Through the Designer’s Notes, Part 3

To be honest, when I started this blog, I had no idea it will be this long. It was meant mostly as some intro text to the designer notes for expansion cards we are adding to the game web. But when I was digging through that old history, nostalgia surfaced, and the text is now living its own life. Let’s see where it takes us today 🙂

Through the Graenaland to America

Since the previous millennium, Czech players are visiting Essen “Spiel” show – to hunt for new games, to compete in Europe Masters tournament, and generally to celebrate their love for games. But in 2006, it was different. There was a Czech booth in Essen! And one of the games on that booth was the first print of Through the Ages. Just a few hundreds of copies, not that nice art or production value, but done with love and hope.

Well, it was a small booth, in a small hall, and those usually do not attract much attention. But Czech Board Games was an exception, that small booth was crowded since day 1. Because of Through the Ages? Nope. Because of another game called Graenaland.

It was another of my games, and we managed to finish it soon enough to send a few copies to reviewers. And lucky for us, Rick Thornquist, sure one of the most influential reviewers of that time, really liked it. He liked it so much he put it as #1 on his list of expected Essen games. That of course dragged attention to that little booth of unknown Czechs. Curious people came to see Graenaland – and they discovered also Through the Ages. Thank you, good old Greanaland 🙂

One of these people was Jeff DeBoer of Funagain games. He bought a copy of Through the Ages, and they played it back at the hotel that night. And the next day, he was back, with a publishing proposal. Whoa, my first business meeting with an American publisher!

When working in videogames, I had few formal meetings with suits from game acquisition departments, so I was curious how it is in the board game industry. And I must say I loved it from the first moment. Jeff and I were just sitting on stairs in the Essen hallway, next to an overflowing trash bin, friendly talking about my game. And this meeting then led to the US edition of Through the Ages.

Back to the Czechs (and Poles, and a Frenchman)

While that US edition was being prepared, in the Czech Republic, the first amateur print run of Though the Ages started something. Something that was going to hugely impact my life and lives of people around me, and indirectly also many players around the world. Czech Games Edition was born. During the hundreds of hours of work on the first edition of TtA, my friends and I realized this is something we want to do for a living. And thus, since 2007, CGE is visiting Essen show with new games every year (damn you, stupid virus, for breaking that nice tradition).

Well, this blog is about Through the Ages, and it was produced in China and published by a US company at that time. Yet, something important for the future of the game was just happening here in the heart of Europe.

Some smaller publishers were interested to have their own language versions, and since these were usually just small print runs, I agreed with the US publisher they will be handled by Czech Games Edition. One of our first partners was a Polish publisher, and they wanted to add something extra to the game, something that would convince Polish players they want their edition (such a heavy game was not for everyone, and many of those who might enjoy it already had English version).

So, they asked us to add a few extra cards with famous Polish historical figures and landmarks. Wow, that’s a great idea, said the Czech publisher. And then the Spanish one. They all came with ideas for their own national bonus cards, and we balanced and tweaked them a bit, and then included them to their language versions.

And here comes the Frenchman I promised in the caption– Nicolas d’Halluin, author of, the first site where you could play Though the Ages comfortably online. Besides all that great work on the online version, he also implemented those extra national cards. And he and the community around his server even came with some more extra cards just for his online site.

Why was it so important? I always knew Through the Ages would benefit from a bigger selection of wonders and leaders, but I never decided to go for it – I was aware it will require a tremendous amount of work to balance the game again, with all the new cards. However, after playing few games with a random mix of leaders and wonders on boardgaming-online, I also realized how much it actually adds to the game, and I decided it is definitely worth the effort, even if I spend a year with it. It was actually more years in the end, but yes, I still think it was worth it 🙂

— to be continued —

Brazil in quarantine

With our friends from Devir, we work together to bring our games to several countries. They already sent us how it looked in Spain, and now the situation in Brazil.

Brazil is, as we write this message, the epicenter of the pandemic in South America.

All our territory is officially in quarantine, and some regions are already in lockdown. Only essential activities are permitted, and most of us are struggling to keep social distancing, many times, against the bad example of some of our federal authorities.

