The Story of Scallywags

I bumped into Chevee Dodd on Twitter. A few weeks ago, he approached me about writing about his upcoming game, Scallywags, on this site. I was a tinge apprehensive at first, as I didn’t know him that well and I don’t want Hyperbole Games to just be another PR platform. I inquired about his game and all apprehension immediately ran out the door.

Chevee’s game Scallywags was recently picked up by the outstanding publisher Gamewright. This is a huge accomplishment for any designer and it’s one I’d love to share at one point. Chevee asked me what to write and I told him to tell a story. One of my goals for Hyperbole is to showcase great work from other designers — this is great work. Grab a cup of coffee to read Part 1 of Chevee’s story. Part 2 will be posted on Friday.

Guest Post by: Chevee Dodd

Never give up. Rejection Is Part of the Process

In 1997 I found myself adrift in the gaming industry.  Like many gamers at that time, I discovered our hobby through Magic the Gathering.  I loved collectible card games, but I had not yet been introduced to eurogames.  Strictly through chance, I found myself in a position to travel with United States Playing Cards during the summer to demo the X-Files CCG at their convention booths.  Along the way, I discovered the German phenomena that was Settlers of Catan (which was not yet printed in English) as well as some excellent American games that were fighting for this new sector of the market. 

I met James Earnest at Origins that year. He had a single tiny table next to our booth and struggled to sell his games for most of the show.  Saturday, in open gaming, he showed up with a briefcase full of games and started demoing.  By noon on Sunday he had sold out of his product and was taking pre-orders for the next batch.  Jame’s games were quick, simple, and fun.  They didn’t offer a great deal of difficult decisions, but they kept players coming back for more.  I was inspired.  “I can design these games,” I told myself.

I vowed to make a game as I left Origins.  I took a box of my boss’ business cards and told him that I was going to design a game and draw the cards on the backs.  He laughed, but I was dead serious.  It took a week or so for me to find inspiration, but like so many of my ideas, it hit me quickly.  I had also discovered Lunch Money during Origins and I absolutely fell in love with its simplicity and interesting play decisions.  The problem at that time was that I primarily played two player games. I had found a goal: Make a game similar to Lunch Money, but for two players.  In a flurry of inspiration I completed the design in about a half hour.  When I say completed, I mean done.  The game has never changed from that first concept.  I spent an hour or so drawing each card. My friends and I still play it and laugh at the silliness of it today.

I know this anecdote has nothing to do with Scallywags directly, but I tell this story to make a point: this was the beginning of a very long journey for me.  A journey full of disappointments and rejections that eventually led to Scallywags.

I had designed a game and I thought it was good enough for publication.  So did my friends.  We had played it hundreds of times after all!  It had to be good!  The problem with the game was that it was one big inside joke.  The cards and flavor were all based on that summer convention season that only included myself, a close personal friend, and a bunch of guys from a company 400 miles away.  That’s no problem, though.  Right?  Any Knizia fan can tell you that slapping a theme on a game is easy!  And that is exactly what I did.  I slapped a few themes on the game and sent out some letters of introduction to various publishers.

Within a few weeks I received interest from a few publishers.  They asked to see my rules for the game.  Excitement was high!  I could write a pitch that interested people and surely that meant I could make games that they wanted to publish.  After some more waiting, I received requests for prototypes.  This was the big time, I was sure of it.  All I had to do was send off some prototypes and wait for the contracts to roll in.  That never happened.  I merely received some nice, informative rejection letters.  In some cases, I even received my prototypes back in the mail.  That’s a disheartening moment.  It’s like someone mailing back your discarded dream.

Luckily, I was still young.  Rejection just hardened my resolve to try harder.  I didn’t stop designing games and I didn’t stop trying to get published.  I learned a great deal from those first efforts.  I learned to be more selective in my choice of publisher.  I learned to refine my prototypes and make them as functional and presentable as possible.  Most of all, though, I learned to accept rejection.  It is a part of the process.

Everyone in every creative position faces rejection.  Authors, musicians, programmers, inventors, artists, photographers… the list goes on.  This process is no different for game designers.  Learning to let go of the emotional attachment you have with your work is a very hard lesson to learn.

It proved to be a lesson that I would have a difficult time accepting.  I was so jaded by rejections that I stopped trying to find a publisher in the traditional manner. I decided to explore a new territory, Print and Play.

Print and Play

The original inspiration for Scallywags came in 2008 during a family trip to the beach.  During that trip I read Treasure Island for the first time.  I was in a pirate mood and wanted to design something using coins.  Further inspiration came one evening while browsing BoardGameGeek.com.  I found a BGG user named Jeremiah Lee who had designed a neat little game called Zombie In My Pocket and posted it on BGG for everyone to consume.  For free.  I hadn’t encountered Print and Play before that point, but I was instantly awed by his success.  His game received significant traffic and it wasn’t long before other people started making custom sets with fancy graphics.  It was the ticket I had been looking for.  A way to share my games with the world without fighting through the publication process.

The actual design process for Scallywags was not all that dissimilar to my first game design from 10 years prior.  There was a flurry of inspiration, some quick math, and I immediately started working on the first prototype.  The game involves coins that only have their value printed on one side.  While that is not necessarily a unique component, I had an interesting mechanic to go with it.  What if the coins were shaken up and dumped on the table to land either face up or face down?

