I am an introvert – INTJ on the Meyers-Briggs scale, and that “I” couldn’t be more firmly in place.
I think this character traits stems from a deep-seeded desire to do everything perfectly. Certainly not the best character trait to have, but it has more-or-less fueled my entire life: a lot of over-achieving throughout school and a strong gravitation towards activities where I could have total control over the outcome.
Because as long as I had control over every part of a system, given enough time, I could act perfectly within that system. Puzzles, solo video games, Euro-style board games – these became my playground.
I was particularly fond of RPG video games because I could take as much time as I wanted to make my decisions. In more action-oriented games, I would simply play them over and over until I understood the patterns and could perform perfectly.
I really wasn’t keen with play with other people, though. Humans are unpredictable. It’s impossible to interact with them perfectly because the situation is always changing. You can take all the time you need to craft a perfect first sentence, but then they respond in some unforeseeable way, and now you’ve got to act on the fly.
And everything you do is permanent. You can’t experiment with different responses to suss out the mechanics and then redo the interaction later. Man, talking to other people was just awful.
I’ve gotten better over the years. As with anything else, it just takes practice. I was always afraid of not being perfect, but often you just have to man up and talk to someone. And when you do that enough, you start to learn the rules.
I’m still not that great at talking to people, though. My brain is just sluggish at crafting dialogue for my mouth to speak. It still wants to say things perfectly, so I’m a bit of a slow-talker, which is itself an infuriating imperfection. I just can’t win.
Unless I’m talking about board games. I have spent so much time thinking about pretty much every aspect of this hobby in detail, sometimes it feels that when I’m talking about board games is the only time my brain functions normally.
When I am at board game conventions, well, okay, I still don’t exactly have a magnetic personality, but if someone wants to talk to be about a board game, I am firing on all cylinders.
Contrast this for a second with how I felt attending physics conventions. I used to attend these to give talks on my research, and they were the worst. The talks went all right because all I had to do was put in the time to prepare, but the prospect of speaking to another physicist in a free-form conversation filled me with dread.
You see, I never felt like I knew enough about physics. It was a large field and I had a tendency to only put in the minimal effort because I just didn’t care enough. This worked for writing papers, but conventions were a horror show. I kept my head down and pretty much didn’t talk to anyone. Being embarrassed from not being able to speak eloquently about physics was my nightmare, and I did everything possible to avoid this.
I decided that board games was an ideal career choice for me at last year’s GenCon when, right after the success of Forge War, this nice guy wanted to interview me for a paper he was writing on the board game design process.
I was a little reluctant at first, because, well, I’m me, but once he turned on the tape recorder and started asking questions, the words just started flying out of my mouth. It was like some surreal out-of-body experience because I had never talked that way about anything before. To him, it was probably a normal conversation, but for me it was definitive evidence that I should do everything in my power to keep making board games and exploring this world that I actually feel comfortable in.
So now with the success of Gloomhaven, I couldn’t be more thrilled to keep doing what I’m doing. If it keeps me from never having to go to another physics convention, I’ll consider that a monumental success.
“First player with four cones wins.”
The greatest ally and enemy in my Cones of Dunshire rules-writing adventure was the screen cap of the (woefully incomplete) rules in the video. Clearly this isn’t the whole rule book since it references an “Expected Rate of Casualty” table on page 6 (this table landed on page 6 of my own rule book, which made me very happy), but what is shown gives a good overview of the flow of the game and what a person does on their turn.
This overview is great because it gave me a strong footing from which to start building my own interpretation. This overview is terrible because the footing it gives is really, truly awful.
There’s no way around it – the game as shown is a parody. It’s showing a massively complicated board game from the perspective of an outsider to the hobby. This is how all hobby board games look to those uninitiated, blown up to the nth degree far into the realm satire.
I mean, “Roll to see how much you roll?” Silliness!
But I approached the project with the goal of staying as true to the rules presented as humanly possible, and so embraced the insanity.
“You roll 3 dice to see how many dice you roll.”