Business is also struggling to survive, those who were prepared to sell online are in better shape; those who weren´t, now face extinction.

The government has approved some economic aid measures for the population and business (as low-interest credit), but in both cases, the help doesn´t seem to reach those who need it.

And as we thought Amazon already had all the advantage they needed to expand their market share here, well, we were wrong.

For now, in the short term, for some sectors of the economy, the gain from the increase of online sales should compensate the loss of income from the brick and mortar stores.

And despite all the grave global repercussions of the pandemic, the ones we are facing now, and the ones still to come, the undeveloped Brazilian board game market has an opportunity to grow, due to the intrinsic social nature of the board games.

Quarantined families, couples, and even people who leave alone share their experience with board games on social media more than never.

Our analogical hobby is spreading through the digital.

There are many reasons to be concerned, but not to be a pessimist.

Through the Designer’s Notes, Part 2

In my last post, I was writing about how the leaders sneaked to Through the Ages from an older prototype of mine. You probably wonder also about the wonders. But before diving into it, I owe you one more explanation.

Who Leads the Nation

Even if you accept that kind of random approach to leader selection I described earlier, you may still wonder – why the heck I thought Aristotle, James Cook, or Sid Meier are leaders of a nation? Well, I haven’t. In my Czech prototype, they were called “osobnosti”, which means “personalities” or “great persons”. Their texts were not meant as effects of their leadership, it was rather the influence and legacy of those persons that affected the entire nation for centuries. The nation had only one leader, kind of timeless and transcendent – you.

When Jason, our translator, translated them as “leaders”, I was not happy with that. He argued that calling them “leaders” is much simpler and easier to grasp than “great persons”, and people get used to it. I was not sure, but I reluctantly agreed. As a memento, we still call them “osobnosti” in all Czech versions of the game.

When writing rules for the new version, I stumbled upon it, again. I tried to make it clear how it was meant (in the section about Leaders, there is written: “A leader is a great historical figure whom you choose to be the spiritual guide of your civilization. The leader’s legacy gives you special abilities and benefits.“)

But well, artificial reasoning does not work much. They are called leaders, so they are considered leaders. We are even displaying the current leader as the player avatar in the digital version of the game (and you usually remember your opponents by them), and when playing the game, players seem to accept the fact a nation can be led by Shakespeare. At least I sure got used to that – Jason was correct 🙂

And Those Wonders

As you might guess, that old game had wonders, too, as while having great persons is optional in a civilization-themed game, wonders are simply a must :). Although many wonders were shared between that game and Through the Ages, the changes of the selection were much bigger in this case. I might say it was because they worked very differently – they were only of three ages, they were dependent on certain techs, they were picked and constructed by different ways, they belonged to a certain territory, etc. – but well, the fact I had just a googled background image and not a hand-drawn a picture for each one of the original wonders sure made the decision to change them easier 🙂

Some remained for obvious reasons – how can you make a list of wonders without Pyramids or the Great Wall. But there were also some less typical that were amongst the original selection.

One of those I was proud of back then was Internet. You might say – why, Internet is a typical wonder included in most of Civilization games. But at the time when I was creating that game, Civilization III, where Internet first appeared, was not published yet. And I said to myself – hey, is there anything that changed humankind more in the last century than this instant access to information and the affordable way how to produce content for others? Sid Meier should include internet as a wonder into his games. I will sure do it 🙂

Well, today, when I see what Internet and social media do to people, I am not that thrilled, but still, Internet affects the world more than anything else. It does not have to be only positive. Which brings me to Fast Food Chains, another wonder that came from the first game. That odd “wonder” might cause some people to question my values :). But no, I am not a regular Mc-Taco-King-Whatever consumer. The idea was to show that the culture points mean how much you affect the world, and it does not have to be objectively positive. You can spread your culture by great artists, by your swords – or by hamburgers. So, I included Fast Foods also into Through the Ages, as a symbol of globalization, which sure affects the world a lot.

