Chasing Inspiration

This post is a bit of a case of “thinking out loud.” It’s not overly personal and shouldn’t be awkward, I just wanted to arrange some thoughts that are relevant to design and my processes.

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I think every designer has inherent strengths, portions of the design process with which they have a certain affinity or strength. Alas, the universe more often than not seeks balance and with one’s strength comes a weakness.

My strength is in the execution. Play testing, streamlining clunky systems, writing clear rules, and adding balance where little existed. I work with data (like feedback or observations) well and can take a strong idea and make it better.

I suffer, however, with the inspiration side of things. I’m often thinking of polish before a concept is even solidified and as a result many of my ideas tend to be too conservative or too evolutionary instead of revolutionary. This is largely a result of my professional training (I’m a producer, i.e. design editor) and personality (I’m obsessed with simplicity).

I’ve designed a few games now and many of them were not good enough to pitch to a publisher or even post on a print on demand site. Many of my ideas fail conceptually in that they aren’t exciting or bold enough or they are too close mechanically to existing games.

A pattern seems to be emerging: When I approach a project with the thinking of “I’d like to design a game using this mechanic,” it ultimately leads to failure. Frontier Scoundrels began as “I want to make a game that uses a dice mechanic.” Poor Abby Farnsworth feels like it’s floundering and there I began the game from the basis of “I want to make a game that uses a deckbuilding mechanic.”

Like the aristocracy of old breeding, this is a shallow pool from which to draw (that’s a gene pool joke). For one, I’m immediately limiting my creative canvas. I’m setting boundaries at the onset of the creative process when really I should be coming up with crazy things. Furthermore, I’m setting myself up against some of the biggest names in board gaming at the moment. Doesn’t it seem a tinge foolish to point my spear at Dominion and Thunderstone and Eminent Domain and Ascension followed by a hearty “charge!”

Farmageddon is my most successful design to date. At the onset of the design my only goal was to create a simple game that played quickly and was easily understood. I didn’t specify mechanics or components. Really, the only thing I established was an overall vibe and a farming setting. Farming, by the way, is a setting that is FULL of mechanics inspirations, but we can discuss that in another post.

Similar to identifying your strengths as a designer, I think it’s important to identify the sources from which you draw the best inspiration.

The richest source of inspiration for me is history. It is, for me, the greatest story with the best characters. Characters from history like Theodore Roosevelt and Wellington. Or even the nameless characters, like the soldiers or spies or farmers caught up in epic events. History also provides settings that are rich and full of interesting conflict, like the dust bowl era, or the age of discovery, or the space race.

When I ignore that which excites and interests my mind the most (history), I’m eliminating a creative tool from my arsenal. Find what excites you, whether that’s the theater, comic books, cooking, or fashion.

Finally, it’s important to set yourself in a situation that makes you most likely to receive this inspiration. For me, the best time for this is when I take my dog on a walk. Or, when I’m sitting at a table that does not have a computer, iPhone, or iPad and is instead full of paper, pencils and stuff. Things for me to fiddle with and think upon.

I recently created a second desk in my office that has no digital devices. Just sketch pads, white boards, and writing implements. Distraction is good, but 90% distraction/10% creative thought isn’t.

It is perhaps a bit meta (correct usage?) that I’m iterating and designing my design process. Hopefully the result is something more outstanding or the fabled lightning in a bottle.

In Defense of Monopoly

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Monopoly is every “real” gamer’s favorite game to hate. It’s random, it takes too long, there are better games to play, people only play it because they don’t know better…these are all some of my favorite critiques.

The thing is, as much as you, dear reader, may hate Monopoly, millions of people love it. Millions rush out to buy the variant when it has their favorite property assigned to it (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and soon, Hunger Games I’m sure). Families play Monopoly at gatherings. Families like mine. And guess what? We have fun, despite our “poor” choice of entertainment.

What’s amusing to me is that Settlers of Catan, a game far more respected by us nerds, is just as random and frustrating as Monopoly. I’d argue it’s more frustrating as it’s also more complicated.

I think snobbery and condescension are bad for the growth of our industry. Furthermore, I think by outright discrediting Monopoly, we’re ignoring the reasons it is so appealing and therefore, potentially ignoring a way to make our own games more successful.

