Little known fact: I designed a game last year. It is a small game, one I had snuck in at the last minute into the 2018 Solitaire Game Design Contest – and then life blew up with my daughter and I wasn’t able to do much with the game, much less playing any of the other entries into the contest. Needless to say, my game remained far under the radar over the course of the playing and voting process. And part of me was disappointed at the poor showing on my end of things, which was reflective of how my game performed.
But I had done it. At the end of the process, I had still designed a game. It wasn’t a perfect game. The only reason it had cards and components to print were because of another BGG user who kindly threw them together for me. But if my time as a writer taught me anything that could translate into game design, it was that the first draft of a game is not the finished draft of a game. And so I slowly began to tinker with The Honor of the Queen in those rare spurts of inspiration. And now we have a game with a BGG entry, complete with a rulebook to download, and components to print and play, and even a form to fill out to provide playtesting feedback.
But that isn’t what I want to focus on for today’s design diary entry. I want to go all the way back to the 24-hour period when the game was first designed and talk a bit about how it came about, and who/what inspired the creation of this game in its earliest form.
You might say it all began in the spring of 2018, when I first started to dabble in game design with Monster Huntress. I wanted to make this massive deckbuilding/worker placement hybrid game based upon the novel I had just published. I hand-crafted dozens of cards, enough to test the early parts of the game, and a board. I figured out a worker placement mechanic that would work. But then I realized the scope of that project and how much investment it would require – especially for a first game design. So I put that on the back burner and came up with half a dozen other designs of various size and scope. That led to my creation of a project I’m working on still with the codename “Out of Gas”, which is putting my own spin on the deckbuilding system from Friday. Both of those are games I still intend to create, and have seen varied levels of progress since they were set aside. But even “Out of Gas” was far too large, needing over a hundred cards to be designed and created.
Fast forward a few months, and I got to know the wonderful Alf Seegert a little bit via email and social media. If you don’t know him, he is responsible for excellent games such as Fantastiqa, Fantastiqa: Rival Realms, and Haven. He also happens to be a Literature professor as his day job, something that I still aspire to do one of these days. After some conversations with him, he mentioned a desire to do a Gawain and the Green Knight design some day, which got me thinking of literary themes I enjoy.
And thus The Honor of the Queen was born, taking one of the many smaller stories from Arthurian lore and attempting to translate it into a game. I’ve always been intrigued with the design space of 9 and 18-card games, and it quickly became clear that the smaller game space was something that would fit what I needed for my first design. And, well, an excerpt from my next email to Alf is probably fitting to demonstrate the excitement I felt:
I made the cards by hand and tested it in one evening, wrote a rulebook the next day, and a generous BGG user made cards and counters for the game over the weekend. I couldn’t be happier to have a game in its early form that others can play…
In 24 hours I had a theme, around which I built a game and then hand-crafted the 9 cards for a prototype and the counters. Finding the right theme was a bit of a challenge, as there are so many great Arthurian tales out there, but for some reason the romantic relationship between Lancelot and Guinevere was where I continued to circle back toward. When I found out that there were 14 knights total who ambushed Lancelot that night in Guinevere’s chambers, I knew I had a theme I could design around in a 9-card space, making the cards each contain two versions of knights. I spent an hour or so looking hard into the story, both to ensure I had a clear idea of the events as well as to find as many named knights as I could for the second half of the game. While I could never come up with 7 like I hoped, it was enough to make sure there were more than just “Scottish Knight” on every card.
The second thing I needed to consider, now that I had my theme, was combat for the game. Lancelot was the greatest of all of Arthur’s knights, and his renown carried a lot of weight. Knights tended to measure themselves by their virtues, not just their strength of arms. And thus the Knightly Virtue system was born, where I researched into some of the Knightly Virtues and selected four that would work well as thematic areas that a knight might become known for. I enjoy decision points in games, and so I knew I wanted each knight encountered to have two different virtues on their card so the player could choose which to try and match.
While I usually dislike randomness in games, especially if it hinges on a dice roll, this game needed a system to throw in an element of uncertainty for both sides. I didn’t want there to be a situation where there was no risk of losing, nor one with no chance of winning. And so I came up with the chit pull system, with the numbers weighted toward adding to his Virtues yet also with a risk of automatic success or failure being drawn. To include a decision point for the player, I wanted there to be a way to draw a second time if the first number was undesirable, and having Lancelot sacrifice the power in one Virtue to try and push harder to win in a different Virtue seemed like a solid concept to allow a 2nd chit draw as desired (this would later be refined to allow players to also spend Virtue to remove a chit permanently, helping them “stack” the bag even more in their favor). Lancelot, because of his reputation, would obviously win in ties. I imagined a hallway full of these fourteen knights, with Lancelot struggling to break through and escape from the ambush but being able to face them individually because of the close quarters. Because Lancelot was caught off-guard by the situation and not as well-equipped, it made sense for him to begin with a lower set of statistics that would, as he gained momentum, get stronger as he progressed through the ranks of the knights. Also of equal importance, though, was his role as a champion for Guinevere, the Queen. While victories were important for Lancelot personally in order to escape, any defeat at the hands of a foe would be a mark against the honor of Guinevere.
While the initial design of the game was simply throwing numbers onto the card and seeing how it worked, it gave me a starting point that was satisfying to play and challenging to defeat – both qualities I wanted in this short solitaire experience. I’ve since tweaked the numbers, and a little bit of the gameplay (which I will outline in the next design diary, I think), but as a whole The Honor of the Queen has remained relatively close to its initial concept.
I’ve read a fair number of Arthurian works over the years, and I’ll end each of these design diaries regarding this game by recommending one of my many favorites. Today I’ll mention Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart by Chrétien de Troyes. This is a 12th century poem in Old French (but please, read an English translation. The one by Burton Raffel is quite good), and was the first appearance of Lancelot as a main character in Arthurian legend.