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  • Writer's pictureOleg Domansky

Mayab's Designer Diary: 5 Explorations of Designing an Exploration Board Game

Updated: Aug 2

While reflecting on nearly a year of developing Mayab, I realized that there are quite a few valuable insights that might not only benefit fellow designers but also intrigue board game hobbyists, curious about the behind-the-scenes creative process. Thus, I'm kicking off a sporadic "design diary" series of posts, focusing on a single game aspect at the time.

The first one will explore my design decisions, challenges, and inspirations that shaped one of the core elements of the game – hex-based map tiles.

The latest iteration of hex-based map tiles as of July 2023

1. Want the exploration? Add a map!

From the moment the idea of Mayab took root in my mind, I knew one thing for sure – there had to be an immersive map draped in a tantalizing "fog," waiting to be unveiled by intrepid players. It's definitely not mandatory to have a map in the exploration game, but I reckon it's the easiest way to add this feel of being on the verge of the unknown and getting excited about the upcoming adventures.

So, I started with a straightforward hex-based grid, providing designated spots for yet-to-be-revealed map tiles:

August 2022. Tiles are being added from a stack and placed at the designated spots on the grid.

It felt like a step in the right direction, but early home playtests highlighted a problem – players felt confined and boxed in, lacking the full thrill of exploration. I needed to find a way to open up the world and make it truly feel like an uncharted territory.

2. Unraveling the Hex Appeal 😅

Let me briefly mention the hexes vs. squares discussion. To be honest, I didn't put too much thought into this decision initially. Hexes just seemed like the go-to symbol for any board game at that time. But as I delved deeper, I stumbled upon a few hidden advantages. One of the most important ones – hexes with their six sides grant players more freedom of movement (50% more compared to squares to be exact). This became even more crucial during 3 and 4-player sessions, ensuring that everyone had their slice of the unexplored pie.

So this question was answered quite easily... unlike the next one!

3. Random or pre-defined exploration?

Inspired by classic titles like "Betrayal at House on the Hill," I dove headfirst into the idea of a randomized hex tiles stack and player-driven placement. With each turn, the next player would select a random hex and strategically place it next to any existing one, essentially building the map as they went along. On paper, it sounded like a lot of fun – adding a touch of tactics to the mix and ensuring no two games would be alike:

September 2022. This is how a typical end-game state would look like back then

However, the real-world playtests soon brought some disturbing revelations. The constant shifting and evolving of the map introduced chaos that disrupted the carefully crafted storytelling aspect of the campaign. Orchestrating the events and narrative twists became a nearly impossible task for me as the designer, leaving players adrift in a sea of randomness.

I knew I had to find an alternative that struck the right balance between excitement and coherence.

4. How to hide the unhideable?

Alright, so I needed the map to be pre-defined yet hidden at the same time. Digital games (or app-assisted board games) have the luxury of concealing things behind computer code, but how could I achieve the same effect with dozens of tiles that players explore one by one, without overwhelming them? That question puzzled me for a couple of days (would have been much less if I had known about the 7th Continent back then 😁), but I finally came up with an elegant solution:

Tile #4, with 2 pathways leading to tiles #3 and #5

Each tile has its own unique number and a set of pathways leading to adjacent tiles with matching numbers. With this, players will know exactly which tile they need to place next to an existing one but will have no idea what will they find there.

For a brief moment, I worried that this might burden players with extra work, but the first playtests with this method quickly proved that it works quite well. Especially when the tiles are organized in sequence, and closer tiles have closer numbers – it feels natural and seamless.

5. How to elevate the feeling of surprise?

Initially, I categorized and numbered "points of interest" on the tiles under four distinct labels – items, events, journal stories, and enemies. Each time players will interact with a given location, they would draw a card from the designed deck and resolved it according to the rules. The idea of having visible categorization was to give players some sense of agency and control over their actions and cooperative strategies. It sounded reasonable, but playtests and valuable feedback from the Protospiel I attended in January 2023 revealed some interesting points.

January 2023. The printout of the whole map with four types of encounters.

Firstly, organizing four separate decks for items, events, and enemies added an extra setup step that I aimed to minimize. Secondly, and more importantly, players wanted to elevate the feel of stepping into the unknown and weren't mind being surprised by a boar attacking them unexpectedly as long as they have some ways to mitigate or work around that.

So, a simple decision emerged – a single deck of numbered cards with no indication of the nature of the encounter on the tile itself. With this exciting twist, players would be fully immersed in the unfolding narrative and also prompted to pay more attention to the map's artwork to look for some visual clues instead:

This tile looks quiet, but the artwork might give you a hint that it's not that safe here... or is it?

Let's keep exploring!

Mayab's tile-based map has evolved in thrilling ways, keeping me on the toes with delightful surprises. And while it reaches a compelling phase already, it remains an evolving element. For example, I consider spicing things up with random tiles, taking inspiration from the original map design to enhance replayability.

If you are interested in following along this journey or learning more about other elements of the game in further Designer Diary editions, please consider joining Mayab's community using the form and social buttons below.

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