Designer Diary: Umbra Via

At the start of 2018, Inis had become my new favorite game. What I really liked about it was how it was an area control game, but you didn’t always want to kill all of your opponents. One of the win conditions is to be in control of regions where there are at least 6 other players’ units there. You can’t kill everyone. You can’t brute force your way through it. You have to keep an unsteady peace with your opponents. 

I wanted to make a game that took that idea from Inis a bit further. Something where you weren’t allowed to remove all of your opponents’ stuff if it wasn't exactly where you wanted it to be. Something you’d have to deal with and work around instead. This is where the key point in Umbra Via came from. Players would be in direct conflict with each other, but not able to use direct force. 

I also wanted players to be able to do well playing off of instinct and have a good time against people who are thinking through every possible outcome. Oftentimes when playing, I’m either tired or stressed and not really up for only having a good time if I can out-compute whoever I’m playing against. So, I decided I wanted pure logical thinking to cause the player to get a bit stuck. To force people to go with their instinct instead and level that playing field. This is why I wanted to add a constrained, hidden bid to the game.

Figuring out someone’s intentions is tricky, some people will even write it off as random. But to me, that's the most interesting part of playing games with other people. If you try to just logic your way through a blind bid, you can end up with the classic Princess Bride poison cup scenario. If you take a step back and don’t get sucked down the logical rabbit hole, you have enough information to figure out the fuzzy probabilities of what someone might do. Also, I simply prefer those types of decisions, where there is no exact answer and things are fuzzy, but you’ve still got a lot to go off of!

Since Umbra Via isn’t a big box game, there was a lot of swapping out of a lot of mechanisms, scoring systems, etc to make it work with my goals. The iterations of the game were often unrecognisable. (I could fill another few designer diaries with all that). Through all those versions, those overarching goals were how I eventually settled on the core of Umbra Via. Each round, players recieve 6 tokens to secretly bid on 4 different tiles over two rounds of bidding. The player with the most cubes on the tile gets to choose where it goes, determining the shape of the paths you’re building and trying to control. However, everyone’s cubes stay on the tile so you’re picking where the tile and everyone’s cubes go. When paths close off, players are rewarded based on how long the path is, as well as how they ranked in the path.

The two rounds of bidding came out of trying to help players feel informed enough to actually be able to go off of instinct. When I first brought the game to my housemates Jevin and Jordan to test it out, I was stuck about how to handle getting the players’ cubes onto the tiles. On one hand, you could have players bid one cube at a time - which was very slow, but let you see the other player’s intentions. On the other hand, you could allocate and bid all of your cubes at once - which was very quick and exciting, but didn’t give the players much to go off of so it felt more random.  


I brought this up with my housemates and how I wasn’t happy with either of them. Then Jordan simply said, “Well why don’t we do two rounds then?” This turned out to be perfect and never changed after that first playtest. Players get 6 total cubes, then bid on the tiles three cubes at a time. The first round is a chance for surprise, and in the second round players have made their intentions public so you get to respond to that.

You’ll probably notice how I haven’t talked about the theme yet. What got me into board game design was the idea of crafting an experience for players. With Umbra Via, I specifically thought about making a game my partner and friends would enjoy. During the design process, it did exactly that, hitting all of the experience notes I wanted it to: conflict without violence, and being able to play off of the other players and your gut feeling. However, these goals never really inspired a theme that lined up with the mechanics. 


I tried all sorts of changes to the game to make a theme fit, but it always seemed to take away from that core experience. In the end, wrapping Umbra Via in the dressings of a mysterious ritual felt fitting. The game has you advocate for painted tokens with no pretense. It works because everyone agrees these tokens are important, that they represent you and your interests. This felt very similar to spells to me, where the objects used are meant to represent so much more.

Keeping the theme more abstract allowed for simpler art that was easier to read. Ultimately it's the feeling of playing with the mechanics and the other players around the table, trying to carefully balance all the different parts of the game, that makes Umbra Via what it is. I love what Pandasarus did with the game. It’s amazing seeing it brought to life. I can’t wait for more people to try it out!

- Connor Wake, designer of Umbra Via

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