Road to Thingvellir

So for anyone who’s been following along my other thread, you may have caught that at some point in tinkering with Impulse, I came up with a strong inspiration for a new theme, and that has spun into a separate but similar design that I’m interested in pursuing.

I present: Road to Thingvellir, a historically-rooted 4X game set in the age of the Icelandic Commonwealth, from about 960 - 1262 CE.

Players take on the role of a line of goði - the priest/politican/lawyers who collectively ruled during the Commonwealth - and manipulate the politics of the national parliament (the Alþing) to attempt to outmaneuver their rivals to earn the most wordfame.

I’m interested in continuing to develop this into a more fully-fledged game of its own, rather than a hack of a bad game, so this thread exists to document those efforts on their own.

A major thing I’m doing is driving really really hard at the theme and history, and attempting to tie mechanics pretty directly to major principles that outline the historical reality of this era of life in Iceland. I am really intrigued by games whose mechanics reinforce and emerge directly from the theme, and given that this theme is near and dear to my heart, I figured this was the perfect time to play with that.

I’m also doing graphic design (functional anyway) alongside mechanics development, because I think the visual reminders of the theme will help keep development efforts grounded exactly where I want them. Immersion in the theme to help stay on track, that sort of thing.

There are several important principles I am keeping in mind while developing this game; they all are tied to specific cultural ideas among the Icelandic Norse, and so they are important in centering the mechanics.

I’ve got an initial set of print-and-play assets ready to go, though I also need to make low-ink versions. I’ll be putting this up on TTS because that’s way easier than printing a bunch of different cards all the time.

Cards
Backs
Mats and such

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That graphic design is already looking good. Slap that image at the top of a Kickstarter page.

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Principles:


History: The game is primarily inspired by the events described in 5 major Icelandic sagas:

Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar (Egil Skallagrimsson’s saga)
Brennu-Njáls saga (Burnt-Njal’s saga)
Laxdæla saga (The Saga of the People of Laxárdalr)
The Vinland Sagas: Eiríks saga rauða (Eirik the Red’s saga) and Grænlendinga saga (The Saga of the Greenlanders)
Sturlunga saga (The Sturlung saga)

All of these sagas have connections to one another, and so form a giant network of soap opera style relationships.

Additionally, I’ve pulled characters from other sagas and tales:
Bandamanna saga
Eyrbyggja saga
Gísla saga Súrssonar
Grettis saga
Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu

And more besides. You get the idea.

There are 52 individual named characters, with somewhat more than half taken directly from the first 4 sagas (representing a significant portion of the Sagas of Icelanders), and players have their home base at one of 6 locations from which the 6 major families of the Sturlung saga originated. Those locations are represented by cards, on the back of which is a short blurb about the relevant family and their role in the Icelandic Civil War that spelled the end of the Commonwealth.

When I get there, the full rulebook will include historical context and notes on the sides, to explain the history and how I’ve chosen to represent it. I’ll also be delving into racial and ethnic diversity as well as gender roles, as explicit push against the long-standing white supremacist appropriation of Norse history.

My goal is to present the history of a slice of the Norse people as it was both factually and emotionally - a nuanced complicated people who balanced a diverse population in an effort to sustain their ways against a colonizing force. This is a view of the Norse that is tragically under-represented in popular media and that has allowed their history to become tarnished by hate.


Resource Scarcity

Archaebotanical and soil analysis tells us that Iceland could, at best, sustain subsistence-level agriculture for its ~50,000 inhabitants. The vast majority of wealth that was brought into the country came from elsewhere - either what the settlers took with them when leaving their home country, or the products of Viking raiders. Overseas trade allowed for some extra income, but the Icelanders never knew anything approaching “abundance” or “excess.” Given that the Norse were a primarily agrarian people, trying to farm a volcanic hellscape does not lend itself well to a rich culture - and yet, they did it.

We also estimate that the Norse had almost completely deforested the island by about 970 CE, so there is a large degree to which unsustainable environmental practices may have prevented the island from flourishing.

I’ve tried to reflect this principle by making the basic mechanisms of engagement slow and inefficient. In order to run efficiently, you need to interact with other players directly, and you need to design a clever system to exploit your actions as much as possible.


