Category Archives: Walsingham

Walsingham: further playtest report

I finally got Walsingham to the table again, following my last round of changes. Once again, the mood at the table was subdued as it ended… and then suddenly passionate about the different ways the endgame might have played out. I’m now a little bit worried and maybe unsure what to make of this? But I suppose that for now, I’ll just keep making the improvements that are in front of me. Points is points, as they say, and better is better.

A rundown of the changes made, how they went, and what further changes might be on deck:

  • I tried a new auction mechanism, which was a little difficult to explain but completely satisfactory in execution. The new mechanism is this: You get two chances to bid. On your first bid, you can bid any unique amount. (So if Alice bids 4, and Bob bids 6, then Cindy can bid 0, 3, 5, 10… anything except for 4 or 6). On your second bid, you can either hold your previous bid or increase, but if you increase, you have to bid yourself up to first place. This keeps the auction fast and prevents people from weaseling into second, say. The last place bidder pays nothing (and gets a stipend). First place pays full price, and every other bidder pays half.
  • We played with rebalanced endgame scoring: 5 VP for stopping the Spy. The player who won this award (me) didn’t win the game, but it was very close, and to some degree I was punished for bidding mistakes.
  • The Spy felt… oppressed. It’s very difficult to subtly pick up Intrigue and not make it obvious to the other players. I don’t know how to deal with this. I could put more emphasis on the Spy’s chance for a VP victory (fine, but seems to take away from the drama of the game). I could give the Spy an easier time, for instance by making Accusations less punishing, but then the Spy has no incentive to play cautiously, again subtracting from the drama.
  • The players generally felt that the Rewards and Secret cards both needed “something extra”. I’m cautious about including new mechanics just for fun, but I think I agree. A little more texture is called for.
  • One of the improvements is that the money awards in the Rewards deck need to go. It makes no sense to bid money and then maybe get money back. I’ll probably adjust the last-bid stipend to compensate if more money needs to be injected back into the game.
  • A card that reduces the sting of Accusations. Of course, buying this card is itself suspicious! Alternatively: a card that provides a VP incentive for being falsely Accused. You have a lot of Intrigue and buy it. Are you a Loyal player hoping to score cheap VP, or a brazen Spy?
  • A card that is worth a lot of VP, but penalizes you if your Accusation is incorrect.
  • The “Big Reveal” card that requires you to reveal your Loyalty cards led to an interesting auction (the Spy bailed to avoid getting stuck with it) but having a Loyal player reveal reduced the drama and mystery for everyone else. The card needs to either be removed or reworked, perhaps to reveal only one of your cards.
  • A set of big-VP and big-Intrigue cards, but you can only score one of them. Some of these could even be Secret cards, which would add some more interest to that deck. Unless I have a better idea, I could theme this as “Political Marriage”.
  • The card that lets one player spy on all of another player’s Secrets is definitely too powerful for 4p; it just adds too much information. It might be OK for 5p or it might need to be toned down or reworked.
  • A card that blocks spying in some way. My brainstorm was: Block the next attempt to Peek at your Loyalty cards or Secrets. Both you and the blocked player gain $10.
  • A card that allows you to either Peek or gain some kind of resource.
  • Finally: Instead of money on cards, there could be some kind of intermediate currency or goal–having at least one, or having a certain amount, or having the most, could gain you a reward of some kind. That reward could be VP or Intrigue or one of the previously mentioned rewards–maybe the biggest Political Marriage?

Thanks to Ed, Josh, and Zach for playing and providing feedback!

Walsingham: Rules PDF

At Jason’s request, here are the current rules to Walsingham. I’m a little nervous about writing these down because I don’t want to become too attached to them as they are; however, getting them written out will probably help me explain the game more smoothly the next time I explain it, so here you go. Everything here is 100% subject to change!

Walsingham Rules

Ditching a lousy rule

One of the rules I tried out in the playtest was: If there is no Spy, the player with the most Intrigue is eliminated, rather than earning a bonus. This rule arose thematically and on the surface I like it: if it turns out there is no Spy, the person who’s been snooping around all those seedy alleys ends up looking like a conspirator, rather than a hero.

However, upon reflection, this rule is lousy for several reasons, and I’ll be ditching it.

  1. It’s an extra bit of complexity. Every rule that has to do with loyalty has to be taught and drilled in at the very beginning of the game, since you can’t ask clarifying questions midgame without giving everything away, so this rule is extra ripe for removal.
  2. It scares people away from taking Intrigue, creating confusion. I had hoped that it would create a little mini-mind-game of players maybe wanting to deliberately avoid Intrigue. However…
  3. Most importantly, it will never be relevant. To actually affect the outcome of the game, this rule would mean that one player would have to collect both the most VP (to otherwise win the game) and the most Intrigue (to lose instead). Given that VP and Intrigue do not usually appear together on cards, this is improbable to the point of impossibility, even in the face of soft or even inept opposition.

