Disciples: Design Baseline

Since this blog will track the progress of games we’re working on, it seemed like a good idea to provide a baseline for each game, since few of them are starting truly from scratch.  Disciples is the oldest game of the bunch, so it seems like the best one to start with.

I’ve been working on Disciples, or “The Acts of the Disciples”, for quite a few years, and it’s one of three games that I’ve designed that I consider truly complete (the others being a whimsical card game called “Santa’s Reindeer” and a heavy civ-building game called “The Sands of Time“).  It’s been under development since about 2003.

The players take on the role of Jesus’ disciples.  The game board shows 6 cities in 1st century Palestine, and the game’s action revolves around “Deed cards”, each of which is associated with one of the cities, and represents a need that the players can meet (and each is based on an event from one of the Gospel accounts).  Each Deed card is associated with one of four action categories, and each category has a cost track that indicates how many cards a player must pay to perform a Deed in that category.

A player’s turn consists of acquiring action cards, traveling to a different city, paying action cards to meet the conditions of a Deed card, or asking Jesus to perform a Deed (which resets the corresponding Action cost track.  After that, Jesus moves toward the town that has the most remaining Deed cards.

What motivates a player to want to pursue one Deed over another?  There are several considerations.  When a player performs a Deed, he receives a point from the Deed, plus an additional point if Jesus is in the same city, plus an additional point if one or more additional players in the same city (and each of them receives a point as well).  Additionally, each player has 2 secret “goal” cards, which provide additional points at game’s end if the players’ deeds meet some particular condition.

The Deeds also incur consequences on one or more of the “political tracks”, which reflect the reaction of the Jews, Pharisees, and Rome, to the actions of the Disciples.  The Rome track is one of the game clocks — when it reaches its end, the game ends.  However, the Pharisees track acts as another game clock of sorts — it reflects the number of VPs the player who holds the “Judas” goal card will receive if he elects to end the game.

Yes, this means that Disciples has a “traitor” mechanic, which unfortunately has become quite common in cooperative games over the last few years (although of course, Disciples is not a cooperative game).  In Disciples, the traitor functions a bit differently — he isn’t trying to subvert the group’s mission, nor is he forced to act as the traitor — choosing to end the game and take the payout is entirely volitional.  But as the Pharisees track clicks up high and higher, the possibility of a big VP payout should seem increasingly tempting to the player, and this is exactly what the mechanic is trying to simulate.

Disciples has been tested extensively, and the goals are reasonably well balanced, as is the traitor relative to the other players.  Because it’s been some time since I last played it, I’m hoping to approach it as a developer instead of as a designer, and look for ways to simplify, reduce clutter, and make the game more approachable and playable for new players and, particularly, new or less experienced gamers.  Although Disciples is a medium-weight game, there might be aspects of the game that are still somewhat too confusing for non-gamers; hopefully playtests with a broader audience will help me to find out!

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  • Clay Blankenship

    That sounds familiar…did you post about this on BGDF a few years ago?

  • http://www.belltowergames.com Jeff

    Yes, it’s the same game.

  • Seth

    I remember this game well, and fondly (and I’ll note that I’m not Christian, in fact I’m about as opposed to the idea as you can get!)

    Years ago I put together a copy of this game and played it a number of times. It’s been a long time, but I do recall thinking it was a perfectly playable, fun, interesting game. I’m sure I thought it could use some balancing and polishing, but I think that about most games I play, even the published ones.

    I’d love to see this game revived and revisited. If it helps (and hopefully it won’t be problematic for your game), when I’ve revisited an old game like All For One (I joined in with David on that about the same time as you were working on Disciples) I’ve found that I don’t like it as much. At the time I was very excited about the game and got wonderful feedback – but no publishers happened to bite. Over time the reaction has gone downhill every time I bring the game out, and I think one reason is that it’s kind of old fashioned at this point. Maybe what that game needs is an overhaul and some new gaming technology.

    Maybe that’s something you could keep in mind when bringing Desciples back to the table. There have been a lot of innovations in gaming technology, and a general shift in player preferences and tolerances – hopefully Disciples has been able to stand the test of time!

    I also agree wholeheartedly with your comments about finding things to streamline. Looking at games from a publisher’s point of view, and having to demo them over and over (at loud conventions for example) – it really pays if the explanation is short and sweet and the players can get to playing quickly. I’m starting to use ‘time to describe’ as one of the indicators of whether a rule or mechanism is pulling it’s weight – if the game element isn’t worth the time it takes to explain, maybe it’s a good candidate for removal!

    I intend to follow your efforts, because I’m interested in general,but especially because I’d like to see how Disciples pans out.

    – Seth

  • http://www.belltowergames.com Jeff

    Great points Seth.  Although it would have always seemed like a given that if I started a company, Disciples would be one of the first games I’d publish, having other options on the table (from submissions and commissioned games that I hope will come in) will really force it to compete to justify its place in the line, and I could easily see not releasing it for some time.  And that’s actually quite liberating in some ways.  Starting as a self-publisher with a single game, you feel like have one shot to make it, and what if your game isn’t really as good as you think?  So taking a broader view, where you’ll publish games other than your own, makes things easier, because you don’t have to be the star of the show.  And I hope it will make me more critical to see what may and may not still be working in Disciples after some time away from it.

    In addition to dusting it off and perhaps updating some of its mechanisms as needed, what I worry about more is simply whether it will play well in its “new” audience — Christian families, church groups, etc, who may not have much exposure to gaming beyond Apples to Apples or Scattergories.   I’ve found that action point allowance turn mechanics like that in Disciples can overwhelm non-gamers with too many decisions; a simple turn mechanic with a rigid, linear sequence may be better.  But a change like that would lose much of what I like about the game.  These are the kinds of considerations I’ll need to balance as I approach it with a “developer’s” eye.

    And for the record, I still think All for One is great fun, and it doesn’t feel “dated” to me (although I haven’t played it in a couple of years, either!).

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