ERA: Medieval Age – Design Notes

ERA: Medieval Age was released this year at Gen Con and will hit stores later this August. The game has a long history, which started nearly twelve years ago. Here’s a look at how the game came to be.

Origins of ERA

Back in October of 2007, my friends Chris and Kim Farrell threw down the gauntlet and challenged the members of our gaming group to a contest in the spirit of Nanowrimo—the National Novel Writing Month. Our mission was to each design a civilization-building dice game that was playable in 30–40 minutes, during the month of November. We were to go off into our corners and come back with our results at the end of the month.

I gave it my best shot. I saw the challenge as a great opportunity to boil down the experience from one of my favorite games—Francis Tresham’s Civilization (1980)—into something that took far less time. (Civ was best with about five to seven people who could devote eight or more hours to play, and that was becoming increasingly hard to manage.)

I shared the results to the gaming group in early December. Encouraged by the results, I pitched it to publishers at a conference the following April. I got immediate interest and the game was picked up by Griffon Games as part of their bookshelf line. They published it as Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age in 2009. The game did well, garnering a nomination for the Spiel des Jahres in 2010.

The publisher saw an opportunity to ride on the game’s success and encouraged me to design additional ages and soon after I designed a print-and play expansion. But my attempts at other ages felt dry and lifeless, and I abandoned them. After one failed start after another, Tom Lehmann finally stepped up to extend the line with a version that we dubbed Roll Through the Ages: The Iron Age (2014).

After that, the game seemed to have run its course.

ERA: Medieval Age (2019). Cover art by Chris Quilliams.

Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age  (2009). The challenge that my friends Chris and Kim threw down was to create a civilization-building dice game that could be played in 30–40 minutes.

Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age (2009). The challenge that my friends Chris and Kim threw down was to create a civilization-building dice game that could be played in 30–40 minutes.

A near-final prototype (version 23) of Roll Through the Ages from 11 years ago. The early prototypes were initially pitched as “Dice of the Ancients.”

Opportunity

That is, until I was approached by Plan B Games in 2016. They were fans of the game and wanted to know if I’d be up for breathing new life into it and potentially turning it into a series. I promised to take another look.

During this exploration, I started thinking about an idea where players could develop a city, drawing its buildings, instead of creating another checklist game dominated by a technology tree. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of games with a drawing component. I can trace that as far back to games like Empire Builder (1982) and Source of the Nile (1978). Even Knit Wit started out as a drawing game.

I did a bunch of reading on the Medieval period, sketched a lot, tinkered around. One key breakthrough was the idea to map the four classes of medieval society to different dice that represented their role. For example, peasants would provide labor and food, burghers would provide more trade goods, clergy could provide administration (allowing you to manipulate your dice) and nobles wouldn’t produce anything, but could raise taxes and could rattle their swords to defend their domain or threaten their opponents. Soon, I had some early prototypes of a new Medieval Age.

May, 2017. Here you can see some concepts taking shape. I often start with a concept map of the key objects and actions in the game. Sometimes this works; other times you get a boring, stilted, lifeless games.

Early sketches of buildings and resources.

More concept mapping.

Medieval Age Takes Shape

This new Medieval Age used dice that were similar to the ones used in Roll Through the Ages: they had resources and skulls on them, and players rolled them three times in an attempt to optimize their turn. but the experience was nicely differentiated from the Bronze Age. When you were done, you could look at a unique city that you had illustrated over the course of play. I also came up with a new turn structure that reduced downtime considerably, and found a way to work that back into the original Bronze Age design.

After a solid year of development, the game was ready to turn over to the publisher. Contracts were signed and the game was well on its way to becoming a reality.

I spent about a year designing the roll-and-write version of ERA: Medieval Age. Players drew buildings on graph paper and drew walls segments on the lines that separated them. The game also used a reference card for building shapes and a simple pegboard to track resources.