By the way, Age III wonders were more interesting in that old game, they had some strong and cool ongoing effects. But that just didn’t work well. You cannot balance effects if you do not know whether they will be in the game five rounds, or just one. Changing them just to “giving a crazy amount of culture when finished” was a good solution, I lost some of the thematic variability, but now, finishing an Age III wonder is the true climax of the game while considering “whether the wonder still pays off or not” wasn’t. In the expansion, I toyed with it a bit more, all the wonders are more interactive, but I was still keeping in mind their main effect should be lots of culture (in case of Manhattan Project, it may be culture gained by a war 🙂

Ah, I just went through those old cards and found something I already forgot. Statue of Liberty was a wonder in that old game, too (in Through the Ages, it was added in the expansion). However, its original effect was different – you had to build it on a territory of another player, you both produced some culture, but you both suffered huge culture penalty if attacking each other. Sounds familiar? Yeah, this wonder was the first pact in the game.

part 3

Situation in New Zealand

Since the start of the blog, we had a lot of coronavirus reports, but none was that far from the Czech Republic as this one. Our friends from Pixelpark sent us what is happening in New Zealand:

March 24th, the New Zealand Government enforced a 4 week National Lockdown at level 4. This means all Schools, Universities, shops, services, and public transport must close and for everyone to remain in their homes till the end of April. Travel is restricted, and all social gatherings of any kind, other than the people we live with, are banned. Essential services (Supermarkets, drugstores, and Freight Companies) remain in operation but in a restricted capacity. This is going to have a major impact on our operation for the foreseeable future.

We have had to close our warehouse and will not be sending any orders to stores till the lockdown is lifted. As of today, all the stores in New Zealand we supply have closed. All new releases scheduled for April will now ship in May.

The Tourism industry in New Zealand – which is a significant portion of our GDP has effectively been shut down and will stay that way for quite some time. NZ will see a significant increase in unemployment. I imagine everything that is going on will take a toll on retailers’ cashflow, which will have consequences well beyond the lockdown.

We have survived 3 recessions, an earthquake swarm that lasted several years, the mass shootings last March with the subsequent 3 weeks in a police cordon (we are next door to the Christchurch Mosque). We’re getting pretty resilient. But it will still be a challenge, especially taking into account the hammering our currency has taken over the last few weeks, but we’re in a strong position to get through this difficult period, which is unprecedented.

May 16th – After 7 weeks, stores have finally opened, with COVID19 seeming held at bay. Social distancing is still required along with customers signing in and out of stores for contact tracing, but at least stores can begin trading again. Sales have been strong as stores have been restocking after solid sales the day before lock-down, (it turns out that boardgames are the ideal product for quarantine). But how all this will impact business over the next year is unclear at this stage.

How to play Trapwords over the internet

We are continuing to work on many projects to help people survive social distancing. A few weeks ago, Tony Gullotti, our PR manager for North America prepared a video showing how to play Codenames with friends over the internet. Today he shared a video showing how to play Trapwords using Discord, you can watch it below.

Many of the conventions that CGE usually attends will be virtual this year, so we have been focusing on things to make playing games easier, and more enjoyable when played online. Next week we will be sharing a big project that I feel will benefit upcoming virtual conventions we will be attending, and Tony will continue to make more videos showing instructions for more of our games with another videoconferencing software.

Through the Designer’s Notes, Part 1

If you have been playing Through the Ages for a while, I suppose you got used to that mix of leaders and wonders in the game. But there was probably a moment when some of you asked yourself – how the designer picked those wonders. And especially – why just those people as leaders? Such an experienced designer sure had very good reasons, right? Or, are we missing something here?

This text might help you to understand what’s behind that 🙂

Before The Ages

What is important to realize – Through the Ages was not created by an experienced designer. And it was actually not even created “for publishing”. Back then, I was designing various board games without any plan, just because I loved to, and then, I was playing them with my friends. I was actually quite surprised when a friend of mine who happened to be a hobby games publisher said about one of them (Arena): “This is good, I would publish it”.