Why Monopoly is Great

Strong player interaction and social gameplay. Negotiation is fun. Auctioning is fun. Social interaction is meaningful and you would do well to incorporate it into your design. Your players will create rich gameplay for themselves if you give them the tools to do so.

People love rolling dice. Rolling dice is fun and in Monopoly, the act of it is filled with thrilling anticipation. “Please don’t land on Pennsylvania!” You know what that sound is? It’s laughter because somebody just landed on a hotel and they’re in deep, uh…illegal derivatives swaps. It’s people having fun.

Monopoly is full of tactile sensation. Picking your unique pawn is fun. Players get to identify themselves with something more than a color. Board games provide a tactile, tangible sensation that other game mediums fail to provide. Monopoly has dice, metal pawns, little houses, and therefore it’s a very satisfying game to touch, feel, and play.

Buying property and being a tycoon is fun. It’s a fantasy many ponder, few get to experience. Especially in our current economy, Monopoly is more relevant than being a space ranger.

Monopoly is many peoples’ first experience with design. Think about it; have you ever played Monopoly the same way at two families’ homes? I haven’t. Money is paid out for rolling a certain pair of doubles. Landing on Free Parking provides a benefit. You can get out of Jail early if you do thus and such. People create house rules ALL the time for this game that span generations. That’s awesome!

The game should play more quickly than you think. For one, every property should be auctioned off if the player who lands on it doesn’t buy it outright. I’ve never read the rules for Monopoly, so when I saw that I realized we’ve been missing out! That long, random stretch at the start where people grab properties should play out entirely differently.

Furthermore, as a negative component of everyone adding in their own design spin on Monopoly, one of  the first things people do is inflate the economy.

  • Get $400 for landing on Go.
  • Get $500 for landing on Free Parking OR all the penalties put in.
  • Get $500 for rolling snake eyes.

All this does is needlessly inflate the economy and lengthen the game. But, then again, it’s fun…

Why Monopoly is frustrating

The game is random. It is very frustrating when the dice do nothing to help you throughout the course of the game. Though successful bidding and negotiation can address that on the build-up front, it cannot help when you’re trying to survive one last go around the board.

Fiddly fiddly fiddly. The game’s plethora of property cards and paper money makes for a tedious game to setup and play. There’s the electronic banking version, but this is still a cumbersome experience.

Long. The game can take a very long time to play. Too long, I’d argue, for the amount of depth it offers. However, this is a great way to consume the evening. When I visit my family at Christmas, we play Scrabble, Dominoes for hours, poker, or Monopoly. It’s not so much we’re looking to play 8 games, it’s that we’re spending time with each other while drinking a beverage at the end of the day.

Player Elimination. Unless a game lasts only 15 minutes (and even then), I’m very strongly against play elimination. Monopoly has this and I think it’s a very weak spot in its design. (Thanks to readers for reminding me of this omission!)

Why all of this matters

The best thing going for Monopoly that makes it such a powerful brand and experience for consumers is that Monopoly is comfortable and familiar. It’s an old friend that’s always ready to play. You know the rules (at least you think you know them), nobody needs explanation on how to play, and nobody is intimidated by the experience.

New board games mean rules booklets and explanations. My brother has zero interest in learning new games. He’d rather play the classics (Risk, Scrabble, Monopoly, poker, Dominoes) or just watch TV. My parents are more willing, but it took so long to get the gist of Modern Art across that I probably won’t be explaining more games to them any time soon.

The growth of our hobby suffers because we fail to recognize the importance of being comfortable and familiar. We make games that are too complex, take too long to play, or have rule books that are too lengthy. We get so frustrated by all those “bad games” on the shelves at Target that we completely gloss over the reasons they are successful.

I don’t play Monopoly often. To be quite honest, I don’t really want to do so. But, it’s a disservice to our hobby to look down upon those that do. It’s not that we know better. It’s not that their choices are poor. It’s that we haven’t given them something yet to replace it.

Card Design Commandments

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I have a thing for card games. I like playing them and I like designing them. Every time I try to veer away from cards to tackle another component like dice, I always end up right back with a box full of index cards and penciled scribbles.

