Designer Diary: First Monday in October

I always swore that I’d never design a board game.  Whenever I told people about my strategy board gaming hobby, I would almost inevitably get a question about when I would make my own game.  It’s not that simple of course.  There are so many strategy board games these days.  There seemed like a ton when I started down this rabbit hole in the late 1990s, but now the volume is truly mind-boggling.  And yet, the idea for First Monday in October just would not let me be.

The concept took root many, many years ago.  After moving to Washington, DC in 2009 for work, I joined a new game group, which happened to be hosted at Jason Matthews’ house.  I was already a fan of his work, but I had no inkling at the time of wanting to design a game inspired by Twilight Struggle.  Then one fateful evening a couple years later, Jason made an off-hand remark about never having figured out how to make a historical card-driven game about the Supreme Court.  We were in the midst of playtesting 1989: Dawn of Freedom and discussing the various historical themes that could be interesting to explore.  Jason mentioned his concern with who or what the players would reasonably represent in an overarching Supreme Court game, and I made a joke about loving the bizarreness of the parrot fish and shrimp in Reef Encounter.  I promptly moved on with my life, but my subconscious had other plans.

I continued to ponder.  Over the course of months, and eventually years, I kept returning to that conversation and to the challenge of how to structure a board game that could encompass and do justice to the epic history of the Supreme Court.  Eventually, I felt that I had the answer to Jason’s concern, which was to position the players as fictitious associations or think tanks with philosophical leanings that could persist for 200+ years.  With this in hand, I had less than one percent of a game, but I still couldn’t seem to let it go.  After another year or so, I’d gradually sketched out an action menu for the game.  I’ve always been drawn to games like Tigris & Euphrates, Stephensons Rocket, and Hansa Teutonica.  I knew early on that, if this was going to be a game that I would enjoy, then it would have a menu of actions like those inspirations.  I particularly enjoy games with quick small turns that build to something more grand (like the Mac Gerdts masterpiece Imperial).  The “scholarly article” was one of the first actions on the menu, stemming surely from my role as Editor-in-Chief of a law journal, and “gathering influence” quickly followed due to my early love for the quarry action in quirky, overlooked Maharaja: Palace Building in India.  I’ve also always had a special place in my heart for area control games like El Grande, San Marco, and Kreta, so I knew early on that one of the core aspects would be competing for area plurality on cases.

The other element that became central to the concept very early on was based on my love for games where you have to “spend money to make money,” with 2003 Z-Man classic Santiago being a prime example (and Knizia’s purest distillation Money! of course being another).  So from the very beginning, I wanted players to be able to spend their accumulated renown points to take more powerful actions.  I am terrible at spending precious resources in board games (hence this GeekList on my surfeit of self-destructive patience), so I wanted to challenge myself to overcome my inherently strong divestiture aversion.  The last piece of the early puzzle was the judicial philosophy track, which sprung in part from the Twilight Struggle score track, given how much I enjoyed its tense, zero-sum tug-of-war aspect.  With all of those pieces jotted down on a couple scraps of paper, I did the only sensible thing — I tucked them away and tried to forget about them for the next several years.  After all, I enjoyed playing other people’s published games too much, and didn’t think that I had the patience to repeatedly hammer away at this idea.  Plus, surely someone else would make a Supreme Court game that I could simply play and enjoy instead!

After a few years of leaving the idea literally on a shelf, I moved to a new apartment, and stumbled upon those old scraps of paper when packing and moving.  I promptly put the half-legible notes safely back on a new shelf in my new home, but my brain was not so easily appeased.  I started daydreaming more and more about the idea for the game throughout 2018, and then lightning struck when I saw a New York Times article about Elizabeth Hargrave in March 2019.  I was so inspired by her story that I promptly went to the store and bought poster board and index cards.  This was honestly one of the most daunting steps of all because it felt like crossing a threshold in finally moving the bulk of the game out of my head and into the real world.  I dug out those faded scraps of paper, and I finally put sharpie to paper by making a board and a stack of cards.  I played what was then jokingly called “Supreme Justice” with some very selfless and generous friends a couple times that month, if you could call it “playing” what was barely a game.  These tests quickly resulted in the addition of a reverse Showmanager slide with the cost of advocating on cases increasing the longer that a case card has been around, inspired of course by my many, many plays of Through the Ages.

I decided to quickly iterate on the design so that I could bring it to the Gathering of Friends in April 2019 with a modicum of self-respect.  I expected — maybe hoped — that the game would flop at the Gathering, and I could finally put it to rest.  But much to my surprise, it got a very warm reception, resulting in a ton of encouragement and even more good ideas for improving the game.  I came home from the Gathering truly energized!  Over the next few months, I ended up playing the constantly evolving prototype dozens of times with a wide variety of people across Washington, DC and northern Virginia.  Most of these playtesters were not lawyers, and the game is certainly intended for all.  The “Break My Game” event at Labyrinth game store was particularly helpful (even if I was dumbfounded by all the people wanting to get on the non-existent mailing list for the game).  As a result, I added goal cards to the game to differentiate players’ starting positions, inspired in part by Troyes and Terraforming Mars.  I started researching actual Supreme Court Justices and cases to drastically improve the historical accuracy beyond my own recollections from law school.  I moved from index cards to actual printed playing cards.  But the best idea that emerged at this time was by far the simplest, which was to dramatically shorten the judicial philosophy tracks to make the game more dynamic, exciting, and interactive.  This seemingly small change made a world of difference in how people played and enjoyed the game.

