The Terror of Pitching

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I haven’t had to pitch a game since January 2012. It was 7 months ago when 5th Street Games licensed Farmageddon for publication. Since then, I’ve been working on the Farmageddon expansion, Poor Abby (shelved), and now, the glorious Empire Reborn. Pitching your game to a publisher is miserable, terrifying, and bound to be full of disappointment. Hooray for me, I’m about to jump head first into that fun again!

I’ve been crunching away on Empire Reborn for a few reasons. One, I really like the game and I’m delighted to finally have another title that isn’t painfully bad (game design is hard). Secondly, I know from experience that sending emails is a fool’s errand and GenCon is an amazing, 4 day opportunity to demonstrate the game in person and at the very least, get much faster turn around on that “nope.”

I learned quite a bit in my search to find a publisher for Farmageddon. Most importantly, don’t pitch your game to publishers who will have no interest in publishing it. Farmageddon is a casual card game. GMT, for example, will NEVER publish a game like Farmageddon. No, I wasn’t that dumb, but honestly, there were times when I was close. I won’t be the first to say it, but I’ll say it again as it’s worth mentioning: Only pitch to people who care to hear it. Pitch to the right publishers. 

For Empire Reborn, this is an interesting list. It’s a war game with some area control strategy elements. It’s based (currently) in a fictional, approximately19th century world. There isn’t a “ah, yeah, THAT publisher.” In retrospect, THAT publisher for Farmageddon is 5th Street and Gamewright. Those are the two.

I’m also torn because, unlike Farmageddon, I’m not paying for the art this time. Therefore, I’m not controlling it. I don’t recommend it per se, but I paid for the majority of the art on Farmageddon and that made things strange in some cases. This time, I haven’t done any art. In fact, I’ve merely explored layout for cards and basic materials. It saddens me that it’s almost entirely assured the art I want to do isn’t the art that will be done if I’m published. If you want complete control, self-publication is the only way. Unfortunately, I cannot afford to self-publish, nor do I have the know-how to do so.

Most ominous, though, is the inevitable string of “no, not for us” responses I will receive. It is  easy, for me at least, to put my game in front of random testers and take in all sorts of difficult feedback. That’s testing and design and it’s 100% within my control. But, when I’m asking a publisher to take a big risk on my game, see the potential, and believe in me as a designer, that’s out of my hands. What if someone pitches a game they like more? What if they are in a bad mood? What if I said something stupid at some point? What if Russia invades and a subtle theme in my game becomes taboo?

Gah! It’s like trying to figure out if the girl likes you or not. You know what would make pitching a game simpler? If I could send them a handwritten note that said:

“Do you like my light to medium war game?” Answers: Yes/No/Maybe

But, I’ve learned a lot. It’s been a good year and I’m developing my craft. I’ll find a publisher for Empire Reborn. After all, this war won’t fight itself.

My Inner Publisher

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’d be lying if I said I never want to be a publisher. People who speak to me “offline” (i.e. not publicly on Twitter) have heard me talk about this a bit. Really, it’s the desire to do things on my own, to try out my own ideas and tactics, to publish great things from designers, and carve out a slice. Being entrepreneurial is so very American and the beauty of board and card games is that, if you mind your costs and move slowly, you can do it without losing your shirt.

That’s not really the point of this. The point, is that I love expansions and add-ons for games, both as a developer and as a consumer. I think it’s a real shame that it isn’t more standard. It would definitely be a focus for me if I had the opportunity to make it so. I guess this is a little insight on my inner publisher (see how I tied that together!).

My standard take on expansions as a player is: If I like a thing, I want more of a thing. I suppose I could be lumped into the “Jones Theory” crowd, but I try to not buy multiple games with similar mechanics. If I find a game I love, I want a lot more of that game. I don’t want to buy 15 more games. This is why people love buying Dominion and Settlers expansions. I have a friend who only owns Settlers, but he has every expansion. Why? He loves that game.

As a developer, it’s a great way to earn revenue with a little less risk. You’re building off an existing IP with existing customers. Instead of a huge base game with tons of cards and components, you only need to manufacture a smaller pack. In case you’re curious, there are about 8 The Sims expansions with my name in the credits — I have a lot of experience with this business model and I’m very fond of it. Creature of habit?

I recently received my Alien Frontiers: Factions expansion, as well as the two small add-ons.

The packaging is super high quality, as are the contents inside, and in all 3 of these cases the improvement to the content is really meaningful. The expansion adds several new features and ways to play for only $25. The booster packs, which are approximately $10-15 apiece, add gameplay (the Faction pack on the left), and for the right, they add much cooler components. Custom plastic models instead of generic punchboard? Yep, that’s worth $10. Similar to this component improvement, Fantasy Flight Games sold miniatures for players to add to their Arkham Horror sets. If I was interested in that game, I assure you I’d own all of them.

Summoner Wars is brilliantly expanded constantly by its publisher Plaid Hat Games. For under $15 I can dramatically improve the experience with whole new factions. Even better, you can get the Master Set for under $40 or a more basic starter set for under $20. Such a great way to bring in new players and keep them playing!

Wizard Kings also has expansion armies. Not only do they add new armies, but they come in a VHS box. I own about 6 of these. I own 2 Memoir ’44 expansions and I have my eye on 3 more. Really, I could go on for quite some time!

