Designer Diary: Potemkin Empire

As I continue to grind Valour down into a polished gem ready for publishing, I’m occasionally working in some time on a few smaller designs; it’s nice to have a distraction that feels productive. One of these new designs, I’m calling Potemkin Empire; named after a concept we see around the world, especially in tinpot dictatorships like North Korea, called Potemkin villages, where a country is desperate to seem more powerful than they really are. They build buildings with façades facing outward that look to be real, and occupied, near the border, in order to give the impression of wealth and strength. They’re so-named for a Russian General who was the first recorded perpetrator of the tactic. The story is hilarious, but well outside the scope of this entry. This game is about doing the same, but on a national level.

Strong government, good culture, and a little bit of industry and spycraft. Looks like a great little country!

I’ve had the name in my catch sheet for a while now, and after a few conversations with other designers about how easy it is to fall into a “design comfort zone”, plus a conversation with Curt from Smirk & Dagger — whose favorite mechanic is ‘take that’. Other than the occasional game of Werewolf (where I usually try and moderate, rather than play), “deception” is not a mechanic I tend to gravitate toward as a player, so I’ve definitely shied away as a Designer.

Potemkin Empire’s first tabling… it only survived one playtest in this original form. 😆

So, as I was choosing designs to fill in the gaps this year, Potemkin Empire felt like a good place to really lean into designing a game I would likely be terrible at.

Stepping outside the comfort zone with deception and bluffing , it seemed fitting to go after a few other things I don’t often gravitate toward. I hate making tons of cards (I feel like a caveman banging rocks together every time I try and put multiple cards on a page InDesign), and I never really consider card drafting, (a la Bloodrage, though I quite enjoy that game).

Thus Potemkin Empire was born. The first iteration hit the table with some friends a few weeks before Origins, just to see if it would be worth trying to get it tabled there; it was okay, but the player’s objectives felt lacking, and the incentives for players take that-ing each other fell flat, and weren’t as fun as I’d pictured.

The basic premise is, your kingdom is in some sort of rough and tumble part of a pseudo-modern fantasy world, described with great hand-waving in the rules; An opportunity to join a lucrative alliance of wealthier countries has arisen, but only one kingdom will be allowed in, each player is attempting to impress the visiting diplomat who is arriving after a number of turns. Each turn, there’s a card draft, from a deck of cards that are either “working” or “duds”. After the draft, there’s a phase where players build with cards they drafted. If they drafted duds, they can still build a building with it, but if their bluff gets called later, they lose the building, and are penalized. Buildings come in some various suits (your standard kingdom-building fare: Government, Culture, Industry, Espionage, Science), each of which has a positive impact on your kingdom. By placing the “built” cards into little standees (binder clips, for now), it gives a really cool ‘table presence'[1] of all these cities facing each other.

I spent a day over the holiday weekend building the revised prototype and getting the dozens of (ugh…) cards ready, using Squib, which was quite pleasant. I’ll be writing a tutorial on getting started with Squib soon. I found the results to be far more satisfying than I’ve gotten from Paperize, and found it far easier to handle than InDesign.

So! Potemkin Empire is coming with me to Protospiel Ann Arbor this week. I’m excited to have the other designers there punch holes in it, and figure out how it’s broken this time around; I feel good that there’s likely something here, but I’ll find out!

Lies! Only one of this city’s government buildings is functional, and their intelligence network is a sham!

[1] Does anyone have a really great, succinct word for that? When a game just has a really striking presence on the table… like a quality that  garners rubbernecking at a Con or meetup; I’d love to have a word for this.