Sobek: 2 Players Designer Diary
by Bruno Cathala
(originally published July 1, 2021)
In 2010, a small and clever card game called Sobek was released by Gameworks.
The game was a real success. Something like 15,000 copies were sold over 2 years. For a small publisher like Gameworks, this was amazing. And for me as a designer, it represented almost a month’s annual salary. However, after two short years, the game stopped receiving support.
Ten years have passed since then. And Sobek has not been forgotten. Very regularly, I receive messages from game stores and players, asking me how to get a copy of this little game. Little by little, an idea formed:
GIVE SOBEK A SECOND CHANCE!
Since I didn’t want to take on this project alone, I invited Sébastien Pauchon to come along for the ride.
One part friendship: Whenever I spent time with Sébastien, it was always a mixture of jokes, laughter, and intense game design sessions. I always enjoyed collaborating with him, so it was a great opportunity to connect again.
Two parts loyalty and respect: He was at the helm of the first edition of Sobek, so I thought it was fair to invite him to be a part of this new edition, as a thank you for his previous work.
When I proposed this collaboration, I was also pretty clear about the direction I wanted the project to go in. Basically, since its release in 2010, I kept playing it again and again.
I played a ridiculous number of times, particularly with two players, thanks to the digital adaptations on BoardGameArena and Yucata.
And that’s how I discovered a way to play with two players that, while completely within the rules, went against the experience I wanted for my design. With two players, it was possible to become as corrupt as a pig, by only taking the “big” cards and leaving the others for your opponent. The game would end after three rounds while your opponent could hardly accomplish anything.
Of course, this didn’t happen every time, but often enough that it lessened my desire to play.
TIME TO MAKE NEW CHANGES
- Consequences for corruption needed to be proportional to its intensity
- Try to remove the game system that every game ended after 3 rounds (I think it’s actually a rather inelegant design decision)
- The game must be perfect for two players
From this point, we started to work on a drafting system.
At the time, I had just finished development on INSERT. And since I really, really loved how the board constrained players, Seb and I wondered if it would be possible to do something similar to address our problem with Sobek.
INSERT is a two-player abstract game about successive constraints. When a player places a ring on a space, the line shows which space their opponent must play their next ring. The board + limitations led to a progressively-filled view that focused entirely on alignments.
We didn’t want a static board, however the idea started to form…
If we placed Goods tiles on an empty board… and if each Goods tile had directions limiting the next player’s choices… which also happened to be perfectly suited to the corruption… It was coming together! If a player chose the first available tile in the direction, it was “free.” However, if they wanted to choose a further, better tile, skipped tiles were removed from the board and added to their corruption.
This limitation system was really similar to INSERT, but having the board empty as the game progressed let players focus on the most profitable sets. It became a radically different gameplay experience from INSERT, even though they shared the same roots.
Eventually we ended up with this prototype.
We made it, we played with it… and we quickly realized what cool system it was. It still had tense decisions and added a tactical aspect to the original version. However, this system only worked for two-player games.
We were faced with the following choices:
- EITHER abandon this idea and find something else for a 2-4 player Sobek
- OR keep this really fun mechanic, but change the theme to end up with an entirely separate game
- OR keep the mechanic AND the theme to create a 2-player ONLY Sobek, which would be similar to yet different from the original.
After reflecting on it, we decided on the third choice. Today, I think it’s safe to say we made the right decision!
SOBEK: 2 PLAYERS - IT’S A SEPARATE GAME, NOT A SIMPLE ADAPTATION
From this point on, we worked on adjusting different important elements - fine-tuning things, if you will. We primarily tweaked the gameplay so that it lasted longer than a single round.
We also changed corruption so that:
- It was proportional to the level of corruption between both players
- It rewarded the least corrupt player, instead of punishing the most corrupt player. Of course from a “math” view, it is essentially the same thing. From a psychological view, though, it’s entirely different. The most corrupted player doesn’t want to be penalized and they don’t want to be frustrated. If that’s the difference between them wanting to play again or not… Well, it was an easy change to make.
I want to say a few final words about the production of the game.
It was our first time working with Catch Up Games and the least we can say is that the collaboration went really well. We enjoyed working with a publisher who listened and shared all their decisions with us.
In the end, we have an amazing box full of high-quality content. We are really very happy. It looks great, doesn’t it?