alone. I won’t even attempt to get into the grittiness of the rules, because this is going to be 1,000-word article, not 10,000. Nevertheless, there are great lessons we can learn from this game with even a casual analysis.

 

1. For very long games, you want very high-quality components.

Board gaming is a very tactile experience. Components are a large part of why people choose to play board games in person in the year 2019. Video games are extraordinary these days, as are options for playing board games online.

All that is to say, if you’re going to get people to sit down for 4 to 8 hours to play a single board game, you have to bring great components. And, Twilight Imperium…oh, there are no words…

 

Photo by W Eric Martin, CC BY 3.0.

 

There are very, very few board games that have this many tactile parts. There is a wide variety of shapes and colors, making the game have a table presence that is nearly unrivaled. Look at the photo above – it looks like something that can be played for eight hours at a time.

If your ambition is to make a heavy, lengthy game, you have to deliver on the physical experience. Twilight Imperium is a perfect example of how to do that.

 

2. Nothing inspires awe like sheer scope.

If you’re going for light fun, your game needs to be less than an hour. For something more complex, but still approachable, you need to keep it to three hours max.

But what if your ambition is to make a massive game? You can’t just rely on fun or challenge. No, you have to make people feel a sense of awe. That is the only emotion strong enough to keep people sitting up in chairs for 4-8 hours at a time.

Everything in a game must build toward that sense of awe. In Twilight Imperium, think about the experience you have as you get ready to play:

  • You lift the heavy box and take out all the pieces.
  • Good grief, there are a lot of pieces.
  • You painstakingly set the whole thing up.
  • The rulebook is really big.
  • The run-time is long.
  • The story is told on a galactic scale and covers SEVENTEEN different types of characters.

All of this repeats the message “buckle up, this is going to be a wild ride!”

 

3. Twilight Imperium is an example of how to succeed at complete immersion.

Twilight Imperium doesn’t just promise a wild ride, though. It succeeds. Check out the Board Game Geek reviews. You will see, over and over again, words like “immersive” and “epic.” Time flies by when you’re playing this game.

This largely ties into sheer scope and the awe factor. However, the awe you inspire early in your design has to maintain players’ interest throughout the whole game. The only reliable way to succeed in a task so big is to play-test specifically around immersion. It has to be the benchmark by which your design, should you decide to make something as heavy as this game, is measured.

 

4. No two games should be the same.

So many of the great games that I find inspiring from a game design perspective share this quality. You can call it replayability or variance. No matter what, whether you’re playing Terraforming MarsTwilight Struggle, or Twilight Imperium, tough-to-learn games must have this quality.

When designing a heavy, complex game, bear in mind your players’ reason for playing in the first place. Why choose the heavy game over several lighter ones? The heavy game bears a great burden – it has to provide opportunities for creative gameplay so that the game stays fresh over its entire runtime. This will also have the effect of making it to where no two games feel the same.

 

Final Thoughts

Twilight Imperium is a fantastic game. It is the prime example of how to make an ultra-heavyweight game that never alienates its players.

From the very start, players need to be wowed by the game. Its physical presence and sense of scale need to reassure gamers before they ever even take the first turn. These qualities are like promises to gamers that it will be worth their time.

I strongly encourage you to play Twilight Imperium yourself so that you can experience what makes it so immersive. Even if you only have the opportunity to play once, you will be able to appreciate just how many different ways the game can unfold.

4 Lessons from Root for Aspiring Board Game Designers

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Leder Games really nailed it when they came out with their board game Root in 2018. It’s broken into and remained within the Board Game Geek top 50. Indeed, on the Pangea Games Facebook group where we regularly give away free board games, Root has by far the most popular prize we’ve ever given away (all three times we’ve done it)!

Clearly, they’re doing something right here 🙂

So what exactly is Root? In short, Root is a wargame wrapped in a theme about adorable animals. Marquise de Cat rules the woodlands with an iron paw, forcing the woodland creatures to team up and fight back. This both sets the stage for some really clever asymmetric strategic play and realistically portrays the diabolical scheming of cats.

Many games have come and gone on Kickstarter. It takes a lot to truly stand out and be remembered, and the vast majority have been forgotten. Yet Root stands apart because it’s been a sensation for months on end.

The gameplay has a lot to do with it. Let’s talk about what makes Root special and what you can learn from it.

 

1. Bringing grit to a wide audience? Wrap it in a cute theme!

Wargames have a tough reputation. It’s no surprise either, they’re hard and they’re hard on purpose. This is fantastic if your sole purpose in board gaming is an intellectual challenge. This is not fantastic, however, if you are trying to get a bunch of friends to play a board game with you.

Presentation matters more than most aspiring board gamers want to admit. If you want a complex game to be approachable to a wide variety of gamers, you have to take a few steps to smooth the rough edges. As an example, Root wisely keeps the games to 60 – 90 minutes.