I thought that would be a neat way to randomize point distribution so that not all information was perfectly available.  I had already decided that players were trying to amass the most gold, now I just needed to figure out a way to distribute the coins to the players.  That’s where cards come in.  Going back to some of the fun take-that mechanics of James Earnest’s Cheapass Games, I wanted to have players taking coins and giving coins from this central pile.  Players would be able to look at face down coins and hand them to opponents, or take the risk and snatch up face down coins for themselves without looking first.  There’d be cards that would let you steal opponent’s coins and cards that let you trade.

A little bit of math helped me work out how many coins there would be of each value as well as how many of each of the eight different cards would appear in the deck.  This is the part of designing that I really love.  I’m not a mathematician or statistician.  I’m not even really all that smart.  However, I love breaking games down and analyzing the related probabilities.  It is exceptionally rewarding when it is my own game.  I only spent about an hour working through the specifics of the coins and cards.  I was already in love with the game and wasted no time starting on the artwork.

Now, I can draw some cartoon characters, but I’m no artist.  The good news is that this was a goofy game and my little characters were a perfect fit.  I was so sure that this game was going to be good I didn’t even playtest it before the art was done.  The first time I presented the game to my regular group, I had a full color printing of the cards and slick wooden coins that I stamped with a custom rubber stamp.  In fact, the components never changed from that fist playtest through submitting to BGG and the publisher.  Sure, some rules changed, but the components worked well together and my math turned out to be pretty solid.

The game was titled Doubloons! at this time.  I had wanted to call it Loot, but I learned that there was already a game titled Loot that just happened to be about pirates and their treasure.  I picked a new name and submitted it to BoardGameGeek.  I remember waiting for it to be approved.  It took days, but felt like weeks.

Meanwhile, I refined the files a bit and tidied things up for printing.  I used business cards for prototyping because they are generally the same size and shuffle easily.  With the advent of printable business cards, I didn’t see any reason to do anything differently.  The card files were formatted to be printed on punchable business cards and I reduced the rules to a single page.

I was ready for BGG fame.  I was certain that I had picked a theme and a specific set of mechanics that would appeal to a broad range of BGGers and soon I would be swamped with fan mail.  That almost happened!

Thank you for reading Part 1 of Chevee Dodd’s story! Come back Friday to read Part 2. 

Field Marshals Checkup #1

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I keep making good progress towards making Field Marshals solid. I’ve just changed/added a few significant components to the rules, so I wanted to share and discuss them here, as well as cover a few other topics related to my snazzy war game.

Rules Updates

You can read the latest rules in their entirety here. Here is a quick rundown of the changes the game has seen.

  • Now 2-4 players: When I originally designed the game I intended and tested it with 5 players. Since then, I’ve only tested it with 2, 3, or 4 players. For a while I toyed with the notion of taking it to 6, but ultimately felt it would be too chaotic with that many players. I feel the same thing about 5, so I’m reducing it to 4. 4 players makes each round a little more predictable and reduces my component costs. Also, as long as the game is fun with 2, 3, or 4 (which it is), I don’t feel that taking it down from 4 is a deathblow. Plus, I can always add it back.
  • Orders: Since the beginning, the game has lacked a great win condition or end point. I’ve tested it where players need to conquer X number of territories, earn Y number of Coal, and a few other things. Ultimately, it was a bit too scattered. Now, to focus players and have fewer things to remember, each player will receive 3 Orders. Each order will give a task (like Conquer X territories), that, when completed, awards a set number of points.
  • Better Tactics: I’ve upped the tuning on the Tactics so that they are more potent and useful. Encirclement now lets you capture 3, instead of 2. Bombardment kills 3, instead of 2. I want Tactics to be decisive.
  • Attrition: I’ve been trying to think of a clean way to incorporate more long-term attrition into the game, i.e. a way to reduce a player’s potential Unit pool. One of the Orders tasks the player with winning a certain number of battles. I needed a way to track it, so I came up with a neat little way to do so that also solves my attrition problem. The winner of a battle now takes one of the loser’s Units as a Trophy. (Note: Matt Worden also suggested this. If two of us independently came up with it, the idea must be good!)
  • 2 Player Improvement: I continue to touch up and improve the rules for 2 player games. I’m actually surprised how well the game plays with only 2. The puppet state (now Allies in the rules) idea has worked really well.
  • Civil War: A very minor tweak. Instead or representing foreign nations, each player is now a Field Marshal vying for control in a disintegrating empire. I always thought the map, a series of odd shaped territories, was awkward as different countries. Now, it’s regions of one large country.

Further Development

There are a few areas I’m worried about with the current game. There are always so many simple variables to tweak and I want to prove out more things before I say “done” and send out blind test copies.

  • Card Distribution: I’m toying with the idea of adding another General or another Cavalry to the deck. But, I don’t want players retreating too often or surprising attackers with a General too often.
  • Orders: I have no doubt tuning these will be a headache. The points awarded in many different combinations will need to be examined and put through their paces. I’ll also need to verify that it’s possible to complete 2 of the Orders in most combinations. I don’t want 2 of the 4 players to get hosed because they were randomly assigned a crummy combination of orders.
  • 5 Players: For some reason I want to add a fifth player! But, I’ll need to revisit the map (again, what a pain!) and make sure everyone is interacting with each other. I don’t want a 5th player off in the corner just keeping to himself.
  • Map Tweaks: I may need to reduce the size of the map slightly — just by 1 or 2 territories. But, where do I remove and where do I shift?

