Ierusalem Designer Diary: The Path Is Made by Walking
Take a seat at the table with Carmem Jiménez and get to know all the details of this journey!
Wayfarer, There Is No Path
That's the title for my journey because I certainly started the design of this game, Ierusalem: Anno Domini, alone. No open paths, no certainties ahead, but with a clear idea in my mind: I am fascinated by the historic figure of Jesus of Nazareth, and I wanted it to cross paths with my other hobby, my other life: playing, playing, playing. I had to make my way by going farther.
The Theme, The Theme!
The theme of the game was, without a doubt, the paramount aspect of the game. Everything else had to bend and adapt to the theme.
And I also knew that the essential concept in the game was the moment of the supper, that Last Supper that Jesus — without knowing it — celebrated with his followers. Those moments in which you are having a merry time, talking with your companions, where wine gives you a little bit of extra confidence, and you can open yourself and maybe tell a more intimate detail of your life. That moment, which Jesus lived and enjoyed with his friends, when sharing bread and wine was the prelude of sharing life and death.
I started working on the game in early 2020. The centerpiece, as I said, was the Last Supper; that was a given. So were the locations in the game for they correspond to the places Jesus visited more frequently in his public life. The desert, mountain, lake, and temple are common spaces where Jesus met with whomever wanted to listen to him. The market is a creative license that corresponds to the different towns and villages through which the procession passed and, also, it was useful for the trading action. Later I also included here the possibility of getting a Mahane card, so the cards in hand flowed more easily.
My idea regarding the theme, aside from the obvious, was focusing on one specific aspect: the internal disputes that took place next to Jesus among his Apostles to become the first before him and with him. In that large group of people who went with him since they departed Galilee, his homeland, and which grew larger as Jesus kept going through villages and towns with his message, there were different interests — and limits were pushed, as in all human groups. That's what the game wants to show, that Jesus surrounds himself with human beings.
Dealing with the mechanisms of the game was not as easy. The first idea of the game was a disaster as it never worked. My idea was to let players use actions to trade resources — stone in the desert, bread on the mountain, fish in the lake — into spiritual resources like love, faith, and hope. These resources would be the ones that granted you a seat in the Supper, so it was difficult to get basic resources to turn them in for spiritual resources later. All that happened in the temple, and when I started testing the game by myself, I realized that it was almost impossible to get many followers to the table because of so many trades. During the game I could barely get two or three followers to the table, and that was not my goal. I had to think about how to potentiate the main point source, which is sitting at the table with Jesus. As I said, total nonsense.
On top of that, turns worked through a pawn that had to be placed on a free location to resolve an action. Also, if the player had a card for that location in hand, the card could be played.
And, at the beginning, Jesus was sitting at a corner of the table — honestly, now I cannot fathom why I put Jesus in a corner...I don't know what I was thinking — and the Apostles were at the center, around the table. To place them, I had thought of some tiles with different symbols that also appeared on the cards (aside from the location), and that provided the appropriate combination to place each Apostle.
All of that made for a slow-moving, heavy game to play with many unnecessary intermediate actions. That is the first rule I learned when designing games, and I learned that by playing. When I started testing it, we already saw that we needed to throw away everything that had no purpose and just keep what mattered.
Testing Starts, and My Ego Gets Slapped
My testing group was essential to start making changes. I used to play a lot in a Discord channel, and that's where I met Alberto Cordón, who was the first person I told I was making a game. When I told him about the theme, he was caught off-guard and told me, "The theme is risky, Carmen. Change it. It would work better if it was the Knights of the Round Table or something like that. Give it some thought." A few days later we talked again, and I told him, "Alberto, the theme is what it is."
So we got to it, and I showed him everything I had done. I spent many hours getting familiar with Tabletop Smimulator (TTS) so that I could upload all the files I had made in Photoshop. It would not seem that way, but all the small details, different software, configurations, etc. start eating up minutes of worktime, and that's something you must count on when designing a game — and all of that must be balanced with your day job and your relationships.
Needless to say, during all that time I forgot about playing other games on the table; you focus on the game, and there is nothing you do during which you are not thinking about the game. I was thinking about the game while driving, while teaching, while at dinner with friends... Those are intense moments until everything starts to take shape.