As a result, I’ll be ditching this rule entirely. If there is no Spy, there will be no bonus for having the most Intrigue (so gathering it was a waste) but there’s no overt penalty. I will also be removing the Secret cards that provided negative Intrigue and replace them with something else. I’m considering either a split VP/Intrigue card or a Secret card that provides a large Intrigue bonus (4 or so) if it is your only Intrigue-providing Secret.

Walsingham playtest report (optimism!)

Too many weeks after putting together the latest prototype, I finally got Walsingham playtested. I’ll confess that I had been procrastinating a little bit (pulling out Invasion instead, and so on) out of dread that it would fall as flat as last time. But I’m pleased that this playtest went well. I did a bit of tripping on the rules explanation, but I seem to have ripped out enough cruft that it flowed pretty well once we got rolling. The mood at the table seemed not super excited near the end, but, after it was over there was about 10 minutes of spontaneous discussion/arguing over who should have done what, who would have won, whether some elements weren’t worth enough points, etc.. That discussion was energetic, protracted, and not instigated by me (I was just taking notes) and it made me optimistic that at least the game was engaging and interesting. Here’s a rundown of my notes from both the game and follow discussion:

  • Both of the core mechanics–the auction and the secret agendas–were interesting, and they worked fairly well together.
  • The auction rule I used was the dollar auction from For Sale: you must bid higher than anyone else if you want to bid at all; you choose rewards in reverse order from drop order; non-winners pay only half of their bids, and lowest bidder pays nothing (and wins nothing but gets a $2 stipend instead). This worked well enough to be interesting but was very problematic when several players had enough for a bid but they were all edged out by one high bidder early in the turn order. Somehow, the bidding needs to allow players to enter a non-highest bid. I might end up choosing the system from Santiago that only goes once around the table, but you can make any non-duplicate bid.
  • The peeking mechanic (look at one of the target’s loyalty cards; the target doesn’t know which one was viewed) worked pretty well and there were an appropriate number of peeks in the deck to give interesting, but not complete, information.
  • The accusation mechanic (lowest showing Intrigue has to choose their accusation first) worked pretty well; I might need tokens for “successful accusation” to keep track of the points easier. The way it shook out in this game, one player went all-in and was pretty obviously the Spy (accused by everyone). I knew he was and vocally supported his accusations, and in the end, his Intrigue tied another player’s. Whew! I ruled that neither player had the most Intrigue, so neither the Spy’s auto-victory nor the VP bonus kicked in.
  • Apropos of this, I need to clarify all endgame ties, including who has to accuse first in case of tied Intrigue, which will probably happen a lot.
  • The cash allotment I went with was $15 at the beginning of the game, $10 after the first and second thirds of the game. The cash needs to be split up like this to prevent novices from blowing all their money early and being helpless the rest of the game. This kept the auctions interesting and nobody broke. It’s close enough, but I’ll need to recalibrate it if the number of rounds or the auction mechanism changes.
  • Speaking of the number of rounds, I actually only had the cards for a 4-player game. I had planned 12 rounds of 3 cards each, but went with 9 rounds of 4 cards each. (One player doesn’t get a card every round.) This duration actually seemed just right. I may be able to use the same number of cards for 4p, or maybe 9 rounds is the right length and I’ll just cut some of the cards out in 4p. (And add some more for 6p, which should work; I don’t think I’m going to try to shoehorn 3p in.)
  • The strongest disagreement in valuation was: how much VP should the player who prevents the Spy from winning get as a reward? It needs to be enough that this player has a chance to win and isn’t just “taking one for the team”; on the other hand, it needs to be small enough that you can’t win by ignoring VPs. I suspect the current value of 3 VP might not be enough. (The 2nd place player in this game had only 4 Intrigue, which was the same as the reckless Spy minus 4 accusations.) Brainstorm: This player gets 2/3 of their Intrigue as VP.
  • One of the minor mechanisms is that I have colored tiles with VPs and Intrigue on them that are part of the auctions; these colors tie into the Loyalty cards, and if your mix of tiles matches your mix of Loyalty cards, you get a VP bonus. The idea is to add some texture to the auctions and provide a little bit of information–is a player going for tiles that don’t seem to match their card you peeked at? Perhaps it’s a spy! The mechanism worked pretty well I think, but my explanation was very difficult, and because the cards are hidden, you can’t ask clarifying questions. I’m not sure what to do about this. One player suggested a cheat sheet/player aid. This seems reasonable, but I’ve still got my eye on the mechanic.
  • Minor notes: Find the colored meeples that I was planning to use for player/bid markers; indicate on the bidding track who pays what; assemble player aids.

