Designer Diary: The Long Road to Kitara

 


In 2010, my game design career was just starting to take off. A new game company, Sandstorm LLC had
bought the rights to my games Cambria and Hibernia, and seemed interested in seeing more work from
me. I started thinking about a game that would be a natural follow-up to Cambria and Hibernia,
another Celtic-Nations game that would fit in the same box, and have roughly the same number of
components, but a higher level of complexity. As I thought about, a comment by one of my regular
play testers, Jon Spinner, came back to me; something about “a card game and a board game that
interface at one end” - I don’t remember the exact words he used; it got me thinking about the self-
published card game I had released earlier in that year, Armorica. It struck me that Armorica’s central
card-drafting mechanic could be combined with an area control board game, similar to Hibernia. I came
up with a prototype set in the Celtic Iberian peninsula, in which players drafted a card every turn to
build up a card-display which gave them varying amounts of per turn victory points and the ability to
choose from a wider array of cards each turn (as in Armorica) as well as movement points and new units
for the board. I moved the ability to support cards from the cards (as in Armorica) to the board,
requiring players to hold onto particular board territories each turn if they wanted to retain their cards.
Other territories allowed players to score points. This mechanic created the need for dynamic
expansion each turn, and prevented players from just playing defensively; serving the same function as
the multi-colored score track in Hibernia, but in a very different way. The resulting game was a little
larger in scale than Hibernia and Cambria, but I sent the game off to Sandstorm for play testing anyway.
When I went to GAMA for the first time in 2011 to demo my forthcoming games, Sandstorm told me
they liked my new design, and wanted to publish it. Unfortunately, Sandstorm ran into financial
difficulties later in 2011, and by the time I was demoing the newly released Cambria and Hibernia at
GenCon, they told me it was unlikely they would be publishing anything else.


I took advantage of being at GenCon already, and showed the new game to some folks from another
publisher, who tested it and expressed interest in it. I left a prototype with them. Eventually, after
some subsequent correspondence with them, it was suggested that they might like the game better if it
was dice-based instead of card based, so I went off and created what ended up being a quite different
game (which they also passed on). That dice-based game eventually evolved into my forthcoming game
Lost Empires, which should be released by Sand Castle Games sometime in 2021 (a story for another
designer diary). Meanwhile, I went back and took another look at the original card-based game. The
two games were different enough at this point that I felt I had two separate designs on my hands, but I
wanted to make the card-based game even more distinct from the dice-based game. I had been playing
Kreta quite a bit at that time, which gave me the notion of adding multiple unit types to the card-based
game. I took the functions that the units were already serving in the game and divided them up
between 3 different types of meeples: units which let you keep cards when they were in particular
territories, units which scored you points when they were in a different kind of territory, and units that
you needed to have in combat or you would lose 3VP. This change added a significant new decision
point to card drafting, as well as a lot of tactical considerations when attacking and retreating.
In 2013 friend of mine was working for a French company called MyWitty Games, that used a novel
crowdfunding approach. I spent some time developing the game with an eye towards having them
publish it. The game was recast in a fantasy setting, in which the unit types became humans, dwarves
and ogres. The movement mechanic was also changed, to use movement actions that would move a
group of pieces at once, instead of movement points that moved only one unit at a time; this change
differentiated it even further from the dice-based version. However, My Witty also went out of business
before we got to the point of signing a contract.board_n_tribe1-1
In 2016, I became a client of the Forgenext Agency, and my agent Gaetan Beaujannot started
representing my games to publishers instead of me (which was a great improvement, I am not a great
salesman or negotiator). He and his wife Martine played the game with me during a visit they made to
the bay area in 2017; I remember I made some changes in response to feedback he gave me on the
game at that meeting, but I don’t remember precisely what the changes were. Gaetan began pitching
the game to publishers at that point. We negotiated with another publisher who had expressed strong
interest in the game, and I did some development at their request during the contract negotiations. In
particular, I developed an alternative card deck, that used a different pattern of icons across each card
to increase the variety of gameplay. In the original deck, cards always provided meeples, and no card
ever provided multiple types of meeples. In the new deck, cards could provide multiple meeple-types,
and a few cards did not provide meeples at all. My play testers seemed to like this new deck better, so it
became the default deck, while the original deck became the alternate. However, I was not happy with
some of this publisher’s plans for the game, and ultimately we could not come to terms.


