Designer Diary: Medieval Showbiz in The King of All Bards
Originally posted on BoardGameGeek.com
The King of All Bards started as a spontaneous late-night idea and subtly became an ambitious project that has been a significant part of my everyday life for the past two years.
In this article, I will share details from the conception, development, and final touches of the game.
Who Am I?
My name is Nikola R. Petrov, and I am a musician and game designer. It is hardly surprising that I don't recall a lot from my childhood, but I clearly remember two objects that I acquired in 1997 (when I was just level 6): my first personal computer (a 486 with a black-and-white monitor) and my first CD (DJ Bobo's "There is a Party", which in my defense was replaced with Manowar's "Kings of Metal" just a month later). Since then I've always had a tendency to pay attention to the things I play and listen to so that I can try to understand how they were put together. I spent countless hours watching online lessons and lectures, choosing strings, and scribbling in notebooks. That is probably why games and music are my passion, daily need, and (despite my law diploma) a profession.
Luckily my taste in music evolved quickly
The concept for The King of All Bards came to me unexpectedly while I was reading a choose-your-own-adventure book late in the night, somewhere in distant 2014.
It was the beginning of the story, and I had a choice either to rush for the forest with my sword drawn or to swing by the tavern and ask for information and rumors. I remember thinking to myself: "Go to the pub? I'm fine with going to the pub all game!" Then it hit me: Why wasn't there a game that is nothing but going to the pub? They are their own little worlds where you can gossip, have a drink, listen to live music, and in the end have a nice bar fight. The ideas started flooding my head! We have so many games about warriors and wizards, but we don't have a game dedicated to bards, the ones who tour the pubs all their lives and sing about said warriors and wizards. In addition, every time I talk to a seasoned D&D veteran, they all have at least one story starting with "Oh, man, I had this bard character a while back... he was my favorite!"
Even though most of these initial ideas were scrapped there and then, three things stuck and made it into the final version of the game: the concept of touring different pubs in search of money and fame, the name "The King of Аll Bards", and the character Kiro the Fat.
Amidst the ton of ideas for mechanisms, cards, and effects that would go well with the theme that I had in the first few days, some remained as unwritten rules forever:
I wanted the game to be thematic and every part of it needed to have real-life logic to it, despite being set in a medieval/fantasy world. The main goal here was for the player to identify themselves with their hero and do some roleplaying — basically, to feel like a medieval rock star.
I wanted the game to be as light as possible, but offer strategy and advance planning.
I wanted it to feature a solid dose of luck, so it never feels like a game of Chess. The die adds excitement, creates unexpected situations, gives hope to the players behind, and injects uncertainty in the players ahead. Also, there's plenty of luck involved in show business, so it's perfectly in theme.
Meaningful choices are important; the worst thing that could happen to a player is to have nothing to do, or even worse, to have to do a meaningless action.
Diversity in the characters and the world was also key. There are four male and four female characters, all coming from different lands, cultures, and social casts. These things weren't forced; they happened naturally as I was coming up with the details about the world.
From a designer's standpoint, it was important that I made these decisions at the beginning and stuck with them until the final version of The King of All Bards. Later, when I regularly had to face dilemmas between card effects or bard abilities that seemed equally fun and/or balanced, the "golden rules" of design helped me make the right choice for the game. If something was amazing but had no real-life logic behind it, it had to go. If something was useful but punished a player for simply playing their character, it had to go. And so on.
An early version of Kars the Sea Dog
Moreover, this design philosophy gave my idea boundaries. I was looking for a light and highly thematic board game about bards touring around different pubs and seeking money and fame. That last part became the win condition for the game: Get rich and famous! The theme naturally came from the characters and their varied skills as musicians rather than from world-building or long story explanations. I wanted to focus on performing, so most of the time my characters would be going around the town's pubs and singing songs there, but since the show business competition (as in reality) is too fierce, the bards wouldn't mind using all the tools at their disposal. This is how trick cards (at that point called "News!") came to be; I needed something to make the characters stand out and at the same time give them the upper hand in various situations.
High with enthusiasm over the design in theory, I was quick to create a basic visual design for all the cards and slapped some stickers on a die (at that time the game needed custom icons), as well as a logo and card backs. The King of All Bards was first showcased to my bandmates, then to a handful of friends. To my surprise, they loved it and were genuinely having fun.
However, one thing kept happening every single time. Come the second or third round, somebody would find something that I hadn't thought about and completely break the game. Somebody would become excessively rich, or too poor, or pull off an infinite combo, or win unexpectedly or "unfairly" — not because they cheated, but because I had not followed some of my own design rules while making the cards.Every time I fixed an issue, a new one emerged.
