Designer Diary: From Kigi to Kodama

Hello! I'm Daniel Solis, the designer of Kodama: the Tree Spirits, but really it's been a team effort with strong direction and development from Travis R. Chance and Nick Little at Action Phase Games. This is a brief history of how the game came to be.

Early Days
Kodama: the Tree Spirits began as another game I self-published called Kigi, released as a print-on-demand game in late 2014. Since then, it's licensed and translated in Japan, China, Poland, and Germany. It's a pretty big hit by any measure of POD success.

Action Phase Games approached me several months later with a clear enthusiasm for the core mechanics of the game. They had just as much enthusiasm for developing and overhauling everything else about the game, too. I was cautious at first. "After all," I thought, "Kigi is such a hit everywhere else until now, why change things?"

Well, a day or two later, Travis R. Chance and Nick Little came back to me having already played the game about a dozen times. They suggested a lot of interesting tweaks and critiques that really took the heart of what made Kigi work and gave it a whole new perspective. From there, I knew I wanted to work with a publisher that passionate and that quick with their development cycle. So I signed on and Kigi finally had an American publisher!

Since then, Action Phase has taken a strong lead in further development, until it eventually became a whole new game we're calling Kodama: the Tree Spirits.

New Theme, New World
First and foremost, Kodama is far more thematic than Kigi. We are strongly influenced by Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away and the classic video game franchise Legend of Zelda. We wanted to tap a little more deeply into an ecological theme as well. After all, it's fun to see how the trees grow and expand across the table as you play, but we wanted to put players in more of a literal caretaker role as the forests expand.

But why are you growing trees? In Kigi, you're an artist hired to paint a mural, but that didn't have enough story or character behind it. We wanted this new game to present a more urgent need to grow these trees. It needed a stronger emotional hook. So we looked back at the original Japanese art inspiration for Kigi and sought out some other motivation for play.

That's where the Kodama came in.

Who are the Kodama?
Kodama are the tree spirits of Japanese folklore. In our game, they're looking for trees to call their new home. Players are human caretakers for these tree-homes, cultivating their branches over three seasons of supernaturally fast growth. (If you recall the scene from My Neighbor Totoro where Totoro and friends grow an enormous tree overnight, you'll know what we mean.)

In Kigi, the players are artists painting trees who score bonus points for completing "Commissions," at the end of the game. Most of the time these were binary conditions like having the most or least of a particular feature on your tree compared to other player's trees. These were too all-or-nothing for the new theme, so we completely overhauled those to a new list of bonus conditions.

The new conditions scale according to how well you achieve certain combinations of features or branch formations, rather than being purely binary. We found these more granular conditions scaled very well and kept the gameplay much more interesting. These Commissions were renamed Kodama, because you're essentially being rewarded for how well you accommodate the particular desires of each tree spirit.

Once we settled on Kodama being so important to the gameplay, it was time to bring them to life in art. Scott Hartman directed Kwanchai Moriya to develop very cute characters that would tap into the players' compassionate and protective instincts. Look at these little Kodama, don't you just want to hug 'em? We wanted to make them very cuddly while still having a sort of mystical nature that is quite obvious at first glance. I think Scott Hartman and Kwanchai Moriya really hit it out of the park here.

Endless Growth
One of the core mechanics of Kigi called for players to prune branches after they reached a certain length. As a result, some emergent play patterns encouraged players to focus on one single branch and then prune it from an opponent's tree before they could score on it any further. This is a fine mechanic if you're trying to model competitive artists vying for lucrative commissions, but it didn't feel appropriate for this new theme.

I'm never one to shy away from wholesale changes to core mechanics, so I proposed completely removing pruning as a mechanic. What would happen if you absolutely had to keep growing your tree? We realized that if we removed pruning entirely, it would create a very different spatial puzzle. Suddenly you're more worried about being able to optimally place your own cards on your tree rather than attacking anyone else's.

This also had the added bonus of removing one of the major pitfalls of Kigi, an endgame state where only one or two players had any kind of foliage while everyone else had barrent stumps. Now when you play a full game of Kigi, you'll end with these enormous verdant trees worthy of any tree spirit!

Changing Seasons
In Kigi, you play through the whole deck of branch cards once through. I wasn't really concerned with keeping turn orders balanced since the Commissions were blended into the branch cards. On any turn, depending on which cards emerged from the branch deck, you had to decide whether to pursue the high-risk/high-reward of Commissions or take the incremental short-term gains of a branch card.

In Kodama, Action Phase wanted to do two things: Ensure each player has an equal number of turns and make Kodama scoring happen more frequently in the middle of the game as well as at the end. The solution to both goals was dividing the entirety of game play into three seasons: Spring, Summer, and Fall.

Within each season, each player has an equal number of turns and the season ends after a set number of rounds in which each player has had one turn. We removed the Kodama from the branch deck as well, instead dealing a hand of Kodama cards to each player at the beginning of the game as part of the setup. This allowed players to focus on their spatial puzzles and short-term scoring for a few turns before they all reached the end of the season at the same time.

When a season ends, each player must choose only one Kodama to move into that tree, thus scoring points according to that Kodama's preferences. Choosing which Kodama to score is very important, as almost all of them score big points if you wait until the end of the game to score them. Choosing which one you'll score earlier is a tough call and makes for a fun long-term challenge.

At the start of a new season, players have a slightly new variation on normal play, to emulate the changing natural environment from season to season. These changes are small, but just enough to make you re-evaluate how you grow your tree.

More Changes
Those were the biggest changes between Kigi and Kodama: the Tree Spirits, but there were numerous other smaller changes that popped up in the development process.

We changed the art style to a night-time scene, because we thought that was a much more mysterious and magical time to depict. All of the features on the trees were changed to nocturnal counterparts, but still keeping the overall natural theme where possible. We have three air borne features: Stars, Clouds, and Fireflies. We also have three tree-dwelling features: Flowers, Mushrooms, and Caterpillars.

We added a sixth feature to Kodama so that the branch deck could be bigger and we could slow down the scoring opportunities just a little bit and keep overall scores down to around 100 or so. That sixth feature necessitated re-evaluating the distributions of all the features throughout the deck, adjusting how frequently each combination of features would appear.

One of the last changes we made from Kigi is removing the ability to play a branch card on an opponent's tree. We did this mainly so that it would reduce the analysis paralysis that would sometimes happen during Kigi, where players could have dozens of (literally) branching options for scoring. This also ensured each player's tree would be the same size at the end of the game which felt a little more fair for all involved.

Aside from those changes, Action Phase also added several new components to the game, including score boards, tons of new art, and several new play pieces that might be upgraded in deluxe editions or stretch goals.

And that just about wraps it up! I hope that clears up any questions. For fans of Kigi, I think you'll find some really interesting new ideas in Kodama that let it stand on its own terms. Aside from the branch-growing mechanic, it really is a whole new game with lovely art and smart design choices. I hope you'll support the Kickstarter campaign on October 13th 2015 and watch Kodama: the Tree Spirits grow!


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