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Designer Diary: The Long Road to Kitara

It has been two weeks already since you were able to visit the wonderful world of Kitara, and be transported in its unique legends. Today, just for you, Eric B. Vogel shares his designer diary! Enjoy! 

Setup of Kitara with box in background

"In 2010, my game design career was just starting to take off. A new game company, Sandstorm LLC had bought the rights to my games Cambria and Hibernia, and seemed interested in seeing more work from me. I started thinking about a game that would be a natural follow-up to Cambria and Hibernia, another Celtic-Nations game that would fit in the same box, and have roughly the same number of components, but a higher level of complexity. As I thought about, a comment by one of my regular play testers, Jon Spinner, came back to me; something about “a card game and a board game that
interface at one end” - I don’t remember the exact words he used; it got me thinking about the self-published card game I had released earlier in that year, Armorica. It struck me that Armorica’s central card-drafting mechanic could be combined with an area control board game, similar to Hibernia.

I came up with a prototype set in the Celtic Iberian peninsula, in which players drafted a card every turn to build up a card-display which gave them varying amounts of per turn victory points and the ability to choose from a wider array of cards each turn (as in Armorica) as well as movement points and new units for the board. I moved the ability to support cards from the cards (as in Armorica) to the board, requiring players to hold onto particular board territories each turn if they wanted to retain their cards. Other territories allowed players to score points. This mechanic created the need for dynamic
expansion each turn, and prevented players from just playing defensively; serving the same function as the multi-colored score track in Hibernia, but in a very different way. The resulting game was a little larger in scale than Hibernia and Cambria, but I sent the game off to Sandstorm for play testing anyway.

When I went to GAMA for the first time in 2011 to demo my forthcoming games, Sandstorm told me they liked my new design, and wanted to publish it. Unfortunately, Sandstorm ran into financial difficulties later in 2011, and by the time I was demoing the newly released Cambria and Hibernia at GenCon, they told me it was unlikely they would be publishing anything else.

Card of Kitara with box behind

I took advantage of being at GenCon already, and showed the new game to some folks from another publisher, who tested it and expressed interest in it. I left a prototype with them. Eventually, after some subsequent correspondence with them, it was suggested that they might like the game better if it was dice-based instead of card based, so I went off and created what ended up being a quite different game (which they also passed on). That dice-based game eventually evolved into my forthcoming game Lost Empires, which should be released by Sand Castle Games sometime in 2021 (a story for another designer diary). Meanwhile, I went back and took another look at the original card-based game.

The two games were different enough at this point that I felt I had two separate designs on my hands, but I wanted to make the card-based game even more distinct from the dice-based game. I had been playing Kreta quite a bit at that time, which gave me the notion of adding multiple unit types to the card-based game. I took the functions that the units were already serving in the game and divided them up between 3 different types of meeples: units which let you keep cards when they were in particular territories, units which scored you points when they were in a different kind of territory, and units that you needed to have in combat or you would lose 3VP. This change added a significant new decision point to card drafting, as well as a lot of tactical considerations when attacking and retreating.
In 2013 friend of mine was working for a French company called MyWitty Games, that used a novel crowdfunding approach.

I spent some time developing the game with an eye towards having them publish it. The game was recast in a fantasy setting, in which the unit types became humans, dwarves and ogres. The movement mechanic was also changed, to use movement actions that would move a group of pieces at once, instead of movement points that moved only one unit at a time; this change
differentiated it even further from the dice-based version. However, My Witty also went out of business before we got to the point of signing a contract.

Zoom on kingdom card

In 2016, I became a client of the Forgenext Agency, and my agent Gaetan Beaujannot started representing my games to publishers instead of me (which was a great improvement, I am not a great salesman or negotiator). He and his wife Martine played the game with me during a visit they made to the bay area in 2017; I remember I made some changes in response to feedback he gave me on the game at that meeting, but I don’t remember precisely what the changes were. Gaetan began pitching the game to publishers at that point. We negotiated with another publisher who had expressed strong interest in the game, and I did some development at their request during the contract negotiations. In particular, I developed an alternative card deck, that used a different pattern of icons across each card to increase the variety of gameplay. In the original deck, cards always provided meeples, and no card ever provided multiple types of meeples. In the new deck, cards could provide multiple meeple-types, and a few cards did not provide meeples at all. My play testers seemed to like this new deck better, so it became the default deck, while the original deck became the alternate. However, I was not happy with some of this publisher’s plans for the game, and ultimately we could not come to terms.

It was then that Gaetan got me a contract for the game with IELLO, a publisher I was really excited to work with. IELLO proposed using an Afro-fantasy setting for the game, that is, a fantasy setting developed from African history and mythology. I thought that was an awesome idea. Most games set in Africa are either about WWII battles in North Africa, European colonialism or ancient Egypt. The rest of the games set in Africa were about exploration, travel, conservation, and postcolonial warfare. There are very few games about ancient Africa.

Zoom on warrior ward and other ards fce down

I also found the prospect of creating an ancient sub Saharan African setting for the game a little daunting. I am not African, or of African Diaspora descent. I wouldn’t call myself an expert on Africa, although I do take an interest in African history, current affairs, and cultural theory. However, I am a professor, and I know how to do a thorough review of the literature. As I began to research possible settings for my game, I remembered a line from the late Binyavanga Wainaina’s satiric essay How to Write About Africa, which is actually a set of criticisms of how non-Africans tend to write about Africa: “In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country…Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions.” I knew I wanted the game setting to be in a specific place, culture and era in African history; IELLO wanted the game to have fantasy elements, so I was also looking for a setting that straddled the line between history and mythology, like the Trojan War.