Largesse

In may places in Norse and earlier Germanic cultures, we find a consistently held principle - generous distribution of wealth is the hallmark of a good ruler. This is stated as much in Beowulf, Odin mentions it in Voluspa, and throughout the sagas we see this explicitly discussed and showcased as a critical principle.

Wealth was not considered of value unless it was given generously to those who need it - and in some cases in the sagas, we see many instances of people enriching those around them to their later downfall. Giving other people the means to unmake you was seen as an act of honor, but the sagas of full of betrayals of trust and honor.

To reflect this, the most efficient points-generation mechanic, Feast, involves giving your own wealth directly to other players. You get a bunch of points now, and they get a resource that they can later use against you or to generate points for themselves.

This system of trading gifts and wealth was critical to sustaining the meager resources of Iceland - if any one person hoarded too much wealth, it mean they directly deprived people of the means to live, and was held as akin to murder. Thus, largesse was not just a virtue - it was a necessity, and the abrogation of that principle is what ultimately lead to the events of Sturlung saga and the eventual collapse of the Commonwealth.


Feud
Jesse Byock, a professor of Norse studies at UCLA, has written a book studying the system of feuds in Iceland, and concludes they were a necessary outgrowth of the aforesaid resource scarcity. If the principle of largesse was a necessary part of the social contract, then the feud was the means by which that contract was enforced.

Feuds were often started for seemingly small reasons - literally over fence placement or abuse of grazing lands - and could continue for generations, seeing spurts of fighting and bloodshed followed by lawsuits and settlements in the courts.

Feuds were rarely wars nor were they fought to the last man - rather, there would be killings on each side as tempers flared, and compensation would be paid to the respective families. I have reflected this by making combat a short affair with a limited body count and the possibility of enriching the loser via compensation. It’s one way to get Wealth that you can later leverage.

If I do it right, combat shouldn’t be a goal, but rather a tool to get you from one point to another in limited scope.

At least, at the outset anyhow.


The Laws of Free Men

This game will use the voting mechanic I devised by default. Iceland was home to the world’s first formal parliament; there were no kings, only the goði representing the interests of their district at the legal assembly. Life revolved very significantly around the proceedings of the Althing.

Lawsuits were a common part of Assembly life. I’ve reflected their importance and some of the way they operated by allowing a bonus to a declared Lawsuit if you have Thingmen around Thingvellir - in many places in the sagas, thingmen “ride to Althing” in preparation for a major lawsuit, so I want to reflect that marshalling of forces to prepare for legal action.

And of course, the inevitable feud that comes out of the decision.


Outlawry

Almost all law in Iceland was civil law. Lawsuits were used to settle everything from border disputes to killings, and penalties for various civil offenses were readily outlined. Gragas, The Gray Goose Laws, includes an entire section on weregild, the prices paid for the killings of various people, as well as the standardized worth of various goods.

The only criminal penalty in Iceland was outlawry, of which there were two types: lesser and full. Lesser outlawry lasted 3 years, while full outlawry was permanent. Lesser outlawry might be assessed for an offense like accusing someone of infidelity unjustly, whereas full outlawry was typically reserved for murder (which is separate from the lawful regulated killings in a feud).

The penalty was the same: outlawry meant you lost all civil rights in Iceland. You lost ownership of your property, you lost the right to sue or be heard at various Things, and nobody would need to pay compensation to anyone for killing you. You were very literally voted off the island.

I haven’t fully fleshed out the mechanics, but I intend to include a mechanic whereby a player can become Outlawed, and when that happens they play by a different set of rules. Somewhat like a traitor mechanic crossed with the Vagabond from Root, I think, but I’m not totally sure yet. All I know is I want outlawry because it was a major concept at the time, and it was the most dramatic enforcement of the Commonwealth way of life.

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Pretty easy when some dead Swede from the 16th century did the artwork for you. :wink:

I’ve used a lot of public domain artwork to cement the theme. Stuff like this:

logberg2

From here it’s just been a matter of layout and text and icon overlays.

It’s almost like this is what the public domain is for!

No idea if I’d go so far as to Kickstart it, but if I tighten it up enough I’ll definitely be putting it on The Game Crafter at the very least.

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Just learned about this. They even have an API!

Soooo life got really all-consuming in late August, and I’m just now coming out the other side of it - which means I’m finding my creative juices again and have returned to work on this project!

