Monday, June 29

Back to My Roots

Recently, I've been having some more thoughts about a second edition of Border Reivers. Border Reivers was my first attempt at game design, and the 100-copy limited edition, entirely made by hand was the first step on the road to where I am today.

I started designing Border Reivers after a 36-hour marathon game of Mighty Empires in which the guy who was clearly in the lead suddenly got knobbled after 36-hours and went from comfortable first place to languishing at the rear. Had he made a huge tactical error that brought such a reverse in his fortunes? Nope, some random dragon event just hurt him. Surely I could make a similar game that plays quicker and doesn't have such huge swings in power.

My brief was to design a similar, civilisation-level, light wargame, with some development where random game happenings can't screw you completely. I wanted the game to play in 30-90 minutes too, not many people have 36 hours available for a single game.

How Did I Do?

I'm still proud of my achievement with Border Reivers. With no experience as a game designer or publisher I managed to design a working game, get it printed, assemble 100 copies and sell them all within eleven months all over the world. Is it the best game ever? Clearly not. But it's one that I still enjoy when I play and people still ask me to re-print and one that Mal wants to play almost every time we meet up.


There are several things about Border Reivers that I really like. I like the double-sided triangular land tiles that get flipped and upgraded as the landscape changes. I did get the alignment wrong on the coastal ones though, so flipping them was counter intuitive. I liked the aesthetics of triangular tiles and the way that it made movement not quite as expected - I envisaged this was due to the highland terrain making travelling in a straight line difficult.

I also liked the brutal combat. The most likely outcome of a straight fight was everyone dies! However, there were substantial bonuses if you could get weight of numbers on your side. As a result, this led to either building large armies to crush your opponents, or risking everyone on a do-or-die attack. Of course, the cards spiced things up a bit too.

Which brings me on to the cards. The cards in Border Reivers come in two varieties: buildings and strategies. The building cards were played face up, and gave a development advantage to one of your cities - either more income or better chance of getting cards/armies in each future turn. The buildings were ok, but the hidden strategy cards were more fun. There were only a few types, so when you got one, your opponents had a pretty good idea what they were in for. There was a defence for each of them, but the defences were pretty expensive, so you couldn't afford to keep defences for all possible cards in place. I really liked the hidden cards, especially: Insurrection, Reiving Party and Ambush.


At the beginning of each turn you rolled a ten-sided die for reinforcements. You rolled twice for each city: once for army reinforcements and once for cards. Since you could build up to three cities, you could theoretically roll the die six times at the beginning of your turn. In addition, to make things even worse, the reinforcement buildings cards (you could build one of each in each city) gave you an extra die roll. Up to twelve in all! While I liked that these gave you the opportunity to gamble victory points (cash) for possible gain, you could spend 8 cash (a fifth of that needed to win) and still get nothing (it gave you a 90% chance of getting something, but a bad die roll and you're stuffed). I've played many games where you just need one more army to give you enough to attack. Roll for reinforcements... fail. Do nothing this turn except get more money and try again next turn. This is no fun.

Border Reivers had two paths to victory, you could either kill all your opponents (player elimination) or save up enough cash. In two-player games it was about 50/50 over which path ended the game. In three- or four-player games it was almost always the cash route. Since the cash route could be achieved by building strong defences and then sitting back and raking in the cash the game was subject to turtling, where each player hid in their own little corner of the board and sat back trying to race to gain the most cash. This led to little player interaction. Mainly a problem with the three- and four-player games, but still doesn't make for a very fun game. I introduced the mine fairly late in development to try to encourage people out of their holes, but this was only a limited success.

While the mountain range pieces in my first FIMO prototype (see picture above) were really cool, the rubbish card ones in the limited edition were definitely not.


On and off I've been toying with a few ideas of things I could have done differently in Border Reivers:

  • Each player is a particular Border Reiver clan, with different starting resources or player powers.
  • Reinforcements are either free or fixed cost, limited only by the number of cities you control.
  • Replace the victory conditions with a victory point track that could reward development, riches and aggressive play.
  • Replace building cards with tokens or counters that show which city the building is in.

My aim would be to reduce the number of turns when you've got nothing to do (either because your reinforcement rolls didn't provide the required reinforcements or you don't have enough resources to mount an attack) and reduce the huge number of die rolls at the beginning of each turn while still capturing the feel of the first game.