Folks often scoff at expansions, sometimes for good reason. With some publishers and properties the players feel like they are being had at some point. “Really? Another?” It also rubs consumers the wrong way if they feel like content was withheld in order to make room for an expansion. This has been a recurring PR nightmare in the digital world with DLC shipped on disks. And, some people don’t share my personal mindset. They may not want to play all Summoner Wars all the time. They may want a little of this, a little of that, variety, and a plethora of new.

I’m pondering expansions already for Empire Reborn. I want to add Field Marshals with special abilities and naval units. I want to add new scenarios and campaigns. It’s premature, as the game is still in balance testing, but definitely something I may begin brainstorming more deeply.

What are some of your favorite expansions? What are some things you’d do if you were the publisher?

The Release Valve

Here is another one of those posts where it may have questionable value. But, the purpose of a blog, at times, is to write and catalog things simply because you can.

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve worked in the digital game industry for almost 7 years. At first, it was as if I’d entered Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, minus the Oompa Loompas (mostly). There was, and still is, something magical about getting paid to create a thing purely for the entertainment of others.

Alas, even game development is a job. It’s a career, with benefits, pay, yearly reviews, 401k concerns, managers, long hours at times, and all the normal trappings of every other job. The other truth that all developers must grasp is that you’re ultimately making someone else’s games with someone else’s money. Even the head of the studio is working for the CEO. The CEO works for the shareholders. So it goes.

The key to maintaining one’s sanity in life is to find a creative outlet, essentially a release valve. This applies not only to game developers or those in a creative industry, but anyone with a pulse. My girlfriend creates with flowers as her canvas. This is her valve. She’ll spend long nights designing bouquets and center-pieces for weddings in addition to her normal job. She does this almost at cost, practically as a favor, yet she does it still.

I design games. They are my valve and a key to my happiness. When I have an idea, good or bad, it’s mine. I get to try it on my terms.

Game design is creating a story and a universe with rules of your own invention. Pigs can fly and corn can sprout eyeballs. Orcs fly starfighters and politicians can be noble. Game design is also the crafting of an experience or a particular feeling you want to evoke: Laughter, tension, cleverness, courage.

The labor of game design is filled with what I refer to as “delightful tedium,” including hours of spreadsheet manipulation (do I need 3 or 4 of these cards?), Photoshop tweaks, cutting hundreds of cards, and repainting wooden tokens you stole from your brother’s copy of Risk. I love this. It’s almost as if I’m counting grains of sand, only here, there’s purpose.

This release valve, which I twist on my morning walks and inside my apartment study, is the equivalent of my grandfather’s wood shop. He would gather, re-organize, toil, cut, build, destroy, and tinker for hours. Often he had a goal, but almost as often he had no pursuit other than the delightful labors of mind and body. He sought the best possible way to waste his time, much as I tinker for hours.

The desire to create fun, to build entertainment, is an absolutely noble goal. Happy people live longer, work harder, love deeper, <insert another cliche>, and countless other benefits. It is, as far as I can tell (from rigorous scientific study), the best use of my spare time. But fun is not the only worthwhile pursuit. That’s only one human need and desire. There are countless more!

I realize my audience is entirely filled with game designers, players, and people who get what I’m saying. But, in the hopes that someone outside of this niche stops by, I push you to make something. Create a blog. Tinker with water-colors. Make YouTube videos about Corgis who sing absurdly catchy pop-songs. Or, design games. We all need the delightful tedium. We all need to have something that occurs to us in the lunch line and forces us to pull out a notepad to jot it down.

We need that release valve that makes us interesting, industrious, and happy.

Feel the ‘Spiel

Protospiel is a yearly event held in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It is a gathering for game designers to play each others’ prototypes, gather feedback, socialize, and meet with publishers. It is an event I very much wish to attend. When I put out feelers asking for a guest writer to cover Protospiel, Darrell Hardy matched me with Chris Oltyan. Chris agreed and here we are! 

In many ways, this is a post about the differences between video game development (a career) and board game development (a passion). As a 7 year veteran of the game industry, much of Chris’ commentary makes sense to me. One of the primary reasons I design board games in the first place is to give me a “release valve,” i.e. a way for me to be creative entirely on my terms. I included a few notes in the post, so forgive me for that.

Guest Column by: Chris Oltyan

Why did I want to go to Protospiel?

I am a 12 year veteran of the video game industry, but recently I decided I needed a change. I love video games, but the time was right for me to leave the industry (at least for now) to spend some time with my kids. This is not a quality of life article, but others in the industry can feel free to read the subtext in that statement. I served as producer and designer on approximately 25 shipped products. In my copious free time, I started a paper prototype for a mechanic for an MMO I wanted to make. After seeing my pretend budget for my pretend game, I decided to press forward and make it as a board game instead of waiting for someone to send me $35 million. By the way, if you are interested in handing me $35 million, please make the check payable to Chris Oltyan and comment below to coordinate the deposit into my account.

Over the past 4 years I’ve spent time here and there polishing my boardgame.  This is a zombie themed boardgame, but I started it way before it was cool to do it on Kickstarter. After leaving my job, which had a pretty restrictive employment agreement, I picked up the discarded pieces and began to actually assemble the game. I used Protospiel as a motivator to finish it.

