The game’s afoot
December 14th 2015
Some of you (at least those paying attention) will have realised that I’ve accidentally invented a board game, and that I’ve promised to explain myself at some point. This is (partly) that point.
The genesis of this somewhat random tangent happened in an entirely organic way. I started writing a story, set in an alternative but entirely viable ancient Persia, sometime after the time of Genghis Khan, but before Timur. It was supposed to be a bleak and melancholy tale of love and loss, echoing against a background of societal collapse and the end of dreams of nationhood. What it turned out to be was a thigh-slapping, hail-fellow-well-met romp, complete with cross-dressing, moustache twirling villains, bumbling heroes, beautiful princesses, wild escapes and gripping sword fights. Certainly more The Princess Bride than Joseph Conrad, so that the title was changed from We Are But Dust to The Alchemist’s Dream.
The plot centres on an unjustly exiled inventor, Abbas (the titular alchemist) and his machinations from afar to gain both justice and revenge against the wicked prince who caused all his woes. And part of his intricate web of intrigue involves a game. A game which, inevitably, several of the characters play during the course of the story, and requires the conduct of the games to be described.
I thought at the earliest stage I could just wing it. Very shortly afterwards, I realised I couldn’t. So I put the writing aside, came up with a board, and an aesthetic, and some rules, and made a prototype. I know that sounds a bit blithe, but I was on an inexplicable creative high at the time, and everything just fell into place. I did discover that my ambition outstripped my woodworking skills, but there were ways around that. But, pretty much from the off, I realised that I hadn’t just managed to cobble together something that would work for the story – my original intention – but something that actually would work and exist outside of it, on its own merits.
Unfortunately for me, the game (at this point, it had no name, either in real life or in the book) was very easy to learn to play – again, something demanded by the story – but very difficult to make. Abbas, the ‘original creator’, is a skilled craftsman and inventor, with access to all kinds of forges and lathes, and because this is storyland, we don’t get to see his struggles. Back in the real world…
The problem was exactness. The playing surface consists of thirty one interlocking tiles, each one in the shape of a cluster of seven hexagons. If I’m even slightly out, they don’t tessellate. And the whole point of the thirty one tiles is that they can be positioned anywhere on the board, in any orientation, to give an almost infinitely variable arrangement. Each tile can be placed in any of thirty positions. Each tile can be rotated six times. That gives me (assuming my maths is correct) somewhere in the region of 10^200 combinations. In practice, it’s going to be less than that, but it’s still a very large number, and given the length of the universe, unlikely that the board will repeat itself. Ever.
So cutting each tile out of hardboard by hand managed to prove the concept worked, but it wasn’t very aesthetically pleasing, and frankly a bit shonky. Then I discovered that laser-cut mdf hexagons were a thing, used as bases for mounting wargames figurines. A flurry of emails followed, and I had ordered not only a pile of lovely, accurate hexagons, but I’d also commissioned the seven-hex shape as a special order.
For the first ‘proper’ game set, I used tiles of mdf hexes mounted on picture framing backing board, spray-painted with grey primer and the patterns in enamel, with a top coat of spray varnish. The board itself was a circle of plywood, with added hexagons (to secure the tiles). The pieces were cut from dowel and square-section wood, and sanded, painted and varnished. It looked surprisingly good, though my card-cutting was still a bit inaccurate.
My crafting skills weren’t what we were here for, though. How did it play?
The idea – a battle between the alchemical elements – translated surprisingly well, and the variable board made for combinations of the different coloured cells that were unpredictable, forcing each player to adopt different tactics in each game. Originally each player was going to have twenty Stones (the cuboid pieces) defending their Symbol (the pillar), but I soon realised that it would make it too easy to just defend. Reducing the Stones to ten made the game fluid, and presented the player with real choices: defend, attack, hold the centre of the board, solo Stones against moving in groups, and so on. Each game took some forty-five minutes to an hour to complete, which was a decent enough length too – not too quick, but neither did it drag on. And the intellectual challenge – there are no dice, and it’s pure strategy – proved to be of a high standard, even if some of the solutions involved low cunning.
In a moment of madness, I offered to take the game to Eastercon for play testing. In another moment of madness, they accepted it. Which forced me to do two things. One, name the damned thing. Two, make more sets, and try and get the original board (a somewhat unwieldy circle of wood, 60cm in diameter) in a smaller form. The game is now, like the book, called The Alchemist’s Dream (which isn’t confusing at all…). And I’m just finishing off my fourth set. The laser-cut tile shapes have really helped, and I’ve experimented with a four-part board too, which works well on a table top.
The cons of doing this sort of thing are obvious: it can turn into a massive time sink, and for a game like this, the prototyping stage can get expensive – each set costs, just the parts and paint, about £50 to make. The pros, however are this: I have a game, which works, is unique, and I want to share with others. I’ll be taking it to places – I’ve already an offer from a lecturer in (computer) games design to inflict it on his students, and there’s Eastercon, where the formal session will be limited to probably half a dozen, but there’s always the bar for more informal games.
I appreciate I’ve left some of the game mechanics out of this, but that’s because I want you to ask me for a game. I want feedback, and I want something I can take to a manufacturer and say “This is good. Let’s talk.”