Designers' Notes

by Mark Goadrich and Brett Myers

Nanuk is our first professionally published game, but not our first game design. After meeting up at the Madison Board Gamers in the fall of 2004 and sharing design ideas, we founded Usonian Games as a semi-regular playtest group for boardgame designers in the Madison, Wisconsin area. "Usonian" was used by Wisconsin native Frank Lloyd Wright to describe his modest design philosophy for middle-class American homes. We try to do the same for our games, striving for simple, elegant designs with interesting and emergent game play. Through regular journeys to Protospiel, and meetups with designers from Illinois, Michigan, and Canada, we've tested, broken, fixed, and retested numerous designs and mechanics, and our efforts have found success through self-publishing and through submitting to the annual Hippodice prototype competition in Germany. Compared to our other designs, Nanuk has moved quickly through the design process, but this game wouldn't have been possible without the prior years of design work together.

Brett: The first seeds of Nanuk were planted back in 2005. I'd recently played Meuterer, a game of bluffing and hand management featuring pirates sailing from island to island while secretly fomenting mutiny. Meuterer, designed by Marcel-André Casasola Merkle and published (along with its predecessor Verräter) by Adlung-Spiele, features a secret role selection mechanism, including a Mutineer role which allows one player to switch sides secretly and go against the leader of the round. I really liked this mechanism, but wondered what would happen if the roles were eliminated, so that instead of a secret role selection, each player in turn declared whether he would follow the leader or try to become the leader himself.

I'd been reading about cooperation and competition in game theory and thought some of those ideas would work here. The Leader needed Followers to ensure a successful round and would share the rewards of a successful round with his Followers but, by virtue of being the Leader, he would keep the biggest share for himself. The Followers would support the Leader in order to earn the rewards, but at some point, they would need to try to become the Leader themselves to increase their total rewards or lose the game.

Now that we had some vague ideas on mechanism and resolution, we needed a setting. Vikings were an early contender as there weren't too many Viking-themed games at the time and, well, I like Vikings. But the one setting Mark and I have both been interested in for some time is the Inuit culture of Nunavut, inspired initially by our fascination with the rock formation known as an inuksuk (we had both independently aspired to design a game with the inuksuk before putting two and two together on Nanuk). Inuit culture is virtually unrepresented in board gaming, save for a handful of childrens' games, and provided a dramatic backdrop on which to project our struggle for leadership.

But apart from some initial discussions, our ideas remained ideas and never became prototypes, and Inuksuk percolated in our heads for three years.

Mark: 2007 and 2008 were very busy years, filled with wrapping up my Ph.D., moving to Shreveport, LA, and starting a new job as a college computer science and mathematics professor. In the spring semester, I taught a course on Finite Mathematics, using Luck, Logic and White Lies by Jorg Bewersdorff and Dice Games Properly Explained by Reiner Knizia as the textbooks. We studied the mathematics of probability, logic, and combinatorics in the context of board and card games, which made for a fun semester refamiliarizing myself with the basic building blocks and mechanics of good game design. My favorite games to teach and play in class were Pig, Can't Stop, For Sale, Diamant, and Liar's Dice, so I was looking to design a push-your-luck game with bluffing and bidding as core mechanics.

The summer of 2008 brought the mental break I needed to make progress. A vacation to upper Canada with my wife and both of our families allowed three pieces to converge: continuous sightings of inuksuit rock formations, decompression from my first year of teaching, and long stretches of driving – perfect for contemplating as the miles go by and everyone else sleeps. (Unfortunately long stretches of driving in Canada can also bring about collisions with moose, but that's another story.) This trip also included a fishing expedition to the far north, which in turn inspired thoughts of returning to the Inuit hunting and inuksuk theme with Brett. And so, over the course of a few nights in a cabin on Big Trout Lake, I scribbled out rules for what was to become Nanuk.