As I design card games, play card games, and give advice to other designers about their card games, I see a few patterns emerging. There are key design mistakes that many of us commit repeatedly, so often that I thought it’d be good to compile a list of guidelines. Obviously, rules can and should be broken, but if the following rules are used as a base line, I believe your games will become more fun more quickly.

Text should be easy to read: Two smart individuals, Chris Farrell and Daniel Solis, have already written about this (and many topics in this post) at length. Honestly, you should read both of their pieces and then return to this one.

Bottom line, it should be incredibly easy for people of all ages to read the text on your cards. Pick a sufficiently large size for your text and stick to it. If you run out of room, I suggest the first change you make is simplifying the rule of the card, NOT decreasing the size of the text.

Use icons where possible: If you’re using a term or rule often, create an icon. While designing Poor Abby Farnsworth, I created a spreadsheet where I listed all terms I used more than once. From there, I condensed them further and created a list of approximately 10 icons to convey these terms.

Good iconography saves space on cards and immediately gives the player an idea of the card’s purpose at a glance. Not everything needs an icon, but it’s a good exercise to determine what you can convey with a small, simple icon. If you’re not a graphic designer (I’m not!), use Google Drawings. They have a small collection of symbols that you can layer and change colors. You can begin testing your iconography even with the ugliest prototype.

Sample Poor Abby proto card

Sample icons I made for my prototype

One game that uses icons fairly effectively in my opinion is Eminent Domain, designed by Seth Jaffe and published by Tasty Minstrel Games. Observe the amount of information conveyed purely through iconography: the cost, requirements, victory points, and card bonus type.

That’s a great amount of information to process, but luckily this is an advanced card. Another good example is Elder Sign, published by Fantasy Flight Games. Notice that there isn’t a single piece of gameplay information conveyed with text on the top card.

Brass is an excellent game with two types of cards: One with a type of improvement allowed and one with a city specified (shown below). These cards provide a huge array of choices, yet are painfully simple when viewed.

Limit each card to 1-2 rules per card: This is an easy and often necessary rule to violate. However, it is potentially the worst rule to violate based on the audience for your game.

Here is a scenario: Each player has a hand of 5 cards. Each card can be played in 1-3 ways, as defined by their rules. There are 3 cards already in play, each with a unique piece of information. Players now need to track 5-15 Rules based on the cards in their hands AND the information from the cards on the table.

Overwhelming! Complex! Unnecessarily complicated! Obviously, you can point to Race for the Galaxy, ranked #13 on Board Game Geek, and tell me I’m wrong. However, this is a polarizing game (for some) because of multiple ways each card can be played and I’ve heard from many people that the game is really difficult to learn.

I’ll propose a more vague compromise: Be aware of the amount of information you’re asking your players to process and understand. Make sure you’re not asking your players to take on more complexity than the game is due. The worst place you can be with your design is High Complexity, Low Depth.

Stick to established terminology: This is one of the most common mistakes I see amateur and new game designers make.

Many designers change established terms for the sake of innovation (Note: This isn’t innovation) or for the sake of flavor. Don’t! Your game doesn’t need flavor when it comes to learning the game.

What are the established terms? For me, I look to the most popular games. If you’re designing a card game, I suggest you read Dominion‘s rule book. If you’re making a war game, take a look at Memoir ’44. Notice that the Flash Point rulebook is very similar to Pandemic‘s — GOOD. The rule book or terms are not where to innovate. Differentiate your game through mechanics and experience.

I played a game recently where the rules used Discard, Destroy, and Trash completely differently than Dominion. Three of the five players at the table were immediately confused and we had to stop the game to look it up. As a result, we had less fun.

Don’t force players to track card actions: This is a mistake I make constantly in prototypes. You should design your game and each card such that the player can take the action indicated on the card immediately. In the initial implementation of Farmageddon‘s Foul Manure card, players had to track the card for 2 turns. Fiddly! Another example is that in Poor Abby I created a card that said something along the lines of “If during your turn this thing happens, then do this thing.” You’re now forcing the player to potentially keep track of something.

Here’s the better implementation: “If this condition is the case, take this action.” Or, “When this card is played, take this action.”