Expansion Ideas

One thing that really excites me about Field Marshals is just how many cool expansion ideas I have. Expansions come naturally for some games, but not all. For example, it wasn’t obvious where to take Farmageddon, but I have many great ideas for Field Marshals.

I don’t know what the future holds for this game, but I’d love to do some of these expansions.

  • Naval: Seaports are one of the better additions since I began prototyping this game. This naturally begs for actual Naval Units, Naval Cards, Naval Orders, and Naval Tactics.
  • Terrain Types: Definitely a smaller expansion, but I’d love to add forest and mountain terrain tokens to modify Tactics and potentially add new Orders. Also, potentially cities.
  • New Armies: Currently, the game features 4 identical vanilla armies based on the standard tactics of the Prussian, British, or French armies in the 19th century. I’d love to add new decks with new units and tactics, including one focused on Guerrilla warfare, one more focused on spycraft and deception, the massed infantry armies (i.e. Russia), and more. I feel this is a great way to add new content to the game in small chunks. Wizard Kings and Summoner Wars both do this and I love it.
  • Scenarios: This is one I’d deliver to players as a freebie. I’d love to create new stories and scenarios that change the starting positions of players, the premise, the team arrangements, the victory conditions, and more. This one naturally leads into…
  • Campaign: I love the idea of Risk: Legacy and the Memoir ’44 Campaign book. I don’t plan for players to begin drawing on the game board for Field Marshals, but I very much want to design a cohesive 3-5 game campaign setup that’s driven by the results of each game. You could think of each game as a few months or a year in the war. If X, Y, and W are present, go to scenario 5 and play it. It’d be the type of thing only for really hardcore players or people at a Con, but I think it’s really fun content to create and play.

The Awesome Version

I have this wild crazy silly idea. Very early in the Field Marshals‘ prototyping process I felt like the game gave off a classic vibe. It’s about controlling territory with wooden cubes and playing cards with simple silhouettes. It’s based on wars thought to be more “romantic” and “glorious” in their time periods and is meant to be fairly straight forward and elegant in presentation.

I want to create a really gorgeous wooden version of the game. Wooden board with little slots to place the initiative disks and turn order tokens. A hand-crafted box to contain everything. Little tokens with laser etched or carved symbols. Something like this.

This won’t be cheap. I’m currently researching several options to see what is and isn’t feasible. In all cases, there are basically 2 options:

  1. I personally finance about 10 copies and sell them out. My primary goal would be to still find a publisher.
  2. I go “whole-hog” and Kickstart it to try to sell hundreds of copies. This would prevent me (probably) from finding a publisher, but I’d have full creative control on the product.

I haven’t done a full business analysis of the costs and whatnot. I doubt it would be cheap. My question for you is, would you buy Field Marshals for $100 if it came in a gorgeous, one of a kind wooden setup? What about $125? If the answer is no, I’d love to hear that as well.

Make Good Rules

Jay Treat is a really smart designer. If you follow him, interact with him, or attend an UnPub to play his games, you’ll quickly agree. He’s thoughtful, and direct. I wrote a post about rules writing on my old blog. I intended to update it and improve it for this site, but then Jay sent me his submission and I saw that my work was unnecessary. Read, enjoy, and learn!

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

One of the most common mistakes new designers make is underestimating the importance of rules. Obviously, you made the rules that make the game, but did you write them down? I often forego that step for initial playtests because they’re so primordial at that stage you’re more likely to change everything than not. However, once you’ve arrived at the point where you basically know what your game is and are just working out the kinks, you absolutely need to sit down and write the rules. This is important, not just because the finished game will need a rulebook, but to help codify the exact wording you want. Details like determining the starting player and tie breakers may not have a big impact on how your game plays, but they do make a difference and you can’t fudge them once your game is shrink-wrapped. You’ll also need to have playtesters learn the game by reading the rules (to make sure they make sense) and you can’t do that if there are no rules for them to read.

I want to take a moment today to walk you through some tips that will help you produce readable, functional, and flawless rules.

Making Rules :: Programming

Establishing the rules for a game is a lot like programming. A lot. It’s not enough to know how things are going to go in the ideal situation or the most common situations, you need to understand exactly what will happen in every possible situation — no matter how unlikely it may be — and your game can’t break under any of them. Every board game has corner cases, but they become exponentially more common as complexity increases. Games like Cosmic Encounter with pieces that trump the rules of the game are littered with combinations that are ambiguous at best. Ambiguous rules cause arguments and very few gamers enjoy real-life confrontation.

While the first stage of playtesting is about finding the fun of the game and making things generally click, the second and third stages are going to require a lot of bug-hunting. Make play choices that seem suboptimal so that you can check previously unseen combinations and verify that the rules don’t fall apart. If there are two many permutations to try them all, make a spreadsheet and do the math to make sure scenario 13 and scenario 74 don’t result in an unfinishable game.

Also like programming, syntax can be the devil. Missing a semicolon? Your code may not compile. Got an ‘and’ where you wanted an ‘or’? Players who learn the game from the rules might be learning a different — hopefully worse — game. This is another reason you want multiple foreign eyes going over your rules; these kinds of mistakes are usually invisible to their author.