Together with Alberto and other members in the group — Lolo, Dani, Carol, Vane — the first tests went down, and we started getting the feeling for the game. That's a delicate moment because you are told what you do not want to hear. When I was told that some things needed to be changed, my first reaction was rejection. I didn't want to touch a thing of my creation. Big mistake. They told me, for instance, that Jesus could not be in a corner, that the table distribution was wrong — and they were absolutely right. It was hard for me to re-educate my mind so that the flow of the game became the top priority in favor of what I wanted to communicate.
With all the feedback from those sessions — a process that took three months, give or take — I set my mind on creating a rather different game, very close to the final product.
You Make Your Way by Going Farther
I placed Jesus at the center and the Apostles by his side. The way of placing and scoring Apostles was always crystal clear. I got rid of the tiles with symbols, and the symbols on the cards themselves were what allowed you to sit Apostles on the table, which simplified the game a great deal.
I also eliminated the spiritual resources. No love, no faith, no hope. To get into the Supper, you need basic resources. That put me closer to the reality of the first male followers, but especially to the female followers who, as the Gospel says, served Jesus with their goods. Those goods (the resources in the game) are very important because they are offered for the benefit of the entire community and because the pool on the board is limited. The warehouse on the board is there to remind us of that; the resources are limited.
I didn't realize until the end that as I kept simplifying the game, I was getting closer to the reality of those followers, who sat at the table offering all they had, which was bread and food. I wanted the game to be transcendental, but it pushed my eyes to the floor to keep my feet on the ground.
On top of that, we have a resource that is stone, which may look like a resource that does not match the others, but thematically it is essential since Jesus lives in the desert under great temptation. The Devil tells him, "If you are the son of God, make these stones turn into bread." (Matthew 4:3).
Of course, Jesus does not do it because he knows that stones — big or small — are challenges in life; they are that which we do not like so much but which, in the long run, make us what we are. Those stones are also offered to seat with Jesus at the table.
The last big change was eliminating the pawn that moved through the locations. The turn became "play one card". That's simplicity. I kept trimming everything that felt like cutting my own arm at the beginning, but as my mind kept evolving, it started to think what was best for the game, not for me. It's here that I have to admit that while my crazy mind and imagination wanted more and more, in game design less is more.
The foundation of the game was now in place.
The main actions in the game are those appearing on the player cards: taking a follower to the Supper, listening to a parable, and doing a favor. I wanted to mirror Jesus' main mission while he went through villages, and that's why we have the parables, the way through which Jesus taught about his Father.
At the beginning, parables had some randomness in them as I do not dislike a random element. It was always about set collection, but you got them by rolling a die and spending stone. It was Fran (from Latin Ludens) who, after finishing a game, told me that he had not touched the parables because he did not like how they worked. That made me think a little bit more and in the end I got rid of randomness. I modified the way in which players get parables.
There were many of these small pieces of feedback that made me reconsider certain things which, even if important to the game, were not indispensable. Those changes made the design more fluid and elegant. Also, María Casbar (from Ludo) encouraged me to change the way of gaining parables.
The other action I always had clear in my mind was the favor action because in this game there had to be an action with which you do good towards others. With this action, you benefit one other player, but you also get something out of it. It is true, however, that favors not only mean unconditional generosity; one can also offer a favor just to make a good impression, but then the beneficiary of that favor may not get anything out of it. These are things that happen in games...
Good dynamics are built around the way favors are done and received, who got some earlier, maybe someone has two and you do not have any. I like these dynamics around favors in the game. Paradoxically, the favor track has undergone several changes because I wanted to balance favors from what you get out of them, plus I wanted the track to offer some bonus to the player that gets far in it. It suffered many modifications, as I said, until it reached its final state. The basic idea is that the more favors you do, the more points you get.
Another thing that has gone through many changes is the reward that Apostles grant you when they are seated. I pivoted from more interaction to less interaction with that one. My first idea was that almost all rewards allowed the Apostles to move other followers at the table to put them in other seats, even if they were another player's. I soon found out that this could not be because chaos took over the game and players did not like the lack of control. Put another way: You spent all game working hard to put your followers close to Jesus, then somebody with their last action could move one of your followers and take a bunch of points away from you. That is frustrating, and it was not the goal of the game. That's why I kept tweaking those rewards to create a balanced interaction that makes playing the game satisfactory because you still feel that you sat many followers where you wanted.
