Until 2020, I never would have imagined that I would be co-designing a board game – much less one about medieval India. After all, I’ve lived in the US for most of my life. And my day job has me applying mathematics to study problems in fluid mechanics and biology. But the pandemic brought far too little time in person with other people and far too much time on computer screens. So in a bizarre turn of events, this is exactly what I did.

I have always loved games. I am particularly fond of the kind of strategic thinking needed to play games like chess but I am increasingly drawn to games that evoke different dimensions of emotional experience. Gambling and deduction games can stir up nervous sensations, while party games can draw out laughter and joy. A few years ago, I happened upon a world of games that I had never known about but that I would come to treasure: historical board games.

Historical board games offer an interactive experience. They invite us to step into the shoes of historical figures or to navigate the intricate web of political, economic, and military conflicts that have defined human civilisation.

An early revelation for me along this path was to see a critical betrayal in the year 1600, which would change the course of Japanese history, expressed through elegant card play (in “Sekigahara” by Matt Calkins).

In my professional life, I most enjoy using mathematics to describe phenomena in the real world, from the swimming of microorganisms through complex biofluids, to the levitation and dynamics of bodies in carbonated fluids. This quest to find and examine the most important features governing a physical process – the rules by which nature seems to be playing – mirrors the quest of historical game designers to model the currents of history.

Due to these parallels, I knew that someday I would have to try my hand at design. In old age, perhaps. But in the autumn of 2020, with the Covid pandemic raging and my isolation growing, I really needed to try something new to keep my spirits high. As much as I feel bound to the mathematical pursuit of truth and understanding of the physical world, historical games provided for me a much needed escape in both space and time.

So in October of 2020, I participated in a game design contest. In three days, I and three other would-be designers that I had only briefly met online, Mathieu Johnson, Cory Graham, and Aman Matthews, developed a prototype for a game. The contest tasked us with recycling the parts of a previous game among games in the “COIN series”, originally developed by prominent designer Volko Ruhnke.

My interest in Indian history had recently been rekindled by a game depicting the departure of the British Raj in the 1940s (Bruce Mansfield’s “Gandhi”). The interactive nature of historical games can leave a lasting impression and spark an interest in learning more about the topic by other means.

In the early hours of the contest, I became certain that others would enjoy, as I had, delving into a region and time essentially untouched in the space of historical games: the tumultuous period leading to the collapse of the Delhi Sultanate in the 14th century, and the rise of two upstart kingdoms, the Bahmani Kingdom and the Vijayanagara Empire, in the Deccan Plateau.

Every new book and passage that I devoured on this period spun an enthralling tale. A future Tughlaq sultan dismantling the Kakatiya Empire in Warangal for lapsed tributary payment, the Nayaka warrior kings rising up from its embers, rebellion against Delhi by the future Bahmani ruler, with cavalry sent by the Raja of Telangana, the Hare and the Hounds foundational myth – epic, sweeping narratives at every turn. A real historical Game of Thrones.

The rest of the team was on board for the adventure, and we worked tirelessly to develop a robust model for the game which would become “Vijayanagara: the Deccan Empires of Medieval India”. The design won the competition.

Courtesy Scott Mansfield.

Little did we know then that a journey of just over three years was still ahead of us, and that I would be spending countless late nights with Mathieu Johnson in particular, but also a huge number of playtesters and other experts, to polish the game.

Were we creating interesting decisions? Were the levers given to the players evoking the desired narrative roles? Was the game balanced? Fair? Playtesters are critical for answering these questions. We were fortunate to have very many dedicated ones.

Designing the game offered me a chance not only to learn new parts of our past but also to question my existing beliefs. The game is based in large part on the work of historians like Richard Eaton, but also on popular works by authors like Manu Pillai and Anirudh Kanisetti, who have helped to paint a rich and dynamic imagery of the 14th-century Deccan and the centuries before. A historical consultant, Professor Aparna Kapadia, provided guidance for research and helped us with some artistic choices.

Although subtle, I could not help but to pay homage to India’s mathematical heritage in the game. One card that appears is a nod to the Kerala School of Mathematics and Astronomy, a school that dates back to Madhava of Sangamagrama in the 14th century. This school would produce some of the most advanced mathematical insights in the medieval world.

Aadu-Huli aata, the traditional Goat-Tiger game, also makes an appearance as a tie-breaker. It is a quiet link to ancient asymmetric games, their boards etched into the walls of temples in Hampi, evidence of our human love of games and play across the millenia.

Courtesy Scott Mansfield.

The human connection that I longed for in 2020 I found in collaborative game design. The construction of a model, and exploration of its emergent properties, was deeply satisfying; so too was the chance to strike different notes of emotion and nudge different player interactions with our design choices.

We watched hundreds of playtests online during those years. Hearing people laugh and curse and try out new clever strategies, leading to a meaningful engagement with known history, was immensely gratifying, and gave me a much-needed sense of community again.

The coming weeks will see the game even reaching the Deccan. For me, this is almost unimaginable and fills me with joy and gratitude for the many people who were involved in the creation, testing, and production of “Vijayanagara”. The world awaits with great interest new designs on this historical period, from Indian designers in particular.

“Vijayanagara: The Deccan Empires of Medieval India, 1290-1398” was designed by Saverio Spagnolie, Mathieu Johnson, Cory Graham, and Aman Matthews, and developed by Joe Dewhurst.

More details and articles about the game may be found on the GMT Games website.