Root is complex. There is no getting around that fact. However, the cute theme, the character names, the little cat meeples…all of it works for the common purpose of keeping first-timers engaged. There are people who would get into wargames if the right one came along. The sort of wargame that didn’t involve the American Revolution or a byzantine science fiction universe of warring factions with unpronounceable names. Root, in large part because of its theme, is that game.

 

2. Increase your game’s shelf life by having different victory conditions.

So often, games rely on common objectives. All players must attempt to maximize their victory points to win. Or perhaps they must be the first to complete some task. The point is, in many games, people are trying to do the same thing.

To drive this point home, here is an excerpt directly from the rule book:

The invading Marquise de Cat wishes to exploit the Woodland, using its vast resources to fuel her economic and military machine. She scores by constructing buildings in the Woodland.

The proud Eyrie Dynasties wish to reclaim the glory of their once-great aristocracy and retake the Woodland from the Marquise. They score each turn by building and protecting roosts in the Woodland.

The upstart Woodland Alliance wish to unite the creatures of the forest and rise up against their oppressors. They score by spreading sympathy for their cause across the Woodland.

The wily Vagabond wishes to gain fame-or infamy-in the midst of this brewing conflict. He scores by completing quests for the creatures of the Woodland and by aiding and harming the other factions.

Not only are they reinforcing the theme early on in the rule book, but each faction also has a different objective. This is pretty self-explanatory, but worth mentioning simply because I don’t think enough board games do this.

 

3. Highly asymmetrical design is underrated.

Different objectives is one way to add intrigue to a board game. Asymmetrical design takes it up to 11!

Asymmetry in board games basically means different players have different abilities. Variable player powers are frequently used to great effect to add light asymmetry to board games. Yet Root takes this to its logical extreme.

In Root, every faction has vastly different abilities. Along with their different objectives, the most effective strategies are wildly different. You can read about that in-depth in this great article on Sprites and Dice.

Seem like it wouldn’t work? Seem like a monster to balance? These are valid concerns, but consider the following reviews on Board Game Geek:

  • “Totally asymmetric but surprisingly balanced” – Patmol, 10/10
  • “Excellent design, asymmetric factions. Really enjoyed.” – sedlak87, 9/10
  • “Still, while there are a lot of four-player, asymmetrical games out there, I think this is the best.” – Salo sila, 9/10

As you scroll, you notice people write reviews in a way that implies the balanced nature of the asymmetrical design is surprising. To me, this sounds like a lot of people are craving asymmetry, but they don’t see it implemented well very often. For that reason, I think asymmetry is underrated in board gaming.

 

4. Give players the thrill of discovery.

When you have a game that engages players with a theme early on, they’re encouraged to learn for a longer period of time. With asymmetry in the design and unique objectives, gamers will find every game to play differently. Little nuances come out over time.

What does this result in? A thrill of discovery! Not just of unique plays and maneuvers, though that is important on its own. I think Root leads players to realize that they like game styles that they wouldn’t normally play, namely wargames.

There are tons of great games. I’ve name-checked too many to count on this blog. But how many great games help players realize they like an entire genre of games they had not previously considered?

 

Final Thoughts

Root is a sensation among board gamers for good reason. By playing it and studying it, we can learn more about effectively implementing asymmetrical game design. It’s also great at teaching us how to use theme to introduce gamers to much grittier games than they would normally play. Not bad for a game about woodland creatures!

You Can Never Really Be Your Own Boss (And That’s a Good Thing)

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“It must be great to be your own boss!” Over the last few months, as the Pangea Marketing Agency has taken off faster than I expected, I’ve heard this sentence more than I ever expected. Don’t get me wrong – it’s incredibly flattering and I respond with polite confirmations. You know the sort: “yes, it’s pretty great, I’m very fortunate!” And, yes, indeed, I really am very fortunate.

What goes unseen is that I’m juggling a full-time day job, the marketing agency, and board game projects like Tasty Humans. I’ve had a wide variety of work experiences and I have to tell you something I’ve found out.

You can never really be your own boss.

Obviously, putting a sentence like that in bold, you know I’m not about to give you a Tony Robbins style speech. No, I’m here to shatter myths like my name’s Adam Savage. I’m here to set expectations sensibly so you can live a life of relative comfort while you strive to become your best self. It’s true, I’m a big fan of self-starting and hard work, but I’m not a fan of false prosperity gospel.

So let’s put to bed this “be your own boss” cliche that I hear all the time online and offline.

 

Even Corporate CEOs Have Bosses

Let’s say you’re a yuppie in the 1980s. You smoke in your office and wear suspenders and stripes. At the age of 27, after working 90 hours a week for years on end in a high finance firm, you earn a VP title. You’re on track to become the CEO of JP Chase Fargo.