Editor’s Note: Often times in creative industries, employees are forced to sign agreements that prohibit them from developing things outside of work, OR maintaining ownership of these things. For example, I must get permission for every game I hope to publish, including Poor Abby and Empire Reborn. Some companies are more restrictive than others. 

I was conducting about one playtest each week 1 month leading into Protospiel and have probably tested earlier versions 20-30 times. I tested primarily with video game developers (programmers, artists, and designers), as well as a few folks who have worked in the board game industry. I thought I had a pretty well balanced game and I was hoping to get feedback on whether or not my particular flavor of zombies was a worthwhile addition to the genre.

So what is Protospiel about?

Protospiel was an amazingly informative and helpful venue compared to the video game conferences I’ve attended. Conferences I’d been to previously would involve conversations between designers like:

“What are you working on? Can’t say? Well, neither can I. So, how’s the weather?”

Protospiel was a welcome and open setting where people showed work in a variety of stages and worried more about whether or not their mechanics were achieving their goals rather than who might steal their idea. In fairness to video game designers, this isn’t a choice they make as individuals, but often is a result of corporate policies, non-disclosure agreements, and a general paranoia that seems to permeate game studios. Sure, there may be some discussion around game theories, but show and tell is often not legally possible.

Protospiel had a great crew present of designers, publishers, and testers. Unlike feedback from video gamers (i.e. “Dude, you need to add [awesome feature in person’s head that costs 1 million dollars to implement that 3 people including person you’re talking to will actually care about] to this game!”) Protospiel was more like “Have you considered [elegant mechanic from game I either designed or played] to solve this problem here?” This is a bit of an gross generalization, but it just felt like everyone cared about games a ton and had useful, practical experience in making games that they were happy to share.

Editor’s Note: One of the problems of the video game industry is that costs have skyrocketed. This is one of the reasons so many developers have shifted to lower cost platforms, like the iPhone, web browsers, or Facebook. Many people outside of the development team don’t realize that a “simple” feature could cost months of development and millions of dollars.

I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that a board game designer is often responsible for every aspect of his prototype. He knows all the problems with the design intimately, from the implementation of mechanics to UI and information display. Board game designers are generally not part of a team, they ARE the team, and that concentration of experience really helps to understand what does and doesn’t work in board games.

Was it Worth Going?

My ticket to protospiel was $45 and my hotel was $65 a night (compared to $1600 + $200 a night for GDC). I was able to playtest my game 2-3 times a day with different people and received good feedback on my game’s mechanics every time. All the designers and publishers I tested with were able to point me to examples of work they thought I could reference and helped me pinpoint issues with the game. I will be spending the next year getting ready to show the fruits of that labor, and that’s okay. People at Protospiel understand that boardgames are a labor of love for those who design it and are close enough to the ground where they get to indulge in the privilege of waiting for a game to be “right” before shipping it.

Editor’s Note: One of the primary sources of frustration for developers in the digital industry are having to ship a game before it’s ready in order to meet a deadline. Nothing is worse than spending 4 years on a game and shipping it in a bad state when it needed just 6 more months.

This was such a great opportunity I asked if I could run my own satellite ‘spiel. The organization is not even a company, just a bunch of passionate designers who felt that up and coming creators could really use the benefit of other experienced designers.  David Whitcher, the organizer of the event, said that it took several years before a consistent crew of people were bringing in games that were almost publish ready.  Let me just repeat that: Several Years.

To me, Protospiel helped me remember that making games can be about the game itself, and not the market budget, upcoming conference, or arbitrary ship date.  Protospiel demonstrated in no uncertain terms that if you have an idea for a game and are willing to put in the effort, you can make something amazing and fun. For that alone it’s well worth the price of admission.

Those are my thoughts on the conference.  I’ll also be pulling together my notes on the games that I played and talk about how the feedback process worked for a follow-up post.

Drawing the Line

Post by: Grant Rodiek

As you polish and refine your game, it should become clear that you cannot have everything. The notion of focus, simplicity, and refinement are common themes for this blog, both from my own columns and those of my noble guest columnists. Proper focus is the tool of a design master. It’s a pursuit to which I will always strive.

It’s easy to sit on an ivory tower and spout philosophy. To be completely frank, as a professional game developer I’ve grown to loathe the “creative consultants” who show up to present ideology in perfect Power Points that often conflict or do not allow for reality. So, the purpose of this column is to provide some examples of where I drew the line with my own designs to provide perspective to aid you in your own designs.

Before I get into examples, it’s important to define the line. This is perhaps one of the most critical decisions you can make at the onset of a game’s life.

  • For whom are you making this game? (It’s appropriate to have both a customer and publisher in mind!)
  • What do you hope to accomplish with this design? Is it a new mechanic? A certain length of play or player experience? Is it a particular theme?
The answers to these questions will help you define the line. If you remain true and loyal to these answers, not only can it strengthen your final game, but will help you know when to waiver and when to remain strong in the face of the inevitable suggestions and “what ifs” from your own mind.
The Line for Farmageddon

Farmageddon was designed to be played in a short play period (30 minutes), for a wide age range, and for people more interested in laughing and messing with each other than thinking too hard.

This created incredibly strict lines really quickly for me. Complexity was, and remains, Farmageddon’s Enemy #1.