This went on for months and months, and I found myself making fewer amendments to the prototype and focusing more on my band and university — until my friend, Vasil Lozanov showed me his prototype for a quick and clever card game that eventually came out in 2016 under the name Among Thieves. He knew that I was in the middle of prototyping, so he asked me to help with playtesting and a couple of other things, which I gladly did. While helping him was a blast, it kept me from paying attention to my own project. Things watered down for a while, then finally stopped altogether...
The Faithful Phone Call
...until the summer of 2017, when I was in Greece. Vasil, now a published designer, called me: "There will be a prototype contest during the first ComicCon in Bulgaria. You should enter!" I initially came up with 110 reasons why I should not. My game was unfinished, the very concept was underdeveloped, it was not balanced and tested enough. He insisted that this is exactly why I should go; the feedback I would gather in one big event would be a hundred times more useful than my tests with a group of friends with infinite simulations and meditations over every detail. And he was right.
The final and probably most important factor was the heroic intervention by my friend Alexander Pandjarov, who came to my home with a blank notebook in hand and just joined the design process. With just four days to the convention, we were completely consumed by the process, writing and throwing away sheets of paper, trying things out, and making amendments. We showed the game in a local board game café and got a unanimous "cool idea, but needs work".
It is important to note that by this time, The King of All Bards was a strategic deck-building game with a drafting phase, a common deck from which to draw, and over one hundred different effects. Oh, and elements of fun here and there. We all agreed that it needed to be much lighter and more thematic and fun, so a large part of the complexity had to go. In the last two of those four days, around 80% of the design was trashed, and brand-new concepts — such as simultaneous movement, pub brawls, and duels — were added without being thoroughly tested.
The night before ComicCon I printed out the final cards with the first-ever sketches of the bards, drawn by my friend Gemma Álvarez. I selected the shiniest components lying around my house and closed the lid.
This is how the box looked back then
Improvisation has always come naturally to me as a musician and during ComicCon, I did exactly that, but with the rules. Just like the card "Epic Solo" allows you to re-roll a botched die, in a prototype you can scribble over a card with your pen and continue playing. My first group of playtesters were these charming ladies who weren't avid gamers. With a wide smile, I explained the rules, most importantly: "Get seven tips, and you win!". By the time they had their fourth tip, the game began to drag and bore them, so I politely proposed to cut it short "so that you have more time to test the other prototypes" and declared one of them the winner. They agreed and left with a positive impression of the game.
I welcomed the next group and explained that you win this game by getting four tips. This continued throughout the day. I changed the rules for every group that played that day, and after the fourth one things suddenly clicked and for the first time ever I felt I was up to something. We played it through another three or four times, and things actually worked.
During the second day of the event, the competition judges arrived, ready to critically examine the prototypes and give their final word. Now having lots of tests under my belt, I explained the game with the confidence of a person who totally knows what he's talking about, even though these rules were as new to me as they were to the judges.
The trick worked.
In the afternoon, they took the stage and announced the winner. To the shock of Alex and me, it was us. Moreover, Alexander Guerov, owner of Fantasmagoria and a judge in the competition shook my hand and announced that he was interested in publishing the game. We were officially in business.
With the new rush of interest came a rush of confidence, but also a desire for improvement. I had to take what I had learned at ComicCon and make some "official" changes. The simultaneous movement mechanism was a last-minute addition, but it became clear that it helped speed up a significant portion of the game. Since all the players were moving at the same time, it created a new kind of tension; you have to anticipate where your competition is going, whether to avoid or provoke duels. The duels themselves had to work in a different way since it was now possible to duel multiple bards at the same time. The pub brawls that were previously caused randomly by the custom die turned out to be a crowd favorite, so I decided to include them in the rules, specifically, if a fixed number of fans are in the same pub, a fight breaks out. This worked to the game's advantage as it gave the players more control (or at least controlled chaos) over a seemingly random element and fit great into my design philosophy.
Card backs in the early version
In March 2018, the first Sofia Board Game Weekend took place, a large gaming event focusing on prototypes and new designers. I went expecting low interest from the public but was delighted to be proven wrong. There were more than ten new games in various states of development and enthusiastic new designers and playtesters. The competition format was also rather interesting; the identity of the judges was kept secret both to the players and among themselves, so all games were judged in secret. At the end of the day, the two juries were revealed and their long discussion began. Finally, and to my surprise, Bards was declared one of the two winners. 100% success rate! This time, another Fantasmagoria representative, Nikolay Zhekov, gave me a business card and said, "Let's talk."
The Negotiation Table
And talk we did. Nikolay and Alexander were very direct and to-the-point, and we reached an agreement almost immediately. It turned out that this was a first for both parties: I, being a new designer, was about to sign an intellectual property contract for the first time, and Fantasmagoria, despite its huge catalog of localized foreign games and the publication of Battalia, was about to sign for the first time with a third-party author.
