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Telling the Story of Another People

posted Sep 11, 2014, 2:00 PM by Joel Toppen   [ updated Sep 11, 2014, 2:06 PM ]
When I set out to design Navajo Wars, I had a couple goals in mind. First, I wanted to tell the story of the Diné ("the people") in a way that was faithful to the historical record, honorable, and from the perspective of the Diné. When I was finishing up Navajo Wars, I knew already that I wanted to design a follow-on game which told the story of a different people. My research into the Navajo had led me to read quite a bit about the Comanche, one of the implacable enemies of the Navajo. And so it was that before Navajo Wars had even hit the shelves, the work on Comanchería had already begun. 

In many ways the Comanche game has proven far more difficult to design than Navajo Wars was. There are a number of reasons for this: First, I don't know any Comanche personally. Never doubt the tremendous value of person-to-person contact when researching a people! With Navajo Wars, I had only to pick up the phone and talk to one of several friends who were fluent in the language and culture of the Diné. Not so with the Comanche! The second challenge has been that the Comanche are so very different from the Navajo. Their culture, their religion and taboos, their style of warfare all differ considerably from the Navajo!

The great difference between the people led to me to the rapid conclusion that Comanchería would need a completely different game engine. At the same time, I wanted to make a game that would require less playing time than Navajo Wars. I also wanted the new game to be easier to learn to play (but still very challenging to win and play well).

It was with these goals in mind that I build and destroyed no less than three complete prototypes over the course of 2 years. Frustrated, I set the design aside for a while. Meanwhile Navajo Wars was printed and shipped. 

The first 6 months or so after a board game comes out, the designer and developer really need to be vigilant in their support of the game. It was to my fortune that my frustration with my Comanche game design coincided with the release of Navajo Wars. I observed how the Navajo game was received. What people liked and disliked about the game design. Then it hit me: why not simply modify the proven game engine from Navajo Wars? 

I started with the map -- the biggest bugaboo of my design efforts with Comanchería. I started doodling. With Navajo Wars, I based the game around 6 territories which each had a unique die roll face. I did the same with Comanchería, except that this time the mechanic would drive the way the bison herds were modeled. In Navajo Wars, there is a central place of refuge with some special rules: Canyon de Chelly. Well, in the Comanche territory there was a similar place: Palo Duro Canyon. Voila! It was starting to come together.

Next, I took the core mechanics of Navajo Wars: the Player Operations. Could this work for the Comanche? I quickly determined that it could! While "Take Actions," "Planning," and "Passage of Time" work completely different in Comanchería, they "feel" familiar enough that the Navajo Wars player will be able to quickly jump in and play. 

What about the Enemy Instruction Display? This mechanic in Navajo Wars drives the non-player enemy's decision making against the player. In Comanchería, I quickly determined that I would need to modify the mechanic somewhat to accommodate the fact that whereas the Navajo were pressed predominately from the east, the Comanche felt enemy pressure from the north, south, east, and west. I removed the Standby column from the display. In its place I added three new columns, one for each of the directions from which the enemy might come. Boom! This began to work! But how to guide which cardinal directions would be most threatening at various times in the game? Enter the History Cards.

I decided to make a set of cards which would guide the general behavior of the enemy during each of four segments of time. Whereas Navajo Wars was divided into three periods, I divided the Comanche history into four: 1700-1749, 1750-1799, 1800-1849, and 1850-1875. Each period has a History Card that remains face-up on the map to remind the player of what enemies are most likely to act as well as any special rules pertaining to that historic period. 

Just what to use to generate enemy activity had been decided from day one. From the very first prototype, I had an idea of what I wanted to do here. It is a modification of the raid cubes and draw bag from Navajo Wars. The basic idea is that the more successful the player is at raiding, etc, the more likely it will be that the enemy will muster a response. This time around, however, cardboard counters are used instead of cubes. (The primary reason for counters instead of cubes is that counters allow for a secondary use for the pieces that would not work with cubes.) It works like this: whenever the player wants to engage in a risky activity like raiding or going on the warpath, he must draw pieces from a draw cup. Inside that draw cup there are counters that say Success, and there are counters that give the enemy 1, 2, or 3 action points (APs). After drawing from the cup, Enemy APs are gathered up, a die roll is made to determine what enemy acts (using the table on the current period's History Card), and all APs are spent to carry out instructions on the activated enemy's column of the Enemy Instruction display. The catch is this: Success tokens don't get placed back into the draw cup immediately but Enemy AP tokens do! This means the more successful you are, the more likely it is that enemy activity will be stirred up and the initiative will shift.  It all works quite elegantly!

In Navajo Wars, some Instruction counters could enter play by way of the Standby column. Suddenly a whole new enemy tactic could be thus revealed. Furthermore, Instructions could flip over and reveal a completely different Instruction on the reverse side.  In Comanchería I found a way to implement a similar feel. First, before an Instruction is carried out, a die roll is made to determine which if any counter on the active column flips over to reveal a different Instruction. As with Navajo Wars, the player can see what enemy is most likely to act (on the History Card), and which Instruction is most likely to be triggered if that enemy acts (the top-most Instruction on that enemy's column). But he can never be certain because that Instruction could flip over before the player can do anything about it! Even more diabolical is the fact that one Enemy Instruction counter is always placed inside the success check draw cup. If drawn, it immediately executes and then replaces a counter from the Enemy Instruction Display!

To tell the story of the culture of the Navajo, Cultural Development cards were used. In Comanchería Development Cards are handled somewhat differently. They are revealed three at a time from a deck. Each historical period has its own deck. Some cards have nasty historic events on them that the player must respond to. Other cards have cultural elements that the player may take advantage of (i.e. develop) or suffer penalty for not developing. The Development Cards in Comanchería really do a a lot to bring the whole game, the whole story together. 

Finally, to help drive the game and guide the player (help solve that 'what should I be doing' conundrum), each History Card has a victory objective on it. The player has a limited amount of time to achieve that goal or he loses the game. How much time? Well, you don't know for sure how much time you have. It works like this: The player is limited as to how many Passage of Time operations he can undertake before he must face a victory check. Each time he does a Passage of Time, a marker moves upward on a track and a die roll is made. If the die roll result is ≤ the marker's position on the track, he must face the victory check. But that's not the whole story! Each time the player conducts a "Take Actions" operation, a different marker moves up this track and a die roll is made. If the result is ≤ the marker's position on the track, the player must perform a Passage of Time Operation on his next turn. 

So what is the result of all of this? A tense, fast-moving game that tells the story of another people: The Comanche.