Thursday, August 25, 2016

Merchants of Araby designer diary

Ten years ago, I was a fan of Magic and madly in love with drafting. I'm still a fan, but I was then too. I wanted to make a game where you drafted cards while playing the game instead of keeping my chocolate and peanut butter separate. I also wanted to try my hand at a vastly simplified version of Magic that could act as a gateway for new players. And I wanted to make it multiplayer, because I love sitting around a table, laughing with and challenging my friends.

My first prototype was named Cutthroat and was themed around aggressive businesses vying for valuable contracts. The reason for that theme was that I'd replaced Magic's goal of reducing all of your opponents' life totals from 20 to 0 with the goal of increasing your own revenue from 0 to 5 (million dollars per year). That flip eliminates player elimination from the game and solves a lot of political problems that arise from attacking opponents rather than building yourself up. replaced the mana system (card costs and resources) with the simple "Each turn, play one card or try to make a deal." At the time, because it was simply an inversion of Magic's win condition, making a deal was just a re-themed attack: You chose one of your staff cards to start the deal, then gave each opponent one chance to block the deal with their own staff. If one did, the staff with lower prowess would be fired. If none did, you'd make the deal and earn a million-dollars-per-year contract: 1 point out of 5.

Cutthroat was doing a lot of things well, but it wasn't clicking. There was a lot of take-that inherited from Magic (where it makes sense, as a primarily two-player and thus fully confrontational game). That wasn't fun for everyone. My good friend and fellow designer Anthony Rubbo (Risky Adventure, Renaissance Man) ruminated that it would be nice to actually negotiate deals, rather than just use them as window dressing. I didn't know how to do that then, so I set it aside and worked on other games.

Two years ago, I dusted it off and polished it up using the new Magic design and general game design skills I'd developed in the interim. It was better—good even—but still missing that spark. This time, however, I had the experience and intuition to light that fire. What if there were cards representing the possible deals and they required various resources? The more of those specific resources you could provide, the more revenue the deal would earn you. And, critically, you would often need resources your opponents had that you didn't in order to maximize those deals. Instead of making abstract deals, your staff provided one resource each round, which you could use to fulfill your own deals, help opponents with their deals (for a cut of the revenue) or even to play more cards. (Staff had been like Magic's creatures and Businesses had been artifacts/enchantments, but after the switch, Businesses became like land and Staff like artifacts. Today, they're Merchants and Allies.)

The game became more like Magic (adding a mana system) and less like Magic (trading tactical combat for profitable negotiation) in one fell swoop. More importantly, it clicked. The game sparked to life with players wheeling and dealing like real business moguls. I named it Big Business and started serious playtesting. At Metatopia, we brainstormed a few ideas regarding making your assets available both for yourself and for trading with others, and Kevin suggested resetting your cards for use at the beginning of your turn and at the end, rather than doing it just once per round or on every player's turn. That solution ensures you have access to all your stuff on your turn, and lets you trade with others, but forces you to choose who to trade with when, which is fast and interesting gameplay.

PlaytestNW was one of the groups I had blind-test the game and David MacKenzie's (Daily Magic Games) first piece of feedback was to express interest in publishing it. I was familiar with David's awesome track record (Alien Frontiers) and eagerly signed my first publishing contract. (I've signed three more since. Turns out putting in the work, honing your craft, and getting to know the people in your industry helps with that sort of thing.)

Despite having found the game's soul, there was still a massive amount of design space to explore, and so we began development on the game together from opposite American coasts. Together we made many hundreds of cards, tweaking rules, abilities, wording and everything many many times. At Unpub 5, we showed the game off two tables away from Scott Almes' Big Easy Business and agreed we needed a new name, and might as well explore new themes. It had to be something evocative of negotiation and we struck on Merchants of Araby pretty quickly.

When we re-themed modern business deals to be ancient trade caravans, David had the idea to make them stick around longer (they had been instantaneous), allowing players to invest in them over time. This idea stuck and blossomed into the current system which promotes a staggering array of possible negotiations while playing host to some pleasantly crunchy tactical decisions of its own.

We added bandits shortly thereafter, to add an element of variance to caravans, which is important for depth and speed of caravan play, as well as just plain fun. A d12 did the trick early on, but I was eager to find a more elegant solution than adding a component that didn't support the theme. Using card backs to determine where the bandits attack also allowed us to move the payouts off the caravan cards, creating more suspense, generally rewarding statistically incisive play, and making the cards prettier and more usable.

I had begun reducing the number of take-that cards before I sent Big Business out, but we continued to reduce their numbers as playtesters found more and more value in maintaining positive working relationships in the game. There are a few left in the game today, but you'll find they mostly act as either catch-up mechanisms or bargaining chips.

We multiplied the amount of coins cards produced by 5 to give players more granular negotiation options. At the same time, we'd been trying to find a more satisfying end-game condition than first-to-5 (or 25 after the change), trying ideas like deck exhaustion (which players could manipulate, but had too much variability), finally settling on the very simple 4-turns-each method which is both fair and gives players just enough time to build and use a neat engine without dragging things out. Now players can end the game with 40 or 60 coins, or more. We added tents to hide your coins behind, so that players don't refuse to deal with whoever happens to have the most at any given moment.

A feature of the game that was present from the very first build that we consciously maintained in the final version was supporting multiple strategies and filling the game with combos and satisfying interactions. Maybe you get a lot of merchants and make your money funding other players' card plays. Maybe you get the right two or three allies to build a money-making engine for yourself. Maybe you forget about building your entourage and focus on the most efficient djinns and virtues, or just sell all your cards and push the caravans strategy.

Because you're drafting the cards you put into your hand, you have some control over your path, but it's imperfect, so you'll likely be balancing several of these strategies as you adapt to the situation at hand. Being able to discard cards to make others free (like San Juan) means you'll never be stuck with something entirely useless, and being able to trade anything anyhow means you can always strike a deal to keep your motor running. Figuring out what's worth what when is a big advantage, as is making as many deals as possible, or tracking which caravan rows are likely to pay out more or get hit by bandits.

Looking back at my original goals, I hit one of them (draft while playing), nailed another dead-on (multiplayer), and traded one (simplified Magic) for a better goal I discovered through development (a simple and engaging negotiation game). Not to mention my every-game goals: unique experience; tight integration of theme and mechanics; positive player interaction; deep gameplay; and elegant design. Daily Magic Games happily embraced my goal for diversity, commissioning beautiful art from Zulkarnaen Hasan Basri and producing a game with clever and top-quality components. I mean, you've seen the magnetic box/board? And those adorable camels? And the cards? *swoon*


  1. Congratulations! That sounds really awesome (I've put it on my list of games to look out for at some point).

    And I love the way you described the design, your goals for diversity are very well expressed. And yay camels!

    1. A magnetic game board sounds like a great idea, but I wasn't clear, what's magnetic? Is that to hold pieces in place, or to hold the board flat or what?

    2. Thanks, Jack!

      The box fastens closed magnetically, and opens out to become the game board. Nothing in gameplay is magnetic.

    3. Ah! That is a cool idea.

      It occurred to me, possibly having magnetic pieces and magnetic bits on the board may reduce the chance of knocking stuff over. But I'm not sure it would ever be practical (and tend for the pieces to stick together if they were magnetic and not just metal-containing).

    4. Magnetic travel chess and checkers are real things.