So let’s talk about the rolling of dice first, because, yeah, what? The rules are unfortunately pretty clear on this point. You’re gonna start your turn by rolling 3 “small dice” (I went with standard d6s here) and 1 “large di” (a d8 is larger than a d6 in terms of number of sides, I guess), and the result of rolling these 4 dice will determine how many dice you can roll for you next, real roll, which includes a selection of small dice, large dice and “special dice” (d4s? Sure…). And all of this just determines your “roll sum,” (or “RS”) which is essentially points you’re going to spend to do everything else on your turn.
And this is really the crux of the game right here, all laid out. Everything you can do is based on the points that you roll, I just needed to figure out exactly how that roll sum is calculated. I would like to note, however, that alarm bells are already going off. Not just because of how silly the whole rolling mechanic is, but because it introduces 2-tiered randomness. If you take 3d6 and roll them, then take the sum of those dice and roll that many d6s again, your spread of possibilities is huge. The sum of that second roll could be anywhere from 3 to 108. So one person would get to do nothing on their turn, and the next guy would get to do everything. I tried to mitigate this as much as possible, but there’s only so much one can do.
So, anyway, I decided to split the “RS” points up into different categories. Looking over the 7 phases of a turn, it looked like you spent your points to do 3 things: buy resources, build buildings (kind of) and move your troops around. In the case of buildings, it talks about a building multiplier in reference to rolling, so I decided that normally buildings would be built with resources, but you could also spend RS to multiply your number of builds after spending the resources. In addition, I also decided that playing action cards in the action phase would cost RS, so that is 4 different total categories.
So let’s talk about the different dice. In your second, real roll, you can roll up to 10 small dice (why do the rules say you need 12 small dice to play the game? I don’t know) and the sum of all these are going to be your generic points for your turn. You can spend those guys on whatever you want. You can also roll any number of large d8s, which have an even distribution of colored sides corresponding to the 4 different point expenditures: resources, action cards, buildings and movement. Whatever type you roll with those, you get 5 points to spend specifically toward that ability. If you rolled something you don’t want, you can exchange the points 5-to-1 for generic points.
This means that when you’re rolling that initial 3d6 plus 1d8, your getting the sum of the 3d6, plus a random color on the d8. This d8 determines which special dice you get to roll for your second roll. Okay, bear with me here – this is pretty nifty. Whereas d8s have an even distribution of the 4 colors, the special d4s are weighted towards one color. Each d4 has 3 sides (well, corners, actually) colored one way and 1 side colored another. With 4 colors, all possible combinations of this scheme add up to 12, which lines up perfectly with the rules. Moreover, that first d8 you rolled gave you a color, and that color says that you can only roll a special d4 in your second roll if at least 1 of its sides has a color corresponding to the color on the d8, leaving you with 6 of the 12 possible combinations to work with, which also lines up perfectly with the rules.
It was destiny. This is how the rolling of dice needed to be in the game. There was still a lot of randomness in that initial roll, but now you could focus on getting a set amount of points for things that you wanted to do instead of relying on the d6s in the second roll. And even if you rolled a color with the d8 on the first roll that you didn’t want, you could still use the special dice that had that as its minor color and what you wanted to do as its major color.
2 Wizards, a Maverick, an Arbiter, a Ledgerman, a Corporal and 2 Warriors Walk into a Bar
So now a typical turn was somewhat clearer: you roll for points, then spend those points to buy resources, play cards, scavenge, build buildings and move your troops around. We know that “4 cones wins,” but how to get those cones and what exactly a “challenge play” is is still a mystery, but next I want to talk about all the variable player roles in the game. If modern hobby gaming has taught us anything, it’s that variable player powers makes the game more interesting for everybody. What I mean by this is that how I play the game with this character is going to be different than how you play the game with that character. I get more armies to play with, but I don’t get to do something else quite as well.
But first of all, let’s talk about the big, fat joke that is being played on my dreams: 8 players. You need a minimum of 8 players to even attempt to play the game. What’s weird is that the rules say it plays up to 12, but the variations on the specific roles imply 6-8. I don’t know, I just decided to go with the “highly recommended” setup of 2 wizards, a maverick, an arbiter, a ledgerman, a corporal and 2 warriors. Apparently the ledgerman just keeps score (and wears the hat, of course), but that sounded boring, so I made him a playable character, as well. Plus having 8 players makes the board symmetric, which is nice.