Interrupts: One of the first suggestions, always, especially from Magic players, is to add interrupts. Interrupts are inherently frustrating, especially for casual players, as they basically tell you “nope, you just wasted that card.” They also add complexity in that you now allow play to occur outside a player’s turn, you need a priority stack, plus you have the paranoia of not wanting to play a card for fear of it being interrupted. No. Interrupts.

Crop Complexity: Another suggestion was to add more complexity to the basic crops. People wanted behaviors on Sluggo Corn, Wary Squash, etc. The problem with that was that it just complicated things. Players shouldn’t need to worry about text on all 7 cards in their hands. Crops should do a thing and Action cards should do a thing. They should be distinct and easy to learn.

However, I crossed the line a little bit when I created the FrankenCrops. There are 10 Crops, one of each in the deck, that all have a one-time use ability when planted. We packaged these as an expansion to the base game and in my testing I’ve been very pleased with the variety and complexity they add. However, I do not think every crop needs this functionality. Here, I relented and it was the right decision.

Moving Forward: The Livestocked & Loaded expansion will really test Farmageddon. The expansion adds a bit more strategy and new complexity with Weather, Animals, and a simple bidding/Area control mechanic. So far it has tested well, especially with Farmageddon veterans. But, these testers are all gamers, not necessarily casual folk, so the added complexity feels good. How will more casual farmers dig it?

The Line for Empire Reborn

Empire Reborn is a war game designed to be played within an hour, not feature dice (which solves some problems and adds others), and provide a deep and meaningful experience that sheds much of the complexity of so many war games. I also wanted a game where players actually battle (not just posture and maneuver). I really looked to how Memoir ’44 handles terrain variation (most of them do the same thing), or how it does so much with only 3 unit types (and a few very subtle variations with elite units or engineers). I was also inspired by 1812: The Invasion of Canada, which has many of the best parts of Risk, but is fun, deep, and plays quickly.

As I have quickly found, there are just as many lines to draw in a meaty game as a super light game.

The Problem of Turn Order: Turn order is a big deal. In fact, the more serious the game, the more it matters. Empire Reborn has really run the gamut here with random turn order against which you needed to make decisions, a system where turn order is determined by your actions, a system where you can modify turn order, and one that’s just simple and random.

As it turns out, after months of testing and design, the one that seems to work best is having turn order be randomly determined each round. This drives serious gamers nuts. It just irks them to have something so fundamental be determined randomly! I have to be honest, it irks me a little as well.

The truth is, I needed to draw the line somewhere. I needed to keep the game simple in some places to avoid exploding the heads of the gamers I’m trying to attract. I want the game to focus on fighting and taking territory, not changing turn order.

The other, more subtle element in this decision is that sometimes it’s better to go first. Sometimes it’s better to go last. It’s incredibly difficult to design a system that accounts for these things as a player’s need changes every round based on the layout of the map and the position of their opponents.

If the turn order is purely random, it means you need to make decisions knowing that you don’t know when you’ll go. It allows for a little bit of luck in a game that doesn’t have dice (yes, in my opinion, some luck is needed in a game). Also, it is what it is. The game only lasts an hour, so it’s not likely you’ll need to flip the table if it just so happens the order messes with your finely crafted, fragile plans.

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” – Field Marshal von Moltke. Perhaps he should add “or random turn order.”

More Troops: One of the most common and understood mechanics in Euro games is increasing your reach or effectiveness. In Agricola, increasing your family size means more actions. Same with Stone Age. Therefore, for a while I tried to incorporate a mechanic where each player had to work to increase his potential Unit pool (i.e. potential Army size).

Much like creating a complicated mechanic for determining turn order, all of my attempts at fiddling with this lead to overly cumbersome and not really meaningful gameplay. It also distracted players from the main event: battles and capturing territory.

When I returned to the original mechanic of “everyone has 12 Units in their pool,” nobody complained. Nobody felt like the game was lacking breadth. Why? Because each player has 4 Tactics (16 total on the board) and there is plenty to occupy your thoughts.

In conclusion, know where to draw the line. Know when to say “enough” and either remove a feature, or prevent it from becoming a part of your game in the first place. Know who you want to not only play your game, but who will spend money on it, love it, and tell their friends about it. If you’re making a 4 hour juggernaut of a game, well, you may need 4 hours worth of features to keep it interesting. That’s not my area of interest (either as a designer or a player), so I cannot comment. But, the shorter your game, the more mass market you intend your game, the more strict you need to be.

What tough cuts have you had to make? Where did you draw the line? Share below and start a discussion.

Hidden Depth

If you’ve been reading this blog, Jay Treat should need no introduction at this point. He’s my most frequent guest columnist and I’m quite glad for his help. Here’s another great column I’m sure you’ll enjoy!

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

Hello again, game design friends. Today I’d like to discuss hidden depth in games. All manner of games are purchased for the fun that they promise, but it’s the fun you can’t see until you play that keeps players coming back (and telling their friends). Some of the greatest games come in tiny boxes with short rules, yet offer heaping amounts of rewarding gameplay.

Let me tell you about a pair of very deep games you may not have heard of with very simple rules. So simple, I can teach both games in this post without breaking flow or going overly long.

Hanabi

Hanabi (by Antoine Bauza) is a cooperative card game with a deck made of five suits with ten cards each: three 1s, two 2s, 3s & 4s, and a single 5. Deal four cards to each player (five with fewer players). Here’s the gimmick: You don’t see your own hand. Players hold their cards facing everyone else so that their own cards are the only ones they don’t see.