Ad Absurdum

The best way to make sure your game always plays as expected is to test the extremes. If a player can roll all 1′s in your dice game and is guaranteed to come in last place, that doesn’t just indicate that one in a million games will be an auto-loss, it strongly suggests that many games could be skewed to the point of being unfun. If, on the other hand, there is no combination of luck that can guarantee a loss, perhaps given a particular strategy, then you can be confident that no game in the possible spectrum will be ruined for that reason.

You have to check both extremes too, of course. In particular, watch out for a dominant strategy. If there’s any one path a player can take that will always yield the best chance of winning, you can be sure that everyone who figures it out will use it every time and that nobody will be interested in playing again. Similarly, if there’s a strategy that’s guaranteed to lose, no one will ever take it and it’s just adding clutter to your game. Fix it or pitch it.

Every Rule Has an Exception*

You can’t break the law. Unless you’re a cop, politician, or diplomat. Or unless you don’t get caught. Or unless you’ve accepted the legal repercussions. Once you’re in jail, you can’t leave before you’ve served your sentence. Unless you’re well-behaved. Or well-connected. Or escape.

As much as every game must have rules, games almost universally are made interesting by the exceptions to those rules. Small World is a great example. Everyone follows the same rules of playing tokens and attacking regions, but what makes the game worth playing are the races and the abilities that break those rules. Exceptions are so central to the identity of rules that you could argue a rule is defined by its exceptions. Games like Magic: the Gathering are so defined by their exceptions, that the exceptions have their own exceptions.

Not sure where to go with your next game project? Make a rule. Ideally, a stifling, prohibitive rule. How much can you build within the constraints of that rule? (Restrictions breed creativity, but that’s a whole other article. Aaand here it is.) Once you’ve reached the limits within that rule, break it. Not completely, of course; you’d lose everything. Just make one little exception. I can’t guarantee this exercise will produce anything fun, but chances are good it will be interesting and the challenge enlightening.

*Except those that don’t.

Less Isn’t Worse

It’s entirely natural to keep adding cool new things to your game. A is cool, therefore wouldn’t A+B and A+C be even cooler? Whether they are or not, you need to seriously consider whether those additions are needed to make the game fun or if they just add more bulk to the rules and thus length and difficulty to learning the game.

It’s so natural to keep adding more things to your game, that you’re often not even aware of it. You produce your first prototype or your last and say this is the game and nothing extra, but you’ve been playing with parts for so long that they feel inseparable to you, even though they’re not. One of the hardest parts of game design is knowing what to exclude from your game and trimming legitimately fun things away from a working game. But it’s important because the best games are always tight packages, metaphorically, presenting only the bare minimum components and rules needed to enjoy the game and nothing else.

Failing to trim your game into a lean mean fun machine will almost invariably cost you publication because extra parts make the game more expensive, extra rules make the game less accessible, and the combination makes a game no one wants to take a chance on. Can you save these cool bits for an expansion? Tuck them at the bottom of the box with a note that says “don’t open until your fifth game?” Often times, getting the core game published, played, and reviewed gives you the perspective to inform sequels and expansions that will validate some of your excised ideas, mutate others, completely negate the bulk of them, and then add new, better ones. It’s hard to see when you’re cutting your darlings, but in the end, it really is for the best.

Unenforceable Rules

Sometimes a game knowingly includes a rule that’s impossible for other players to verify for correctness, and sometimes these tricky situations just sneak in. “Draw two cards, then put one back on the top of your deck.” If you put the cards you drew into your hand, your opponent can’t be sure that the card you put back was part of that pair or had already been in your hand. If you’re not paying attention, you may not even be able to tell.

I love flicking games, but they often involve keeping track of what hit what and considering the number of pieces that can be involved and the speed at which many flicks happen. It’s often highly debatable (if not a complete mystery) whether my piece hit your piece before or after it hit my other piece, or whether it was my other piece that the first knocked into yours. Rules that depend on knowing these things are flawed.

This is actually the biggest problem with the holy grail of simultaneous real-time play. Woe to the new designer who wants to brilliantly eliminate all downtime from her multiplayer games by making them real-time. It is a path fraught with peril. Every game like this that I’ve played requires so much attention to your own area of interest that you’d be lucky to have a passing idea what your immediate neighbors are doing, much less the players further away. That ultimately means it’s up to you to make sure you play correctly. Even if you assume everyone in your game is 100% honorable and would never intentionally cheat, the chances that everyone understands the rules well enough to play without error while things get fast-paced and hairy are usually nil.

You want to avoid ambiguous situations and those that require the honor code whenever possible. Outside of tournaments, the vast majority of players will never cheat. Not only is it wrong, it defeats the joy of besting your pals in a friendly battle of wits. But there are always exceptions. It’s not just the twisted players who take more joy from cheating without being caught than they do from winning. I know people who will break a game just to demonstrate that the game is breakable, with no intention of profiting from it themselves. And when it comes to tournaments where real pride and sometimes real money is on the line, I wouldn’t be surprised if a third of the room would cheat given the opportunity.

Learning a Game
I don’t have any stats, but from my own experience and from my various playgroups, I’d estimate that on average, a player learns ten games by playing with someone who already knows the rules for every one that they buckle down and read the rules themselves. Even if it’s not 10:1, it’s 4:1 at the very bare minimum. The rules for some games have never been read because they’ve never been written — consider folk games like Charades, Celebrities, Werewolf, Ring around the Rosy, and The Paper Game. Granted, many of these have been published after the fact, but the point stands.

