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Conquistador Developer's Notes

The development of Conquistador in 1976 was, in many ways, my apprenticeship as a game designer. I began working at SPI as scab labor in 1973; shortly before then, the backroom workers who assembled and shipped SPI's games attempted to organize. The company's president, Jim Dunnigan, fired the lot of them; the result was a dispute before the National Labor Relations Board, which SPI eventually won. In the meantime, Dunnigan hired me to assemble games. The pay was modest, perhaps even illegal; I was paid in game credit rather than cash. At the time, it seemed like a good idea; I was an avid purchaser of games, and had I been paid in cash, much of it would probably have been converted into games anyway.

Between 1973 and 1976, I worked at a variety of jobs at SPI -- backroom worker (eventually getting paid in cash), feedback keypuncher, computer operator, and "troll" -- one of a group of high school kids who did scut work for the designers, drawing maps, xeroxing, retyping rules, and the like. In early 1976, Dunnigan asked me, "How old are you know?"

"Sixteen," I replied.

"Old enough," he said, and put me on the design staff. SPI had a policy of developing game design talent both by hiring likely possibilities from the ranks of playtesters, and by taking game-enthralled youngsters like myself and introducing them to design. On the whole, I think the policy was a success; after all, the founders of SPI (Dunnigan and Simonsen) had been in their early twenties when the company was started, and they knew that kids with a solid knowledge of games could be effective designers. SPI developed a number of other game designers at a young age, including Eric Goldberg and Nick Karp.

The first project I was assigned to work on was the North Africa Quad. Quadrigames were the first "little games," containing 100 counters, 8 pages of rules, and 17" x 22" game-maps. The idea was that four games would be done on battles occurring during the same period; each of the four would share the same game system, and each would contain a 2 to 4 page special rules folder providing additional rules for the individual game. The four games would be sold both together as a package, and individually. Some of the early Quads were both artistic and commercial successes -- the Blue & Grey and Napoleon At War Quads come to mind. By 1976, however, SPI was already over-working the Quadrigame format, and a certain contempt for the games, both among the designers and among the public, had set in. SPI's designers were no longer putting much effort into the Quads, and the results showed. The North Africa Quad was a good example. Using what was essentially a modified version of the Napoleon At Waterloo system, it was not a good simulation.

The theory at SPI at the time was that novice designers would be given individual quad games to design. Under the supervision of a coordinator for the Quadrigame as a whole, a designer could be given a first taste of game design without being burdened with too complicated a task. In my case, I must say, the results were disastrous. I was not provided the supervision and help which might have made Supercharge, my game on the battle of Alamein, a success. Supercharge was undeniably the worst of the North Africa Quad, which itself was nothing of which to be proud. I take a certain mordant pleasure in the fact that Supercharge is out of print and, God willing, will never again see the light of day.

The tack SPI took next was more successful. I was assigned as a developer to Richard Berg's Conquistador. Berg was already well known as a result of his landmark Terrible Swift Sword, a monster game on the Battle of Gettysburg. Berg put a great deal of time and effort into Conquistador, and working closely with him was an invaluable experience. In the process of developing the game, I was able to study a top-notch designer at work, and obtained precisely the sort of experience a novice designer needs most. Anyone who has aspirations to become a designer, I think, already is intimately familiar with wargames and the various systems designers have developed to simulate various subjects. He also, presumably, has an intimate knowledge of his subject matter, be that science fiction or history. What he does not have is a mastery of technique, of the mundane details that turn raw conception into a smooth, professional game. He does not know how to write rules with clarity and precision; he does not have much of an idea of the value of playtesting and how to use playtesters to their fullest; he does not have a feel for how to abstract raw data and description into workable game systems. It is possible to learn these things on one's own, but it isn't easy. Far better to serve a period of apprenticeship under those who know what they are doing.

Precise division of the tasks a designer and developer are supposed to perform is impossible. What each does depends very much on the relationship between them. At one extreme was the way Jim Dunnigan worked; his habit was to hand eight or ten pages of scribbled notes, a preliminary map, and a suggested reading list to the developer, who would take this raw material and wind up doing more than two-thirds of the work. At the other extreme was the way Berg and I collaborated on Conquistador; when I began work on the project, Berg already had a fairly good first draft of the rules. I conducted playtesting, suggested changes, and rewrote the rules continually, but Berg oversaw the project every step of the way. Every two weeks or so, he would hand me a set of the most recent version of the rules with copious hand-written notes, which I was expected to incorporate in the game. On the whole, Conquistador is very much Richard Berg's game, and my contributions were quite modest. The collaboration was a happy one; I was quite happy to defer to Berg, for whom I had (and retain) the highest regard, especially as I had, at the time, little experience. I did make what I hope were valuable and important contributions to the game; the solitaire rules are primarily my work, and I had a hand in the German Banker rules.

Some unfortunate compromises were forced on us by the fact that Conquistador was an issue game, that is, was first published in SPI's military history magazines, Strategy & Tactics. At the time, SPI had a strict limit on the number of counters that could appear in an issue game -- 200 was the maximum. As a result, no counters were provided by the Portuguese or German Banker players. In addition, there simply were not enough counters for the other three players; by the end of the game, players would invariably be forced to scrounge additional counters by using blank counters or purchasing a second counter set. This, Conquistador's major problem, has been admirably solved in the Avalon Hill edition, which provides a magnificent 520 counters. Alas, the Avalon Hill edition eliminates the rules for the German Banker player (although the ad copy on the back of the box peculiarly mentions that the game can be played by as many as five).

As an interesting historical aside, it should be noted that when Conquistador was published in S&T, half of the sets mailed included glossy counters, and have matte ones. [That is, half were varnished, and half not; Avalon Hill always varnished its counters, while SPI did not, and there was some debate about which looked superior.] This was an attempt to solve the ancient dispute over which is superior by finding out which the customers actually preferred. Strategy & Tactics included a "feedback" card, on which readers were asked to jot numbers in response to a number of questions; one of the questions asked in that issue was how much the players liked the counters. When the results were tabulated, it was found that those who received the non-glossy counters rated them marginally higher than those who had received the glossy ones -- but the difference was satistically insignificant, to the point where two or three extreme responses either way could have been responsible for the difference. In short, Conquistador resolved this dispute for all time: it doesn't seem to matter. It is interesting, though, that in Avalon Hill's version, the counters are not glossy, an unusual practice for Avalon Hill -- despite the fact that Conquistador was the only SPI game ever to appear with glossy counters.

When Conquistador was first published, it met with a mixed reception on the part of S&T subscribers, primarily, I think, because S&T subscribers preferred hard World War II military games, and Conquistador was rather anomalous from their point of view. It is gratifying that, despite this, Conquistador has remained a steady seller for seven years and continues to be popular with multi-player gamers.

Conquistador errata.

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Copyright © 1985 by Greg Costikyan.