By late 2019, I felt ready to pitch Jason Matthews on the idea.  It was almost a decade after we had first discussed it, but I finally had something that I thought was worth running by him.  To my delight, not only did Jason enjoy the game and find that it addressed his years-old ambition, but also he had incredibly good ideas for further improving the design.  Jason agreed to sign on as the game’s developer.  He wanted to see the game succeed and come to life in the real world (which was never something that I really thought possible).  First and foremost, Jason suggested that player influence follow Justices when they are appointed to the Bench, which I had never considered, and which really elevated the game to a new level by creating a multi-layered and ever-changing area control tapestry.  Then he suggested that we thread player actions to reduce downtime, rather than having players successively take three actions all at once.  This was another one of those obvious-in-hindsight changes that significantly improved the pace and flow of the experience.  Not least of all, Jason seemed to take a special joy in coming up with dozens upon dozens of potential titles for the long-unnamed Supreme Court game.

In 2020, I was of course extremely excited to bring the much-revised prototype back to the Gathering of Friends, and I was dismayed when the convention was canceled due to the pandemic.  This is obviously one of the tiniest personal losses inflicted by the true devastation wrought by the disease, but it was disheartening nonetheless after a year of work to prepare for pitching the game to publishers at the Gathering.  But then Jason introduced me to Kevin Bertram of Fort Circle Games, and he has very quickly stepped up to help me make some incredible lemonade from these lemons.  I’m beyond excited to be able to share First Monday in October with more people, and I anxiously hope that others enjoy it as much as I do.

I guess all these years later we’ve ended up with a historical card-driven strategy game about the history of the Supreme Court that is inspired variously by Twilight Struggle, 1989, Through the Ages, El Grande, Santiago, Maharaja, Tigris & Euphrates, Stephensons Rocket, and probably dozens of other board games that I’ve internalized and made an amalgam of over the years.  Having played upwards of 1,700 different board games, and having grown to love games with a narrative arc, I’ve continued to develop this prototype first and foremost to be something that I would personally enjoy.  There was no other way to convince myself or others to play it so many times, when my shelves are literally overflowing with an abundance of great games.  I think we’ve landed (and I say we because so many people contributed to this design along the way) in a place that I was always aiming for without realizing it.  The game has become one of those “knife fight in a phone booth” games where you feel pulled in many directions, always have more that you want to do than you can do (yes, I’m looking at you Princes of Florence), and where things are routinely decided by razor-thin margins.  While the theme very much came first and is embedded in the core DNA of the game, I like to think that the underlying mechanisms have been refined to the point where they will resonate with anyone that enjoys Through the Ages, Terraforming Mars, El Grande, or Twilight Struggle.  While Jason has always wanted to ensure that this is a historical game, I’m a eurogamer at heart and the urge to balance is strong with this one.  If I’ve accomplished anything, it’s that you won’t have to warn your friends about cards like De Gaulle or Nasser before you start playing First Monday in October.

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7 Responses to Designer Diary: First Monday in October

  1. rprasadusa says:

    Sounds great, looking forward to playing it some day!

    Funnily enough, I like the idea of those 200+ year old think tanks. Way back when I used to teach T&E, I always thought of the players that way, sort of. Before there were Freemasons and The Secret Society of Skulls, there were the Lions and Bulls, Archers and Gatherers (Urn), secret societies scattered throughout the ancient kingdoms pulling the puppet strings of the various kings and clergy etc!

    • Talia Rosen says:

      Thanks so much! I’ve played T&E over 100 times, but I’ve never thought of that before. I love your conception of the player roles in T&E :)

  2. toucanas says:

    Sounds totally exciting! Can’t wait.
    Will recent SC justices (RBG!?) be featured as well?

  3. Hooray, congrats Talia! Thanks for sharing the story, and it sounds like a fascinating game.

  4. Talia Rosen says:

    I can’t believe I forgot to mention Founding Fathers above! That was definitely another inspiration for my design, mostly because I wanted to do one thing very differently. I played Founding Fathers four times back in 2010-2011, and I enjoyed it, but I found myself wishing that the outcome of the “articles” (i.e., historical side vs. ahistorical side) had some more unique or specific impact, rather than just the different faction symbol. If Article X, Section Y came out one way versus another, I wanted that to change the rules or subsequent game experience in some way that related to those historical vs. ahistorical outcomes.

    That’s why the game actually changes a bit in First Monday in October if McCulloch wins or if Maryland wins, and if Hammer wins or if Dagenhart wins, etc. Each party in each case has a different specific effect related in some way to the history of the case if it wins or loses, with certain ahistorical effects being particularly large, such as Korematsu winning.

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