Designer Diary: Pandoria Merchants, or Reconnecting Through Game Design | BoardGameGeek News
This is the story of how Bernd Eisenstein and I reconnected during the pandemic to make a game that could help reconnect others: Pandoria Merchants, a roll-and-write game that you can download from the BGG page as a free print-and-play game.
Readapting, and Adapting Again
Spending a year in the United States is always a little strange for me. Although I grew up there, I moved to Berlin right out of college in 1994 and have lived there for most of the past 26 years. But occasionally, my family and I are able to take a break from the German capital and spend a year in the mountains of western North Carolina, my wife’s “second home”. It’s a beautiful change of pace, but it does take time to readjust to the culture again.
This year became even more challenging with the arrival of the global pandemic. Suddenly we could no longer spend precious time with our extended family or do all the things we had planned to do during our limited time in the U.S. And the new relationships we had begun — including those with a very welcoming Game Designers of North Carolina group — were reduced to online communication.
For me, the main strength of the board gaming hobby has always been the face-to-face interactions with people and the ability to make new friends through these shared experiences. This also extends to board game design, a collaborative group activity, often leading to friendships that go beyond playing with cardboard prototypes.
The threat of COVID-19 and the restrictions on group gatherings have been especially difficult for boardgamers, as well as game designers. Sure, I have managed to play a few games online with friends, in addition to playtesting another friend’s prototype on Tabletop Simulator. It was novel and, admittedly, fun, but I am hoping that it does not become the norm.
Still, creativity thrives when innovators are given new challenges and constraints, and people often band together during a shared crisis. Many designers and publishers began to offer free print-and-play games, for example. Roll-and-write games have been a recent trend in the hobby, and with our current group restrictions, they also suddenly became the easiest games to play on Zoom or while social distancing.
The lockdown had another positive side: Interactions with my friends in Berlin were now exactly the same as with those next door. Our Berlin game designers had a reunion Zoom meeting, and I was even able to lead my Berlin church youth group meeting from my
Still, I missed collaborating with my friend and co-designer, Bernd Eisenstein. We had always met regularly to test our prototypes, but even more so the past several years as we developed and playtested our board game Pandoria and its expansions together.
What if we developed a roll-and-write version of Pandoria that we could offer as a free print-and-play that could be played over Zoom or Skype? It would be a fun design challenge. It would give Bernd and me something we could collaborate on, even while we are living on separate continents. It would be a gift to gamers stuck at home. And it might even be a great introduction to the Pandoria world we had spent so much time creating. Bernd agreed, and I sent him some sketches of my initial concept. It wasn’t long before we were making prototypes and testing them weekly on Zoom.
Our roll-and-write version would still be a game with a common map instead of following the trend of “multi-player solitaire” games that have only individual player boards.
But in order to convert Pandoria to a roll-and-write game, the first obvious change was to replace the tile draw with dice rolls. Instead of placing a two-sided domino hex tile with two different resources on a game board, players now roll two resource dice and write their symbols on adjacent hex spaces on the game map.
The board game had only four different terrain types, however, and we had six-sided dice. We made one side of the dice “wild” and came up with a new resource for the final side: “crafts”, which are made by artisans and can be traded by merchants at a 2:1 rate for any other resource (or 1:1 after building the market). Because of this unique feature, we decided to name the roll-and-write version of the game Pandoria Merchants.
In the board game, after playing a tile, players then place one of their workers on one half of the tile. In Merchants, writing a worker and a resource in one hex space made the game too cluttered, so we decided that players should write the worker into a third space that must be adjacent to one of the two resources that were drawn this turn.
The main mechanism for scoring resources remains: Whenever a connected area of the same resource is completely enclosed by other symbols, workers, the edge of the map, etc. — i.e., it can no longer be expanded in size — all players with workers adjacent to that area score the number of resources multiplied by the number of their adjacent workers.
In Pandoria, workers are also limited, and they can even be sent off the board when they are in an area that has been enclosed. Some players have mentioned that they find this mechanism “too mean,” although workers are limited, and it is sometimes desirable to get your workers back in this way.
We decided in the new roll-and-write game, however, that workers should be unlimited and would never be removed once they are drawn on the map. At some point, of course, a worker is no longer useful, and it can be helpful to cross out resources that have already been scored and workers who have scored all areas adjacent to them.
Instead of limited workers placed on tiles, players in Merchants have unlimited workers that remain on their own hex spaces the entire game
Already we had a version of Pandoria that had the core mechanism of the board game, but something new for the fans — and we even removed something from the game that other players of Pandoria were not as fond of. Perhaps, we thought, this could have even wider appeal!
Next up was how to deal with the deck of cards that players can use for either one-time spells or long-term buildings. We decided on separate “realm sheets” for each player that have a grid of these cards printed on them. All players can buy any of the cards, but when one column of three cards has been bought by a single player, no more purchases can be made from that column for the rest of the game. When you use a spell, you simply cross it off. When a building is built, you can circle it and use its effect the rest of the game — or you can convert it to a monument, losing its effect but gaining victory points, just as you can do with the board game.