Tribute, the Precursor to Dune and Borderlands

by Jack Kittredge

In the early 1970s I was part of a four-person game design group calling itself “Future Pastimes”. We were all men in our late twenties who loved board games and lived on or near Cape Cod, in Massachusetts. We gathered regularly to design new and better games than the ones we were familiar with. We came up with a number of designs, from abstract strategy games on geometrical boards to word games to games based on bluffing to ones themed on Westerns, principles of science, science fiction books and concepts, and apocryphal legends. 

Ultimately in 1977 we became the game publishing company Eon Products, and within 6 memorable years brought to market Cosmic Encounter, Borderlands, Quirks, Runes, Darkover, and Hoax. In addition we designed the game “Dune”, based on the Frank Herbert novel, published by Avalon Hill, as well as a half dozen other games for other companies.

Our early game “Tribute” was never published, but key design aspects were taken from that and became basic to the games Dune and Borderlands. 

In Tribute, players became governors of colonies of ancient Rome and competed to become Emperor, who could require tribute payments from the others. Vital resources were produced in the colonies. Some produced gold, some grain, and some men. Any player who could bring one of each of these resource tokens into a single territory could combine them to form a fighting legion -- men to fight, gold to pay them, and grain to feed them. 

Legions, in turn, could be used to fight for control of new territories, and ultimately Rome itself. The battle system was simple – the aggressor would bring one or more legions (plus loose resource tokens as baggage) to the border of an adjacent territory (or Rome itself, on the theory that “All Roads Lead to Rome”) held by another player. If that player had one or more legions there, he could defend with them. Each player had a ‘battle wheel’ on which he could dial the number of available legions he was committing to the attack. The wheels were revealed simultaneously. The player who dialed the higher number would win the battle and the territory or baggage resources. But each player also lost the number of legions he committed to the battle. The loser left the component resource parts of his lost legions as booty for the winner and withdrew any remaining legions to another of his territories. The winner loses his committed legions from the board, but gets the booty and any baggage of the loser. 

Many other simple rules made Tribute challenging and fun to play, but those two concepts – the territorial production of combinable resource tokens and the battle wheel mechanism for conflict – seemed to have the most potential. We used an altered resource token system quite successfully in our game Borderlands (later published by Electronic Arts as the computer game “Lords of Conquest” and by Fantasy Flight Games as “Gearworld the Borderlands”.

We used the battle wheel mechanism as a way to resolve conflict in “Dune”, later adapted to Fantasy Flight Games’ “Twilight Imperium Rex”. 

I guess you could say that a good idea will eventually become successful, even if it does so in ways that would surprise the original creators.  

The Emperor's Crown

by Bill Eberle

In our unpublished game Tribute, the Emperor’s Crown is a dramatic example of our appreciation for what we saw in the role playing games being played in the 1970s and 80s. Remember, if you didn’t experience it yourself, during the 1970s and 80s there was a renaissance in game design and exploration of the possibilities for game playing. Although neither Peter nor I ever found time to play role playing games, and I don’t think Jack did either, we all watched closely and admired the ideas and game elements and the new game environments that used human emotions to make players care about the games they were playing.

At Future Pastimes/Eon, Peter, Jack, and I were also designing games where players connected to game elements in new ways. Each game created different emotions and as designers we learned it was important for us to understand those emotions and use them in our designs. In some games we enhanced the game by giving players mechanisms, props and sometimes specific rules or even game play interactions that would give them permission to indulge and express the emotions they were feeling.

In Tribute, our rule requiring the Emperor to pick up the Emperor’s Crown, put it on, and wear it as long as he or she is Emperor, makes a big difference in how people feel about playing the game. It works! And it’s fun and funny.

The Emperor has the power to declare tribute, which must be paid by other players to the Emperor, and it’s natural to have feelings about having that power or about another player having that power. We wanted to enhance and have fun with those emotions and the simple addition of a cardboard Emperor’s Crown and a simple rule did just what we wanted it to do.

Another example of our admiration for role playing games is our board game Hoax, a tribute to, a spoof of, and a new idea about role playing games. Our design inspiration: What if you were a character with a special power in a game but no one knew which character everyone was playing and each player could pretend to be any other character in the game and use that character’s power to gain something useful, often from other players? The game Hoax is also a nod to the wonderful game of Poker and to our Cosmic Encounter® alien the Gambler. Bluffing and calling bluffs are very emotional, and very effective, game play activities.

When we started designing games, one of our goals was to create games that included a wider range of emotions than the games we were seeking to replace. A good game is a game where people laugh and have fun, and talk and interact a lot. One key to creating a good game is creating a game that enhances how players express their emotions and have fun with other people.

Tribute - The simplicity of complexity

by Peter Olotka

Here’s what struck me when I dredged the old Tribute prototype out of my archives.

First, I was stunned that we designed Tribute 40 years ago in 1973 - long before Cosmic Encounter was published. Cosmic was still in its infancy with the same six aliens in every game, day after day, month after month, year after year. Yet we never tired of playing it.

Second was the simplicity of the Tribute rules. Roughly 1600 words. They stand in stark relief to the massive BOOKLETS of today’s games crammed with detailed descriptions, fancy diagrams and pull outs, side notes, exceptions and more.

And speaking of more, a good design principle might be: "More is not always better".

Third was the simple physical creation of Legions by connecting basic elements as outlined in Jack Kittredge’s insightful comments:  “ to fight, gold to pay them, and grain to feed them.”  Again, the three pie pieces with a ring around them was simple and easy to understand. While realism is the coin of the realm in gaming today, a case could be made that realism overdone can get in the way playing.

Fourth was the Battle Wheel. This design was, I think, our best “simultaneous revelation” interaction.  The notion that you lose what you secretly commit, is fiercely powerful and the ability to adjust it at the last instant by changing the dial gets to the core of a players psyche. Panic can be a tough master. Hubris can be Panic's accomplice.

Fifth, Harass and Withdraw. Dial a 0 save your stuff and flee to an adjacent territory. It is such a simple play garnering barely a mention in the rules, because it’s an intuitive mechanic driven by the battle wheel dynamic. When both sides expect that one of the players will harass and withdraw, the opportunity to go light on the perceived stronger side is tempting, inviting desperation and trickery by the perceived losing side.

Sixth, the Roman Numerals. I look at it now as a rookie mistake. Who in their right mind would subject players to the XXVII? Have I mentioned how realism can get in the way of good gaming?  Yet, I still think that a cry of “Oh no! VEE ONE ONE Legions Arrrgghhh!” may still have place in my heart.

Seventh was the creation of a system that replicated an intensely complex struggle for ROME placing Cash and Cudgel on equal footing. It was accomplished with such minimal playing parts and minimal instruction that by default the player wound up feeling like the most important game element.

Eighth, the absence of luck. After the initial random assignment of locations, the players are left to their wits, reinforcing the “player as most important element” factor.

Ninth, the other games that we designed that incorporated elements of Tribute: DUNE, now REX: Gearworld: Darkover; HOAX. Pretty much all of our subsequent work in the Eon time period glommed onto parts of this one 1973 strategy game.  A pretty fair tribute to this design if you ask me.

And Tenth, the Emperor’s Crown. The only thing I can add to Bill Eberle’s spot-on write up is that wearing the crown changes meek mannered gamers into tyrants in ten seconds. The fact that the player “self-anoints” his or her self as Emperorheightens the rest of the players’ desires to wrest it from said head and do a little self anointing of their own.

Postscript: Fantasy Flight Games could do worse than publishing Tribute for the first time ever. As a tribute to the simplicity of complexity.