The push-your-luck element began as having hunters brag of their ability to survive in the wilderness for weeks without being lost in the snow. The bidding for leading the hunt would continue until one player said the hunt was doomed! At first, I thought the hunts would take place over a two-dimensional tile grid, with players vying for control of an inuksuk token as it wandered around the board, but as with most of my game designs I threw out the spatial element for simplicity. The animals hunted and weeks risked would instead be represented by cards in the deck and in players' hands. The more of an animal you tried to hunt, the more unlikely it would be that you would find those cards in players' hands alone, so you begin relying on cards found in the hunt. It therefore made sense to increase the length of the hunt to find more of your chosen animal, counterbalanced by the risks of the snow, so the longer you hunted, the greater chance of failure. By incorporating Brett's leadership mechanic, we could keep some bidding and bluffing elements of Liar's Dice but with each player having the opportunity to weigh the odds of success for each hunt and participate in those they thought would be successful. It also introduced a mix of cooperative and competitive play, with new teams being created each round, as you generally need other players' assistance to succeed on a hunt.

We always wanted the inuksuit to be guideposts for herding and hunting expeditions, so they were given the power to guide you through the snow and continue hunting. They also gave you another element to bluff, and increase the uncertainty about other players' hands and actual willingness to hunt. The initial design included wilderness cards, meant to make hunts riskier, but these later proved unnecessary. It was important for the end of the game to be an uncertain event, as the bidding hinged on the unknown success or failure of the hunt. My first idea was to end the game when 10 of 12 snow cards were seen, either in players' hands or when the hunt was unsuccessful.

While the game play seemed fun in my head, I didn't know exactly how to give the players a score for the cards they collected. I drew inspiration from Ingenious and the "most of the least" mechanic, so that players would be working toward a balanced collection and would want to participate in every hunt possible. The original scoring metric was: of the cards they have saved, their score is the category of which they have the least cards: Bear, Caribou, Fish, or Moose. (Forests do not count.) If there is a tie, move to the next highest. If still tied, tied players share the win.

My summer vacation led us back from Canada through Madison, where I was able to meet briefly with Brett, and after eating some spectacular Thai food at Sa Bai Thong, I piqued his interest with, "I think I might finally have some rules for that inuksuk game." My later e-mail to Brett with the rules sketch, right before Protospiel, was prefaced by "This hasn't been tested at all, so it might be horrible. If you get to play it, let me know how it goes. Feel free to change and modify anything that doesn't work. I have a feeling it will work better with more players, but I really have no idea."

And so I was shocked to receive Brett's e-mail a little over a week later: "Dude, best first playtest evar. We have a really excellent game on our hands here. I'll write more again later, have a couple questions/suggestions and some interesting developments."

Nanuk Brett: I got Mark's rules draft and card manifest just a week before Protospiel. I was really excited to finally have a workable rule set for the game after all this time, so I got right to work putting together a prototype. Since time was short, I needed to make it as quick and easy as possible. There would be no numbers or text on the cards. All they needed was an animal image, which meant card layout would be a snap. A couple hours later, I had some great clip art images that perfectly conveyed the Inuit theme. I fiddled with the animal mix and eventually settled on Bird, Fish, Seal, and Caribou as our primary Arctic game. That lent well to ranking the suits: smallest game to largest, a feature in the first draft of the bidding system. The Forests became Dogsleds, for lack of an appropriate piece of clip art, and the boring Snow became Nanuk the Polar Bear, Doom Bringer and Ender of Hunts!

The first playtest was late Saturday night around midnight. Our adventurous table had just played an experimental game by another designer, so I figured it would be a fine time to pull out a completely untested prototype. After a slow start, we warmed to the task and before long Doom was in the air. Bidding became Boasting: the player who made the biggest boast about his hunting prowess would be the leader of the hunt. Collected animals stayed face up, so all could judge your skill. The first game was a success and another was immediately requested. Our cheers and jeers and calls of DOOM! began to draw a crowd. Phil Reed and Will Schoonover were among the crowd, and asked to play. I couldn't refuse that request, or their request for a repeat. Business cards were exchanged, I shot Mark an e-mail, and I'm pretty sure I slept with a grin on my face the entire night.

For the next year, Will and his team put the game through its paces, tweaking and tuning it to just the right balance, and we were happy to be asked for input throughout the whole process. The Polar Bears were moved to the animal cards and lost their game timing function. The Dog Sleds were removed altogether. It gained a clever, original scoring system. The name was changed to Nanuk, something a little more evocative and familiar sounding than its original name, Inuksuk. And it got a killer cover with our names on it.

We hope you have as much fun playing Nanuk as we had designing it. Thanks to everyone we've worked with along the way who helped bring Nanuk from concept to design to published game.

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