Dominion actually violates this rule constantly with cards that add Actions or Buys. It’s not really a problem (obviously, as the game is flying off shelves and is awesome), but there are times when keeping track of my Actions is lame. This is a refinement I really appreciate with Ascension.

Clearly separate flavor text from rule text: I think some designers are really just storytellers. They create a card, write pages of flavor text, then remember they are making a game. It’s important that you take pains to clearly differentiate your rule text from flavor text so there is little confusion.

Gubs, designed by Cole Medeiros, does a great job of this. Notice the flavor text is tiny and at the top of each card. The functional rule text is boldly called out at the bottom. Players know to always look down to learn how to play a card.

Epic Spell Wars of the Battle Wizards: Duel at Mt. Skullzfyre takes it a step further. They let their outstanding art act as the flavor text. Why read when I can look and let my imagination create a richer story?

Each card’s purpose should be relatively apparent: This rule can be read in a variety of ways. I’m not telling you to make your game’s strategy brain dead obvious. I am telling you to not be so subtle or “clever” that your players cannot figure out why they’d use the card.

The other day we were playing a card game in which two of the five players could not understand the purpose of most of the cards in their hands. “Why would I ever play this card?” was uttered multiple times. Three rounds into the game, one of the players finally understood the cards.

This is another rule where you want to properly align the complexity and depth of each card within the acceptable realm for your target audience. I think the design sweet spot is to design your rules and card such that players draw the card and immediately say “Ah, I use this to do X.” But, as they play the game multiple times and really learn your design, they begin to see that it can be used in a variety of ways that subtly change things.

I think the Foul Manure card in Farmageddon is one of the best cards I’ve designed because of this. The first time you read it you think it’s a shield, which it is. Then you realize you can play it alongside Dust Bowl or pair it with Genetic Superworm to maximize its effectiveness. Or, you can play it offensively to hinder an opponent. The card has one rule, but multiple uses.

Maximize players’ chances of having interesting choices: If you’re designing a game with cards, you’re designing a game that’s a slave to probability. There are no guarantees with probability, but you can maximize the chances of desired outputs occurring.

You never want a player to take their turn, look at their hand of cards, and say “I guess I’ll play this.” Every turn should present the player with interesting choices. What to play? How to play it? Who to target? And so forth.

Make sure the allocation of cards in your deck is such that players have a high number of attack cards (if your game features such a thing), or defensive cards, or preparation cards. Furthermore, make sure the allocation is such that everyone has a fair chance of winning regardless of the cards drawn. People will quickly tire of your game if the perception is such that players believe a particular card grants the victory.

Which rules did I miss? Which rules did I present incorrectly? Which ones do you think are most important?

Pitch Like a Pro

I bumped into Corey Young on Twitter like I have many of my design peers. Like an athletic team recruiter seeking his first round draft pick, I began bugging Corey to write a column for Hyperbole because the man is opinionated, well-spoken, and has not one publishing deal, but many publishing deals. Corey has things to teach.

I was delighted to read what I hope is only the first of many guest columns. Corey’s advice here is outstanding, thorough, and inspirational. It is absurdly quotable. My personal plans for Poor Abby and GenCon have changed considerably as a result.  

Guest Column by: Corey Young (CoreyYoung.com)

You’ve created the best boardgame since Senet, yet for some reason the big publishers haven’t sent a limousine to pick you up. According to their websites they are not accepting submissions. Your email inquiries are accomplishing nothing. How much easier would it be if you could just meet for a face-to-face demonstration?

If you think about it, you have several face-to-face opportunities with publishers each year. Most of the major companies have a significant presence at game conventions like GenCon, Origins and DragonCon. You might be surprised to find many influential decision makers walking the floor, manning the booths, demonstrating games, or lounging in the publisher-sponsored rooms. They’re there and you’re there; Why not take a few minutes away from gaming to make your dream of being published a reality?

Does it work? It has for me. While I’ve been able to get a few publishers to agree to evaluate my prototypes via email, my rejection rate exceeds 95%. In contrast, by working the floor at conventions, I’ve been able to get publishers to accept my prototypes on the spot. Better than that, in the past 2 years, I’ve managed to get 3 games accepted for publication by “household name” publishers.

