It was a cool, dark March night in the financial district of San Francisco. The club was also dark, but it was anything but cool.
I had come to the IGDA GDC party with a prototype of my own game, Corporate America, not quite realizing yet that playtesting it in party scenarios like this one was just asking for trouble. Of course, once I got to the basement, dominated by its dance floor and accompanying music, where board gamers were squeezed into tiny, dimly lit booths, I gave up on playing Corporate America almost immediately. By that point, I was focused on simply finding a spot to play any game–after all, I definitely wasn’t there to dance.
I managed to find a nearly empty table and sat down, soon to find out why it was empty: the already dim lighting was made worse by a dead bulb directly above us. Thundering atmospheric noise and almost total darkness–my hope of playing a game was not looking good. Thankfully, I discovered that the game at our table was Incan Gold (the American version of Diamant), and the evening was saved.
Diamant is a beautifully simple game designed by Bruno Faidutti and Alan Moon.
In Diamant, players take on the roles of spelunking treasure seekers delving into abandoned mines to get rich. Over the course of a game, players will explore a set number of mines. Each mine consists of a series of tiles, each containing either a set amount of treasure or a threat. When the second copy of a threat is revealed in the mine (for example, you’ve seen two snakes), everyone still in the mine is out for the round and gets no treasure.
But players can leave whenever they want–in fact, that is the only choice a player can make. After each tile is revealed, everyone secretly decides whether to leave or not. Players who choose to leave divvy up the treasure discovered so far amongst themselves on their way out. So, leaving with other people will greatly reduce your treasure haul, but the mine gets more dangerous the farther you venture into it.
Diamant is a simple push your luck game, but its few interactions add incredible depth to such a quick and easy experience. Players only have a single yes or no choice to make in the game (which they make over and over), but each time the outcomes vary considerably and are never certain. You may only be saying “stay” or “leave”, but each choice feels fresh and interesting. And because the outcomes are largely determined by what the other players choose to do, the game never feels unfair.
Sometimes, you’ll want to make a quick getaway, leaving early with a moderate amount of treasure. If you flee without anyone joining you, you’ll force everyone else to start from ground zero deeper in the mine when it’s more likely that they’ll encounter that second threat.
But for the truly brave, staying until everyone else leaves means you get to keep as much treasure as you want… assuming you don’t push your luck too much and turn away with nothing.
Even when not playing chicken with the other players, a little probability comes into play, keeping things interesting. After a pair of threats ends a round, one of those threats is removed from the deck, making that particular threat less likely to end future trips into the mine. This slightly slightly lengthens later trips (on average), making the mines toward the end of the game likely to be worth a little more. This acts as a way to increase the stakes and tension as the game nears its end.
Diamant makes good use of hidden victory points (something I found very useful when developing Corporate America). While the most cut throat amongst us can definitely keep track of everyone’s riches, most players will remain blissfully ignorant, having fun with every decision without worrying about playing optimally.
All this depth… from one choice. The decision doesn’t even require communicating with words! You can make the choice by selecting one of two cards, or by secretly revealing if your meeple is in your hand or not (the European and American versions differ here).
And even more impressively, all play is simultaneous, keeping the game moving at a rapid pace with very little down time. All this for a game that can handle up to 8 players… truly, Diamant must be the ultimate noisy environment game.
The Night is Saved
My experience with Diamant that fateful night (the only time the headlamp I always carry with me came in handy in the middle of a city) not only opened my eyes to a game that might be the dictionary definition of elegance. It made me realize how important it is to consider the environment in which a game is played. I doubt Faidutti and Moon planned for their game to be played in a dark and noisy dance club in the middle of San Francisco, but their minimalist design allowed their game to save an otherwise hopeless situation.
Diamant isn’t the game to end all games. It is quick and simple with few moving parts. Heck, it inspired probably my shortest blog post ever. But it is definitely worth checking out. Doing so much with so little is something few game designers can pull off. Even if your games are complex epics, you should see how much can be packed into such a tiny package.