It’s vitally important that your rules are clear enough and readable enough (simple, fun language that isn’t ten pages long) that the first person who reads them understands them well enough to teach them, and it’s equally important that your rules are short and resonant enough to be passed along orally.

A lot of players, particularly the sort I gravitate toward, would prefer to start playing a game as soon as possible and learn the details of the game as we play and make mistakes rather than sit through an entire reading before getting to do anything at all. Consider the possibility of writing the rules to your game in a way that supports this kind of play. It’s not always possible, but it adds a lot of value for the people who enjoy that. Sometimes, it’s as simple as telling the reader the objective, the basic flow of the game (what you’ll be doing and the major mechanics you’ll be using) and how to set up. From there, players can read each step of the game as they get to it. Again, this doesn’t work for every game, but when it does, it’s a beautiful thing.

Intuitive Rules / Game Kinesthetics
A good science fiction story asks its viewer to accept a new reality. It can be anything from, “it’s the future, we can travel faster than light, and there are other humanoid lifeforms with advanced technology” all the way to “everyone’s a different freaky alien, there’s technology that’s basically magic, and a bunch of us have superpowers to boot” and beyond. The viewer accepts that reality, and the power of suspension of disbelief prevents their natural “that’s not real!” instincts from rejecting the experience. It’s very engrossing… until the story breaks its own rules. How many riots would there be if Captain Picard force-lifted Deanna Troi and dropped her down the core shaft? All of them, that’s correct. All the riots.

The point is that whatever absurd reality you create for your game, every single entity must remain as true as possible to that reality. This is what I mean by ‘resonance’ or it will kill the illusion and your players might as well be playing an abstract game with no theme at all. If you’ve got a battle game where everything has a size stat, you can’t give your killer housecat a 3 while your german shepherd has a 2, even if the housecat has laser claws that’ll make it win every time. If you’ve got an Animal House game in which anthropomorphic animals party together, don’t make the spiders more sociable than the pigs. We’ve accepted that cats can have laser claws and that spiders can talk and dance, but we haven’t forgotten that we already know that dogs are bigger than cats and pigs aren’t creepy eight-eyed monsters that eat their own. (Don’t you hate spiders?)

You also need to ensure that playing your game is what it sounds like it will be from the box. Have you ever mistakenly put sugar on your food when you wanted salt? You like sugar, it might not even be a bad combination with your meal, but when you first taste it and it’s not what you were expecting, you’ll spit it out. Sugar is good at being sugar, but it’s terrible at being salt. If your box looks light and silly, don’t give your players a three-hour epic strategy. If your box shows a robotic firefight, don’t make your players trade robot parts in a marketplace. They expect fierce metallic combat.

This extends beyond Box versus High-Level Gameplay all the way down to the individual components. If players find dice in the box, they’re going to want to roll them. If it turns out you’re just using them to count from 1-6, your players will be disappointed. If they open a deck of cards, someone’s going to shuffle it before the person reading the rules can get to “lay the cards out in order” and they’ll be annoyed. If you give them plastic pieces that stack well and never let them stack, expect angry letters. In the ideal situation, your components should be so obvious that players can basically play the game without reading any rules. I’m not saying that’s often achievable, but it is the ideal and you want to get as close to it as you can while preserving the unique fun of your game.

In Summary
Make good rules.

Proud Prototype Papa

To say I’m enamored of my war game Field Marshals is a bit of an understatement. I’m fairly proud of the game, even though I know she has a long way to go. Since Farmageddon, I’ve killed two bad designs, spent 8 months trying to revive what may be a lost cause, and watched dozens of ideas just flounder. But, Field Marshals really excites me. I think it can eventually be a good, accessible war game worthy of publication. Fingers crossed!

I’ve spent a few nights building a really nice prototype. Most of the time I subject my testers to playing with colored index cards until I feel confident enough to order a nicer prototype through sites like The Game Crafter. I wanted to do something special with Field Marshals and my work has paid off. The purpose of this post is twofold:

  1. Show off the game!
  2. Tell you what I used so that it may help you when building your own prototypes.

Sourcing the Wood

Craft Parts has a fantastic selection of wooden components at very reasonable prices. My game has a large number of wooden tokens, so I bought a bag of wooden disks, then stamped them with the appropriate symbols. I also wanted to build tiny fortresses, so I bought wooden blocks and little flat square tiles, which I then glued to the blocks.

To create coal, I spray painted a handful of the wooden disks with…spray paint. Although you can purchase little pawns from Craft Parts (If I’m not mistaken, it’s where Dice Hate Me Games bought their “brewples” for Viva Java), I used the extra pawns I received with Flash Point.

For my unit tokens (little colored cubes), I pillaged a classic box of Risk I have lying around. For only $20 the game provides HUNDREDS of pre-painted cubes. Quite handy!

One of the biggest inspirations for a mechanic in Field Marshals is the result of numbered wooden coins I bought from Aaron Brothers. Keep your eyes peeled any time you visit a remotely artsy store — you may find amazing components.

Stamps, Fancy Papier

There’s a really cool print/paper craft store in my neighborhood called Paper Source. Perhaps you have one near you? If not, Michael’s or any other craft store should have what you need. For my capital tokens I bought a star stamp. I found a really simple anchor stamp for my seaports, then purchased a set of letters for everything else.

