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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!