Hello, everyone, I’m Germán P. Millán, designer of Bitoku. My new game, Sabika, will debut in October at SPIEL ”22 from Ludonova, and I would like to share with the BoardGameGeek community some thoughts and ideas on its creation process. Hope you find them interesting.
I was born in Granada, and since I was a child, I have seen the Alhambra on many occasions while walking along the “Paseo de los Tristes”, right at the foot of the Sabika hill. At the top of this hill, like a crown, is the Alhambra. (“Sabika” means “gold ingot”.) It is impressive and overwhelming. No matter how many times I go, it always leaves me speechless.
In 2019, on one of those days that I was walking around there, I saw it again like so many times, but that time a new thought crossed my mind: What if I design a game about the construction of the Alhambra? Well, most of my games or mechanical ideas just pop up like that, out of the blue.
I spent the next few weeks researching and reading up on the subject. I couldn’t think of anything else. Soon, I accumulated a considerable amount of notes and ideas to start the basis for a game.
The first Sabika prototype was born as an easy and accessible Eurogame that could be played by children since the main goal was to serve as a teaching tool in schools. Let’s say its difficulty was like that of CATAN.
I chose the rondel as the central mechanism for aesthetic reasons and thematic adaptation. I know what I’m saying may sound strange, but it makes sense. Geometry and symmetry are predominant in the Alhambra, and curiously enough, they are fundamental characteristics of a rondel. I liked to imagine the Granadan people of that time playing a game with a rondel; it seemed quite right to me. I guess sometimes there are some pretty curious design decisions.
Thus, the game had a rondel with four simple actions that the players activated with pawns called “Alarifes” (master builders). Some actions gave resources, and others allowed those resources to be delivered to build areas of the Alhambra. The round counter included relevant historic dates that linked to historiographical and didactic paragraphs where players could learn a little about the history of the monument.
It was quite simple, and the strategic factor was focused on how to manage your movement around the circle and not be late for the actions as rivals increased the costs. That is, while playing, the players learned aspects such as the construction materials used, the different areas that make up the monument, the most important sultans, and other vicissitudes of that time.
Ludonova Joins the Construction of the Alhambra
I contacted Ludonova to show what I had been working on as I thought that Sabika would be a good fit for their publishing line. Also, I had always wanted to work with them since I admire their productions and their way of making games.
The meeting was a great way to get to know them and test the prototype with them. Thanks to them, the game took the first important step: There was a good base, but it was not enough. We agreed to meet again after a few months in which I would work a little more on the prototype.
I spent some time testing and making tough decisions. The more complex the game became, the more it moved away from its initial educational spirit. Game design requires making difficult decisions, and many times the project takes a direction that you did not expect.
It was difficult for me to assimilate it, but as soon as I was convinced of it, it began to flow and grow. The educational component disappeared, but I worked really hard to get all the mechanisms to make thematic sense — and I think that has finally been achieved.
José Miguel Puerta and the Poems
I would say that one of the most important moments of this trip was meeting José Miguel Puerta Vílchez, one of the world’s leading experts on the Alhambra, who luckily is from Granada. My good friend MagoMigue, an internationally renowned magician, put me in contact with him. Thank you very much for doing your magic!
So, I had the honor of spending an evening with José Miguel, showing him the game, and enjoying his enormous knowledge of the Alhambra. What things were more important? What could we add thematically? I asked him a lot of questions to which he not only gave me the answers but also went further. I showed him the prototype and all the historical elements that I had already implemented.
And that’s how my favorite part of Sabika — the poems — came about. José Miguel said that most of the elements in the game seemed pretty good to him, but he was struck by the total absence of what is most important to him: “The Alhambra is like an architectural collection of poems.” I was surprised. Then he began to talk about the importance of the poems that are in the rooms, how they were a testimony of the time, the concerns of the sultans, poems dedicated to a single room…
He gave me a spectacular talk about all this. I found it so fascinating that it was very clear to me that it had to be implemented in the game. That was the jump in complexity the game needed. I vividly remember coming back home excited and with a head full of ideas. Board game design has some moments that are simply amazing.
I added a new pawn for the players: the craftsman, who would be in charge of carving the poems on the rooms and walls of the Alhambra. To differentiate it from the other pawns present in the rondel, I decided to place it on each player’s personal board, outside the rondel.
The poems are cards that “break” many rules of the game, so from the beginning, they were a headache for Sabika‘s balance, but I think that without a doubt they are one of the most fun elements of the game. In each gameplay, players will carve poems with different effects and perks. This does not just create asymmetry, but it invites players to replay in order to find other synergies the game brings up and surprise themselves with perks and effects they haven’t tried before.
The Difficult Search for Another Mechanism
After several months of testing to settle the mechanism of the poems into the game, I met with Ludonova again to show them the progress. The conclusions were very positive; the poems fit perfectly in the game, but we knew that they would give balance problems until the end (and they did). However, the editors thought that the game system was enough to make a bigger and more complex Eurogame.