The techniques I use are simple, but it requires a bit of preparation and finesse. Think of it as a game. I can’t guarantee that this strategy will make you successful, but I’m confident it will improve your chances considerably.

(Step 1) Ensure that your game is ready: The goal of a pitch is for the publisher’s representative to look at your prototype. If the prototype isn’t complete, the pitch will lead to nothing. Game publishers are not looking for concepts, good ideas, or half-finished collections of game-like parts.

Your game should be thoroughly playtested by this point, and by this I don’t mean that your friends and family have played it “a bunch.” Find the most callous, experienced gamers you can muster, buy them some pizza, and ask them to break your game. If it can be done, they will find a way. I mention this because the first pitch I gave crumbled apart because the publisher’s gatekeeper spotted the dominant strategy within 5 minutes.

(Step 2) Research the publishers: Convention organizers release a list of participating companies months before the convention. GenCon and others provide maps of the convention floor that list the vendor locations. Focus your efforts on the companies attending.

Examine the publishers’ portfolios. What kinds of games are they publishing? Hasbro is as likely to publish a 1500-cube eurogame next year as Mayfair is to publish Chutes & Ladders II. You want a company that makes games similar to yours in terms of audience and components, but not too close in terms of theme or game-play. Also, don’t waste time trying to sell a cola product to Pepsi. If they already make a game similar to yours, why would they want to cannibalize their sales?

Put more simply, Mayfair isn’t interested in another Catan. They already have that.

Once you’ve identified your targets, start digging for contacts. The person you want is the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper is the individual responsible for discovering new games. Every publisher has at least one gatekeeper. In some cases, it’s the president of the company. I look at publisher websites and articles in Spielbox magazine to identify this person. I’ve even discovered owners’ names using WHOIS searches on their internet domain names.

I keep a 3×5 index card for each company which includes their games, news about their recent releases, and the key players. Be ready to talk about their world before trying to insert yourself into it.

Prioritize the publishers. You’re likely to pitch to more than one and you don’t want to run out of prototypes. Similarly, you could experience the predicament I found myself in last year. I had arranged to pitch to 2 publishers. The first pitch was my Hail Mary pass to a huge publisher. And it went very well! They took the prototype and asked if I would mind not sharing it with other companies. The game has a novel, but simple, mechanic that would be easy for others to copy. I agreed. I then had to apologize and back out of the second scheduled pitch. If I had approached the companies in the opposite order, I would have missed the bigger opportunity.

(Step 3) Prepare your prototypes and other media: Publishers want complete games with full rules. Don’t waste your time and talent polishing the artwork as it will inevitably be replaced. The prototype you provide them should contain all the bits, components, cards, dice, and boards necessary to play. It should fit in the smallest container possible because the representative will have to haul it home along with everything else left in the booth. Or, the publisher may only want the rules or will ask you to mail them the prototype.

Be flexible and prepared for either outcome!

If you have the skills and resources, film a YouTube video and place it in a private channel with your pitch on it. I’ve been asked by several publishers for this in lieu of physical prototypes.

You always want to leave something tangible in the publisher’s hands. In the past I created  business cards, but now I print double-sided postcards with color pictures of my game and its hook (More on hooks later). Even if they decline to hear the pitch, they’ll have something. This also works well as a visual aid during the elevator pitch. If you filmed a YouTube video, be sure to include a link to it on this card.

(Step 4) Prepare your elevator pitch: An elevator pitch is a 30-60 second appeal to get the publisher to agree to look at your prototype. The name comes from the idea of selling an idea in the time it takes to ride an elevator. You must captivate your audience for that long, which is harder than it seems. Make good use of your time! The elevator pitch is the mini-pitch before the full game demonstration. Your elevator pitch should include:

  • Number of players (e.g. 2-4)
  • Play duration (The time window should be specific to within 10 minutes)
  • Age range (e.g. 10+)
  • Target player demographic  (Hobby game market, mass market, party game)
  • Category (CCG, euro-style boardgame, kid’s game etc.)
  • The Hook

The hook is what makes your game uniquely stand out. What is your game’s secret sauce? The rest of the information in the elevator pitch is required, but the hook is what gets them to look at your game. If your game doesn’t have a hook that you can describe in 15 seconds or less, the road before you is difficult.