One of these old games was an epic Civilization-themed game. No, it was not Through the Ages and the mechanics were different – there were big territory cards (with tiny cattle, wheat, iron or coal icons), players were competing for them and put little people tokens on that icons, there were wooden houses (for labs, temples or libraries) etc. But there was also some familiar stuff – four Ages, four types of units, science points to unlock new techs, cultural points that served as victory points, events that messed with the game, and more. And especially, there was a set of 24 great persons, six per age. When an age ended, you picked one of them secretly and used them later for a strong one-time effect.

When creating that game, I just picked random historical figures that came to my mind. You know, I didn’t even know whether the game will work. But I toyed with everything back then and wanted my prototypes to look nice. And since it was impossible to find pictures of all those persons in a similar style, I have just personally drawn a picture for each one.

Well, it was so many years ago I think I didn’t even have my own camera back then, so I have no pictures of that game. But I was digging deep in my old prototype boxes, found the cards and took a picture for you – as you can see, I am not kidding, you probably recognize most of those people… Sorry for the texts, this prototype never existed in other than the Czech language. But at least, you can realize how old these cards are – they come from the era when using Comic Sans was not listed amongst mortal sins! 🙂

Anyway, the game worked quite well, my friends loved it, but I was a bit unhappy with one or two parts of it. Several years later, I returned to it with fresh ideas – but instead of just replacing the problematic parts, I have built a completely new game around those new ideas. The one you know as Through the Ages now.

The True Ages

Well, the truth is, neither that new game was created with publishing in my mind. I was just not thinking that way, I had my job I loved (doing videogames) and creating board games was just a very passionate hobby, that only rarely ended with a publishing agreement for the local market.

So when I was looking for some great historical figures to test those new ideas on, I didn’t hesitate – I already had a set of 24 hand-drawn portraits :).

Well, I used only 23. One of the original ones was created specially for a particular mechanic of the first game (freeing the slaves), thus I had to pick another one. So, this is also a story of why Johann Sebastian Bach was the only leader without a portrait in the early prototypes of Through the Ages 🙂

Thus that random pick from many-many-years-ago made it also to another game many-years-ago. I wrote some mechanics for these personalities, my friends and I started to playtest with them… and when we started to love the game to the point when we were considering publishing it, we already got so used to them (and had their abilities relatively well balanced), so no-one questioned the selection.

It would be sure different today – someone would probably notice shameful lack of female leaders and strong dominance of western culture amongst the selection, but well, political correctness was not a thing here in Czech back then, and we were producing and publishing our first BIG game, so we had lots of other issues to solve. And also – for us, games were always first and foremost about gameplay.

So, be sure there were no hidden intentions behind the selection of the leaders for the game. There was just a young geek who sat down to his computer one evening around the end of the millennium, trying to recall 24 historical figures he remembered from the history lessons he had at school, to spice up a civilization-like game he was creating for his friends.

part 2

Hope you enjoyed this piece of old memories. Next time, I will tell you a bit more about the intentions behind leaders and wonders in the game. Meanwhile, you may read some interesting stuff about selected leaders and wonders from the expansion here.

Adrenaline Solo Play DLC

Three weeks ago, in a post How to play Codenames over the internet, I mentioned that we are working on several things for you to survive social distancing more enjoyably. Two weeks ago, we released an update to the free print and play game Under Falling Skies – which now has official translations into Czech, French, German, and Russian. And today, it is my pleasure to introduce you to Solo Play DLC for Adrenaline.

Adrenaline is a game from Filip Neduk, which we published in 2016. It is our take on first-person shooters in board game form. It was a lot of fun to develop this one, and later we felt that it would be great to add the possibility for players to play as teams. So we developed and published Team Play DLC, an expansion where DLC meant “Discovered Leftover Cardboard.” And now we are introducing another mode for this game: solo. And this time, DLC in the name really means “DownLoadable Content,” as you just need to download these rules, and you can play it.

With an idea how solo game could work, Petr Čáslava came, who was the lead developer of Team Play DLC, and Czech people might know him as editor-in-chief of Deskofobie. Both Filip Neduk, the game’s author, and the CGE team, liked how it worked. So, Petr continued working on it. For some time, we were unsure if we would find a great way how to make the expansion without adding unique components, which were not in the game. We were working with a possibility that we will make some additional components for this variant and distribute them as a free bonus to players at shows and thru retailers. But in the end, we were able to find a way how to make it real DLC. It just required players to have both the Adrenaline base game and Team Play DLC expansion.

