(This article was originally published in "Games International", issue #13 and is reproduced here with the permission of Brian Walker, the former GI editor)
Derek Carver explains the design of his game of competing dynasties, published by Games Workshop as Blood Royale.
Ideas for new games present themselves in a variety of ways. Sometimes, though rarely, as complete games, sometimes as a system devised, perhaps, with playing cards or counters, around which a theme is subsequently developed, and sometimes as a scenario which has the potential of being made the subject of a good game.
If Blood Royal (in common with many people, I prefer to drop that final mysterious 'E') came into any of the categories it was the third one.
In my earlier game - Warrior Knights -I was enthusiastic about the idea of games during the course of which the players 'assembled' and used their skills to vote on issues which would greatly affect subsequent play. Although such an idea had great appeal for me it wasn't sufficient for a game in itself and a much wider game had to be developed around this core concept. Much the same thing happened in Blood Royal.
Unlike many gamers, I would not call myself a history buff, but I do enjoy reading history, and I had also been an avid watcher of the TV series The Plantagenets, having visited many of the locations as a result of my fascination with this period. The history of the Middle Ages illustrates that not everything was achieved purely by conquest (although military might was a great bargaining factor in one's favour). Prolonged campaigning was not easy. There was considerable diplomacy, often sealed by a marriage contract. Here, I felt, was the substance for a game. I wanted to make a game where each player was a monarch who would produce children, marry them off to the family's advantage, secure trade routes and wage war. Each player was Henry II, if you like.
From the start I decided the only realistic way forward would be to include an element of role-playing in the game. I therefore gave each 'character' a character sheet in the true role-playing tradition. The die-rolls recorded on this sheet determined 1) how healthy the character was, 2) how strong in battle or diplomatic cunning, and 3) how attractive to the populace. The first was an indication of survival chances - especially important to the women who, it was hoped, would produce a number of children, hopefully some strong males. The second is self explanatory, women being able to confer their qualities on their husbands. The third quality reflected the character's general popularity. A popular king could roam Europe with less fear of rebellion breaking out at home and an attractive princess was always to be hope for.
This all meant that the characters in the game also had to die from time to time so instead of being only Henry n, the English player, for example, would have to represent the more abstract concept of the entire dynasty, and this gave the game its original name - Dynasties. Thus, the game differed from normal role-playing in that instead of players being their character they would in this game control many characters, all different.
Each player starts the game with a king, a queen, and two children, all of specified age. Dice rolls are made to determine the sex of each child and rolls are also made to determine the three characteristics of each member of the family. Each is given a character sheet recording year of birth and so on, and the players also have to choose their dynastic name and names for each of the characters. This meant that from the start the game was peopled by seemingly real and quite different characters ('different' because of their individual qualities). The only unreal thing about it is that at the start each player controls families all of the same age, but this situation doesn't last for long.
Play is in five year segments, starting with 1300. A survival die roll has to be made for each character every five years. Their survival chances vary, of course, according to age, childbirth, and fitness (the original die roll 1) mentioned above).
One of the many changes that took place during the early days was the reduction in the number of small children that were around. Originally more children were born, but quite a few died before they reached the age of 15, which is the age they are of any interest to us in terms of the game. So in order not to make die rolls and fill out character sheets for children that didn't survive to 15 the system was adjusted. Fewer children were born, but those that were born were guaranteed to survive to 15. We ended up with the same number of young adults but saved a lot of time and paper in the process.
So this was the core idea. The early problem was what to do with the idea. We couldn't sit around the entire evening manipulating these royal families; we had to do something with them.
The first problem was that history did not have a four to six player game in mind, each with more or less equal chances. While England hasn't changed much geographically speaking, the rest of Europe has, and there was no Germany and no Italy as such. Unlike Warrior Knights where I felt the correct answer was to create a fictitious country, with Blood Royal I knew I could only maintain the historical 'feel' I was aiming for if I set my game firmly in medieval Europe, so I had to create Kingdoms of Germany and Italy, and also give each country in the game the same number of provinces. This doesn't seem to have bothered people as much as I thought it would (although I don't know what German and Italian players think about it!). But even with my cavalier attitude to history and geography there was no way in which I could easily bring in a sixth power, so I restricted the game to a maximum of five.
So - I had already departed from history, but the general feeling in the game was all right.
What next? I didn't want it to be a thrash and bash wargame. I decided I wanted it to be centred on the securing of trade and trade routes plus income from taxes. The latter was pretty simple - I allowed players to collect taxes from each province they owned with the option of double taxing. The latter increased the chances of the highly taxed provinces going into rebellion - a calculated risk, in other words, which is a concept that always appeals to me and about which more anon.