On your turn, you must take one of three actions:

  • You can play a card to the table
  • Spend one of the team’s 8 starting clue tokens to give another player some information about her hand
  • Discard a card to buy back a spent clue token.

The goal is to build five fireworks displays by playing a 1 and then a 2, and a 3, a 4, and hopefully even the 5 in order for each suit.

It sounds easy, but the game is very tight. So much so, that the goal isn’t really to score 25 points by completing all five piles, just to score as high as you can. Hopefully higher than previous scores. It’s that difficult. 23 is a thoroughly impressive score. The trick is that there’s more information that needs to be given to play correctly than you’ll have the time to give.

When you tell a player about her hand, you can choose a suit or a rank and point out all the cards in her hand of that suit or rank. “This is your only red card.” “These are your 3s.” As such, the game requires some memory (which card in my hand was a non-red, non-blue 3 again?) and deduction (I can see the other 9 yellow cards between my partners’ hands, the display and the discard pile, so I know this yellow card in my hand must be the 5), but the real meat of the game is innuendo.

There’s no table talk allowed, obviously, so the ability to communicate more through your plays, and to intuit other players’ subtle hints is crucial to a successful game. “These are your 1s” means something completely different on the first turn of the game (you should play any/all of them) than it does halfway through (you can discard them …unless we’re still missing a suit). “This is your only 2” is a hint to go ahead and play it when there are four fireworks displays stuck on 1, even if you don’t yet know for a fact the suit doesn’t belong to that fifth stack.

You can misplay, by the way. If you misread a clue and played a blue 3 while the blue fireworks display is still at 1, the card is discarded (you don’t earn a clue token for it) and the team earns a strike. If you get three strikes, the game ends immediately in total failure. That’s bad and to be avoided, but sometimes it’s worth the risk to go for the gold when you have incomplete information on the theory that a third 17 is no better than a 0 and you’d rather have a chance at scoring 18 or better this game.

I haven’t been able to find a copy of Hanabi until I checked while writing this. Looks like the collector’s tin is available right now and I just heard a new edition is on its way.

Kakerlaken Poker

Kakerlaken Poker (by Jacques Zeimet) is a competitive card game of bluffing with a deck of 8 suits, each with 8 rankless cards (each card within a suit is functionally identical but sports different art, which was a classy move on the publisher’s part). You deal the deck out to start, and then on each player’s turn he chooses a card from his hand, plays it face-down in front of another player and names a suit: “It’s a Rat.” (The suits are various pests and insects like spiders and stinkbugs.)

The player can accept the card, declaring whether your assertion was true or not. She reveals the card and if she’s wrong, she keeps it. It goes face-up in front of her for the rest of the game. But if she’s right, it goes face-up in front of you. That’s a bad thing, because the game ends when one player gets four copies of a single pest. At which point that player loses and everyone else wins. Fun, right?

Here’s the twist: instead of accepting the card, she can look at it and then pass it along to another player, declaring its suit again. She can name the same suit you did or another. The player she passed it to now has all the same options she did. The card can continue to be passed until there’s only one player that hasn’t seen it, at which point he must accept it, declaring whether he believes it is the last suit named or not.

Like Hanabi, this game might sound way too simple to be interesting, but it’s not. It’s absolutely fascinating because there’s so much subtle communication, human interaction and good old bluffing happening. When you slide a card at me claiming it’s a fly, my initial response is entirely dependant on the known fly population. If you have three flies in front of you, I will suspect it is not a fly, because you would be taking a huge chance of losing the game if it is. If I have three flies, though, it becomes rather likely that it really is a fly, since accepting the card has a 50/50 chance of ending the game in everyone else’s favor. Unless I also have a few scorpions, in which case you may be counting on my heightened fly-aversion to trick me into gaining another deadly scorpion.

But wait, what if another player has a fly in front of her and no one else does? You probably don’t want me to accept one way or another. You want the card to make its way to Anna through me. I could pass the card along to her and try to get her to keep it …but why should I take the risk you didn’t? So I pass it to Bob, with the understanding that he should pass it to Anna. Maybe he will and maybe he won’t. This whole time, people are adding more information to the claim. Perhaps I looked at the card and said “it’s not a fly, but it eats them for breakfast: It’s a frog”, but Bob looked at and said “Don’t listen to him, Anne, it really is a fly!”

What if instead, I passed the card to Bob without looking at it (you can do that) and said “fly.” My claim isn’t based on an actual observation of the card, I’m just preserving your original statement. What does that mean? It could be that I don’t care, or perhaps I’m preventing myself from displaying a tell. Or maybe I’ve figured out some subtle play that you haven’t. Goodness knows that happens often enough in this game.

Cockroach Poker is also known as Eight Curses, where the suits are replaced with enchantments with the curse subtype from Magic: the Gathering’s Innistrad block. I can’t support playing a game without buying it from the publisher so that the designer is rewarded for his or her effort, but I will grant that Eight Curses is an entirely appropriate retheme.

What’s going on here?

Designers spend so much time crafting rules and interactions (cards, markers, rondels, turns, whoknowswhat). But, so often the real joy of a game is the rich human interaction that you could never fabricate yet falls into place naturally if you leave room for it. Most party games are powered entirely through the intricacies of social interaction. Werewolf and Celebrities are all about subtle communication. Even seemingly mindless games like Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity are fun purely because of the way they cause you to interact with the other players.

