GenCon is a magical place. Thousands of game fans flock to Indianapolis each August to wait in long lines for the year’s big releases. There’s huge amounts of buzz leading up to the show with most bloggers posting “What to Look For” lists and news sites covering all the major new releases. When standing in the crowd outside the hall as the doors are about to open, the fervor of the crowd is palpable. Listening to the mumbling you’ll hear all sorts of recommendations, lamentations, and hopes. Gamers have waited for this magical moment for 361 days and when those doors open, the wave of bodies is simultaneously exciting and terrifying.
I stay out of that crowd. GenCon for me is more about the experience and less about standing in line for hours to grab up one of the few limited copies of that next big game. I have no problem waiting a few months to purchase this years hot titles in my local store. This year, however, I had a list. There were five games I wanted to check out. Four of them turned out to be disappointing… then there’s The Little Prince.
Every single GenCon “must have” list I saw contained at least three titles from Antoine Bauza. He has a great deal of faithful fans, but Hanabi really put him over the top this year. Everyone was salivating to get their hands on Bauza games… and I can’t blame them. I wouldn’t consider myself a fanboy, but the guy is awesome and his design philosophy seems to mirror my own: simple turns, with very few decisions, but make those decisions extremely difficult. When I looked at the preview articles for The Little Prince, it seemed to fit that bill perfectly while also appearing as a game I could play with my children… so, I added it to my list. I’m extremely happy that I did. I think the theme is throwing people off on this game… assuming it’s for children. Trust me, while children may be able to play this game, this is NOT a children’s game.
I didn’t rush to the booth to buy it right out of the gate… mostly because I wasn’t really sure where it would be. I didn’t know that Game Salute was in the business of importing games, so when I wandered by the pile of The Little Prince, it was a happy mistake. I promptly asked for a demo and was mostly sold before my teacher got through the explanation. It only took a few turns for me to see that this was an instant buy.
Would you be surprised if I told you that this Antoine Bauza game involbes set collection which is facilitated through drafting? Didn’t think so. This is a tried-and-true Bauza staple and I absolutely love it. How it is executed in The Little Prince is unique, however, and that’s what makes it stand out for me.
To start the game, the tiles are separated by type into four separate piles. The goal is to make a little planet which is made up of 12 tiles: four inside pieces, four rising curves, and four falling curves. Now, in truth, the shape and design of the planet has absolutely no impact on the game… but it’s cute, fun, and tactile which is great for the younger audience. You could just draft tiles and leave them face-up in front of you however you wish, but the Little Prince would be disappointed in your lack of imagination.
These tiles have an assortment of various symbols on them which will be used for scoring. Some things are good… others aren’t so much. The only universally bad symbol is the Volcanoes because the player with the most at the end of the game loses some points. We grab up these tiles with a sort of unique drafting mechanism.
Pick a player to go first. That player picks a stack of tiles and flips over 1 per player (all from the same stack!), then selects one for themselves. Then, they must choose who drafts next! After all players have drafted (with the last person getting whatever is left), the last player gets to go first in the next round.
I love this unique style of drafting because it allows for some exceptionally devious alliances to be formed. There are bad tiles (like the previously mentioned volcanoes) that I’ll cover a bit later, and sticking someone with these can really devastate their score. Organizing who has to take it through draft-order-selection dumps a whole ton of diplomacy into a very simple decision. I don’t think I’ve ever drafted draft order before.
With two, it’s a little different. One player goes first, then turns alternate. The active player chooses a stack and picks up three tiles, hiding them from their opponent. They then place one tile face-down and the other two face-up. Their opponent then chooses a tile and the active player takes on from the remaining two.
This variant plays great. It’s not a diplomatic slug-fest, but rather a more subtle mind-game. I absolutely love every game where I get to mess with my opponents and this works great when it’s head-to-head. Hiding a good tile face down early on will leave your opponent wondering each turn whether or not to take that mystery. It’s a wonderful little mind game.