For the trading I hit upon an idea which I must confess to being rather pleased with and which could, in itself, have been the core idea for another game. Wanting it kept simple, I devised a system of three basic commodities (what they are called is unimportant - let's call them A B and C). Each country had to acquire these commodities and transport them to their capital to be 'cashed in'. But they could cash them in only in sets of three (ABC). In the full five player game there are only three of each type around the board, which means there are not enough for each player to have a set each time. Also no single country produces one of each (they might produce two As and a C, for example). This means that in order to secure the missing item(s) players had either to trade, secure them by contract (about which more later), or capture the province in which a desired 'missing' item is produced.
Additionally there are around the board two somewhat more luxurious commodities - two Ds and one E. If, instead of trading in a set of just ABC, you can acquire ABC and D you get much more for them, and if to this you add the true luxury item E you get considerably more. On their own the Ds and the E are worth nothing; they have to supplement the basic set. These commodities are placed on the board in their producing province at the beginning of each five year period unless there is a specific occurrence that prevents this.
This trading aspect of the game hasn't changed since the early days. It worked well and provided the framework I needed. We now had a royal family that had to ensure its own continuation and it needed to obtain commodities. It also needed income. If it had some strong royal males plus a strong army it could go out and capture the producing provinces by force. In the same way it could wage combat in order to secure its trade routes. If necessary a country could build a string of castles. A castle means it doesn't matter what happens to the province in which it is located: goods can still be transported through that otherwise enemy province, the castle ensuring safe passage for troops and trade goods. But warfare was an uncertain business. Kings especially could not normally safely leave their capital to indulge in prolonged foreign wars. If they were generally popular and were doing well it was easier but if they were not too high in the popularity stakes and also weren't being too successful in their campaigning there was always the possibility of domestic unrest looming over them. And if they don't at once rush back to quell it rebellion had a nasty habit of spreading.
So securing what they want by other means became important and here another major aspect of the game comes into play - the royal marriage. For each player it is essential to ensure the continuation of his dynasty. If he doesn't do so control could go to another player who can trace his monarch's ancestry back.
Also an unmarried king cannot produce princes to lead his armies. So wives are in demand - especially beautiful and healthy ones. (Even so, there are a lot of desperate marriages between pretty nasty boys and somewhat sickly girls, I might add!) Most marriages also seal a 'Marriage Contract' and if, for example, you are seeking a girl to marry the King's eldest son you can put your demands pretty high, because the player controlling the potential future queen's family stands to gain quite a bit financially when she ascends the throne. These all-important contracts can concern non-aggression, military support, money, trade rights, trade routes, land, or a mixture of the lot. They have to be carefully worded because their terms become binding for as long as both parties to the marriage survive. Players are not allowed to break the terms of a marriage contract: they would have to arrange the death of one of the parties first.
So crucial is the clever negotiation of these contracts that they presented one of the early problems in the game. A new player could be totally at the mercy of an old hand who easily tied him up into a contract that he subsequently came to realise he could well have done without. (France is always best played by such a persuasive player.) This is why a change was made so that at the start of the game the children are too young to be married at once. This at least gives an inexperienced player time to see what it's all about before he puts quill to parchment.
One of the features of the game is that during each five year turn each player has to announce to the rest of the players what has happened to his dynasty - who has died, who has been born and the description of a child, and so on. The death of a king or queen is, of course, a major event and the records are searched to establish the next in line in those rare cases where it is not immediately obvious. It is even possible for a player's kingdom to pass to another player who has the only direct heir, but this is rare. Legitimate claimants to the throne can be passed over, but from then on they provide a nuisance factor in the game that other players can exploit.
There were a few other aspects that were slowly modified during the early days (or years) but that was the game in essence.
As it stood it presented one important problem as I saw it, although it wasn't one that seemed to worry many of the groups that came to know it and made copies. To obtain the full feeling of this continuing and developing dynasty it was essentially an ongoing game. During the course of a three hour game the most one could expect is that the king or queen (or both) might die and the next in line ascend the throne but it wouldn't go much farther than that. The true essence of the game, though, was the continuation of the family and its ramifications as it married into other dynasties and produced children. This meant that it either had to be played for a long time or it was best played as an ongoing game by the same group (the winner each session being the player who had best improved on his starting position). This is the way it was often played. Chronicles were kept and huge family trees maintained. It has been turned into a play by mail game in Austria and there they publish the appropriate dynastic announcements with proper obituaries on the death of an important Royal Personage. This is what the whole thing is about.
So this was how the game stood when Games Workshop came on the scene. They had recently done an excellent job with my Warrior Knights and I was happy to let them have Dynasties as it was then called. They knew the game and were attracted to the idea of incorporating role-playing features into a traditional boardgame.