One Question

The publisher liked the design. It was quite fun to play and fairly straightforward to manufacture. They did have one issue with it, however: it was really hard to see what your opponents were doing. (This is a bit of a classic problem with many roll-and-write games—they can feel a bit like group solitaire if you’re only focused on your own board.) They pulled out a napkin sketch of a building made from a few wooden blocks and asked me: “what if it was in 3D? Would that work?”

Little did they know that I had just received my first laser cutter earlier that week. My answer was an excited, “let’s find out.” We’d have to defer the game’s release at least another year, but hey, lasers.

I got to work.

I actually used craft foam for my first 3D version of the board, which was a direct translation of the roll-and-write shapes: buildings went on squares; walls went between them.

It looked promising. Testing soon showed, however, that players had a hard time figuring out how to place buildings on this grid.

I thought a laser-cut version with little white circles to help position your buildings might work. It didn’t.

I had to abandon this system as it went against years of Lego training.

When I moved the walls onto the same grid as the buildings, the problem went away. The board also was significantly less noisy looking.

Roll and Build

Switching the game to a set of physical buildings opened up all sorts of possibilities. In addition to the wonderful, tactile feel, I could now work with a new dynamic: supply and demand. I modified the rules for walls so they’d come in different lengths, which introduced a strong push-your-luck element. Players now had to weigh the desire to defer buying walls (since they don’t help you bootstrap at all) against the temptation to buy them early when longer lengths are available. And if players wait too long, the supply can run out, putting a huge number of points at risk.

Having a building supply also made for a more dynamic game end condition. Rather than playing until a single player built a certain number of buildings (which was tedious to track on the score sheets), I shifted the game end condition so the game finished when a certain number of buildings ran out. This added more tension to the game since it’s harder to predict when this will happen.

All the laser-cut pieces for the buildings plus a few experimental bits and other odds-and-ends. I cut the buildings out of illustration board, glued them together using a special tacky glue, then painted them with acrylic.

A robust city at the end of a game. The buildings in the prototype had little “pips” etched into them so you could see how many points they were worth. The published version uses a more robust score sheet satisfies this requirement in a better way.

All the parts for two prototypes, painted and ready to go. Before I was done, I created six full prototypes.

A special shout out to Anthony Rubbo who worked tirelessly to convince me that the screens were worth trying out. He was right.

Other Innovations

The additional year of development brought other improvements as well. Most notable was the introduction of player screens that hide the results of each player’s roll during the Roll step. I was hesitant to add these as I was convinced that players needed to see each others’ dice while rolling in order to increase player interaction. Testing strongly showed otherwise, however—players welcomed the faster pace, the element of surprise, and the shorter play time that the screens afforded. They also made a great home for the information on the play aid.

Translating the Prototype into the Final Product

The Eggertspiele development team helped polish the remaining bits and pieces. Together we created the solitaire version and they helped refine the disasters, including increasing the number of scorched earth tiles that came with the game from what I specified. (Remind me to be wary of playing with them.)

The biggest change during production was to the player boards. These shifted from punchboard to molded plastic. While the icons are harder to read on the plastic boards—they’re sculpted rather than printed—the boards are much more durable than punchboard and the plastic nicely “grips” the building components, keeping them firmly in place.

In the video below, you can get a good look at how everything turned out in the final game as I give a quick overview of the rules.

The Harbor and Great Hall along with the Baron, Bishop, and Merchant dice that come in Collector’s Set #1.

The Harbor and Great Hall along with the Baron, Bishop, and Merchant dice that come in Collector’s Set #1.

Expansions Planned

If you purchase the game from the Eggertspiele web shop you can already pick up the first of several expansions planned for the game, Collector’s Set #1. This mini expansion provides two new buildings and rules for upgrading your clergy, noble, and burgher dice into a bishop, baron, or merchant.

First of Three ERAs

Eggertspiele has already announced that ERA: Medieval Age is the first of three titles in the ERA series. For the second installment, it’s likely that fans of Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age will be re-released in an updated and modernized version.

The third game in the series has not yet been hinted at. Which leads me to ask: if you had your wish, what ERA would you want? If you have an idea, leave a note in the comments!