During last year's December sale, we included a small freebie game for folks who ordered at least two games. Said small freebie game, Christmas at White Mountain, was pretty well-received (better than most small freebie games, I think), and led eventually to the design and release of Table Battles, which has proven to be very popular. So of course we were going to do another small freebie game for this year's December sale.
And, just like last year, I had no idea what I was going to do. Working on the assumption that Table Battles was going to be successful - at this point, it hadn't come out yet - I floated the idea of doing a one- or two-scenario "mini-expansion" as this year's freebie, with maybe eight or nine cards. Mary nixed that, though: "What if they don't have the base game? You've just given them the expansion for a game they don't have."
"Well, they can look up the rules online, and play the expansion, and then they'll want to buy the base game."
"Yeah, we're not doing an expansion. Asking someone to scrounge up some wood bits and dice is one thing. Asking them to look up how to play it online is another."
So, no expansion. I then started thinking that I should do some kind of standalone card game - bonus points if I could get all the rules on the cards - but was still in the unenviable position of trying to cast around for a game that would fit those specifications. This is, incidentally, completely backwards. I usually design a game by starting with its subject ("I want to do a game about the Peace of Westphalia") or a dynamic I want to explore ("something-something tempo and momentum") or, more rarely, a mechanism ("it's a wargame, but with set collection maybe?"). And then I build the game - its rules, its components, its parameters - working from that foundation. Whereas in this case, it was "I need a game, any game, on any topic, to fit these specific and restrictive parameters, and it needs to be ready before December."
On top of that, since we were giving the game away, every copy would be a slight financial loss, which is hardly a great motivator. Doing it as a card game - even a small one - would increase that financial loss, and so Mary very wisely suggested that I keep to last year's model of one small mapsheet and one page of rules. And really, Mary laying down the law like that was key. I had kinda gotten focused on trying to do a game with only ten or fifteen cards, and it gave me a kind of a tunnel vision, shutting out anything that didn't fit that mold. Once doing a card game was off the table, I was able to step back, and shortly thereafter, the game that would become Napgammon came together fairly quickly and seamlessly.
I was, at the time, playing a fair amount of backgammon, something I do every once in a while, it being my favorite classical abstract. It's a game of movement, position, and calculated risk, a game in which everything is in flux, of melting blockades and canny timing. And it does all this in what is, for all intents and purposes, a one-dimensional space. It occurred to me that my previous small freebie game was one that ignored maneuver and position, and that it might be interesting for this small freebie game to be completely focused on those qualities. It also occurred to me that the basic roll-and-move foundation of backgammon could potentially be applied to a two-dimensional space.
Of course, that two-dimensional space would need to be interesting. Some kind of terrain would be needed, and that terrain would need to confer some kind of positional or defensive advantage. This, plus the emphasis on maneuver, suggested to me something vaguely European and early nineteenth century, which in turn suggested the first part of the title.
Now I needed some way to resolve the collision of the forces on each side, something that would take into account the advantages of terrain, and would highlight some basic, broad-strokes Napoleonic strategies such as flanking and overwhelming a small portion of the enemy force by surprising them with everything you've got. I figured that since I was using one old-fashioned and somewhat disreputable mechanism - roll-and-move - that I might as well use another, the odds-based column-shifting CRT (incidentally, only the second time I've done so in a game). But I didn't want to do just another roll, as I think that coupled with the movement rolls would make the game too swingy. It occurred to me that in most games, movement values are deterministic while combat is probabilistic, and that it might be reasonably clever to reverse it: randomized movement with deterministic (yet odds-based) combat results. This also greatly simplified the approach to terrain, since it would be the terrain type cross-referenced with the odds that would determine what happened.
Originally I had Eliminated units "on the bar", so to speak, and thus able to return, but the initial playtests revealed that that made the game into a long slog. And so units would be permanently removed from the game. This gave the alternate win condition - have at least twice as many units on the map as your opponent - some teeth, and made the decision to bring on units from your reserve more important. The game underwent some fairly rapid testing over the next two months.
At that point, Mary and I talked about art. Now, for our first freebie game, there was no real "art" budget: it was just a little drawing I had made in Photoshop, with some functional-if-clunky text boxes to put dice on. It wasn't really a "map" at all, requiring no study before a player made his move. But this was a game where the various spaces and roads needed to look like things, and players would be staring at the map and studying the position of the enemy troops and the nuances of the terrain. So it would need to look pretty.
And yet we were also quite cognizant of the fact that every one of these games would be produced at a loss, and tacking an art budget on top of it would multiply our losses four or five times over. It's not, in the strictest sense of the word, a "good" business decision, but if we were overly concerned with always making good and profitable business decisions, we probably wouldn't be making boutique board games, and we certainly wouldn't be making them via print-on-demand - the most expensive and least efficient way to do so!So we bit the bullet and hired Ilya Kudriashov to do the map for us, and it really is a beautiful little thing, compact and clean and utterly charming. I hope, somewhat humbly, that the game itself also embodies those qualities.