Here is the idealized pitch for One Way Out, the first of my games that will soon be published. I say “idealized” because I’ve never actually delivered anything as coherently as this is written. A few of the details have been omitted, but the whole pitch takes about 45 seconds.

“One Way Out is a card game that plays like a boardgame. It’s designed for 2-4 players, ages 10 and up, and would fit in either the hobby or mass markets. The overall theme is based loosely on “Time Bandits” or “Quantum Leap.” In the basic game, players collect power-ups as they race to get through 3 levels […]. Levels consistently take between 12 and 15 minutes to complete. […] This is what the cards look like. Players move pawns around on an emerging board that is made up of these cards. […] If you’d like to see how it works, I’d be happy to walk you through a quick level later at, any time that works for you.”

Do not compare your game to any other game. Publishers do not want “the next” version of anything or a re-skinned copy of a well-known game.

(Step 5) Pack for success: Obviously, you’ll need a few copies of your game (at least one per publisher plus a few extras). Make sure your contact information is clearly listed on the outside of the box. I never bring more than one copy with me during the approach to the publisher. It’s better to send the subliminal message that this is a prized prototype than just another cheap copy that I’m giving out at every booth.

Notice I’m not listing anything about non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). If you’re afraid of your game design being stolen, you can keep playing your game with your friends and your lawyer, but you’re not going to get a publisher to look at it. I am not a lawyer and this is not intended as legal advice. I’m just saying that bringing an NDA to an informal pitch is as much a recipe for success as bringing a prenuptial agreement to a first date.

(Step 6) Dress for success: No, you don’t need to wear a fancy skirt or a tie. I pitch in blue jeans and sneakers. I wear a short sleeved, collared shirts. Wearing a t-shirt with a competitor’s product on it, or zombies or … well let’s just not wear t-shirts, okay?

(Step 7) Respect the publisher’s time: This is easily the most critical step. The only reason it’s listed as Step 7 is because of where it falls in the timeline of things.

The publisher is not at the convention to see your game. The publisher’s goal is to promote the games they have in the market today. Put yourself in the publisher’s shoes:

  • They’ve been up since 6 am.
  • They’ve been standing and talking and demonstrating since before the exhibit floor opened.
  • They have product to move.
  • They have game fans to hear from.
  • They have podcasts and interviews to conduct.

And now here comes yet another wannabe game designer.

Here’s how to approach the booth; Carry a single copy of your prototype in your backpack along with any cards or media you wish to leave with the publisher. If you know the gatekeeper’s name(s), check the badges. Thankfully, most conventions require all vendors to wear large, legible badges. Handy!

If you don’t know the gatekeeper, speak to whomever looks friendly. Don’t lead off with the fact that you want to pitch a game design. Here is where your homework on the publisher pays off! Ask to see what’s new and sit through a demo. Then, politely ask if there is anyone from the company with whom you can discuss submissions. Don’t be surprised if people in the booth don’t know! Many companies use local volunteers to staff their booths and conduct demonstrations. Gracious persistence pays off here.

It really boils down to one of three possible outcomes at this point.

  1. The gatekeeper is not at the convention.
  2. The gatekeeper is not looking at submissions.
  3. The gatekeeper is willing to talk to you.

The first outcome is the most likely. If this is the case, the best option is to see if a gatekeeper surrogate is available. I’ve had good experiences with people like this and a few have generously passed my prototype along. Not ideal, but better than a complete zero.

If the publisher says they are not taking submissions, then that’s that. I’m sure some sales gurus would instruct us to press on with the sale, but I’m not comfortable doing so.

Then, there’s the third outcome. The gatekeeper agrees to listen to your pitch. I typically make it clear that I’m not going to do a product demonstration right now. There usually isn’t room in a booth and the noisy, hectic environment of the convention floor is simply awful for demonstrations. At this moment, I want to determine the gatekeeper’s willingness and availability to look at my design later. Then, I begin the pitch, showing the highlights and teasing the hook.

During every step of the process, I’m honest and sincere. I can’t fake that. If I tell a publisher that I want to work with them because I want my game to be produced with the same quality components I see in their games, I mean it. I don’t flatter or schmooze. I suppose it helps that I’m a bit of a fan boy when it comes to game publishers.