The game uses a really simple card layout. Each player has a small deck of identical cards. I bought blank, colored business cards from Paper Source in packs of 25 for $2 apiece. I then printed the symbols on simple square labels and appended them to the cards. The cards look great and they shuffle better than index cards.

Labels are your friend. Go to Office Depot and buy labels in all sizes.

For my game board I purchased Illustration Board from Office Depot. I was even able to make a set of thick player reference boards using the extras after sizing the board down. Again, labels were my friend. I also bought some lamination material to apply once the board layout settles down a bit.

I purchased the little cloth bag from Paper Source.

Finally, I am never without a stack of pencils, erasers, white-out, scissors, super glue, wood glue, crayons, and card stock. These are the tools of prototyping and you should have a desk covered in this junk.

I spent many hours printing and applying labels, tracing circles, gluing wood (and ungluing my fingers), but it was ultimately well worth it. It sounds silly, but a nice prototype makes a huge difference. Instead of a game that looks like work, you suddenly have a game that looks like fun. Never underestimate the impact this can have on your testers.

Share your prototype pictures. What tips do you have?

Designer To-Do List

The article is another one that may be of questionable value to you, dear reader. I just know that I think about these things all the time and one of the purposes of a blog is to catalog thoughts. Also, as with all posts, perhaps it’ll generate a conversation? What are your goals?  

Post by: Grant Rodiek

When setting out to do things, grand things, things of great import, I find it useful to set goals. Goals focus the mind, ease the self-acknowledgement of priorities, and guide decisions that need to be made.

Goals should be sensible, but there should also be a few ridiculous ones. A few months ago I thought it would be ridiculous to have a game published, and yet Farmageddon is being manufactured in the thousands right now. It’s good to check off the single (baseball metaphor) with some frequency, but also to achieve the grand slam on rare occasions.

Here are some of my goals for the board game design realm. Note that I didn’t set a time limit as I’m in no hurry. One more thing to note! If you’re curious how you can meet your own personal design goals, be sure to read Corey Young’s outstanding article about pitching to publishers. It all starts with a great pitch…

Reasonable Goals: These are in no particular order. I define reasonable as possible through determination and time.

  • Have a game on the shelf at Barnes and Noble and Target. I’m obsessed with accessibility and reaching the mass market. With the board game audience growing and retailers showing more interest, now is the time.
  • Receive an invite to the Gathering of Friends. Attending this invitation-only annual event begun by Alan Moon would be amazing. Play games with the greats? Who see me as a peer? Yes, please.
  • Design published games within several genres. Vlaada Chvátil is known for creating games in a huge variety of genres. He has a co-op game that uses a CD Rom. He has an Ameritrash/Euro game about managing a dungeon. He has an epic adventure RPG like game driven by deckbuilding mechanics. He also has a game about building space trucks in real time. Over the course of time, I want to be known for great variety. Stefan Feld is also ridiculously innovative.
  • Win some Awards! My friend Cole Medeiros’s game GUBS has received several and seems to receive new nominations with startling frequency. I want some shiny stickers for the box cover of a game I design. This also means competing in competitions. I’m currently contemplating submitting Field Marshals to the 2012 Premio Archimede, though the timeline is a bit rushed.
  • Have a game published by a large, traditional publisher. I enjoy competition. Submitting a game to a huge, traditional publisher who may only publish a handful of games every year is quite competitive. I’d love to design a game published by Days of Wonder, Gamewright, or Academy Games (three of my favorites).
  • Have a game translated. I love to joke that the German version of Farmageddon is Färmündgötten, but the truth is I wish it were really localized for the European markets. With success will come andere sprache, ja?
  • Sell games from my site. I don’t mean I’ll be a full on publisher (though that might be neat). But, if I created something fantastic that also fell within a price point that I could spend the money to manufacture it and sell it, I’d like to do so. Perhaps a simple dice game or a hand-crafted, boutique style board game? Doing this requires trust and a name that people respect, so succeeding here requires time and long-term diligence.

Ridiculous Goals: These are in no particular order. I define ridiculous as possible with a spark of brilliance and a little luck.

  • Design a unique mechanic. I will always try to come up with nifty mechanics. Currently I feel my game Field Marshals does a few unique things. But, nothing I’ve done so far, or perhaps will ever do, will be as genre defining as Donald X. Vaccarino with Dominion. But, it’s the Holy Grail of Game Design, as Ray Mazza noted. I shall seek it.
  • Design a game that makes a fellow designer say aloud “I wish I would have thought of that.” I say this all the time. I want somebody to say it about a game I made.
  • Earn a spot on a Top Ten list. Games with Two, a blog, has been updating their Top 10 list over the past few days. I’m not going to lie — even though I KNOW I’m not on the list with Farmageddon, I really want to be there. Tom Vasel also has a Top 100 video. To have somebody say “something you designed is one of my 10 favorites” is a huge honor.

What drives you? What are your goals?

Game Design Gone Loopy

I bumped into Jesse Catron on The Game Crafter chat when I first joined the small online board game design community. Jesse sent me a copy of his prototype Pond Farr and it was a real hit with my group. It’s lighthearted, has a good degree of take-that and player interaction, and beautifully incorporates a deckbuilding mechanic into a board game. It’s a really clever game and falls into the “I wish I thought of that” category.

