Richard Berg passed away Friday, 26 July 2019. We were honored to work with him on his game Dynasty.
Shortly before we released Richard Berg's Dynasty, I got a message from a friend who wanted to know if I had played the game, and if it was any good. Well, of course I had played the game, and of course it was good; what kind of question is that? While I know there are some publishers who don't play their games before pushing them out into the world, that's not how Mary and I operate, and I can't imagine any circumstances where we could operate that way. And we wouldn't publish a game if it wasn't good, or, at least, if we didn't think it was good - tastes vary, of course, and there are games I love that maybe you don't, and probably vice-versa!
The friend was asking because he had found Berg games to be somewhat hit-and-miss in his experience. I admitted that, with a couple of exceptions, I wasn't a huge fan of the Berg games I had played in the past. Not that I thought they were bad; they had their passionate defenders and a great sense of the history, they just hadn't done all that much for me as a player. Part of that might be that a lot of those Berg games I played had command-spans and facing and used ten-sided dice, and generally, I don't like command-spans, facing, or ten-sided dice. To the point that, when we had started up Hollandspiele, we hadn't even thought of approaching Mr. Berg. In fact, he approached us, pitching us several titles. Among those was Dynasty.
Dynasty was different than any Berg game I had ever played. It won me over almost as soon as we got it on the table. The shifting asymmetries of the player positions, the vulnerabilities created every time you advance your own position, the feedback loops that made those positions brittle and the game itself fragile: if you've read even a small portion of the dozens of blogposts I've written over the last year or so, you know that these are the kinds of things I love when I play games, that I love putting in my games, and that I love pontificating about ad nauseam. So, yes, Dynasty got my attention and my adoration roughly ten minutes into our first play.
It was like one of my games, only it wasn't, because it was a three-hour multiplayer game with lots of swingy event cards and a very Bergian sensibility. (Only Richard Berg would tell players to settle a tie with longswords; only Richard Berg would have an event card bemoaning the sudden lack of General Tso's chicken throughout the land.)
Mary and I discussed the game. We knew that, potentially, it could have some broader crossover appeal with eurogamers, though that might be limited by the game's three hour play time. (Shortening the play time was an avenue we explored, but ultimately abandoned: the thing needs time to breathe and to develop.) Gamers who might be into the longer playtime and the rich multiplayer dynamics - what I guess you could call the "heavy" gamers - might be put off by the Bergian randomness. Our core audience of solo and two-player wargamers might have trouble getting it onto the table as the game really needed three or four players to sing. They might also be looking for something that's a deeper and more granular simulation.
And all those are things that can conscribe a game's marketability to a given segment. You're really looking for folks who like long games and euro-style abstraction and random event cards and have a group to play it with, and that's a lot of ands. I don't know if that's why the game, which has been in development for perhaps a decade or more, had so much difficulty finding a publisher - I once heard an interview with Berg where he said that he was told by publishers that a game about tenth-century China simply wouldn't sell.
Of course, people told me the same thing about Supply Lines of the American Revolution, and my forthcoming (and seemingly hotly-anticipated, and thank you for that!) For-Ex: that there was no market there. Those games were likewise also tailored to such a specific, particular, peculiar taste - they were also games with a lot of ands. In the case of For-Ex in particular, I had someone tell me that the game was great, but that there was no way they could ever publish it. At the time, as a game designer desperate to get something out into the world, I thought that was nuts. After I got more experience, I became more sympathetic to the business end of things, and understood that, at least through traditional methods, that you can't publish a game just because you personally think it's great.
One reason why Mary and I use a print-on-demand method is that it gives us the ability to publish games just because we think they're great. (Some games might end up being too expensive to produce; publishing an 18xx game with our methods would cost us close to a hundred bucks per game.) And so, even though we could see that, yes, there are a lot of ands there, the simple fact of the matter is that Dynasty is a great game that we're passionate about, and so we agreed to publish it.
Components-wise, Dynasty posed some challenges, as it had a lot of wood bits and a lot of cards. We had used wooden cubes in An Infamous Traffic (and, later, in Supply Lines), but here we would need cubes in different sizes and colors, as well as wooden discs and special "sticks" to represent segments of the Great Wall and the Grand Canal. It was a much larger and more complicated order than we had ever made previously, and would require a large money transfer. After our last experience, we were kind of dreading it, but it went (relatively) smoothly on the bank's end, and our German wood bits supplier came through with the quality and professionalism we had come to expect. We likewise had to borrow some friends to assemble and bag the bits for the first set of games.
We had also used cards once before, in Brian Train's Ukrainian Crisis, which coincidentally, we'll be discussing in Friday's blogpost. The short version is that the card printer we had used didn't quite perform as we had hoped, dropping the ball on a project that only had 18 cards. We certainly weren't going to give them a project that required a deck of 54 cards. So we needed to scramble and find a printer we could depend upon that wouldn't charge us an arm and a leg. We found someone who would settle for just one appendage, and as luck would have it, our next three games (Table Battles, Objective Shreveport, and For-Ex) all use cards from this manufacturer, who has not disappointed. In fact, they've worked with us to ensure the cards would print as intended, helping us through technical issues rather than just pushing it through.
We had Ania B. Ziolkowska, who has done the stunning map art for several of our games, handle both the map and the counters this time around. I generally do the counters myself for all of our games, but we wanted to ensure that the art really felt of apiece with Ania's map. Said map was infused with period detail; Ania explained her approach thusly:
I was committed to fit the 10th century China way of drawing, so:
I used only black lines as artists back then used only black and black ink alone;
all lines are drawn with small round brush - again as artists back then;
lines are long and uninterrupted, as the Chinese art back then was well known for - by steady hands of artist who could draw the longest line in just one, perfect and even stroke;
as far as I was able to research the topic ornaments as we know it were rarely used - the geometric ones came with the Ming Dynasty later. In 5th-10th century they used flower-shaped white stamps, but on the cloths not in a drawing, unless to depict a cloth;
back then colors were used only sporadically and when they were, it was always watered-down color ink or pigment which were distributed evenly inside the lines;
I used市 symbol (city) in a form of a seal which was widely used on artworks and documents during 10th century and later. They always used cinnabar paste which is red;
I did the same for the Silk Road;
Huang He is often depicted on old Chinese maps as actually yellow, so I copied that idea;
all the art from those times were either produced on the silk or paper made from china grass, so I made the texture to best copy that type of paper look;
the font is actually drawn by the same type of small round brush.
I tried to give a feeling that the whole map (except the title) was really drawn back then.
The result we think is a very handsome production of a very interesting game. It doesn't always see our table as often as we'd like - sometimes all those ands just aren't aligning - but when it does, it's an entirely unique and captivating experience.