Sunset effect with blue hero token

I identified a couple of promising settings, which I may come back to for later games. However, eventually we decided to theme the game around the breakup of the Kitara Empire, in the 14th century AD, in the great lakes region of East-Central Africa. Scholarly sources on this empire were not easy to find, but I eventually did track a few down. Scholars differ as to what degree the ancient Kitara empire was historical or mythological (Doyle, 2006; Uzoigwe, 2012). The empire may have covered most of the inter lacustrine region of Central-East Africa for an unknown period, up until the 14th or 15th century AD. According to legend, the empire was consolidated from an older, loose confederation, by the Abachwezi dynasty of kings.

According to folklore, these kings had magical powers, and introduced important new technologies and practices to the region. The Abachwezi kings eventually were supposed to have become angered by their people’s disobedience, and disappeared into the great lakes. Their empire then fragmented into several kingdoms, including the still extant kingdom of Bunyoro-Kitara in western Uganda. The game is set in the period when these successor kingdoms were forming. Historically, kingdoms in the region of the former empire tried to enhance their prestige by associating themselves with Kitara and the Abachwezi dynasty in a variety of ways; this led to the idea that the players in the game gained victory points by occupying Kitaran ruins with their magical creatures. According to folklore, the Abachwezi kings introduced ironworking and the herding of Ankole cattle to the region.

Historians believe these innovations were introduced to the region in this period, leading to population increases, creating more centralized states, and a better armed warrior class who skirmished over cattle and grazing land. However, some historians also believe that ancient Central Africans had a traditional form of restricted warfare, wherein practices limiting the destructiveness and lethality of warfare were administered by elders (Reid, 2012). The period after the collapse of the Kitara empire may have been one in more frequent conflicts between expansionist kingdoms were still mitigated by traditional practices which limited the destructiveness of military conflict. This fits well with the mechanics of my game, which involve a high level of conflict and territorial acquisition, but no loss of units from combat.

Overall, the regional history and the mythology of the Kitara Empire, let me create a very evocative backstory for the game. If Kitara were a heavy game, with a lot of representational detail in the mechanics, I might have had trouble finding enough specific myths and history about the Kitara Empire to set the game there; however, what is known about Kitara is a good fit with the streamlined mechanics of the game, and the gaps in scholarly understanding of the Kitara Empire allow for some needed artistic license.

meeples on cards

Miguel Coimbra meanwhile had created beautiful art for the game, with some really interesting fantasy elements. The cheetah-centaurs he created in particular have sparked a lot of early interest in the game. Cheetah-centaurs aren’t a part of any African mythology to my knowledge; however, there are part-human part-animal creatures in African folklore, and many varieties of sentient animals across
several African mythologies. I used “master animal,” a term applying to sentient mythological animals I found in The Hero with an African Face (Ford, 1999) to refer to the cheetah-centaurs in the rules. I since have discovered that I may have misunderstood this term; however, everyone just calls them cheetah-centaurs anyway.

I was also very pleased that Miguel made the character art for two of the players depict armies of female warriors. I don’t have any sources speaking to the presence of women warriors or leaders in the region of the Kitara Empire, but there are documented traditions of women warriors, war leaders, and rulers in different parts of precolonial sub-Saharan Africa (Kaur, 2017; Moreira Ribeiro et al. 2019; Nwanna, 2012).

meeples and lion from box

I made a couple of other changes to the game mechanics at IELLO’s request. They wanted a new alternative deck that would reduce the pressure to support cards. I created a third deck, with yet another pattern of icons that included a set of self-supporting cards; this made the game more similar to my card game Armorica, from which this design had originally sprung. The first card deck I created for the game was not included in the final game, although it may return as a promo item or part of an expansion.

IELLO also wanted some secret victory points added to the game. I modified the combat mechanic, so that combat with a hero unit provided secretly drawn, variable-value victory point chips; only 1 chip could be kept per-turn, so fighting multiple times a turn provided a better chance of drawing a high-value chip. This change made the game outcome more suspenseful, and made the scoring elements in the game more diverse. Throughout this time, the team at IELLO in France and the US were great to work with. They let me do a lot of the specific theming of the game, and consulted me in regard to all the decision making about the game’s production. Gaetan was also active during the games development process, particularly when it came to proofing the French edition of the game (I don’t really speak French, sadly). I was also very impressed by how they adapted to lockdown, and were able to keep to their timetable for Kitara throughout the pandemic. That they were able to release this game in 2020 is really impressive.

Board and box

As I write this, I have just received my first copy of the finished game, delivered to the doorstep of the apartment in which I have been locked-down for six months. I think Kitara has the highest production values of any game of mine published to date, with lots of cool custom wooden bits and other top-notch components. Miguel’s artwork for the game looks fabulous. A finished game is a team effort, reflecting the work and creative input of several people. Miguel, Gaetan, and everyone at IELLO did wonderful work on this game. It is hard to know just how the ongoing pandemic is likely to impact how Kitara does in the marketplace, but as for the product itself, I could not be happier with it."

We hope you enjoyed reading this diary! And if you want to know more about Kitara, you can read our articles, and an interview with both illustrator and designer of the game! 


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Publié le 10 November 2020

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