We negotiated the terms, signed and stamped, not just as a designer and publisher, but rather as one team. Despite everybody having a well-defined role in the project, every team member had a say in every aspect of the development, from the character powers to the choice of font. I was told that Atanas Lozanski would be illustrating the game, which, I admit, was one piece of news that excited me the most. That's when the process of finalizing the prototype began.
Focusing on the eight playable characters next was something both the publisher and me agreed upon early on. Until that point, they were outlined in my head and had some, well, character, but they still needed work, both gameplay-wise and in terms of visuals. As with any other creative process, I did not have the "right" answer but rather tried to set some guidelines early on and follow them through.
I placed my bet on something I know and like, so I chose a medieval/fantasy setting. I quickly decided that a typical epic fantasy with all kinds of creatures like orcs and goblins wouldn't do for my down-to-earth theme. I thought that humans would fit best and wouldn't put off players who dislike the much overused magical notion in fantasy. That decision immediately made the characters much more relatable. Look at Kiro the Fat, for example; true to his name, he plays the bagpipe and loves indulging himself with nice food and drinks, but beneath the surface has a heart of gold. An inspiration to his looks was Eluveitie's Inis Mona, hence the skull tied to his instrument. His playstyle had to reflect his personality, so he tends to get into the wrong pub (with his Drunkard ability) but doesn't mind sharing drinks with all fans, even if they don't cheer for him (Another Round).
My experience with medieval music played a crucial part in influencing character design. Knowing the genre, it was fairly easy for me to come up with musical instruments that would fit the setting and help craft the original styles of my characters. On top of that, I wanted them to be a mix of two or more real-life musicians that ideally have nothing in common. For example, Lindy-Fay Hella (Wardruna) and the rapper Snow Tha Product inspired Mariana the Dark. Hikari is a combination of Babymetal and Waggaki Band, Slav has always been a mix between Justin Bieber and Cacofonix (from Asterix & Obelix).
The evolution of Mariana the Dark
At least those were my notes for the artist... While The King of All Bards was in its earlier stage, I was worried about finding the right illustrator for the game; every musician knows that specific pain in the back you get when you see someone on TV holding the guitar the wrong way...
Atanas Lozanski made magic with my notes, though! With the suggestion of the publisher that we could explore a rather comic and quirky visual style, he took the several sentences per bard that I had noted down and developed them even further than my imagination. He added hundreds of small easter eggs that I had tons of fun discovering and I hope you find them all, too! You hear this a lot from designers, but I will repeat it: After years of testing with only a bland prototype, it is amazing to see your creation come to life with the right illustrations.
Final character illustrations
It's All About the Music!
The other thing that was always in the "to do" list when I was working on the prototype, but was always left out for "later" or "when the gameplay is finished" were the songs. In The King of All Bards, you sing a lot of songs and gameplay-wise this is as simple as choosing the right song and rolling a die. However, in my head this has always been the highlight of your turn; you are on stage performing, so naturally, I wanted it to be exciting. See, songs have a name and flavor text that is irrelevant for gameplay, but from playtesting I knew that this was also the detail that made players laugh, share jokes, and even try to sing! Titles like "Camarena" or "Call Me Baby" were so popular that we decided to make all song cards unique with similar funny puns. That required eighty different clever references to modern music...
Graphic design evolution of a song card
The help of the Fantasmagoria team was crucial in that regard, providing invaluable feedback and suggestions not only for the songs but for the tricks and overall style of the characters as well. Their attention to details, such as exploring the bards' stories and crafting pub descriptions, helped boost my own dedication and motivation. (Translation: We pushed each other around to do stuff that was neglected so that we could make the deadline.)
At this point, I had a prototype with most details worked out and artwork on the way. Before we went to production, we had to make sure that hundreds of people in the country would touch the game and give us their opinion. Spreading the word of an upcoming game was to be achieved while I gathered feedback from players. We tested for the obvious: overall balance of characters and of separate cards, as well as some less intuitive problems like the visual appeal of the different bards, readability of text, or even stuff like "Is it necessary for each bard to have separate color-coded components?" (Turns out that this approach was enjoyed by most, even though it meant color-coding everything and printing two additional sets of pieces.)
While I was very active in the local board gaming scene, an impactful achievement was last year's participation of The King of All Bards at SPIEL '18. Fantasmagoria brought one of the final prototypes to the show, and for four days the German audience played and provided valuable feedback.
If you ask me, an artistic project is never finished. However, endless changes won't ever yield a finished game. Combining both statements means you should know when to draw the line and declare your project finished. Fantasmagoria and I decided on a deadline much later than first anticipated, but I believe it was for the best. During the final few months, we finalized the rules (with all texts in three languages), graphic design, and so on. While I am writing this diary, somewhere in a ship are boxes full of The King of All Bards that can actually be touched. That thought is still a little bit abstract to me.
I hope I was able to shed some light on my design and decision-making process with this article, and I really hope you will enjoy The King of All Bards!