Once I’m done updating my TTS and Screentop assets, I’m going to be looking to put together some playtests in the coming weeks!

But while I was tinkering around, I came up with an idea to solve a problem I was having, but can’t quite make the solution go all the way and was wondering if anyone had ideas.


Right now, I have 13 “units” per player, each of which can represent two states (Thingman or Steward). This means my game needs meeples of some kind in addition to cards, and I really really want to try to get this done with cards only if at all possible - I really like that “most use out of fewest components” thing. I think doing this could also reduce noise on the board.

So my thought is to represent Thingmen with face-down cards drawn into your Stead using the Provision action, and you use the Ride action to deploy them at Farms you manage (tuck them under that card), or to fight at a Farm someone else manages (immediately use them in a feud), or to Althing (face down on your mat).

I would completely eliminate Stewards as a unit you build and move, and instead use Settle to slowly spread area control using adjacency rules (i.e. Settle lets you build up existing farms or start new ones adjacent to places you control) and some kind of way to denote which player controls which farm.

If I can pull it off, that would be everything represented with cards alone.

BUT

How do I represent which player “owns” a space without using some other kind of token (a chit or some such), and without physically removing cards from the map? I’m not necessarily opposed to cardboard chits or some such, but if I could overcome this one problem it would complete the idea. I’d like to try it with the fewest added things I can manage.

I thought about maybe using hexes and rotating them in a specific way but that feels weird. Aegean Sea uses uniquely-colored card backs to denote faction, which is an interesting way to do it but would involve whole lots of design changes that I’m not prepared for.

Thoughts?

If you’re going cards-only, you could have separate cards for stewardship, and you take those. Not sure I love it - some kind of marker to indicate ownership is clear, but then your cost probably goes up.

If I recall, the offices in the original design of John Company were cards, and it eventually got designed into a board that you’d put family members (cubes) on for readability.

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Yeah, that’s my other consideration - tokens make information unambiguous, and that probably wins in the end.

I was thinking about a compromise and using fence tokens to denote borders (so you own every contiguous card between your Stead and a fence), which would also be thematically appropriate because the Icelanders literally sued and feuded over the exact placement of fences. You would still need separate tokens, but like, 20 of em instead of 78.

Component cost probably shouldn’t be a big concern anyway because it’s not like I’m thinking about making something commercially viable, so I think this might be more of an intellectual exercise than anything. I do kinda like the idea of having lots of STUFF on the board, but when the game itself is busy it might be good to reign in the STUFF. I dunno, we’ll see what happens with playtests.

My .02 Currency is that more discrete and specialized stuff is often more clear than having a universal stuff that represent 10 different things based on specific placement or rotation or what-not. The use of one card to do different stuff is cool in some ways but that economy can definitely get pushed too far.

That said there is a bit of intellectual intrigue in trying to optimize and economize the ways in which elements can be used that I totally understand, and the challenge of trying to do more with less is noble while just throwing a unique chit at every possible thing is easy and can quickly spiral out of control. So unless some interesting gameplay is opened up by combining that element I say don’t fear more doobles on the doobleydoo.

Well, if you want laser-marked and cut wood tokens, I have that capability now, so give us a holler.

Well, I’ve finally recovered enough creative energy and game-learning brain to sit down and learn how to play my own game. I tried several times through TTS and I just…can’t really learn through that interface. At least, not from the ground up.

I’m stepping back from organizing playtests for a moment - before I do that, I want to get self-playtests in to confirm that my game reaches a steady end state reliably. Once I’ve confirmed that it’s stable, then I’ll start poking people.

Pursuant to that, I just finished test 1! And so far it does appear that I have a discrete game loop that leads to an end condition.

Stability Test 1: Notes

Winner: The Ásbirnings from Flugumyri (Feast basic action)

  • stick with tokens for units/ownership, cards already do a lot
  • the “claim by adjacency instead of moving” idea may have legs; development of farms was tough to pull off before game end
  • Foster didn’t happen a lot but made a big difference
  • As expected, Feast is the best way to get points, and also creates a wealth-exchange circle-jerk
  • game doesn’t really seem to “go” until everyone has a second farm - maybe do a “jumpstart” variant where we get a random second farm before we start making decisions
  • Murder works as intended - it’s a way to remove someone from a position of power and to claim a little wealth, but doesn’t actually help you win directly
  • Feuds need work probably, but also functioned mainly as a tool to change positional influence rather than to get points, which is also intended
  • probably need another way for Wealth to “exit” - as it is, Feast and Raid promote wealth accumulation which just leads to circular points generation, and the “travel to Thingvellir to sell goods” thing is really really hard to do; maybe as part of “grow by spreading,” you can set up a booth at Thing and then have your Thingmen sell goods if they don’t support during a Lawsuit
  • the political aspect of voting on actions feels meaningful but obviously I can’t really assess that since I’m politicking against myself
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Stability Test 2