That’s your moment. Like so many experiences in life, you get to do this alone.

I hope that these steps take some of the mystery and uncertainty out of the preparation. I also hope that you find it motivational. Getting your game published is an achievable goal. I’m just a guy who makes games from 9 pm to midnight after my kids go to sleep. If it can happen for me, it can certainly happen for you.

But… but…What about the actual demonstration? I’ll cover that in a later column. For now, focus on the pitch. Convention season starts early this year!

Marriage, Design, Sandwiches

I had the pleasure of bumping into Jason Tagmire on Twitter…like you do. I was immediately drawn to him, mostly because in some photos he resembles rock god Dave Grohl. More importantly, Jason let me take a sneak peek at his game Sandwich City before he submitted it to The Game Crafter for their Resource Competition. The game looks really fun and the water color art style is great.

Fun Fact: Jason won that competition. Another Fun Fact: He didn’t do so alone. Jason worked on the game with his wife, Carolyn. It was really important to me to get a female perspective on Hyperbole Games. By getting Jason to agree to write a column, I got his wife to agree to write a column. That, my friends, is what they call a twofer.

Guest Column by: Jason and Carolyn Tagmire (Championland.net)

Jason: For me, designing and developing a game has often been a very solo process, and with a full time job and family, I don’t see much alone time. I’m constantly trying to find the balance in squeezing as much as I can into every day, bouncing between work and play, and back again. As I started working on my most recent game, Sandwich City, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to create the game overnight, and also realized that I wasn’t going to be able to do it alone. So I consciously took a different route and involved my family in the process… especially my wife, Carolyn.

Carolyn: My role in the game is that I wanted to do something with my husband while supporting his desire in creating a board game. I know it’s hectic in our house and the family takes a toll, so I wanted to do what I could to help. I enjoy drawing and painting, which is something that I rarely find time to do anymore, and I find the art of many of the board games interesting so I wanted to take a chance at it. I was inspired the most by Junta: Viva El Presidente, and enjoy the colors and art style of Carcassonne.

Jason: We discussed the project and decided that it needed decent art. I was creating it for The Game Crafter’s Resource Design contest and I wanted to make the best game possible, in all areas. My own art lacks style and edge and just wouldn’t cut it. Carolyn is very artistic, but she doesn’t have a regular creative outlet. She teaches high school biology and wrangles our kids during most of her free time. We’ve worked on some art projects in our 14 and a half years together (whoa!) and have an unnatural understanding of each other. I’d say we often read each others minds, but you won’t believe me. So I’ll just say that we think alike, a lot of the time.

We think alike in the fact that we can express our ideas to each other very easily, sometimes even non-verbally. We can be brutally honest with each other because we would know immediately if one of us was holding something back. On the other side, we have very different artistic styles and ideas. I am more mechanical and straight-forward, and Carolyn is more natural and whimsical. As I described my ideas for Sandwich City, Carolyn started drawing these top down buildings for the market board, which were perfect. It was the exact opposite perspective of what I had planned and turned out to be much, much better.

Carolyn: After hearing J.’s ideas for the game I immediately imagined the buildings in a circular top down pattern. He gave me some ideas of what the game was about, but I automatically started creating my own little world. I named each building and started creating some of the businesses based around the sandwich pieces in the game. I decided to make the different areas based upon the values of the pieces. These are small details, but they are the kind of details I look for when playing a game. Usually while J. is taking an hour to read the instructions, I’ll look over the game boards and I’m amazed at some of the details that artists put into the game. I wanted to add the same level of detail and my own little quirks of creativity to this game.

Jason: Carolyn brought more than just her art to the table, she brought game-changing art ideas. My very basic template idea showed intersecting roads with a low priced zone, a higher priced zone, and a zone that was not available yet. These represented street vendors, city, and farm. What Carolyn did at this point totally changed the tone of the game for me. It’s a small detail that may be overlooked, but it’s the tiny details that make up the whole thing.

Carolyn decided that each area of the board would have a focus. The main shop in one City area is called “George’s Meats” (named after my vegetarian brother). The street vendor in this same area is a hot dog cart, and the farm area is filled with pigs. She did the same in the other three areas and I was in love.

