12 June 2017 Akrotiri

Akrotiri Designer Diary, Part I

Join Akrotiri designers Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim as they take a look back at the development process in this two-part series.

To celebrate the recent release of the revised edition of Akrotiri, designers Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim are reflecting on the development of the game in a series of designer diaries. Today, they look at origins of the game and its unique treasure-hunting mechanics.

Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim

Akrotiri is the critically acclaimed 2-player game that, even after it’s reprint, remains near and dear to our collective heart.  While it was not the first game of ours that was published, one might say that it was the very first one that we designed.  As such, Akrotiri holds a special place in our ludology, not only because we love tile-laying games and the unique map mechanism, but because of its storied history.

The Genesis of An Idea

They say that you should write about what you know.  When we first attempted to design a board game over 15 years ago, we took our cues from Jay’s passion for all things related to Indiana Jones and that feeling of exploration that we experienced in so many of the tile-laying games we had enjoyed together.  We set this game in the deepest of jungles where players had to find treasure and avoid being detected by the protectors of these artifacts.  The ever-shifting jungle was represented by tiles and the known world grew in unpredictable ways with each and every turn. However, this created an additional challenge - how would players locate hidden treasures in what was essentially a totally random playing area?

To solve this conundrum, we created a system of map pieces that had statements like “Two paces north” or “West of a tree.”  Players would then triangulate the secret locations of the hidden treasures relative to these landmarks.  It was like finding a pirate’s map!  While this solved the core challenge we had with the design, the rest of the game still didn’t gel.   The procedural nature of moving and interacting with the protectors caused the game to seriously bog down.  This frustration caused us to give up on the game and almost marked the end of our game design career!

Thankfully, it didn’t!

The Return of the Bamboozle Brothers

A few years after that misstep, we were both older and wiser and, some might say handsomer.  We had seen many designs to completion and had successfully licensed our first two games (Belfort and Train of Thought, both with Tasty Minstrel Games).  We started to use a self-imposed constraint of 25-tiles to help get from our games from concept to prototype as quickly as possible.  One of these 25-tile games was called Smokeboat.  It involved players travelling from island to island, picking up meat, and smoking it.

In this version, players lay tiles over 1/4 of another tile to create unique islands and pathways.  While this was interesting, our playtesters noted that this placement method caused too much “analysis paralysis” (or AP) to be worthwhile.  So, though it became less innovative, the removal of that mechanism resulted in a more accessible game.  

This, in retrospect, was an important change as too much innovation can sometimes make a game less appealing to the broader audience of gamers.  We also eschewed the more common Carcassonne-style placement rules requiring similar aspects to be connected.  Also, we put all the land on the corners of the tiles instead of using the edges, as is the typical practice.  This was a benefit because it further reduced AP as a tile could be placed anywhere legally.

The Shortest Path Between Two Docks

Movement along the trade routes was also simplified through the easy tile placement rules.  Games often become tactical when increments of movement are small.  We did not want game flow affected to that degree, so we eliminated tile-by-tile movement.  This had also plagued the original jungle exploration game.  Instead, we used point-to-point movement and allowed players to travel from one dock to any other dock as long as they were connected by a trade route.  Players were not required to stop at each dock they passed.

This incentivized players to create a different type of playing area.  Long, interconnected trade routes were favoured over short hops.  This resulted in quicker travel and exploration into the far corners of the sea.  In earlier iterations, players spent the majority of their time in one area of the map.  This freer movement rule opened up the whole map to all players, increasing the speed of the game significantly. Connecting trade routes with each other became more important as the playing area spread wider and wider.

Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

Marcus Garvey once said that a people without the knowledge of their past history is like a tree without roots.  In our case, it was more like a boat without water.  

Since the play area is modular, tile placement could lead to situations where islands with no direct connection to the central island could exist. As the central island was the place where goods were traded to provide the funds needed to excavate temples and win the game, this was another issue to solve.  

Even though the game was set in ancient Greece, we couldn’t just magically make this situation disappear.  We had to do our due diligence and see if there was a thematically appropriate solution.  The thought of moving huge trading vessels in ancient times seemed ludicrous, but we had to find something or we would be hard-pressed to include the rule in the game.  Hitting the history books hard, we were able to find an amazing fact!

In Canada, we often carry our canoes from lake to lake over our heads in what we call a “portage”.  The ancient Greek equivalent to this was a paved road engineered specifically to move boats across land. This short-cut was called the “Diolkos” and it is located near Corinth  Borrowing from this historical revelation, moving from dock to dock across land now had a historically accurate basis.

The board became open to all and the risk of being cut off from the central island was eliminated.  Players could now use tile placement to “explore” their way out of any situation.