Winner: The Oddaverjar from Oddi (Foster basic action)

  • Foster happened many times this game and was very instrumental in making successful engines. The “bonus point” figures in particular had a lot of bang for the buck.
  • The composition of the Law Rock matters a lot. The actions that are available in the pool are the main driver of the game, which is intended.
  • Lawsuits seem to be the best way to change the course of the game so far.
  • Growing stuff is definitely too clunky. I think I have a way to solve this problem and the Wealth glut at the same time - when you Grow anything, maybe you can spend Wealth as “material” on the way to your endpoint. Will need to figure out how to word that to make it not confusing as heck.
  • Not sure if there’s enough incentive to fire your engine early to get a few points as opposed to waiting until it’s ready to win you the game in like 2 or 3 actions? Using points to commit Murder is nice but doesn’t seem like an attractive trade. Will keep an eye on this.
  • Definitely need to revamp Stewards and territory growth and all that jazz. Already have a coherent idea for this, will test later.
    -The game seems quick in terms of number of actions - I think each player (4-player game) got to be Lawspeaker 5 times. Seems like 20 - 24 actions before the game ends? Maybe 30 on the outside? Will keep track next time. This also pleases me because historically, a Lawspeaker had a 3-year term, and most of the events referenced in the game take place between 960 and 1030 CE - or in other words, game length seems to match up pretty much perfectly with its actual historical timeframe. I was hoping this would happen but definitely did not pull that off intentionally.

Stability Test 3

OK so fuck the whole “10 playtests before changes” thing, there are a number of things showing themselves as needing to be changed. I didn’t finish this one.

This time, I played with this idea:

I pulled from the store of dudes and used one to denote ownership of a farm. These tokens never move, they’re just placemarkers.

This worked really well. I turned Settle into “grow farms X times,” where “grow” is “increment something you own by 1, or claim a facedown space.” I didn’t have piles of otherwise useless figures around, and it made managing units on the map easier.

This also means that the Provision action now seems really pointless, since the only thing you’d deploy out and about are Thingmen. Ride only affects Thingmen now, so there’s a separate “grow farms” action and a “move dudes” action.

My next idea is to completely eliminate the Provision action, and instead use Ride to have Thingmen deploy from your longhall directly. 1 action = put 1 dude out on a road, or move 1 band of dudes who are already out once. I think I like that idea a lot more than the current two-part actions of deploying and moving, and thematically it makes more sense - the sagas are full of things like “blah blah rode out from the stead” and stuff like that. You would rarely provision people for a lengthy journey in Iceland because there weren’t any lengthy journeys possible.

I’d just redistribute the cards to other actions, or maybe make Provision do something else entirely? I think I’d rather just get rid of an action since the game is already too complex.

Other thoughts:

-Card drawing needs to be better. I think the easiest way to handle this is to do what every other fucking Chudyk like this does and make it a “refresh to [x cards] or draw 1 if already at [x]” kind of thing. Either 4, or 1 + the number of farms you manage. I sorta like the latter option because it’s incentive to take and hold territory, and to take it from other players.

-Pretty sure growing anything needs to involve just chucking some number of other resources from your hand. I’ve been sticking hard to this “1-2-3” sequence thing and ultimately it just makes the game too dictated by chance, and leaves you stuck. Need to figure out exactly how, but “discard cards equal to the worth of the card you’re building” is pretty dead basic. How that would interact with “grow X times” I have zero clue.

-Playing around with a “renter” mechanic where you pay someone else 1 VP to put a Thingmen on their farm in order to be able to use its action. Make that part of Ride? Also gives a reason to have early VP.