It was then that Gaetan got me a contract for the game with IELLO, a publisher I was really excited to
work with. IELLO proposed using an Afro-fantasy setting for the game, that is, a fantasy setting
developed from African history and mythology. I thought that was an awesome idea. Most games set in
Africa are either about WWII battles in North Africa, European colonialism or ancient Egypt. The rest of
the games set in Africa were about exploration, travel, conservation, and postcolonial warfare. There
are very few games about ancient Africa.


I also found the prospect of creating an ancient sub Saharan African setting for the game a little
daunting. I am not African, or of African Diaspora descent. I wouldn’t call myself an expert on Africa,
although I do take an interest in African history, current affairs, and cultural theory. However, I am a
professor, and I know how to do a thorough review of the literature. As I began to research possible
settings for my game, I remembered a line from the late Binyavanga Wainaina’s satiric essay How to
Write About Africa, which is actually a set of criticisms of how non-Africans tend to write about Africa:
“In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country…Don't get bogged down with precise descriptions.” I
knew I wanted the game setting to be in a specific place, culture and era in African history; IELLO wanted
the game to have fantasy elements, so I was also looking for a setting that straddled the line between
history and mythology, like the Trojan War.

board_n_tribes2-1
I identified a couple of promising settings, which I may come back to for later games. However,
eventually we decided to theme the game around the breakup of the Kitara Empire, in the 14th century
AD, in the great lakes region of East-Central Africa. Scholarly sources on this empire were not easy to
find, but I eventually did track a few down. Scholars differ as to what degree the ancient Kitara empire
was historical or mythological (Doyle, 2006; Uzoigwe, 2012). The empire may have covered most of the
inter lacustrine region of Central-East Africa for an unknown period, up until the 14th or 15th century
AD. According to legend, the empire was consolidated from an older, loose confederation, by the
Abachwezi dynasty of kings. According to folklore, these kings had magical powers, and introduced
important new technologies and practices to the region. The Abachwezi kings eventually were
supposed to have become angered by their people’s disobedience, and disappeared into the great lakes.
Their empire then fragmented into several kingdoms, including the still extant kingdom of Bunyoro-
Kitara in western Uganda. The game is set in the period when these successor kingdoms were forming.
Historically, kingdoms in the region of the former empire tried to enhance their prestige by associating
themselves with Kitara and the Abachwezi dynasty in a variety of ways; this led to the idea that the
players in the game gained victory points by occupying Kitaran ruins with their magical creatures.
According to folklore, the Abachwezi kings introduced ironworking and the herding of Ankole cattle to
the region. Historians believe these innovations were introduced to the region in this period, leading to
population increases, creating more centralized states, and a better armed warrior class who skirmished
over cattle and grazing land. However, some historians also believe that ancient Central Africans had a
traditional form of restricted warfare, wherein practices limiting the destructiveness and lethality of
warfare were administered by elders (Reid, 2012). The period after the collapse of the Kitara empire
may have been one in more frequent conflicts between expansionist kingdoms were still mitigated by
traditional practices which limited the destructiveness of military conflict. This fits well with the
mechanics of my game, which involve a high level of conflict and territorial acquisition, but no loss of
units from combat.


Overall, the regional history and the mythology of the Kitara Empire, let me create a very evocative
backstory for the game. If Kitara were a heavy game, with a lot of representational detail in the
mechanics, I might have had trouble finding enough specific myths and history about the Kitara Empire
to set the game there; however, what is known about Kitara is a good fit with the streamlined
mechanics of the game, and the gaps in scholarly understanding of the Kitara Empire allow for some
needed artistic license.