Before we actually released it to the public, COVID-19 happened. And at first, we felt that it is great that we actually have something for solo play ready and available. But then we realized that it requires to have an expansion. As always, there are significantly more people with just base game than with expansion also. And in current times, when many FLGSs (Friendly Local Game Stores) were forced to close, it might be hard to acquire Team Play DLC.

So we decided that it would be nice to work on it a bit more and try to find a way how to make it playable with base game only. Petr took this challenge, and he succeeded. How well did he do? You can see from the first comment by Filip Neduk after he finished the first solo game:

I just finished a game of the Solo Play DLC. I just loved it. It was a lot of fun. It was really clever how the programming works, and it’s really intense. I thought I was going to die all the time, but in the end, I actually won. The next bot turn would have killed me. It is fast, elegant, fun, dynamic, and well balanced. Great job!

Petr congrats on a great addition to the Adrenalineverse. Now that I’m hooked, I have to play with all of the other characters. I played with Sprog or Juancho, as he is known in the Spanish version. 🙂

When I tried it for the very first time, I was not that fortunate, and I lost by just one hit. But I enjoyed it a lot, nevertheless. And if you want to give it a try, you can download it here from our website. Have fun!

Greetings from Baltics

Our friends from Brain Games operates in all three Baltics countries. So it is interesting to see a different approach by these countries to the current situation:

Brain Games handles distribution and retail in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Each morning all our team leaders meet for a video chat to update on the local happenings and learn from the shared experiences. Everyone who can is working from home and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Each country has different regulations in effect, but in many terms, we feel united, and our company tries to use the same practices with all our employees and partners no matter the country. Still, it’s easier to talk about each country on its own.

Lithuania had the slowest start regarding Covid-19 spread. Still, it was the first Baltic country to close all non-essential shops for over a month. It was challenging to transfer sales and customer support to online channels. A week ago, the Lithuanian government decided to reduce restrictions, and shops were allowed to re-open again. Now there is an obligation for customers to wear face masks, and there can be only one customer inside a shop at any time. The consumer traffic is obviously not the same as it was last year and the shopping habits have changed.

After Lithuania decided to close all the shops, Estonia did the same. Currently, the latest decision is that all shops will re-open next week. During this period, Estonia as well tried to transfer all sales online. Estonia has the most total cases from all three Baltic countries, so they are even more cautious. It will definitely take a while for things to get back to a more normal state, but it will not be as it was for sure.

Latvia was the only Baltic country that decided not to close shops fully. Currently, shops are not working at weekends, and there are reduced working ours for other days. Brain Games did decide on their own to close its retail shops for a while to make sure that we can provide a safe environment for our employees and customers. We re-opened our shops with rules that there can be only one customer at a time in the store, no cash payments are processed, and customers cannot touch any games. In Latvia, we have experimented the most with how we tackle this situation, e.g., now we even have our top games available in what was normally only a food delivery app. We have tried some online plays, RPG sessions, rules teachings, and created or shared various content for those who are staying at home.

Overall in distribution, we see that the biggest struggle has been for our partners who have big retail chains. They had difficulties in transferring everything to the online environment, and it has been impossible to keep the same consumer traffic. Small stores, however, are doing okay. Interest for the games, jigsaw puzzles, and activities to perform home with your family have increased in this period. In all countries, kids are learning from home, and their teachers are encouraging parents to spend more time with their kids playing games, so they are not outside with friends. We see that everyone is missing gatherings with friends and other public events. Most likely public events will not be back this summer, but small gatherings will happen, and games will be one of the best ways to spend time in a narrow circle.

Facing summer with social distancing will be a challenge. Still, we feel like Baltics have been doing well so far. The increase of total case count in our region is slowing at the moment with only ~21 new cases each day based on the last 7 day average for all 3 countries combined. It is impossible to say if, by people starting to get less cautious, this will not cause a big spike. Still, we can only hope that the general public will continue to practice all government requirements to keep this number as low as possible.