What is not nice, though, is WAITING FOR 7 OTHER PLAYERS to take their turns. I just got through talking about how a 7-player game of Caverna is nothing short of insane, and this situation in Cones of Dunshire is even more untenable. I thought about some sort of simultaneous play, but I couldn’t get it to work with all the numbers everybody has to keep track of. Best just to put your head down, roll your dice and do everything you’ve gotta do as fast as possible. I’d say the player count of 8, combined with the way turns are structured, is the game’s biggest flaw. I’m afraid I could only do so much…
But anyway, let’s talk about player powers, because those are fun! We get little hints in the rules snippets: the maverick is the most complicated role, wizards have spells (duh), you buy agriculture cards from the arbiter, the second warrior can’t scavenge, etc.
What are spirit and agriculture cards, anyway? Well, let’s start with the wizards. From the setup, we see that wizards get a large amount of troops to play with – second only to the corporal – so whatever these spirit cards they control are, they can’t be too powerful. I decided to allow them to automatically draw 3 spirit cards at the start of each of their turns, and these cards would basically allow them to exchange action card points for something else at a pretty good rate. Like, maybe a card costs 10 points to play and lets the player teleport some troops to the other side of the board, which would normally cost him 15 or 20 movement points. Stuff like that.
But the rules specify 3 types of spirit cards: positive, negative and chaotic. Sure, positve cards do something good for you, negative cards do something bad to others, but chaos cards could be interesting. What if they perform random effects that the wizard may not even want, but he has no choice but to play the card? In the most extreme cases, the wizard would even switch roles with another player, making that guy a wizard and the original wizard something else. The game’s already ridiculous, why not go whole hog?
The way the chaos cards work specifically is that a wizard could draw one during his normal spirit draw at the beginning of his turn. He can’t play it on his own, but when play goes around the table and back to him, at the beginning of his next turn, the card goes off automatically like a time bomb to possibly disastrous effect. The safety net is that wizards can freely trade their spirit cards to whomever they wish for anything imaginable, but they can’t show the other players the cards before the trade. So the wizard could be telling you the truth about how he’s giving you a spell that will let you build a free farm, or he could be passing you an unwanted chaos card. And if he does pass you a chaos card, it immediately goes off.
This sounded like a good time to me, and it adds an interesting social aspect to the game. Wizards are the power brokers of the game, but you can never quite be sure what they’re giving you…
So what about the arbiter? Apparently you buy agriculture cards from him and he’s the only guy who can play famine agriculture cards. Sounds like a jerk. I’m not super-happy with where I settled on agriculture cards, but here’s what I did. There are 3 types of agriculture cards: harvest cards, which give you food based on how many farms you have, irrigation cards, which make harvest cards produce more food, and famine cards, in which the arbiter screws you over (essentially the opposite of an irrigation card that gets played on everybody else). So what is food exactly? Without creating further complications and extra resources to keep track of, I decided food was just how you produced new troops. Whenever you get food, you convert that 3-to-1 to troops and then lose any remainder.
So agriculture cards help build an army, which balances out the fact that the arbiter controls the deck, because his max troop count is rather small. He can easily build up to his max army size, but it still isn’t that big. This also mitigates the fact that players pay him for agriculture cards. Any time someone else wants to play one, they have to give the arbiter one of each resource, and then still pay the point cost to play the card during the action card phase. This gives the arbiter a bunch of extra resources.
The corporal and the warriors were a little easier to manage, though I probably could have modified them more. Admittedly there were some rules about resource doublers and retreating armies that I couldn’t fit in (though I did keep the corporal’s veto power, as discussed below). The first big thing, though, was the corporal’s gigantic troop limit – 1/3 of all the troops on the board. He could roll over any other army with that, so I had to put a few limitations on it. The first is that no single hex could have more than 5 troops (25 armies in the terminology of the rules – I divided everything by 5 because, seriously) of a single player. This put players that only had a max of 5 troops on more even footing with the players with larger troop counts. The second limit was that the corporal had to accompany any set of troops or they would receive a -1 in combat. His armies were plentiful, but it came at the cost of discipline.