Thanks to Nevin, Ed, Michelle, and Josh for playing my game!

Towards a Holy Grail (Part 3)

Here, as promised, is a short rundown of the changes I am planning for the next playtest of Walsingham. Everything is subject to change, of course, even mid-game if it ends up not working out.

  • Theme: As I’ve been mentioning, the current title is now Walsingham, after Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster. Conceptually, the players are merchants buying and selling secrets to win favors from the Crown–but one is secretly a spy for the Spanish! I am relatively pleased with this theme and will probably stick with it if the game ends up being fun.
  • Graphics and Terminology: The resource that the Spy wants is now known as Intrigue. Intrigue is now no longer harmful to non-Spy players; in fact, players get a small reward for stopping the Spy from winning by collecting more Intrigue. Victory Points are still Victory Points. Both of them have their own icons, which I got from




  • Auction: The complicated simultaneous auction is replaced with a dollar auction in which non-winners pay half. The highest bidders get first choice of the rewards on offer each round. (This is the same mechanic as For Sale and similar to Steam.) This should speed the game significantly, since I think one of its largest weaknesses is likely to be an anticlimactic period in between when the Spy becomes obvious and the end of the game.
  • Secrets: Several rewards allow the players to draw 3 / keep 1 card from a Secret deck. This deck contains both VPs and Intrigue. This lets players accumulate Intrigue without it being obvious; of course, since there are plenty of VPs available, a player going for VPs could attract false suspicion. A few cards let you peek at the Secrets an opponent has collected.
  • Narrower Rewards: Previous iterations of the game featured a wide array of rewards. The only real rewards now available for bidding are VPs, Intrigue, and information. A few cards are worth extra VP or information in if you collect both cards of a set. Some of the reward chips do come in two different colors, and Loyalty cards reward players for collecting more of one than the other. This is to give the bidding some “texture” and cover for Spies to bid erratically.
  • Stinginess of Information: At the end of the game, starting with the player with the least (public) Intrigue, everyone gets to make an Accusation of the spy. An incorrect accusation carries no penalty. A correct accusation gives two rewards: first, a sizable VP award, and second, the Spy loses both VP and Intrigue. On one hand, sharing one’s information about the Spy can help everyone correctly accuse the Spy and stop the automatic win. On the other hand, being close-lipped–or lying outright–can help a player reap the successful-accusation reward alone. Since there is no penalty for being wrongly accused, players may even choose to deliberately act suspiciously to throw off rivals.

Towards a Holy Grail (Part 2)

I put together the first prototype for the game that would become Walsingham back in 2010. The idea was less focused then. I have always loved auction games, and I married the idea of hidden roles with another idea I had been kicking around: a simultaneous auction (as in, say, Homesteaders or Cyclades) that rewards players for being outbid. (Thematically, the auction house is paying out kickbacks, I suppose.) The auction drove a set-collection game: players were rewarded for having sets of colors as well as the majority of each color.

There is plenty of discussion as to how soon to give a game its theme. My opinion is that the game gets a theme as soon as it needs it. Montana was always a simple game, and stayed Space Poker until it needed art and a name to put on the box. By contrast, Invasion was Invasion out of the gate, and the theme helped drive both the names and abilities on the Gadget cards. (Likewise, it seems pretty likely that Ra was given its theme when it needed art, while it’s impossible to imagine the mechanics of Battlestar Galactica with any other theme.) This game didn’t need a theme yet, but it did need a working title. I was using colored cubes for the set collection: gems. Some of the gems were cursed, and only one role wanted to pick those up. Who likes curses, instead of being afraid of them? Witches, I suppose. OK, the working title became Gems and Witches.

So, Gems and Witches, 2010. Curses were negative points for every player except for the player who was secretly a Witch, who got positive points. One of the late-game resources available provided an Accusation, which gave a player big points for identifying the Witch, and nullified the Witch’s huge bonus points for spending the whole game blatantly picking up curses. The auction/set collection game was pretty solid if derivative–I think 1997’s Reiner Knizia could have developed it into a 1997 hit without too much trouble–but the aspect of guessing and finding Witches didn’t work. I had hoped that the players could use the bonus-for-getting-outbid auction mechanic to leverage their knowledge, but the math never worked out, and the Accusation always ended up an anticlimax.