I returned to Granada with the challenge of making the game grow even more. I found an interesting approach: We could reflect the economic situation of the Kingdom of Granada. It was a topic that I had read sideways many times. The Granadans of the time developed a great economic muscle with the export of all kinds of merchandise throughout the European continent, the Maghreb, and the Iberian Peninsula. At the same time, this allowed them to assume the heavy tribute that the Christians demanded of them to maintain intermittent periods of peace since Christian conquest was the main threat to Granada.
It was not an easy task to integrate a completely new mechanism. At the design level, it is crazy since everything moves. A slight change in one part can have consequences elsewhere. That is why you have to do it very carefully, and it is vital to know your design down to the last corner. Luckily, I had long wanted to design a game with a map where players position themselves and get different advantages. I thought a map would fit perfectly to reflect the commercial life of the Kingdom of Granada mechanically and thematically. I was not lacking in motivation and enthusiasm, but without a doubt, this was the biggest obstacle I have faced in Sabika. I remember several weeks in which nothing worked. In those moments, discouragement is your worst enemy. That’s why it’s so important to take a break from time to time, let the game rest, and come back to it later with a fresh perspective.
I spent weeks researching and reading about trade in the kingdom of Granada between the 10th and 15th centuries. The amount of information I found about cities, merchandise, merchant families… I had the answers I needed in front of me in those texts! When you have good documentation, ideas come more easily.
I got down to work as there were many things to design and test. In addition to creating a map with its cities and routes, the mechanisms of trade required a new pawn: the merchant. I also added a new “track” that constantly annoys players: the parias*. And, last but not least, a new resource with its own function: the goods.
The Triple Rondel
The mechanism of trade brought many questions to the table, but a key question also emerged: How to integrate this new mechanism? I needed to create new actions to get goods and to move around a map. In addition, they had to differ from the “construction” mechanisms in order to avoid a repetitive feeling between the actions of the builders and the merchants. In a way, it was like inserting a different game into what was already there.
I integrated the merchant’s pawn into the builders’ rondel and created some actions that only merchants could trigger, but the tests were not very satisfactory in terms of usability. There were too many icons and information in the rondel boxes, which gave the feeling that everything was a bit messy and overcomplicated. I decided to create a rondel of my own for the merchants. This is how the double rondel came about.
The truth is that it worked very well from the beginning, and I felt relieved. In addition, I connected both rondels through the new resource, the goods, which could now be obtained in the spaces of each of the two rondels, creating a very interesting degree of interaction and planning. I was finally solving the problem!
Soon, we concluded that the craftsman’s pawn (which was on the personal board) needed to unify its operation within the double rondel as leaving the craftsman isolated on the personal board was a bit weird. We created three actions for the craftsman, and voilá, this is how the triple rondel that stars in the Sabika board was born. It’s amazing how sometimes nothing works, and little by little, with dedication and perseverance, everything fits and flows so smoothly.
Ludonova’s editors were very pleased with the result. We finally had the game! From then on, there were months of very intense testing sessions since although the game was complete, many details remained to be adjusted and polished.
Final Development, Curiosities, and Farewell
The last stage of the development was based on gameplays, gameplays, and more gameplays. Ludonova’s team was very active in this whole process, and thanks to that, many adjustments and finishing touches were made.
Balancing the poems lengthened the development of Sabika since there are many different combinations and situations in which the behavior of each poem had to be verified. (There are 64 different poems, plus others that were discarded.)
Unlike with Bitoku (many thanks to Dávid Turczi and his team), this time I was personally in charge of doing the solo mode. I never play in this modality, and for this reason, I set myself the challenge of making the simplest automa possible and with the least amount of management to be able to play it personally. I may have been a little selfish in this regard, but I think I managed to create a very entertaining challenge.
The advanced mode (event tiles) came in the final phase of development. The editors asked me to design a “promo” to give away with the launch of the game. The event system adds extra difficulty and integrates so well into the game that they ultimately decided to add it as part of the game. Personally, and as advised in the rulebook, I don’t recommend playing in advanced mode for the first few games.
José Miguel Puerta Vílchez provided a large number of texts, data, and names of real characters that have been used for the illustrations, clothing, and other details that have helped give it that “educational” nuance that so obsessed me at the beginning of development. In addition, he has written several informative books on his studies, and some of them can be purchased in Alhambra’s bookshops.
The illustrator, Lauron Bevon, had visited the Alhambra a year before Ludonova asked her to illustrate Sabika. She was very excited and has done an exceptional job.
If you’ve made it this far, thank you very much for your time and interest. I hope you play Sabika one day and enjoy building towers, gardens, and doors; carving majestic poems that last for centuries; and exporting goods throughout Europe and the Maghreb. If one day you travel to Granada, don’t forget to visit the “Paseo de los Tristes” as surely you will feel the magic that I felt the day I decided to design Sabika.
Germán P. Millán
P.S.: Special thanks to the “bandít” of Jonatán (jonatanmartin87) for his time editing and translating this diary and for his valuable friendship.
* Translator’s note: “Parias” is the name given to the specific tribute imposed on the Kingdom of Granada by the Christian kingdoms. For more information, check this link.