Cut to 2007 where you’re testing the strings on your golden parachute. Yeah, you made it to the CEO position, but you never became your own boss. No, indeed, the Board of Directors tells you what to do all the time.

You consider angling for the Chairman of the Board position, but she seems miserable. She’s reporting to all the shareholders and doesn’t really have many viable strategic options either. She’s at their mercy.

You’ve kicked around the idea of buying a 51% stake in the company, but even then, you’d still be subject to the whims of the market. Everybody’s a part of the market, so this abstract thing that would rule your life and limit your actions has no face. You can’t call anyone out or bargain with it.

All this is to say that no matter how high up you get in a traditional company, you’re always reporting to somebody or something. This isn’t a bad thing, and I’ll explain this later.

 

Want to Be Your Own Boss? Don’t Become an Entrepreneur!

“Be your own boss doesn’t mean becoming the CEO of JP Chase Fargo, Brandon.” Okay, and I get that. As a member of the millennial generation that wants to become entrepreneurs because of the misdeeds of the CEOs of JP Chase Fargo, I can relate. However, I can tell you from firsthand experience that entrepreneurs are not their own bosses either.

Entrepreneurs report to their clients. If they don’t have clients, they report to their customers. If they never deal with their customers directly, they report to market demand. Their viable money-making options are limited by the iron law of product-market fit.

Even if you found a way around the inexorable law of product-market fit, you’d still have some bosses. Among my many bosses includes the Tennessee Department of Revenue, and for that matter, the Internal Revenue Service. I have to play nice by the rules of my local city as well as Hamilton County, Tennessee. Even in my own business, I report to bureaucrats at various different levels of the government. And Tennessee, true to Southern tradition, plays it pretty fast and loose on laws and regulations.

Again, this is not a bad thing. It’s simply something you must accept.

 

Even World Leaders Have a Boss

“Okay smart guy, but what if I become the government?” Sure, let’s run with this idea. Even politicians cannot act with impunity. They have to win over a coalition of voters. Donald Trump may be the President of the United States, but he also has a boss. Multiple, in fact. Their names are Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

Even if you’re a dictator, like Kim Jong Un, you have a boss, too. You see, being dictator comes with a lot of perks, so you have to have people protect you or else you will be overthrown. In this sense, Kim Jong Un’s bosses are any generals or other key government personnel who prevent a coup. This is not just my personal belief. This is, in fact, a studied and published fact in political science. Here’s a reputable, if insouciant, pop-sci book that does a good job of explaining it.

 

You Can Never Escape Accountability…But That’s Actually a Good Thing

The key takeaway here is that you can never escape accountability. All human begins are connected. We are in the world together for better or for worse. For that reason, it’s really important to build connections and try to help people.

Look, I know working for someone is hard. Sometimes you don’t know what they want. Sometimes they are unreasonable. Other times, they are outright mean. Bad bosses outnumber good bosses by a ratio of like 10:1. Indeed, it’s my hope that I’m not among the 10 for my interns and contractors.

In most situations, though, you can find a way to finesse it. You can find a way to live and work well. A few exceptions, of course, are when communication breaks down to an irreparable level and gross indecency of the type that I’d prefer not to spell out.

 

You Don’t Want to Be Your Own Boss…You Actually Want Purpose, Self-Expression, and the Ability to Control Your Work

It’s no secret that most people hate their jobs. Again, this is not a Brandonism – about a third of people would call themselves “engaged at work” according to Gallup. So what actually makes a difference? According to Harvard Business Review, it comes down to three basic qualities: purpose, self-expression, and experimentation.

When people want to “be their own boss,” it’s a cry that they feel out of control. They don’t feel like their work matters, our their voice matters, or that they have any say. Seriously, if you have a desire to be your own boss, keep asking “why” until you get to the root of the desire. It will probably be some variation of these three things.

People need to feel like their life has a purpose. To constantly repress your true desires is to suffer. The ability to experiment at work, to my ears, sounds like freedom from micromanagement and the ability to choose your own path.

Not every job will offer you the ability to pursue these three things. Not everyone will have the privilege to chase one that does either. If you’re stuck in a job you hate, I’m here to say that running away may or may not actually fix your problems. You have to do the hard work of introspection!

And let me say just one more thing. There is dignity in any work you do, including the act of looking for work. You don’t have to be your own boss to live well. You don’t have to have a flashy job to make a difference.

 

Final Thoughts

We are all connected. Everyone’s actions affect other people. We live in a world where no one can truly be their own boss. This is a good thing – it means we have to play nice with one another!

When you say to yourself “I want to be my own boss,” I want you to challenge that statement. Ask “why?” Keep asking until you get to the emotional root of your desires. It when you reach the roots that you can see what you really want. This gives you the freedom to chase what you truly desire 🙂