On the other hand, warriors had a small troop count and nothing else in the rules to show for it (except that warrior 2 couldn’t scavenge – another detriment). So they became the opposite of the corporal. If they accompanied troops, hey would get a +1 combat. They could also steal resources from other players by moving through them. Honestly, though, these bonuses probably weren’t enough to offset their small armies.
And now we arrive at the maverick, the most complicated of roles. It is recommended that only the most experienced players use him, so I knew I had to do something ridiculous and awesome. I thought about it a long time and the key was really his other mention in the rules: “the Maverick may purchase cones regardless of position of armies IF AND ONLY IF he has induced Paramilitary Disruption.” I will admit that this quote had the effect on me that I am sure the writers intended: “What in the heck is Paramilitary Disruption?”
I decided to do the following: on his turn, the maverick would get to do his roll phase to accumulate his RS points, and then his turn would end. Instead of taking his turn all in one go, he has a set of paramilitary cards in front of him representing the other six phases of a turn (buy, action, scavenge, build, 2nd buy and advance). When another player is about to take one of those actions, he can interrupt them, flip over the corresponding card and take that action before them. This allowed him to play his turn out of order, which was sufficiently complicated and, in my opinion, pretty dang powerful when used right. He could advance first and move his troops on an enemy farm and then scavenge it before the other player could do anything about it.
But playing one of these cards as an interrupt wasn’t necessary a paramilitary disruption. No, we needed more complexity. If the maverick himself is occupying an enemy hex contain a specific building corresponding to the action he is interrupting the other player with, then he disrupts them and instead of just delaying them, they don’t get to take that action at all. How that fits in with the quote above is that if the player he is disrupting is eligible to attempt to buy a cone, the maverick can instead attempt to buy that cone, even if he would not normally be eligible. Pretty powerful.
And that brings us to the ledgerman, who was not even given troops because he’s not even supposed to be a character on the board. But the rules don’t say he couldn’t be. Plus, he loses a turn if he doesn’t wear his hat, which implies that he has turns to lose. So how on earth would he be powerful enough? And how would keeping track of everybody’s points and scores factor into his mechanics? Well, I decided that he would be in charge of the resources. Players would buy resources from him and any points spent on resources would be given to him. He’s the last to go in a round and he doesn’t actually get a roll phase, he just uses all the points given to him by other players. Except, well, it was a lot points. I eventually decided that it would be much more balanced if he divided the total by three and used that result.
But if he was the one who handled resources, it didn’t make any sense for him to buy them from himself. Instead, he didn’t use resources at all. He could just build buildings for the double build cost instead. But he also didn’t have troops, which made it very difficult to occupy territories and build new buildings, so I allowed him to build buildings on any hex adjacent to his avatar. And he also couldn’t defend his territories with no troops, so instead he taxed any players that stepped into his territory. So you could go raze his buildings, but it would cost you.
“It’s basically the game… in reverse.”
With the characters more-or-less locked into place, it was time to move on to the most mysterious aspect of the video: the “challenge play,” which apparently is the game in reverse. Umm, yeah.
Pretty early on I decided that this would be how players actually acquire cones and win the game. It was a multi-step process:
- First you would need to reach the first step of civilization and acquire a subcone. You could do this by owning 4 hexes with specific building configurations (it depended on which of the 4 cones you were going after).
- Once you had a subcone, you could advance past the Front of Tragaruno (or whatever it’s called) with your troops.
- Once past the front, you could then attempt a challenge play during your buy phase to attempt to buy a cone.
But what was a challenge play and how was it the game in reverse? This was the best I could come up with: The game is basically rolling for points, which you use to buy resources, which you use to build buildings. In that sense, the game in reverse would be looking at your buildings, turning that representation of buildings back into resources and then those resources back into points. By attempting a challenge play, you would accumulate points, and with enough points, you could buy a cone.
The specific mechanics, which get a little complicated, are in the rules PDF. I wasn’t 100% happy with it, but it worked pretty well. Even though it ended up being pretty random, it still forced players who were focusing on a specific cone to focus on building specific buildings. Because, you see, each cone represented a different god you were trying to appease, and each god focused on a different aspect of your civilization.
