Designer Diary

By Trevor Benjamin and David Thompson, War Chest Designers

We have been developing games together for a few years now, and this is what we’ve learned. We both love sleek, modern euro-inspired wargames (affectionately called “waros” or “weuros”). We both love deckbuilding games. And most importantly, we both love trying to mesh these two things together. War Chest is the successful output of this shared passion.

Having said that, let’s get two things straight. War Chest is not really a wargame, and it’s not really a deckbuilding game. Instead, War Chest is a lean, almost abstract, medieval battlefield game built around multi-use “coins” (beautiful, chunky poker chips in the final version) and a “bag management” system reminiscent of Orleans. Each coin in your bag shows a military unit on one side (an Archer, a Knight, etc.). You play these coins in order to command the depicted unit (move, attack, etc.) or to add new coins to your bag. But you also play these coins onto the board to become the units themselves. This core “play and command” mechanic has been with War Chest since its inception, but, as is often the case, it took quite a while to find the best way of showcasing this. This diary tracks some of the key stages in this design and development process.

How do you win?

Inspired by the theme, and by other abstract-ish war games (chess, we’re looking at you!) the initial goal of War Chest was to capture your opponent’s king. We quickly realized the game needed some focal points on the board, so we added strategic locations and a second alternative victory condition based on controlling them. As it turned out, the Kings caused all kinds of problems, so we dumped them, leaving the single, control-based victory condition. This worked much better but took us quite some time to get right. For ages, the goal was to control 5 of the 8 strategic locations on the board. The problem was that it was too easy to get 4 but nearly impossible to get 5. We spent weeks, and countless clunky mechanics, trying to hit this mythical sweet spot of “four and a half” points. We added differential values to the control points, we added tracks to accumulate points over time, we (re-)introduced other ways of getting points, etc. Luckily, we eventually stumbled on the most obvious solution. We increased the number of available control points from 8 to 10 and the victory target from 5 to 6. It worked a treat! Lesson learned – try twiddling existing knobs before creating new ones.  

How do you play?

Given that War Chest is a bag-building (or better, bag-management) game, we needed an economic system. From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to keep the game as lean and elegant as possible, so we started with the constraint that all unit chips would cost the same. We managed to keep this flat economy throughout the game’s development, but again it took us time to settle on the final version. Remember the King? In the early days, each player started with three King chips in their bag. You could use these chips either to command your King on the board (move, attack, etc.) or to “recruit” another one of your units, adding a chip it to your bag. This was actually a decent economic system, but we were forced to find an alternative when the King got axed for other reasons. Our next solution was to replace the King chips with “coin” chips whose sole purpose was to recruit (think Copper cards in Dominion). This wasn’t great. Unlike the previous King chips, these coins had very little value late game. And unlike Dominion’s copper, there was no way to remove them from your “pool”. The next (and final) solution came from fellow Cambridge-based designer Matthew Dunstan. Immediately after his first play of the game, he said: “Why not just let any chip be used to recruit?” Boom! That was it. Our old friend the multi-use “card” worked a treat and we never looked back. (Okay, that’s not strictly true. We did re-introduce a “coin” down the line, the “Royal Coin”, in order to combat “small bagging”, but that’s another story…)

Asymmetry

War Chest ships with 16 unique units – three mounted units, two ranged units, two battlefield commanders, and a slew of others (Mercenary, War Priest, and so on). This diversity was not our original intent. Once again striving for elegance (and again drawing inspiration from classical games like Chess), we originally gave each player a symmetric set of units—a King (see above), an Archer, a Cavalry unit, and a pair of Footmen. While this played perfectly well and certainly helped in establishing the core systems in the game, we soon realized that the game allowed for, and indeed greatly benefited from, asymmetrical armies drawn from a larger pool of units. The problem then was balance. We wanted the winner to be the player who played better, not the player who drafted (or was randomly dealt) the better army.    

Balance

Balancing units is never easy, but we certainly didn’t help ourselves here. Our goal of keeping War Chest as clean and elegant as possible drove us to make core, basic actions in the game “base 1”; all units cost one to recruit; they all move one space; they all attack with the “strength” of one, and so on. Anything which breaks this rule of one, for example, the Light Cavalry’s ability to move two spaces, would be handled as an exceptional case via the unit’s special powers/attributes. This meant we could (largely) keep numbers out of the game (yay!), but it also meant we had very little leverage when balancing units (boo!). Unlike most other combat games, we couldn’t increase the cost of a unit or reduce its stats if it turned out to be too strong. All we could do was tweak the unit abilities themselves and add restrictions to more powerful ones (e.g. Archers can’t attack adjacent units). That being said, one advantage which we did allow ourselves was the number of coins a unit has available in the supply. Most have 5, but a few of the stronger units have only 4.

The Pitch

With the balance ironed out, we turned our attention to pitching the game to a publisher. Essen was approaching, and we studied the list of publishers with whom we wanted to meet. AEG was at the top of the list. We had worked with them in the past, and we knew they would be able to transform our game into an incredible product. We scheduled a meeting with AEG and met with Mark Wootton. The meeting went well, and Mark asked if he could take one of our prototypes back with him to assess. He seemed to be keenly interested in the game, and we were hopeful AEG would decide to publish it.

We were thrilled to receive the news that AEG wanted to move forward with publishing War Chest. Working with them on this project has been an incredible experience and one we would gladly repeat in the future!

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