-Maybe reverse the order of paying for Murder - VP or an oath if you have it

-Came up with a wildly asymmetrical initial card layout that represents the physical layout of Iceland, complete with factional steads roughly in their historic locations, and while I have no idea if it’s balanced, it looks cool to me, so I might fuck with that a bit and see what happens

-Might need a default Raid action, and maybe change how Raid works a little bit? Maybe one action to send a dude from your hall out, and another to bring a dude back to your hall with goods? I like the thematic feel of that.

EDIT: Actually I think I can keep 1-2-3 as a build sequence if I just add something like “+1 action to use a different worth than what you need”

So:
1 action to increment by 1
+1 to use the wrong color
+1 to use the wrong size

Maybe clunky but the simplest change I can make right now that doesn’t involve reworking a ton of stuff.

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On the topic of layouts, here’s what I’ve been poking at to reflect the theme of the game.

Over on Sagamap, you can select various Icelandic sagas and map them to their real-world locations on a contemporary satellite image of Iceland. It’s a really cool way to visualize where all this action was happening and where these famous sites were.

Anyway, what I did was map all the major sagas from which I drew characters and inspiration, and it looks something like this:

Iceland Saga Map

This right here is my default layout for the game, based on the Impulse layout. It puts Thingvellir at the center, as the Althing was the center of political, social, and economic life on the island. The factions all have equal access and vie for control in a map that abstracts the geopolitics of the island.

So I thought, “hm, wonder what it’s like if I represent the saga island in cards and just leave it wildly asymmetrical?”

The hole in the middle is a giant glacier that, as far as we know, was not meaningfully inhabited during the saga period; you can see as much in the saga map. Thingvellir doesn’t have access on all sides either, which is not geographically accurate but has possibly interesting in-game consequences; on the saga map, it’s a red triangle in the middle of the “claw” section on the left, right near a blue triangle.

I’ve attempted to emulate the shape of the island, as well as roughly plant the home steads of the factions where they would go in real life. Given that area control is a major part of this game, you can imagine how this would probably wildly change the strategies you’d need to employ depending on the factions you play.

I haven’t played with this map yet, but as I stare at the game I have to say I like the look of this one much more than just some boring hexagon.

At this stage one wonders why I’m even bothering with a card map. This really could probably be a straight-up board, and who knows, I may do that.

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I like the asymmetrical map better. The hole
Looks weird though. Just have some cards marked “glacier”.

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Yeah, I was going to bash up some stark white cards or something like that to denote it.

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The satellite map where all the sagas were located is REALLY cool! While the symmetrical map might be more balanced, I agree that the asymmetrical map is more interesting and more historically accurate.

While I know that this project started out as a way for you to “fix” Impulse, at this stage, you’re so far removed from that game that you shouldn’t feel limited by that game’s components.

I definitely think you should just go with a board.

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Yeah I mean, right now the mechanics are still entirely card-driven because I like that kind of thing, and ultimately it’s a way to get more mileage out of fewer components. I can foresee some kind of card-board hybrid, though. While I’m attracted to the “less stuff” approach, I am also attracted to the “fiddle with bits” approach.

Like, a board with tiles and Norse warrior minis and longhouse tokens and shit? I could be on board with that.

At the very least, I think a mat with the physical layout and a perimeter score track would make solid sense. Instead of dealing out cards to make the map, you just like, draw cards when needed.

I could play with like, using Oaths to represent the powers of farms or something, so that the cards never actually need to hit the board. That’ll be a long long way off before I play with that, but it’s a thought.

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I only played Impulse a couple of times, and clearly the game had its faults, but regardless of how undercooked it was, I was not a fan of the components or how everything was card-driven.

Obviously different strokes and all that, but Impulse just seemed too… I don’t know… fiddly for me. It seemed more like an experiment than an actual game. Like Chudyk was thinking: “How can I create as many mechanisms as possible out of the same deck of cards.” While that’s fine as an experiment, as a game, I didn’t like it.

But hey, that’s just me.

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Yeah, this is what I’m trying to collapse, basically. I like the cards doing more than one thing, but Impulse went too far. Reining it in is definitely a long-term goal - hence like, my thought about eliminating an entire action because it doesn’t need to happen.

I think I’ve honestly identified 4 core actions that need to happen for a complete gameplay loop that works for what I want to do, and the question is what is the minimum amount of stuff beyond that necessary to make my idea interesting?

So, feedback good, lots of thinky thoughts.

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