The first thing they decided to change was the name. They were rather frightened to use Dynasties because of the popular TV series. At the first meeting I tossed in Blood Royal as an alternative title, which was finally adopted but with an additional 'E'. I have noticed that continental players, obviously disliking the mixture of languages, refuse to acknowledge this final E.
Unfortunately we then started to run into a bit of trouble and our good relations took a temporary downturn. Warrior Knights had been published precisely as I invented it. Well, that is not 100% correct - a few changes were made to assist production but not only were they all made by me or with my approval, but I also felt they were improvements. The GW developer for Warrior Knights was Albie Fiore, who had also worked on my Dr Who (one of GW's first boardgames) and he subsequently worked on my Whirlwind (FASA). By this time he had left Games Workshop and the in house developer of Blood Royal was somebody different, and he wanted to expand the game and introduce more historical events. Although my contract allowed me to veto any changes to the original I had respect for the enthusiasm and undoubted abilities of the developer, even though I feared the additions would lengthen an already long game. But the big problem was that in the main the proposed additions (and they were all 'additions' as opposed to changes) were not the sort of rules I would have invented. Not that they were bad in themselves, they simply reflected the sort of game the developer would have invented and not the sort of game I like.
Let me give an example to illustrate the different approaches. Games Workshop wanted to introduce a series of historical events in the form of chance cards. These were to be events that often affected (usually adversely) one player. Of course, they were not as crude as 'Go to Jail', but you know what I mean. They also mirrored historical events. While I was not totally against the idea of these events I wanted them to have considerably more interest and add to the fun of the game. I also wanted them to be different from the sort of thing people are used to. My feelings are that historical events happen because a certain regime either takes a certain action (one out of a number of possibilities) at a certain time, or decides to take no action at all. If at a particular moment a contrary decision had been made the course of history would have been changed in some way. What we see as history, therefore, is the result of one decision out of a number of possible decisions taken at the time and in my game we were living in the time.
So, to get back to the game, I suggested that firstly, we should try to restrict events so that they affect all players, and secondly, that the event should be in the form of an intelligence report listing what could happen in, say, two to three turns: i) if no action was taken, ii) the chances of averting this occurrence if more money was directed into the area (money that might be in short supply), iii) the chances of suppressing the event by stationing troops in the area, and so on. The 'chances' would be expressed in terms of die roll odds. After all, these are the sort of questions a ruler would have to ask at the time and he would decide on the action to take in the light of the replies, the odds of success, and the effect on his exchequer, stability, and so on. So in game terms it would mean that the player would do what he thought most expedient and possible and he would have to await the outcome. At the same time other players who have no love for him (and no contract preventing intervention) could, possibly, lessen his chances of success by taking certain actions themselves.
The developer saw my point but sadly our minds didn't run along the same lines. Certain modifications were made, but generally speaking I thought the event cards at the end of the day didn't really reflect the original thinking I was aiming for. I preferred to offer the game as I invented it and leave it to enthusiasts to extend it as they wished as a result of play and the preferences of their own group.
As it was clear that we were thinking quite differently and time was being consumed it was finally agreed to publish the game in my basic form with the new rules being included as 'Optionals' to be used or discarded by the purchaser as he or she wished. In this way I was able to give Game Workshop carte blanche with these additions, without further reference back to me. It is pertinent to add at this stage that it is rare for publishers to agree to allow an inventor to veto any changes. He normally has no control whatsoever over the product that finally arrives on the shelves, which might be quite unlike his original. An amazing situation when you come to think about it.
The solution reached was quite satisfactory. As far as the production was concerned they made a truly superb job of it. I must admit that I took exception to the box cover, which didn't reflect the feel of the game at all, and it was rather sad that GW scored an own goal by deciding to suggest names for foreign princes and princesses - presumably for the benefit of players whose knowledge was limited in this regard- and getting them wrong! But these are peripherals. No inventor could be anything but delighted with the quality of the product offered, right down to such often overlooked details as the magnificent presentation of the rules, which excellently carried through the historical feel of the game. These are the qualities that show Games Workshop at their best, and they deserve every compliment.
In its basic form Blood Royal presents a system that is ideal for building on and I know a number of groups have developed additional rules bringing in the power of the Church, rules that have qualities that appeal to their particular group and have stood the test of playing over a period, being slowly refined in the process. This is excellent and what I hoped would happen.
While one must be pleased in one respect, it is also a pity that Blood Royal appeared just before GW made the decision to turn exclusively to the fantasy games with which they are normally associated and which (as a result of their White Dwarf readership) had been far more profitable for them than their ventures into non-fantasy and comic strip themes. Having made this decision it reflects greatly to their credit that they pushed ahead with Blood Royal in the quality that they did, it being no small investment.