The Abbey, Development

The Abbey board in play

Some years ago, my wife visited England and went to Fountains Abbey. When she returned, she had a collection of awesome photographs and a brochure that explained the history of the abbey. Monks growing grain, tending flocks of sheep, running a quarry and mining the upper stretches of the river for metals? That’s not history, that’s a Euro! Seriously, as with a lot of designer games, the history directly inspired the game, but initially too much history and an attempt to model events too closely to that history kept this game in the idea file only.

Continued refinement of the game mechanics meant that players would not be responding to fluctuations in demand for the goods the abbey produced, but instead creating more supply of certain goods. I also wanted playing resource cards to have multiple effects… for example, playing a Grain card means there’s more grain to sell at the end of the year, but also the additional food allows new workers to be added to an area. Balancing how to help yourself without helping everyone else too much is a big part of The Abbey.

So now I had player-driven demand for certain goods that would influence the scoring rounds and a mechanism for making playing resource cards a tough choice. But simply playing out all the cards each round meant that there was less variation and less uncertainty than I wanted. Then I was fortunate enough to be able to play Luna a few times and saw a potential solution:

At the beginning of every round, the Scribe (the reddish monk pawn) starts on the Winter Market space. Whenever a player takes certain actions, he advances to the next space, Early Spring. His next move will be to Late Spring, then to Early Summer and so on. When he reaches the Winter Market again, it’s time for scoring and then a new round begins (the book moves down a space and additional cards are dealt out for the players). Because some desirable actions move the Scribe and some desirable actions do not, there is tension and uncertainty about how many turns you will have before the round ends. This is similar to the candle system in Luna.

This stage of development took place over the last year or so, and gelled together into a good system. But areas would get clogged up early in the game and there was little motivation for players to move workers, so the distribution of resource areas for scoring was awfully static. I was at a playtest session for another designer’s game and after we had done the playtest, another tester suggested we take a crack at Troyes. There’s a lot of things I like about that game, especially the hidden variable scoring system, but the thing that helped The Abbey was an idea that’s been done before: a track where workers enter on one side and are pushed down, eventually exiting on the other side.

In The Abbey, each of these tracks is called a Work Line. Normally, workers may be added to a line, pushing other workers down. If a worker is pushed off the line, he returns to that player’s supply and may be put out again (since adding workers to a line normally advances the Scribe, the ability to add workers is always a limited thing). However, if a Monk has been moved out of The Abbey and is supervising an area, that monk prevents rival groups of workers from jostling each other. In game terms, a supervising monk means that you can’t add workers to any lines in that area that have workers of a different color already there. Clever placement of the monks can not only protect your investment of workers, but lock others out of areas where they’d like to expand.

The Abbey is still in development, and the most controversial thing is the scoring system. The game has been designed from the ground-up to not have any ties. During a round, players put out cards and monks into the contract area, manipulating different resource amounts. However, if two resources have the same number of votes, the contract area closer to The Abbey (the one on the board) wins the tie. If a player manages to land on the exact score of another player, they instead advance to the next available scoring space. This means that a player with a lower score only needs to tie the high-score, not exceed it, and is intended as a catch-up mechanism. It’s controversial, but I hope with the right scoring values it will create stand-up moments for the final moments of the game.

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