Having someone right in my own house that can create art that not only complements your game, but also develops your game, is a wonderful thing.

Carolyn: I was happy that I was able to add little elements to the game. I’m hoping to be able to spend more time developing an artistic style and work with my husband as he continues to make more games. As a high school teacher, I find it frustrating that many of today’s youth do not tend to sit down and play games that require some of the thinking and interactions that board games do. I’m hoping that by creating more projects like this I can inspire my students and my own children to be creative and use their intellect at the dining room table instead of the television.

Jason: Being able to collaborate with those that you know best is something that I’m really happy to have the opportunity to do. I’m hoping we can squeeze in some more family fun art days and work on other game projects together. Next up is our 4 year old daughter. She’s already making her own games and making her own rules to my games. We could get a whole production team going soon enough.

For Love of the Tale

Cole Medeiros is the cunning designer responsible for Gubs, published by Gamewright. I’d explain why I used the word cunning, but it’s an inside joke. I’ve only known Cole for less than a year, but he’s become one of my best friends. He’s full of strange ideas and wondrous, is relentlessly in pursuit of creating something fun, and is always looking for ways to stretch himself creatively. Cole is a good designer.

Cole has helped me with so many of my designs and I hope this is but one of many columns he’ll write for Hyperbole Games. Cunning. As a side note, after you finish reading Cole’s guest column, check out this excellent TED talk on creating a great story.

Guest Column by: Cole Medeiros (Gubcards.com)

My passion is story and that is exactly how I came to find myself playing games. I love a good story. Everyone does. Humans communicate primarily through stories and almost all entertainment we enjoy the most revolves around an unfolding series of events. What will happen next? Who will win the game? Wait and see…

My favorite board games are the ones that tell stories. Off the top of my head I think of Star Trek: Fleet Captains, Warhammer Quest, Magic Realmand Twilight Imperium. Every time I’ve played any of these games the random cards and combinations of rules have dredged from the depths of my imagination a tale worth telling. One worth talking about long after it returns to the shelf. ‘Remember that time when…’ is a common phrase among my gamer friends, because we like to make memories out of these plastic bits and colorful cardboard.

For me a great board game is like a magical story generator. It has a bunch of moving parts, wheels, and cogs, like some mystical machine which grinds up your decisions and spits out a narrative. A good story connects people together. I like board games because I like that feeling of connection. I don’t game with someone who I wouldn’t enjoy getting a beer with. I want to push pieces around with friends around the table and laughter in the air.

A few things I’ve learned about story and board games:

1) Not everyone can appreciate a good story in a game. Some people are in it to win it and if they feel some random but epic event unraveled their carefully woven plan, they toss the game aside as a failure. Me, I once battled solo through an entire Warhammer Quest dungeon only to have my best warrior slip off a bridge and fall into a pit of lava. The culprit? Rolling two 1s in a row. I could not stop laughing.

2) Story does not mean flavor text. Actually, too much flavor can get in the way. Sometimes a card with just a picture and a game stat can spark so much more of the imagination. Magic Realm (which is an older game) has the most bland bits I’ve ever seen. For example, a treasure site called ‘The Pool’ is simply a chit with text on one side. But because of the amazing mechanics (and I would argue the lack of embellishment), my imagination goes wild, revealing a treacherous lake filled with a slimy guardian and glittering with unknown treasures.

3) All this being said, good story does not mean bad mechanics. No, a perfect game melds them together flawlessly, with story that fits with the mechanics so well it seems almost like a mnemonic device for remembering the rule’s specifics.

For some time now I’ve been working on a game which functions as a co-op RPG without a game master. I struggled for a while trying to force a ton of unique story elements into each card and each encounter. Then I realized something: it was completely unneeded. All I needed to do was make sure that the basic concepts fit together logically, and players would make their own stories. Random decks can accomplish this if they are assigned and designed correctly.

I draw three cards: Asteroid Field, Pirate, Damaged Engines. Suddenly I have a story! While traveling through an asteroid belt a stray rock struck my engines, damaging them, and making manuevering difficult. Which wouldn’t be a problem except it seems pirates are about to take advantage of the situation. If I survive the battle, it will be a nice epic little episode generated completely at random…