What about Canada?

One of our partners in Canada, Lion Rampant Imports (recently acquired by Asmodee), sent us their view of the current situation:

Like most countries across the globe, Canada hasn’t been spared from COVID-19 and in early March, both federal and provincial governments put in place safety measures to minimize the spread of the disease as much as possible. As a result, for over a month now, Canadians have been actively practicing social distancing by staying home. Schools and most public spaces have been closed since mid-March, public gatherings are banned, and nonessential businesses have had to adapt how they operate in order to keep everyone as safe as possible.

How have Asmodee Canada and Lion Rampant Imports responded to this unprecedented situation? The same way we respond to any circumstance that is beyond our control—with compassion, flexibility, and resilience. We recently appointed Kevin Ratko as General Manager, under whose guidance we are committed to supporting our retail partners offering e-commerce, or whose brick and mortar stores are permitted to remain open. We are also committed to retaining as many jobs as possible in the face of the crisis. That said, our number one priority is the health and safety of all our employees and partners. As such, we have established a “work-from-home” policy wherever possible and have implemented strict safety protocols – as outlined by the Government of Canada – for all on-site staff members.

We are impressed by the tolerance and patience shown by Canadians during this difficult situation. We know that many have turned to tabletop games and puzzles to provide a bit of fun, connection, and normalcy at a time when the world seems to have been turned upside down. We are proud of and impressed by the resilience of the entire Lion Rampant team, as well as that of our partners and we’re confident that together we’ll get through this.

How it is in Germany

Our dear friends in HeidelBÄR Games wrote to us how is current situation in Germany:

Covid19 caused a similar dramatic situation in Germany, as in many other countries. As a freshly restored publisher, the situation is challenging for us, too. But being a smaller and more flexible company has its benefits in this situation. Miltenberg, where we are located, is close to Frankfurt/Main, but in Bavaria. It is a beautiful small city, which is very quiet now. No tourists and the shops are closed. A small part of our team comes into the office every day, limiting the contact. The rest works from home – which is a major change for us. Teamwork is our strength, and it is different not to discuss at the same table while playtesting. Technology allows the basic work with file sharing, but direct contact is missing. This is a change in company culture, but we believe we are doing okay, others have it worse. Our sales got slow – no surprise – and we feel the pressure on our business. We went into so-called short-work (like a lot of other businesses in Germany), which allows German companies to reduce working hours for its employees under special circumstances. The government then compensates for a significant part of this for the employees.

Acceptance for the active restrictions (shops closed, no contact with others, etc.) in Germany is still surprisingly high. A step-by-step lockdown exit strategy for May is upcoming. Of course, we have our share of issues, complainers, stupid politicians, etc. Stability seems to work best, as it seems. Considering that we have a federal system, the different states have managed okay, but the rules vary from state to state. For now, Covid19 deaths seem to be in control, at least. Of course, nothing is safe, and more is to come upon us. Nothing will be as it was before. Everybody’s life has changed, easy to see when buying food at a grocery store: wearing gloves and face mask, using disinfection, blenders for the cashiers, and more.

After many weeks, retailers are reopening these days again, though under restrictions. Bavaria is the most strict, so we will not open before May. Face masks could become mandatory, the distance will be required. We are very happy with our retailers. Stationary German game retailers suffered a lot, and they are the backbone of our strong gaming market. We hope … players/customers will come back, too.

HeidelBÄR Games tried to support our beloved hobby as well in the last difficult weeks, similar to others, with downloads for playing at home, etc. We sent hundreds of free word games to teachers. Their hardest time is about to come, as we fear. We don’t do face masks after all!

In the motherland of the SPIEL, where Germans appear to be grumpy, our spirit as HeidelBÄR’s is not broken. We are even more dedicated to overcome the obstacle of this global crisis and try to make the best for everyone wherever and whenever possible. Gaming is a great social experience, and the last weeks have told us how important it is for all of us. Game on!