So what, don’t all games have this? I would argue that all good games have some hidden depth, whether it’s more social or mechanical. If a player can find a reason to take a move other than those spelled out in the rules or on the cards, she has discovered a nugget of hidden depth. If your game is chock full of such things, you’re offering your players more of the “ah-ha” moments that make them feel clever and enjoy your game.

Note that granting your players more freedom doesn’t usually help the way you might think. Players are often paralyzed when presented with too many choices. For example, I played a political simulation many years ago at Origins in which each player had some global political office and they set us loose for four hours to see what would happen. A few players leveraged their resources, wheeled and dealed, and caused some interesting results. However, the bulk of us just milled about with no clue what to do next. That was too much freedom.

It is when your choices as a player are limited that you are most challenged to play optimally, and it is because of those restrictions that you are forced to think outside the box, prompting you to discover clever solutions.

It’s quite apropos that these few thoughts only scratch the surface of how to add hidden depth to your game, and that I’m quite certain there’s much more to it that I simply haven’t uncovered yet. It’s that inkling that there’s more to discover yet that will keep me thinking about this subject and that’s the exact same motivation that keeps players coming back to games like Hanabi and Kakerlaken Poker.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Have you gleaned any insights about when a game or mechanic will have hidden depth, or won’t?

Mechanically Sound #3

Mechanically Sound is a recurring column in which I quickly bring to light some interesting game mechanics I’ve recently encountered. As always, suggest your own in comments.

Post by: Grant Rodiek

In this third rendition of Mechanically Sound I have three new mechanics to discuss. This week, I’m quite excited to discuss the Build Magic mechanic in Summoner Wars, the Color Mixing mechanic in Walls of Light, and the tile laying in Princes of Florence.

The Magic of Summoner Wars

When you want to place Unit cards from your hand onto the game board in Summoner Wars, you must spend a certain amount of Magic. In the card above, it’s the number 3 just under the large 2 (which is the attack value). Magic is obtained in 2 simple ways:

  • If you defeat a Unit, the card is placed in your magic pile as 1 Magic.
  • At the end of your turn, you may discard cards from your hand for 1 Magic apiece.

This does a lot of great things for the game. For one, it ties the game’s core resource beautifully into its battle system. If you fight well, you can summon more Units. It also has a nice risk versus reward with the discard. If you discard, you’ll get to draw more cards and potentially summon stronger units. However, when your deck runs out, it’s out.

I also like that Event cards do not require Magic to use, which means Magic is solely used for summoning additional units. If you’re curious about Summoner Wars, the game is free to play on iOS platforms.

The Pretty Colors of Walls of Light

Walls of Light is a free PNP game from Jesse Catron. You can also buy a version for $9.99 from The Game Crafter. The premise of the game is that you’re rebuilding the stained glass windows in a cathedral. It’s a neat abstract.

The game uses transparent wink tokens with primary colors from the RYB spectrum (Red, Yellow, Blue). If you place them atop each other, they form new colors. For example:

Red + Blue = Purple and Yellow + Blue = Green

This allows for player expression, creativity, and great strategy. It’s also very innovative and viscerally satisfying. Give it a look!

Fun Side Note: When I read Indie Boards and Cards’ prompt for a dice only game on BGG I set about creating a dice game. At first I thought about converting elements of my war game into a dice only thing (just for fun) and had some other equally poor ideas. Then I started thinking about wizards, magic, and alchemy. I started thinking of potions and colors and how you could mix them to create other things. Jesse sent me a copy of Walls of Light months ago, and though I’ve read the rules, I’ve never had a chance to play it. I came about this color idea on my own, but I’m also fairly certain Walls of Light was in my subconscious mind. The idea has since evolved past dice and I’ve been working with Jesse for advice and his input. Stay tuned for future info on this.

Building a Garden in Princes of Florence

Princes is fairly brilliant in so many ways. It has a fantastic bidding mechanic, a great long-term engine building mechanic, and it has this Tetris-like tile placement mechanic. The game features several pieces, like a University, fountain, lake, and other things you might see in Renaissance era Florence. When you obtain one of these pieces, most of which are oddly shaped, you must place them within a simple rule set on a very small grid.

I would happily play a game that was exclusively about placing these oddly shaped tiles on the grid. But, the fact that Princes incorporates it so meaningfully into a greater whole is all the more excellent.

What have you encountered lately that stood out to you? Mention it in the comments below. 

Handful of Fun

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I believe very strongly that cards are the best component with which to design great games. Perhaps it’s just how my mind works, but every time I conceive a mechanic or way to do something, I ultimately replace it with a card driven system. Cards are a fantastic tool for your design arsenal and I intend to elaborate on this point fully. However, like all tools, cards come with their own downsides. I’ll try to cover those as well.

Oh cards, how I love thee! Cards are amazing! So many of my favorite games (Memoir ’44, Dragonheart, Dominion, Ascension) use cards masterfully.

Cards allow for private Information and player ownership. There’s something delightful about knowing something your opponents don’t know. It’s really as simple as that. What I have in my hand can fundamentally alter things for you, my dear enemy, and you have NO clue what’s coming! This sounds a bit like a take-that only pro, but that’s not the case. Can you imagine poker if everything was visible? No, you can’t, because that notion is foolish.