As for the end of the game, my intuition told me that the trigger would be the Sanhedrin, the assembly of elders that ordered the death of Jesus. The idea is to imagine them being indifferent when they first hear about the Nazarene, and then, little by little, seeing how they go from indifference to worry, to irritation, and finally to wrath. From there, they see hundreds of followers get into Jerusalem and sentence Jesus to death. The end of the game happens immediately at that point. This was the key to ending the game, and it remained untouched from the beginning. This is the reason why — being aware that the first players might take more turns than the others — initial set-up is balanced with some extra points and denarii.
These are ideas that go through your head during the development stage. Some stay, some just disappear. I guess that everyone designs in their own way, but in my life, inspiration usually visits me after just going to bed. That's when I play the game in my head: I shuffle slowly, look at the cards, play my turn, I wonder what to do, and that's when ideas flow. I discard some things; I add some others...and that's how I fall asleep. The next morning, as if some kind of spell was in play, everything gels, and what I thought about during the previous night stays solid in the morning, with more light. I spend many hours playing in bed!
That's how I came up with the Judas idea. I must admit that in early stages of development, Judas was not in the game; he was one of the last additions. One of those nights, light came to me and the following morning I did not hesitate to add him to the game. I had to re-make the Apostles because Judas would be a different color and at the end of the game he grants negative points. At the beginning he was a dark brown color, but it was publisher David Esbrí who had the idea of making him silver. I had no doubt about the kind of reward Judas would give either: denarii. It would have been great from a thematic standpoint if the reward could have been 30 coins, but it broke the balance of the game.
The Cover, My Heart
Games carry a part of our lives with them — at least it happened to me, maybe because this is the first one — and we want to imprint something of ours in them, something that matters to us. That's what happened to me when I first thought about the game cover. It was very hard to think about an appropriate cover.
In the end, and during one of those brilliant nights of mine, I had an idea: The cover would be the face of a man with a village in the background. But whose face? What man? I was scouting the internet for many hours looking for an image that I could tweak in Photoshop to illustrate what I wanted, but I was struggling to find one. In the end, an idea started in my head, and it went straight to my heart, and there it stayed.
My brother José was my perfect model...he died at age 33.
Playing with Two
The game was all but finished, and I had to adjust it for different player counts, then write the rulebook. Making it work for two players was a tall order because these mechanisms do not fit two players very well. That was apparent with the "doing a favor" action since I lost everything that makes "choose someone" work so well. I do you a favor, then you do me a favor... That's dull, and we needed another system.
Alberto helped me a lot with this. We thought about a system with "friendly followers", that is, meeples of the colors that were not taking part in the game, but that had a place at the table. We added a couple of actions with the goal of (instead of doing favors) helping the different friendly followers to gather so that they sat down next to each other at the Supper. That simple idea turned out to be solid and fun while playing the game.
It's Time to Depart
With all that ready, one day I saw on social media an ad for a prototype contest, Meeple Factory, in Granada, the place where I had the best years of my life studying theology among birds and birdies. (The faculty has a wonderful library surrounded by trees and nature, and many students from other faculties came to this one.) Without hesitating, I signed up. I had to print my prototype, and I still had to write the rulebook. I made good use of some spiritual exercises I attended to that summer in Ávila to get all the inspiration I could from the Saint to finish the rulebook in time. I took part in the contest, and the game was a finalist.
It was a spectacular weekend in Granada. First, because there were many of us with our prototypes, carrying our projects and wishing that people liked them. That's where I met Carmelo of Ludus Lab, Cata and Elena (the authors of Tindaya), Gabriel and Paloma with their "Federación" (now called "SUN" and in a Verkami crowdfunding campaign), and many rookie authors like me, nervous but having good laughs. Daniele Tascini also came around, and he was interested in the game, so I spent a long time explaining it to him. The most important thing, however, was that many people came over to know about the game, and the feedback could not have been better. The affection they showed when they sat at the table, the way they looked at the board...it was incredible. The best experience for a game designer is seeing people enjoying something you have created precisely so that people have a good time.