Miguel Coimbra meanwhile had created beautiful art for the game, with some really interesting fantasy
elements. The cheetah-centaurs he created in particular have sparked a lot of early interest in the
game. Cheetah-centaurs aren’t a part of any African mythology to my knowledge; however, there are
part-human part-animal creatures in African folklore, and many varieties of sentient animals across
several African mythologies. I used “master animal,” a term applying to sentient mythological animals I
found in The Hero with an African Face (Ford, 1999) to refer to the cheetah-centaurs in the rules. I since
have discovered that I may have misunderstood this term; however, everyone just calls them cheetah-
centaurs anyway. I was also very pleased that Miguel made the character art for two of the players
depict armies of female warriors. I don’t have any sources speaking to the presence of women warriors
or leaders in the region of the Kitara empire, but there are documented traditions of women warriors,
war leaders, and rulers in different parts of precolonial sub-Saharan Africa (Kaur, 2017; Moreira Ribeiro
et al. 2019; Nwanna, 2012).

cards1-1
I made a couple of other changes to the game mechanics at IELLO’s request. They wanted a new
alternative deck, that would reduce the pressure to support cards. I created a third deck, with yet
another pattern of icons, that included a set of self-supporting cards; this made the game more similar
to my card game Armorica, from which this design had originally sprung. The first card deck I created
for the game was not included in the final game, although it may return as a promo item or part of an
expansion. IELLO also wanted some secret victory points added to the game. I modified the combat
mechanic, so that combat with a hero unit provided secretly drawn, variable-value victory point chips;
only 1 chip could be kept per-turn, so fighting multiple times a turn provided a better chance of drawing
a high-value chip. This change made the game outcome more suspenseful, and made the scoring
elements in the game more diverse. Throughout this time, the team at IELLO in France and the US were
great to work with. They let me do a lot of the specific theming of the game, and consulted me in regard
to all the decision making about the game’s production. Gaetan was also active during the games
development process, particularly when it came to proofing the French edition of the game (I don’t
really speak French, sadly). I was also very impressed by how they adapted to lockdown, and were able
to keep to their timetable for Kitara throughout the pandemic. That they were able to release this game
in 2020 is really impressive.

Kitara_logo1
As I write this, I have just received my first copy of the finished game, delivered to the doorstep of the
apartment in which I have been locked-down for six months. I think Kitara has the highest production
values of any game of mine published to date, with lots of cool custom wooden bits and other top-notch
components. Miguel’s artwork for the game looks fabulous. A finished game is a team effort, reflecting
the work and creative input of several people. Miguel, Gaetan, and everyone at IELLO did wonderful
work on this game. It is hard to know just how the ongoing pandemic is likely to impact how Kitara
does in the marketplace, but as for the product itself, I could not be happier with it.

Kitara_Mockup-2019_Light_0

 

 

 

MSRP: $ 34.99

Players: 2-4

Age: 10+

Playtime: 30 min

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:


* Doyle, S. (2006). From Kitara to the Lost Counties: Genealogy, Land and Legitimacy in the Kingdom of
Bunyoro, Western Uganda, Social Identities, 12:4, 457-470, DOI: 10.1080/13504630600823684


* Ford, C. (1999) The Hero with an African Face. New York. Bantam.


* Kaur, M. (2017). Mother of Nations and Kali’s Daughters: An Empirical Study on Amazon Dahomey
Warriors and Indian Queen Warriors. Military Science Review / Hadtudományi Szemle, 10(4), 126–141.


* Moreira Ribeiro, O., Torres Moreira, F. A. & Pimenta, S. (2019). Nzinga Mbandi: from story to
myth. Journal of Science and Technology of the Arts, 11(1). 


* Nwanna, C. (2012). Dialectics of African Feminism. Matatu: Journal for African Culture & Society, 40(1),
275–283. 


* Reid, R. J. (2012). Warfare in African History. Cambridge University Press.


* Uzoigwe, G.N. (2012). Bunyoro-Kitara Revisited: A Reevaluation of the Decline and Diminishment of an
African Kingdom. Journal of Asian and African Studies. 48(1) 16–34.