True, if everything is on the table, it’s possible to consider every possible outcome and plan accordingly. But, the element of surprise and, more importantly, surprise that only I can plan for, is great fun.

Cards also give players something to own, something to hold. The card is more precious because it’s yours and only yours (or, something you share in limited quantities).

Cards allow for exceptions. As you’ve heard me and several others say on this blog, it’s key to keep a game simple, elegant, and free of undue complexity. However, if you build a solid foundation, cards give you an opportunity to really spice up a game and making it sing.

The game of Dominion is fundamentally built upon an absurdly simple set of rules (draw 5 cards, 1 Action, 1 Buy, discard) that is broken by acquiring Action cards. Summoner Wars, as I discussed in my column about factions, is a series of thematic, coordinated exceptions. If wielded correctly, cards turn your game into something truly special.

Cards provide a canvas for gorgeous illustrations. Custom meeples are neat, but I’ll take a beautifully illustrated card any day. Never overlook any of the sensations and elements that your board and card game can provide. One of the most essential sensations is great art, as Farmageddon’s successful Kickstarter can attest.

Beautiful art immerses your players, tells a story, excites the imagination, and helps your game fly off store shelves. Without cards, you immediately have fewer opportunities to leverage this benefit.

Cards allow (some) games to be infinitely expandable. Magic: The Gathering is an unstoppable juggernaut. So are the previously mentioned Dominion and Summoner Wars. Cards are relatively easy to manufacture and with a little bit of shuffling they can keep a great game vibrantly alive for a very long time.

Furthermore, because you can do so much with cards in the way of functionality, a few cards can really change a game in fundamental ways. Ascension’s constructs really help to make Ascension a unique deckbuilder. Same component and layout, just a few key words make all the difference.

Cards help players learn and remember the rules. A few weeks ago I was working on a simple, pure dice game. One of my biggest frustrations with the design was that players would have to remember every symbol and rule in the game because you cannot print lines of text on a normal sized six-sided die.

Every time I added a rule or tweaked something, I would say aloud “nobody will ever remember that!” As a result, I switched to cards. Cards allow me to have a greater variety of incredibly simple spells. Why? I can write the text, use icons, and reinforce all of this with a clever layout when using cards.

Cards are one of the best uses of luck. When it comes to games, I’m an absolute probability junky. I love it. With a six-sided die, you always have a 1 in 6 chance of rolling one of the sides. Obviously, if a symbol is duplicated OR you have a way to modify the dice roll (see: Alien Frontiers), then the probability is modified somewhat.

However, if you give a player a deck of cards, as he draws from the deck and plays cards, he will begin to know what he has, what he doesn’t have, and when he might get it. Dragonheart is an incredibly simple game that does this very well. There are only so many cards and you begin to know the pulse of your deck. Dominion is a bit more complex, but YOU build the deck, so you know the approximate chances of drawing that card you need.

You have to be careful with this. Early iterations of Farmageddon had limited appeal because the distribution of Action cards wasn’t really even-handed. Essentially, the player who drew the Dust Bowl or Foreclosure cards tended to win most of the time. However, in the final version of Farmageddon, there are now 12 cards (up from 8), the distribution of the more powerful cards is lessened, and there are other cards to balance things. Now, victory tends to go to the player who plays his cards the best, not the player who randomly draws the best cards.

But, I thought you were perfect? Cards aren’t perfect. As much as it pains me to point out my lady’s flaws, I must.

Art is expensive. Meeples may not allow for gorgeous illustrations, but they do have a fairly straightforward cost. Art, especially good art, gets very expensive very quickly. One of the reasons I shelved the current iteration of Poor Abby Farnsworth is that I designed it in a way that it would require an inordinate amount of art. Nobody would ever publish it and there was no way I could afford to self-publish it.

When designing with cards, keep your art costs in mind. Try to find ways to tastefully re-use art, find ways to do things with a small set of icons and symbols, and more. Yes, this is and should be a component of your design process. Don’t wait for a publisher rejection to think about this.

Cards encourage exceptions galore (naughty designer!). Wait…a positive and a minus! That’s right. Just because you can fill your game with exceptions doesn’t mean you should. Long time Magic players will freely admit that at times the Wizards of the Coast R&D department has gone off the deep end with crazy exceptions and ridiculously fiddly cards.

Be smart about your exceptions. Make each one matter, be useful, and be clear. If it doesn’t really improve the game, don’t add complexity for nothing.

Cards lack the tactile qualities of dice, meeples, and tokens. There’s something fun about moving your token around the Monopoly board or rolling that beautiful wooden set of custom dice in Memoir ’44. In most instances, holding a handful of paper cards, no matter how well crafted (linen, matte finish, yum), just don’t match up to a hefty set of dice. Yes, games like Gloom, with its transparent plastic cards and clever mechanics, show you can do something special even still with cards.

When it makes sense, use all the tools at your disposal. People loving chucking dice and making irritating tapping noises while waiting for their turn with tokens. Or, stick with cards and know you might be missing a little something. Perhaps you could create a mechanic based upon shuffling?

Cards tempt designers to write flavor text everywhere. Again, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Designers love flavor text. I’m not sure what it is, but there are so many times when I open a new game to find a card with .08 font size functional text and a wall of useless, italicized flavor text. Incursion comes to mind immediately.