Have you played the limited edition of Border Reivers? Would you like to get you hands on a copy? What do you think could be improved/changed? Answers on a postcard below please.


Valentijn Eekels said...

"Made by hand"??

That's impressive..! But how?

Jack said...

Hiya Valentijn,

For the full gory details check out the first posts of this blog, made years ago, when I was doing it.

But the short story: I got the printing done (onto sheets of A3 card and paper) by a digital printer, bought the thick card and the pieces (wooden and plastic). I then counted and bagged the components, cut out and rounded the corners on the cards, made the boxes out of the thick card and then glued the paper on, and glued the paper on (both sides) for the tiles and cut them out. All told it took about 3 hours per copy!



Valentijn Eekels said...

It is... Amazingly impressive!

I remember making prototypes for Day & Night, but because of the 140 cards a game and a far from great printer it could take all day! With 2 people...

Great post by the way,
~ Valentijn.

Jack said...

Thanks. Like I say, I'm still proud of the achievement.

Getting the games digitally printed was great - it's wasn't too expensive, and the print quality was really good. Plus I got them to laminate everything - it's very hard-wearing.



Mal said...

Awwww man... how nostalgic am I getting right now?!? You can bet your sweet ass I'll be bringing my copy along for our holiday in the Peaks. :D

I like the sound of some of the improvements you're suggesting too. Some could be really tricky to perfect, mind. Remember how much time you spent getting it to where it is now - can you afford to spend that amount of time again, now that you're in business proper? Don't get me wrong - I'd love to see it, but I'd also hate to see its balance diminished by the limitations of a tighter development schedule.

Needless to say, I'd be more than happy to whupp your ass in playtesting...

Jack said...


The whole point of changing the rules is so that I can start beating you again - like the good old days (when I won). If you can't win a game, change the rules :p



Steve said...

I agree with Mal - I'd love to see a production version of your "signature" game... especially if it had the "proper" plastic mountains and castles ;-)

I do agree that quite a lot of games are decided by lucky roles in the reinforcement phase though - and something that changes that would be good (especially as I'm usually the victim!)
No suggestions though...

I'm also not thrilled when I lose a game to the "money" victory one turn before my massively superior army wipes my opponent out - it seems a little unrealistic - but I can live with that as arbitrary game mechanic. At least you know about it up front and it's your fault if you time it wrong. I suppose it shows the balance is about right that it's always a close run thing as to which approach will come out on top!

Jack said...

Hiya Steve,

Thanks for the vote of support. I'm going to work on some different victory conditions, but I want military and economic to still feature in there.



Custancia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Custancia said...

If you're making changes, could you can change the dice rolling/ modifier thing so that I can see if I've won without my opponent needing to tell me?

Having said that, it's almost certainly not a problem for people who like dicerolling/fighting games :)

Philip said...

Jack, I would love to help playtest and give you a little extra input if you would like--if you get really serious about moving forward. Though I guess you would want "helpers" to tread lightly, as this is kind of your baby. . . Seriously, let me know.

Jack said...


Yeah, that could do with clarifying a bit - good point!

More playtesters are always useful. In the first instance I'll want to do some solo work, and then some testing with my local playtesters. Oncfe it's getting somewhere and a bit less in flux I'll want a wider group of playtesters - at that point I'd appreciate your help - drop me an email and I'll keep you in mind.



Mal said...

BTW, as a casual gamer, I kind of like the die rolls. I know that's unusual compared to most of your customers, but the random element spares me self-inflicted analysis paralysis.

(Just getting my excuses in early for when you starting kicking my ass again...)

Jack said...

Yeah, I don't think the die rolls are necessarily bad, just having so many of them slows things down.



Sound Strategy said...

I'd like to add my two cents.

First, I think dice have become underrated in gaming. They are very simple and effective randomizers. That said, the amount of rolling you described for things like getting units sounds a bit high to me.

Second, I LOVE games that allow you to pick specialized roles. I think it adds another dimension to the gameplay from the beginning, and you can also tie the the mechanics into the story line better.

Jack said...


Thanks for your input. I've just got back from holiday and I wrote down a few ideas while I was away.

Hopefully I can start testing them out now that I'm back.