The First Tsar: Ivan the Terrible

Economic Strategy in Historical Setting

Hey everyone and welcome back to our Game Creation series.

Recently we’ve announced a new economic strategy game The First Tsar: Ivan the Terrible from Stan Kordonsky, the designer of Rurik. The game is now being presented to the international market, and will be displayed at Gen Con and Essen Spiel this year.

The producer of the game, Petr Tyulenev, told us a lot about the game’s development, its features and historical setting.

Where did the game come from?

In May 2019, there came an email from Stan Kordonsky, in which he suggested to watch a video presentation of the game. Stan lives in the USA, but he has soviet roots and has a big interest towards Russian history. It was in 2019 when he launched the game Rurik on Kickstarter, which has been released in Russia by Hobby World afterwards.

So The First Tsar looked like a Rurik’s sequel – a big economic strategy game about Russian history.

Stan wanted to release the game through a Russian publisher, so he offered it to us. Our developing studio looked at the prototype, playtested it, made some corrections and signed the game in the Fall of 2019 – the time when it was already known that we’re going to publish his other two games: Rurik and Lockup.

From the moment it was signed till its official release there had been 3 years.

What makes The First Tsar different from other euro games?

The producer of our studio, Petr, thinks that the game stands out because of several things:

Firstly, it’s pretty limiting in terms of actions, resources and choice. You have a limited amount of opportunities: there are only 3 actions per round, 4 rounds, which means you have only 12 actions in total, and you need to gain maximum out of them.

Secondly, though the game doesn’t provoke conflict, it is quite competitive. You always need to be only a step ahead the other players, because if you take a major lead in one aspect, you will fall behind on the other and won’t be able to win. So you need to find this balance between being the first, but not move ahead too far.


As a rule, euro games are set in a more or less particular period of history: for instance, “Bruges” – at the times of cultural and commerce progress of Bruges.

Here, the setting was originally suggested by the game designer. We decided that it was a great choice, because on one hand, it’s the Rurik’s sequel, on the other hand, it is a well-known historical period of Russian history. And it is quite known outside of Russia too.

The general flow of the game is quite competitive, but there is no direct conflict and it perfectly aligns with the situation in the country at the time of Ivan the Terrible’s reign. There is tsar and all the others who cannot claim his throne.

A great reflection of that in the game is the Tsar’s Favor track.

Game Development

The track hasn’t always looked like it does now. In one of the early prototypes it was a track from 0 to 10. Players moved further on the track and when someone went much farther than the others it was easier for them to stay on top. Now this track works better both mechanically and thematically, because it reflects how Tsar’s opinion could change on a whim. Once you’ve gained Tsar’s favor – you are immediately on top of things, you don’t need to slowly crawl to the top.

Another feature of the game is that it does not impose limits on the amount of resources or cards that you can have. These limitations are created themselves just by making you choose what to receive at a certain point.

Initially, Kordonsky included these limits. For instance, you could have only 5 resources of the same type, and then you had to discard the rest. But after playtesting it became clear that there was no need in including this in the rules, because the game managed this naturally. There was no point in making people remember how much of what they could have.


Tsar’s appearance

If you try to look for any images of Ivan the Terrible, you’ll find out that there are no actual images of him. There is only one image that was created during the tsar’s life, and it is not even a painted, but an imprinted portrait from the “Acts and Epistles of the Apostles” of 1564.

The world-known images of the tsar – such as the paintings by Repin, Vasnetsov and others – are imaginations of the 19th century, the same as the character we know from Soviet films. In the 20th century a reconstruction of his skull was made, which relates to the age of 53. Besides, there are verbal descriptions made in his early ages, but they have a lot of inconsistencies and are not truly reliable.

The developing studio didn’t want to contribute to this demonic image that has developed in art and was depicting the tsar in his late years. We wanted to show a relatively young Ivan Vasilyevich, full of opportunities, the tsar at his early ages.

So the final image of the tsar was based on Nikolay Cherkasov’s character from Sergei Eisenstein’s film “Ivan the Terrible”. Some adjustments were made based on the verbal descriptions of the tsar – his nose, for instance.

Elements, infographics, illustrations

The design of the game board and game components was based on the Illustrated Chronicle of Ivan the Terrible – the largest compilation of historical information ever assembled in medieval Russia. A great number of historical events were depicted in the form of images and text.

Our developing studio has studied this graphic style, made it more modern and based on it created the infographics of the game and design of some elements.

Coins in the game have different patterns, this is also historically correct, because at the time they were minted there were no automatic process for that, so it was done manually. That is also why the coins have this elongated shape.

The First Player token is how the actual seal of the tsar looked like – a unicorn on one side and a two-headed eagle on the other.

The illustrations were created based on Russian history paintings that were used in education in the 20th century. Scientific reconstructions were used as well. For example, to illustrate Sobornaya Square in the middle of the Kremlin of that time we used historical reconstructions, archaeological research, and managed to depict it as it looked like in the past.

Except for the above-mentioned Illustrated Chronicle there also existed the Book of a Great Map – a map of the whole country. Unfortunately, it was created in a single copy and hasn’t survived to our days. As a map source there were used European maps of that time.

The First Tsar is not a historical game

It’s not a simulator of historical events, nor a reconstruction, nor an attempt to study this period of history. This is primarily an economic strategy game in a historical setting. And still we tried to eliminate everything that could contradict with the history.

For example, Stan Kordonsky included Voronezh in early prototypes of the map. The city was founded after the death of Ivan the Terrible. And though it fit perfectly in terms of waterways and general layout of the map, historically it was incorrect, so we had to remove it.

The waterways on the game map aren’t 100% graphically correct, but they are depicted in accordance with the real topographical data. Such rivers as Klyazma flowing in the Oka, Volga, Moskva River, Dnipro, etc. actually connected the cities.

We also tried to avoid anachronisms. For instance, the main illustration on the game box has a dog on it – it’s a breed that was popular at that time, but doesn’t exist anymore.

Local goods (resources) in the game reflect what the country was rich in – wood, grain and stone.

Thus, the historical setting was maintained, but the game doesn’t relate to any specific events.

So these were some of the behind the scenes of production of  our new release The First Tsar: Ivan the Terrible.

In our Game Creation series we tell you more about the games and how they came to exist in their final versions. If you found these articles interesting, you can read some more:

MEZEN – History of the Game’s Setting

MEZEN – Behind the Scenes of Design Production

NEON – Battle Royale Game Overview

NEON – Behind the Scenes of Game Development

See you in our next Game Creation series!

Are you a publisher or a reviewer and would like to discuss the projects? Feel free to contact us right now!