So far, you’re just grabbing up tiles and collecting sets because that’s what I told you this game is all about… right? Well, it’s not just that. If you were keeping score, I told you that there were four stacks of tiles, but only three types of planet tiles… that means there’s an extra stack… and this stack contains the magic:
Scoring in this game is asymmetric because we draft our own unique scoring rules!
The last stack of tiles is the characters mentioned by the Little Prince in the children’s tale. There’s the Turkish Astronomer which scores for each star you have… the Hunter which scores for different types of animals… the Drunkard which scores when you screw up… and even the Little Prince which scores for each type of sheep you have. There are 11 different characters in total with quite a few doubles, so scoring is extremely varied between games.
The great part about drafting your scoring mechanisms is that it opens up another decision point: do I choose to start the game by drafting characters first or do I start assembling my planet and draft characters later? This decision impacts the entire game because if players know too soon what you are after, they are less likely to accommodate you. If you can sneak in the character that’s worth 15 points near the end, chances are, you’ll get to score big.
The game ends once all players have completed their planet (16 rounds, because that’s how many tiles you’ll draft) and we total scores. The player with the most points wins. Simple.
I did mention the bad tiles, right? Okay… I left them for last because I needed to explain the whole system first to help it make sense. The “bad” tiles aren’t really entirely bad. In fact, some of the highest scoring symbols are only on the “bad” tiles… but if you get too many bad tiles, you can get wrecked. You see, in the children’s tale, the baobab trees are really bad for the prince. They grow quickly and can completely cover a planet or even break it into pieces with their strong roots. They are similarly bad in the game: if a player drafts a third baobab tree, all tiles which contain a baobab tree on that player’s planet must be flipped face-down! You lose the scoring symbols on all of those tiles!
These devious little buggers really bring the game to life. They are the root (I went there) of most of the diplomatic back-stabbing that takes place during the drafting rounds. If you can manage to end the game with only one or two baobab trees, there are some high-scoring character options for you… but if you get that third… ouch. The Drunkard can help you but there’s only one in the stack and he doesn’t score all that well.
What about Bruno?
Okay… one thing I didn’t mention earlier is that this game is a co-design between Antoine Bauza and Bruno Cathala. The reason is… well… both designers mentioned to me that the game was mostly Antoine’s creation. Bruno simply applied the magic fix. When I stumbled into the booth to buy the game, I was exceptionally lucky. Bruno was there demoing another game and I was able to speak with him briefly. He is a very warm guy who was more than accommodating to my awkwardness. When I complemented him on the excellent design his response was simply:
It’s all Antoine. I just fixed it.
So, that’s where my understanding of Bruno’s contribution stopped before talking to Antoine. Unfortunately, Bruno was busy with another demo (for BGG!) and I didn’t want to take up all his time asking questions.
Meeting Mr. Bauza
There was an entire adventure surrounding the tale of how I came to meet Antoine, but that’s not important. What is important is that I interrupted a signing session for a different game to talk to him about The Little Prince (I asked the publishers permission of course!) For the curious, he is an exceedingly nice Frenchman. I asked him quite a few questions… things that I’m sure he’s not used to being asked… and he offered up answers without hesitation. When asked if I could continue the interview via email, he quickly obliged and we shared email addresses. I could tell that he was simply astounded at his popularity in America and was overwhelmed by the attention he was receiving. As a game designer, it was honestly exciting to watch. He greeted each and every person warmly and signed their games with a little extra flair each time.
My biggest curiosity, and my first question, was what Bruno had meant that “he just fixed it.” I’ve worked with other designers in the past… but I’m not exactly a veteran at it and I’m curious to know how other “teams” work together. At GenCon Antoine mentioned that the game was originally designed to use round cards. The game he quickly described sounded very much like 7 Wonders, but with a unique choose-your-own-order draft mechanic, and without the ability to draft scoring mechanisms that really makes this game stand out. He mentioned that it just felt too “normal” and he wanted something a little more exciting. He had been working on the game for 4 or 5 months at this point before decided to pass it on to Bruno. So, I asked him about the fix:
Bruno is too modest. He is the one who came with the perfect solution when we were stuck with our game design.
