Finding old games
Desert Island Games
Letters to the Editor
Ten years ago, I was a huge fan of Wiz-War. That game of dueling, thieving wizards in a maze was unpredictable, amusing, and always different. Too many expansion sets (killing the deck balance with too many spells and too few numbers) hurt the game, and ultimately it got shelved in the wake of the European game explosion. When we revisited it recently I discovered my tastes had changed and it no longer appealed as it once did. The random factor was too overwhelming, the disparity in play times (anywhere from fifteen minutes to multiple hours) too difficult to control.
Designer Tom Jolly has gone back to the maze, emerging with Drakon. Under the title Primrose Path, in recent years the game had been scheduled for production from various publishers including Wizards of the Coast before the deals fell through (see sidebar, above). Fortunately it found a home at Fantasy Flight, giving us a new beer & pretzels game with all the initial charm of Wiz-War, but few of the problems.
This is a map-building game, a popular genre of late (Carcassone, Metro). The map in question is a dungeon from which players must escape by collecting five gold coins. Each 2” square tile shows outbound arrows on 0-3 sides. The only two rules for tile placement are that each tile must touch another and no two arrows can point directly at each other.
Players start with a hand of four tiles and must either place one or move their token one space each turn. The beer & pretzels factor here is that most tiles trigger a special ability when entered. These abilities including collecting or losing a gold coin, stealing one from a neighbor, rotating, replacing, or removing tiles, moving other players’ tokens, and so forth.
Tiles activate whenever someone steps on them, so there’s some incentive to go off by yourself so your opponents can’t mooch off your great tiles. The problem is that lone wolves are likely to fall prey to malevolent tile placement from other players— an elegant self-balancing feature.
Since players can’t place a tile and move their token on the same turn, the chaos is generally controlled. Players can see the map building, anticipate future events, and formulate responses in advance. Most of the time. Players will quickly see the advantages of collusion, however. Someone can’t play his remove-a-tile piece and step onto it on the same turn, but he can play it in front of another player’s token so that player can step on it— useful for hindering a third player. So useful, in fact, that after an openly-discussed two-hour game (thoroughly enjoyed by all, but far longer than the game wants to be) we decided to ban table talk in Drakon. This means it’s possible for a player to throw the game through poor or inattentive play, but that’s okay in a beer & pretzels game like this. In our group, at least, we’d prefer to play two shorter games of Drakon than one marathon one.
Advanced rules assign each player a different special ability which can be used once during the game (move an extra space, move through one wall, avoid losing a gold coin, etc). These abilities are not equally balanced, so use them with caution. A more interesting variation is to allow each player to use each ability (or a mutually-agreed subset) once per game, but no more than one ability per turn.
Player aids explaining what all the tiles do would have been useful in our first game— we passed the rule book around a lot. By game two we had ‘em down pat, except for confusion between the “move 2 spaces” and “move 3 spaces” tiles. Better graphic design— incorporating a “2” or “3” into the tile’s icon, for instance— would have made a huge difference in usability.
Minor nit aside, Drakon is a stronger design than Wiz-War and, when played in the proper spirit (this ain’t no Die Macher, kiddies— keep it moving), Drakon is a delight.
Behind the Scenes
Drakon took a long and tortuous journey from concept to publication. It began as a programming game called Primrose Path, where players moved through a computer program performing instructions as they went. When designed Tom Jolly added “goto” loops and made the cards square, the game began to resemble its current form. After a couple years of tweaking, the game took on an “Alice in Wonderland” feeling, as Jolly describes it. Collecting coins wasn’t part of the picture back then— the object was to get rid of all your tiles by landing on “discard” tiles. Much of the game’s refinement came through lunchtime playtest sessions at Lockheed, where Jolly works as an electrical engineer.
Jolly was all set to publish the game himself (imagine a rose on a black box) when he met the folks from a little company called Wizards of the Coast. It was GenCon 1993, the week of Magic: the Gathering’s release. The WotC crew were big fans of Wiz-War. In between playtests of the then-unpublished RoboRally, Jolly showed them the Primrose Path in the lobby of their hotel. They liked it, ultimately offering what Jolly calls “a very fair percentage for royalties”, which he accepted.
But this was only a handshake. Getting the contract proved to be an entirely different matter. Magic overwhelmed the company, and a year after the handshake Jolly still had nothing firm on paper. When it finally did come through, the royalty figure was one fifth of the original offer. The reason given, according to Jolly, was that Wizards of the Coast was a lot bigger now and he’d end up making more money in the long run. “Being a novice at this,” Jolly said, “I accepted. I wanted to get published by a real company.”
The game still hadn’t materialized when, two years later, Wizards of the Coast decided to shut down their board game projects. “They gave the rights back to me along with a kill fee, which was nice of them.” In fact it was Richard Garfield who suggested the game be about “getting stuff” instead of “getting rid of stuff,” a change Jolly adopted. The game at this point became known as Vaults. The original concept of performing instructions during the execution of a computer program stuck with Jolly, however, and he later resurrected the idea in his self-published Programmer’s Nightmare.
Alan Moon, then head of development at FX Schmid USA, picked up the ball with a new offer. The game, now called Golden Vaults, languished yet again in the wake of FX Schmid’s merger with Ravensburger and Moon’s subsequent departure. Without a champion to push the game through development, the game remained in limbo for two years until the contract finally expired.
In the meantime Jolly had developed a working relationship with Fantasy Flight, who’d published his DiskWars game. Jolly presented Golden Vaults to them at the annual game fair in Essen, Germany. They liked the game, but not the name. They suggested a dragon theme and the name Dragon’s Vault, which eventually became Drakon.
The Game Report Online - Editor: Peter Sarrett (email@example.com)