Courtier Design Article #1
by Philip duBarry
Courtier began its game life as Henry the Great. This title may bring to mind Henry VIII of England, however my game was about the much-revered Henry IV of France (1553-1610). Champlain’s Dream, David Hackett Fischer’s engaging history of French-speaking settlements in the New World, inspired me to make a game about the complicated court intrigue surrounding Henry IV.
Fischer describes a world populated by strange but important-sounding figures such as Intendant, Chancellor, and Marshal who sought to administer the kingdom of France. Many religious groups, both Catholic (Jesuit and Recollet orders) as well as Protestant (Huguenot), and numerous artisans and businessmen all vied for the patronage of their king. Added to this web were several layers of nobility and those supporting the Queen, Marie de Medici (yes, those Medicis). In 1600, the famous Cardinal Richelieu was only a bishop, yet he had already begun to maneuver his way into the royal court. And hardly anything was done without the consent of the powerful Minister Maximilien de Bethune, duc de Sully. Champlain, the great explorer and founder of Quebec, routinely wove his way in and out of this complex mess to secure needed permissions, capital and supplies.
I admired Champlain’s skill at navigating this sea of bureaucratic red tape. It seemed like a compelling setting: the kind of story that could be told by a board game. I began writing down all these names and titles, imagining them all swirling around the king.
Mechanically, the board was to have 8 sections. By playing cards from their hands, players would try to persuade the individual characters to help them influence the king to grant a specific request or petition. In addition, players would also get special abilities for controlling an entire section.
The tension arises from having to decide when to use up your favors with a particular individual. Characters have only so much access to the king at any given time. Players get victory points for completing petitions, but they lose influence on the board in the process, potentially losing special abilities from the section bonuses. Any player might use an individual as long as that character was “full” (filled with cubes) and that player had the most cubes in place. All cubes are removed from a character used to influence the king and secure a petition.
The card-driven play combined with elements of set-collection and area control seemed to model the controlled chaos that characterized this historical setting. I enjoy games that feature political chaos and tactical manipulation. From the beginning, Henry the Great displayed these qualities while being very different from other games. I was encouraged by early testing and decided to pursue the game’s development more seriously.
Check back next week for the next installment: Making the Prototype.