By playing Pond Farr (soon to be published by Gryphon Games as Salmon Run) and interacting with Jesse, you quickly learn two things: One, Jesse is really clever and thoughtful. And two, he’s a ridiculously nice guy. I was really glad he took the time to write a guest column for this blog.

Guest Column by: Jesse Catron

I was honored when Grant asked me to write something for his blog, but I really had no idea what to write about, nor did I know whether anyone would care to read what I have to say.  I certainly don’t presume to be an expert in game design, nor an expert in writing articles. Nonetheless, after a few weeks of drawing blanks, I finally thought of a topic that I find interesting and relevant to game design. It’s also one which hasn’t really been covered (at least not to my knowledge).  Despite the title, I will not be writing about crazy game designs or crazy game designers.  I’ll leave that for another article.  Instead, I thought I would write about feedback loops and how they relate to game design.

Feedback loops are fairly common in many aspects of life. Some examples include the thermostat in your home, the hormonal systems of the human body, and even the guitar sounds of the late Jimi Hendrix. All are controlled by feedback loops. In general terms, a feedback loop is a control of a system in which the output of the system cycles back to affect the input of the system. This feedback can either be positive or negative. Note that it is not positive and negative in a sense of good and bad, rather that the feedback amplifies the output (positive) or diminishes the output (negative).

When your home’s heating system heats the house to a certain temperature, that higher temperature triggers your thermostat to turn off your furnace.  If the temperature falls too low, the low temperature triggers your furnace to turn back on. You can quickly see that feedback loops of this nature can be good at regulating a system into stability.  This is the hallmark of a negative feedback loop. The initial output of the system (increased temperature) affects the input of the system such that the future output of the system is regulated or diminished (your furnace turns off so the temperature will not continue to increase).

Just as negative feedback loop stabilizes a system, a positive feedback loop tends to destabilize a system. The self-perpetuating nature of the amplification in a positive feedback loop will send the system out of control. It’s like holding a microphone too close to a loudspeaker; the audio output of the speaker is looped into the input of the microphone, which then results in increased sound (output) out of the speaker. This increased (louder) output of the speaker is again picked up by the microphone and results in an ever-increasing output of sound until nothing but a high-pitched squeal can be heard.  Left unchecked, a positive feedback loop will spiral out of control.

So what does this have to do with board games?  If you analyze board games in terms of feedback loops, you can see how commonplace they are and how useful they can be in game design. The ability to recognize feedback loops and identify how they can cause or solve design issues is a useful skill for a game designer.

Let’s take a look at how a feedback loop can cause a problem in a game. One that comes to mind is the run-away leader. In this scenario, one player takes an early lead and can’t be caught by the other players. This is often, but not always, caused by a positive feedback mechanism.  When dealing with a run-away leader problem, you either need to eliminate the positive feedback loop or add something to keep it in check, often a negative feedback loop.

For example, in Settlers of Catan, the player with the most productive settlements will generate the most resources, which enables him to build more settlements and gain even more resources. This is a positive feedback loop. A player with favorable rolls and/or strategically well-placed initial settlements can often take an early lead. However, there are several factors in place to mitigate this potential run-away leader.  Firstly, the randomness of later dice rolls may slow this player. However, relying on bad luck is not a good method of hampering a run-away leader. A more useful method is to introduce a negative feedback loop to the system, which is often known as a catch-up mechanic. In Settlers, this is done via the Robber. The Robber is placed on a resource hex to prevent production at that location. In a game with a clear leader, the other players will invariably place the robber on location that will most hamper the resource production of the leading player, slowing down the leader and allowing the others to catch up. The Robber is not a flawless catch-up mechanism, however. The leading player will likely have the greatest ability to buy Soldier cards and move the Robber to lessen its effectiveness at slowing him down. The run-away leader is also regulated by the trading mechanic in the game.  Most players will be less likely to trade with the leader, or if they do trade, they drive a harder bargain. This is usually quite effective.

You may be thinking that negative feedback loops (stability) are always good and positive feedback loops are always bad (instability).  While often true, this is not always the case.  For example, in Monopoly (I realize not the best game design), there is a positive feedback system in which the player collects monopolies or properties that generate wealth. This allows the player to collect more and better properties and therefore collect even more wealth.  Granted, there are mitigations to the loop like the luck of the rolls, but the positive feedback system in Monopoly is essential to drive the game to its conclusion and prevent it from dragging on forever. One player’s wealth must grow and grow (amplify) until the other players are bankrupt.  Many player-elimination games are designed this way.

Perhaps the best example of the usefulness of feedback loops can be found in deck-building games. Let’s use Dominion, the granddaddy of deck-building, as an example.  If you think about it, what are you actually doing when you play Dominion? You’re essentially trying to build the most efficient and powerful positive feedback system.  Let’s set aside the Victory cards for a moment and examine the Treasure cards. You begin with a number of weak Copper cards. You play some Copper cards to gain a better Silver card. The output of you playing Copper cards is a Silver card, which in turn affects the future output of your deck. That Silver card will cycle back into your hand, which gives you more buying power and therefore enables you to eventually purchase Gold. The buying power of the deck is amplified with each cycle. This is a basic positive feedback loop.