- The dragon (green) was interested in rapid general expansion. He wanted you to put as many buildings as you could on each of your hexes.
- The lava worm (red) was interested in industry. He wanted lots of industrial corridors.
- The minotaur (yellow) was interested in commerce. He liked commercial corridors, naturally.
- The last god was the kraken (blue). This cone was represented by a castle of some sort in the video, but I knew I wanted to go with the 4 gods theme, so I landed on the kraken rather randomly because the blue spaces on the board are “whirlpools.” The kraken favored warfare and wanted players to build lots of barracks.
“Are the cones a metaphor? Well, yes and no.”
So now we know what to do on our turn, all the various characters in the game, and what we need to do to win, but what about that mountain in the center of the board? What is up with that mountain and that shiny cone that perches on it? The Vulture article helped me a lot with this one, because the gold cone didn’t get mentioned at all in the rules.
This sparkly bad boy is the “Cone of Decision,” and it can be covered or uncovered, which apparently represents the dark and light side of man…and also putting sleeves on your cards or some such nonsense.
Anyway, clearly someone could go to the top of this mountain and control this cone, making the world light or dark depending on their whim. I tried to incorporate the difference between light and dark as much as possible in the game, changing the costs and effects of action cards and also how effective certain challenge play cards were. I also decided that controlling the cone of decision would count towards your 4 cone goal to slightly open up the idea of multiple paths to victory.
But how to gain control? Well, the corporal’s still got that veto. And the video mentions something about trivia cards. What can I do with that? Well, obviously we vote on who controls the cone, and then the winner of the vote must correctly answer a trivia question to gain control. Seriously, what could go wrong when you add trivia questions to your heavy, 4X (kind of) Euro game? To be fair, though, they are trivia questions about the state of the game; something like, “How many cones does the blue player have?” and not “What movie won the Oscar for best picture in 1982?” So it more or less just forced you to pay attention to everything going on in the game, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
And the vote, well, you had to be on the summit of the mountain to participate in the vote, and each character had a vote strength based on how crappy their other abilities were. For instance, warrior 2 had the highest vote strength of 3 because, seriously, dude can’t even scavenge. I sort of cast him as the “noble warrior.” He’s not going to go around burning other people’s farms down, and he gets respect for that.
“Obviously this will be much taller in the real game.”
So the only thing left to do now is figure out how exactly the board is laid out and what that means for the players. Okay, obviously, I did a lot of other stuff, but this is the last major point to talk about. If you look at the video, the board hex spaces are actually very sparse. In the rules itself, it says in the components list that there are only 37 of them. I don’t know if that sounds small to you, but remember: 8 players. If we assign, say, 5 hexes to the mountain, that only gives each player 4 hexes to control before they start butting up against each other. It just wasn’t going to work with the mechanics I designed, so I decided I needed to fudge a bit and went with a 70-hex board.
This opened things up a lot and made for a better game where players had the room to grow and develop their own unique civilization before butting heads. I didn’t want player elimination, and 37 hexes really would have forced that to come out – you’d need to eliminate other players before you could advance your civilization to an adequate size. No thanks.
“It’s fine. I’ll just throw this in the garbage.”
Well, I think that just about covers all the major development points in this project. I had a lot of fun developing the rules and playing out a real live game of it. Though, due to the 8-player limit, I doubt I’ll ever break it out again. It just takes too long to play.
Honestly, this is even a little embarrassing to share with the world, because I started with such a broken, ridiculous set of rules, even after all my efforts, the game still just doesn’t quite work. I’ve designed a real game that’s up on Kickstarter right now – a game that is actually well designed and fun to play – and I can only hope this mess doesn’t reflect poorly on my skills as a designer. If it does, just remember that I really only spent about a week messing about with the Cones of Dunshire rules. Forge War, on the other hand, has been cooking in the oven for more than a year.
But, I don’t know, if you’re really into the Cones of Dunshire and can find 7 other people equally enthusiastic, then by all means head over and play it for yourself. Also feel free to change any of the rules you want. They’re certainly not sacred.
And if you’d rather just live vicariously through me and my friends, head over to part one of our chronicles to find out who became the Lord of Dunshire.
And from the bottom of my heart, thank you for reading all of this nonsense.