That's also where I met Juan, one of the organizers, and he was so kind and attentive, so on top of everything that the contest was an unforgettable experience. I remember the buzz generated by the theme of the game. It's true that my game won the contest and that adds a lot of emotion to the memories, but I will go back as often as I can. The prize — aside from an amount in cash — was the possibility of attending the DAU festival in Barcelona as the chosen prototype, so that's where I went.
The experience at DAU was also excellent. Alberto came with me, and we could show the game set up on the table. Despite the COVID restrictions, many people came over to see the game, people that now send me messages and remember me. We played all we could, and it was a ton of fun.
On Saturday, Devir's David Esbrí came over and he was interested in playing the game. It was scheduled for the afternoon, and he showed up with Chema Pamundi. I was nervous; I wanted to show them everything, tell them everything...but in the end, the game itself was the one to speak. They liked it, and that's where the adventure started.
From Nigeria With Love
The process of graphic transformation the game has gone through is spectacular. Nigerian artist La Draws made all the illustrations inside the game, meaning the ones that give us the atmosphere and the historic context represented in the game. His realistic (even photographic) style provides the experience with depth and allows the players to immerse themselves in the game more easily.
I must thank David Esbrí for his attention to detail and his being so careful for he always showed me every new step the game took, asking questions, making suggestions. Working with him has been nothing short of delightful. In fact, I am proud that another important part of the graphic aspect of the game came directly from his hands. All the Romanesque designs that try to break and contrast the realist style of Olayide are David's. Look at that Pantocrator!
Then came the graphic design of the game, with Meeple Foundry's Saum, whom I also had the pleasure to play a game with on TTS to get his creative juices flowing in relation to the game experience. It has been very important at all stages of production to remain aware of the singularity of the game's theme. Great care has been taken, and I think we got there.
And I feel a perfect mix of pleasure and pride to have Chema Pamundi participate in the writing process for the rulebook. We spent a few days putting everything in order, and I enjoyed myself immensely while seeing Chema's prodigious mind putting all the concepts I told him about in place, all the thematic points and the symbolic meanings. The results are there for the world to see.
And What About Solitaire?
Sometime after DAU, David Esbrí told me to think about a solitaire mode for the game. He wanted to see whether we could add it because many gamers out there enjoy their games as a solo experience. I started to think about it; I wanted a solo mode that was not too heavy for the player. I wanted it to play fast, but also to have depth. I reached the conclusion that a deck of cards to power the automa would be best and easiest: you draw a card, you do what it says, that's it.
I started thinking about each card, actions that did not need another person. There would be no favors, but there would be friendly followers, as well as rewards printed on the board, just like with two players. The most difficult thing in solo mode was placing the Apostles because the AI cannot make card combos. I solved that with the Sanhedrin tiles; they would be the ones taking care of the placing of the Apostles. And again, I saw a light at nighttime with a new idea. The automa would be Barabbas. I think David liked that a lot, and I invite you to face Barabbas in the different challenges that you will find during your journey to Jerusalem.
The Circle Is Complete
As if all of the above was not enough, we reach the final stop with a sublime cover illustration by Enrique Corominas. It recreates the scene in a way that not even I could have imagined. It mesmerized me. Sometimes I just stare at the cover, and my mind flies trying to imagine what might have happened there, what would Jesus' voice sound like, his looks, his gestures...
That man that touched so many hearts throughout history, who inspires the most wonderful works of art, the most heroic actions, the most beautiful poems. The man who inspired that Requiem that we can recreate and enjoy in Lacrimosa. The man who inspired that beautiful Saint Basil's Cathedral in Moscow and that we call The Red Cathedral. The man who died on the cross.
Now, everything's set, and the moment of truth is here — and I have to say that moment scares me. I feel certain restlessness inside because I want to know whether people will like the game, whether it will work, whether it will be entertaining, whether it will spark thought...
But another part of me is confident and happy. This is, beyond any doubt, one of the best experiences in my life.
Carmem García Jiménez