Boldly charging down the wrong road in 2011, I added more roles: unaligned Merchants that got better bonuses for certain colors, a Hunter that got a bigger bonus for correctly accusing the Witch, a Decoy that got bonus points for being falsely accused. I added special gems that players got big points for having exactly one of at certain intervals. The reasoning for those was to give players a cover for otherwise-erratic bidding. Again, it worked out interestingly from an auction perspective, but fell flat from the hidden-role perspective. There was just no happy medium between the Witch playing coyly (and not getting enough curse points to win) and playing openly (and drawing an obvious accusation from whoever pounced on it first).

2012 came and I tried again. First, a retitle. Montana had been published with its working title of “Space Poker”, so, ok, let’s use “Space” to mean “working-title name for a prototype game”. Honest traders don’t want contraband, because they don’t have the contacts to sell it; smugglers do, but they have to stay hidden. Hence, Space Smugglers. I ripped the set-collection and points-for-being-outbid mechanics out entirely; this isn’t the right game for them, and they took too long to explain and didn’t fit with the game. Most of the cards gave VP and Trouble, as the the curses became known, directly, although there were still some “flavored” VP to give Merchants the incentive to bid on one rather than another.

The Space Smugglers playtest was possibly the most disastrous playtest I’ve ever conducted, and I think I redeemed myself only by cutting it short after about 15 minutes when it was obvious that everything had gone to hell. Sorry, Matt, Eric, and David. What didn’t work about the game that time? Well, everything. There were a lot of hidden roles, and they all had to be explained up-front so that players’ action in the game could make sense. And then they didn’t anyway, because the auctions didn’t work. The auctions had too many moving pieces–bids going back and forth, chips gained, player pieces moving on tracks. Most of the scoring happened only at the end, and it wasn’t at all clear how any game turn related to the next. The set collection, which was the strongest part of the previous iteration, was gone with nothing to replace it. I wrote up some notes, shelved the game, and procrastinated working on it until now.

Tomorrow, I should be finished prototyping the latest changes to the game, now working-titled Walsingham. I’ll discuss what I believe I learned from the previous iteration and the changes I made (many!) as a result.

Towards a Holy Grail (Part 1)

The new prototype of Invasion is ready to try out, modulo some color printing that I need to get out to OfficeMax for. So today I’ll pick up work on what I consider a Holy Grail design, Walsingham.

The Holy Grail I am questing for here is for a hidden-role deduction game where the hidden roles are the foundation of the game, not an add-on or just another piece of the puzzle. In other words, players are playing a basic game, one that probably seems very simple–but one or more of the players has a secret goal. The business of covering up and ferreting out secret goals needs to be the point of the game; otherwise, you’re just playing an ordinary game with different VP conditions.

The reason I call this a Holy Grail is that I believe it’s a very difficult goal to achieve, and one that has never really been done to my satisfaction yet:

  • If the only consequence for having your secret goal found out is that it’s somewhat easier to work against your goals, that’s not terribly interesting. I’m used to having my goals worked against. The good news is that you can still have a fine game; it’s just that the deduction isn’t an interesting part of it. Consider, for example, Lords of Waterdeep. Usually most players’ Lord cards are pretty obvious by the end; keeping them secret just helps to throw a little bit of uncertainty into the scoring.
  • By contrast, if the penalty for having your secret goal found out is devastating, it means that having goals revealed needs to be the climax of the game. Because information should ideally drip out slowly during the course of the game, I take this to mean that the Holy Grail game needs to be fairly short–30-40 minutes or so–so it doesn’t drag on past the climax.
  • Because of the physical nature of board games, it’s very difficult to achieve any kind of fog-of-war effect: to have information available to some players but not others. About all you can do is have cards or chits that are concealed and allow some players, but not others, to look at them. In all but the simplest situations this also introduces an element of memory, which I don’t particularly care for.
  • The game should not allow enough direct spying to deduce what player is what; that’s blunt and boring. (I think this is one of the main reasons Shadow Hunters falls a bit flat.) Rather, most of the clues should come from players’ actions in the base game: what resources or opportunities you value or ignore.
  • All players should have a reason to lie or otherwise not share information freely. This adds the element of mistrust and intrigue that makes the game compelling. Consider One Night Werewolf, where the secret swapping of roles makes originally non-Werewolf players need to lie to figure out what others know; or Two Rooms and a Boom, where a huge number of the advanced roles either reward, punish, require, or forbid sharing information in different ways.

I believe, by the way, that The Resistance, Two Rooms and a Boom, and One Night Werewolf are all fine games, but these games are driven by the team and social aspect. By contrast, my Grail is free-for-all where players might well choose either to lie (to throw others off the track and reap the rewards of successful deduction alone) or tell the truth (to catch a runaway leader that can’t be brought down any other way).

Next time I’ll talk about the history of Walsingham and some of my lessons and failures along the way.