Anyway, the rules were quite the same but there was only one deck, with round cards, each card figured a planet. The draft was quite the same: you choose, then you decide who goes after you, and the last to choose goes first on the next round.
There was 3 identical rounds : 6 planets, scoring, 6 planets, scoring, 6 planets scoring, endgame.
The rhythm was no good… we wanted to play only one big round with one scoring but we cannot put 18 round planets around a Sun (oh, there was a sun for each player. Planets went around the sun.)
I skipped ahead here. At GenCon, Antoine mentioned to me that Bruno’s revelation was to make the the game about building a single round planet out of tiles instead of drafting a bunch of individual round planets. I love the idea that this seemingly tiny presentation change drove the direction and mechanics of the game. The theme fell into place almost immediately after Bruno’s fix. The Little Prince is a well known children’s book in France and it had many elements that fit their mechanics almost perfectly… especially the scoring:
The draft was here at the beginning, the 4 scoring character arrived when we decided to work on the Little Prince. We had to put the book’s character on the table, and we had 4 corner tiles to exploit.
You see… scoring was static in the first version of the game. All players had the same goals (much like other Bauza drafting games) and the unique aspect was to be able to “assign” the draft order. In fact, the first version of the game wasn’t about the Little Prince at all:
The first prototype was not about the Little Prince, but about Super Mario Bros, because I found nice artwork to put on the planets…
I found this awesome little tidbit to be particularly interesting. I absolutely love the Super Mario Galaxy series of games… as a designer, I see a ton of exploitable mechanics in there… but I struggle to find anything that would inspire me with a unique scoring component. Changing to The Little Prince provides perfect scoring mechanisms as the various characters in the story were interested in vastly different things… and it was only 2 weeks after Bruno’s suggestion that the game came together:
Sometimes, you just know you found the right idea / solution !
Here, the gameplay is very straight and didn’t take too long to tune out.
The long and difficult part is the path who lead to this spark : the right idea / solution
It’s great when it happens but there are many time it doesn’t work… and as many unfinished prototypes forgotten in the shelves, cover in dust…
We all have tons of those… right? I do. Seriously… I need a Bruno. I wondered about the relationship between them. I’ve only recently begun participating in design-swaps or even just playtesing with design peers. On this, Antoine gives some excellent insight:
Game designers are usually great playtesters and come up with rich feedback.
He’s right, you know. If you haven’t made an effort to get to a Protospiel or Unpub event, you need to make the next one. Seriously. The quality of testing at these events is amazing. I don’t want to sound like I’m discrediting the feedback of random playtesters. I’m not… but the quality of the feedback presented by other designers is astounding. Sometimes game players just don’t know how to convey their suggestions and feelings properly. Being a good playtester is a skill. Designers are inherently good playtesters because they are able to look at the game from a different perspective and provide insight into things that regular players might just miss. It’s hard to explain. You just need to experience it.
This game is awesome. I played it about 15 times on the first day I bought it. Games can go pretty quick when all players know what’s up. Almost everyone I showed it to went and bought the game. I think that’s a pretty strong testament. If you like games that offer very few decisions, but pack a ton of complexity into those decisions, you’ll enjoy The Little Prince. It feels a lot like other Bauza drafting games but includes a few unique twists that help it stand out. I think the game would be rather dull if it weren’t for drafting the scoring tiles… and we have Bruno to thank for that.
Most of the people I showed the game too mentioned that they would have passed on the game based on shelf-appeal alone. It looks like a children’s game… and it can be played that way. If you are playing that way, however, you’re doing it wrong. This game is cutthroat and devious. It involves timing and slyness. If you enjoy manipulating your friends, you’ll enjoy The Little Prince.
cheveedodd.com is not a review site. I am not a reviewer. I am not interested in being solicited. I write these design reviews when I find inspiration in games that I have purchased or played. I am always open to helping designers work on their projects, and this includes playtesting, rules review, design discussions, and providing feedback… but please do not write to me hoping that I’ll include your game in a post on my site.