Though a bit more complicated, the Kingdom cards work in a similar fashion.  Most Kingdom cards amplify your deck’s ability to play more cards per turn and/or make more purchases (or better purchases) and those abilities are compounded with each cycle of the deck.  A few Kingdom cards, like Militia or the Witch, work by introducing negative feedback into your opponents’ positive feedback engine, but these are exceptions.  Being that Dominion is a game centered around creating a positive feedback system through the Treasure cards and most of the Kingdom cards, would it therefore have an inherent run-away leader problem?  No, and the reason it doesn’t is the genius of the design in my opinion.  Donald X. Vaccarino wisely used a negative feedback system as the victory condition. The Victory cards hamper the positive feedback system you are building, yet are essential to winning the game.  Deck-Building games are great examples of the effective use of both positive and negative feedback loops.

As an aside, while most early deck-builders like Dominion utilize the construction, development, and management of these feedback systems as the whole of the game, the future of this game genre is to use it as one component of a greater game with a larger scope.  This is already occurring with games like A Few Acres of Snow and Mage Knight.  I digress.

Clearly, both positive and negative feedback loops can be used effectively in game design.  Positive feedback loops can, but not necessarily, cause run-away leader problems.  It is vital to be able to recognize them when they do cause problems and to know how to effectively use negative feedback loops to keep them in check. In my own design, a deck-building racing game called Salmon Run (the game formerly known as Pond Farr), I had to be especially cognizant of its positive feedback system and utilize sufficient negative feedback systems to keep the leader in check.  No one wants a run-away leader in a racing game!  Fortunately, I succeeded and most games are very close.

Thank you for reading! I hope you find this article useful in your game designs.

What are some other examples of games with good (or bad) positive and negative feedback loops? Contribute in the comments below!

Update! Daniel Solis created a really cool infographic to visually break down the post written by Jesse Catron (and others, as cited on Daniel’s site). I wanted to include it here so that you have the WHOLE enchilada in one place.

Mechanically Sound #2

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Mechanically Sound is a recurring column in which I quickly detail some interesting game mechanics that have appealed to me recently. By promoting the mechanics, I’m not necessarily recommending the game itself (though that’s often the case). I want to hear from YOU as well. What are some great mechanics?

I have been uncommonly busy these last few weeks, which means I’ve played fewer new games. Nonetheless, a few interesting mechanics have caught my attention. For this column I’ll be briefly discussing the interesting bidding mechanic in The Speicherstadt, the market in Octopus’ Garden, and 1812: The Invasion of Canada‘s flee mechanic.

Bidding in The Speicherstadt

Typically in a bidding game players go around one-upping each other. “I’ll pay 5.” “Oh yeah, I’ll pay 6.” And so forth. The Speicherstadt by Stefan Feld presents a fantastic twist to the traditional bidding mechanic that deepens the choices.

There are a set number of cards available each round. Each card can be won by a single player or no players if there are no bids. Each player has a finite number of meeples that he places on a track above a card to denote a bid. The first token means two things: the first player gets first right of refusal to buy the card and the card costs one coin.

However, this is where things get tricky. For each additional meeple placed, the cost increases by 1. If two meeples are placed, the first player can buy it for 2 coins. If there are three meeples, the cost is 3 coins. The first player may pass on the bid and remove his meeple. Now, the player with the second meeple has the option to purchase for the cost of the number of meeples behind him. The cost decreases as players pass.

This system allows for a really compelling situation that involves blocking to drive up the price and gaining position to have first choice. Even better, the bids are resolved from left to right, so you can drive up the price on a far right bid knowing your competitor won’t have sufficient funds once he gets there, forcing him to pass. It’s outstanding.

The Market in Octopus’ Garden

On each player’s turn in Octopus’ Garden by Roberta Taylor, the active player may purchase objects for her ocean. However, the options available for purchase are drawn randomly from a bag. Secondly, the player must buy an entire row or column of objects.

This means if you want the oyster, you need to buy the grass and coral as well. That means you need to pay full price and fill your ocean with less than optimal items.

Octopus’ Garden in particular lacks something that really makes it a game that you want to keep coming back to, but the market mechanic is really excellent and may fit perfectly within your design.

Fleeing in 1812: The Invasion of Canada

1812: The Invasion of Canada by Jeph Stahl and Beau Beckett is an outstanding game that I could reference constantly. To be honest, I probably will.

The game features a novel form of attrition that uniquely alters the state of the game constantly. There are 5 factions in the game: British Regulars, American Regulars, Canadian Militia, American Militia, Native Americans. Each faction player rolls a unique set of dice. All dice have 3 possible faces: Hit, Flee, or blank (command decision). Hits allow you to remove enemy units (i.e. a kill) whereas command decision has a variety of effects. Let’s focus on Flee.

For every Flee symbol that is rolled, the active player must remove and place 1 Unit onto the Fled space on the board. At the start of his next turn, these units are placed back on the board far back at the player’s muster area (i.e. spawn point). Ultimately, the units aren’t killed, but they are removed from the front lines and must be brought back to the front. This takes time and often, you need the units in the battle right now.

The other beautiful aspect of this mechanic is that it’s a brilliant way to demonstrate the personality of the units. British Regulars never fleet. Never. They will stand and fight until they are killed or you move them. American Regulars rarely Flee, but they still do it. The Militia on both sides constantly Flee and by mid-game they are a joke to all involved. This is historically accurate, but also incredibly elegant.

What have you encountered lately that really stood out? List it in the comments below!