Your focus must first be on functional text and symbols. Be sure to write everything in a reasonable font size so that it’s easily legible for players of all ages and eye site quality. Once you do this, your next step should be to ensure there’s room for great art. A picture is worth 1000 words and a great picture is worth far more. It’s more interesting to let the player create a story in their head.

If you solve those two priorities and STILL have room to spare, sure, maybe, consider some flavor text. But, I’d still encourage you to focus on great art and great gameplay. The rule booklet is a better place for flavor text, even better, your website with supplemental materials. I know I’m being overly pessimistic, but good designers aren’t necessarily good writers. It’s key to not get bogged down with distractions. That goes the same for what you show your players.

What’s your favorite game component? Where was I right above? Where was I wrong? Note it in the comments below!

Faction Design

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I wanted to give you a bit of reprieve from Field Marshals, especially as it has been the topic of so many columns lately. However, when I was fishing for column ideas, the most excellent Eric of the great blog Games & Grub asked me for tips on designing factions and balancing them. This has been my focus for a few weeks now on Field Marshals and I want to help where possible.

I’m not an expert on faction design. Really, if anyone is it’s Colby Dauch and crew with Summoner Wars.  I have learned a few things and I will try to abstract it somewhat so that it’s useful even if you aren’t designing a war game. There are a few key points I wish to make:

  • The key to designing a faction is knowing which knobs you can twist.
  • Only make a faction as complicated as it needs to be and nothing more.
  • Make the factions unique at a high level before designing the details.
  • Every faction should have a strength and a weakness.

What do I mean by factions? By faction, I mean different entities within the game that follow different rule sets. These could be a character class (ex: Rogue, Ranger, Warrior) or in the case of Field Marshals, different armies. The Summoner Wars Master Set ships with 8 factions.

Factions can be e a great addition to your game because they provide a great deal of variety. Just when you think you can’t lose with the Orcs, take a chance playing as the Elves only to find you need to relearn the game somewhat. Factions also cater to different play styles. Some players prefer stealth and subtlety, others go straight for the throat. From an aesthetic standpoint, factions give you an opportunity to appeal to players with different visuals, tell new stories, and generally expand and enrich your game world.

However, factions aren’t always the right solution and shouldn’t be approached without deliberate intent. They can quickly expand your game content out of hand, add a great deal of complexity to an otherwise simple rule set, and will most assuredly create a balance headache for you.

The key to designing factions is knowing which knobs you can twist. Factions are essentially exceptions and variants built upon a core, refined rule set. You do not want to design factions within a completely open sandbox as you’ll begin creating ridiculous things! Only begin faction design once you have a very firm understanding of your game.

It’s like grammar. Know the rules backwards and forwards so that you can break them at the right moment.

I’ve spent several months testing Field Marshals with a single Army. Every player used the same Army with the same Tactics. As a result, I’ve been able to focus on the map layout, add things such as Fortresses and Seaports, refine victory conditions, player turns, movement, turn order, and more. I always knew I wanted to consider factions at some point, but I avoided the distraction for a very long time.

As a result, I now know what features are available to allow me to craft a compelling faction.

  • Factions can have unique Tactics: Tactics are the core of Field Marshals. They are separated into Offensive, Defensive, and Support Tactics. Defensive and Offensive Tactics modify the otherwise non-random aspects of battle and Support Tactics let you do things like taking an additional Move or building a Fortress.
  • Factions can Reinforce differently.
  • Factions can battle differently. Better “fighting” armies may have a more favorable attrition rate in direct battle.
  • Factions can move differently.

One thing that I should note is that I’m not using all of these things. In fact, 90% of faction play will be entirely manifested in an Army’s Tactics. I’m making a slight tweak to Reinforcements such that 2 factions will do it one way and the other 2 will do it another way. That’s it. If I’m successful, I may craft additional factions that further bend the rules.

For now, I don’t want to add more complexity simply because I can! I want players to be able to shift between factions relatively easily. The difficulty (and fun) should come through learning to master the faction. If every faction required players read 4 pages of rules, they’d quickly set my game on fire.

Only make a faction as complicated as it needs to be and nothing more. This is a continuation of a previous point, but it’s worth stating again and again. Just because you are able doesn’t mean you should design several wholly unique rule sets. If your factions can be unique and meaningful with just 2 rules, then you’ve done your job. Factions are one of the best ways to over complicate and ruin your game if you aren’t careful.

I was worried initially that I would need completely new iconography for the different factions. I was also worried that I’d need to design 8 Tactics for each Army (which was the number the vanilla army had in the previous iteration). However, as I dove into the actual implementation, I conceived of some clever ways to deliver on the fiction and keep the iconography universal between every faction. I also found that 4 unique Tactics were more than sufficient for each faction.

With only 4 unique Factions, that means, at most, there are 4 players, 4 Armies, and 16 total Tactics in a single game. That’s not an insane number, which means it should be possible for players to follow and, within reason, anticipate the moves of their opponents. Only testing will verify this hypothesis, but I believe I’m moving in the right direction.

Make the factions unique at a high level before designing the details. I’m designing a war game with historical footing in 19th century European warfare. It was relatively easy for me to create 4 unique factions using this backdrop for inspiration. I planned the factions at a high level initially to ensure they were distinct and unique. With faction play, especially early in your game’s life cycle, there is no room for subtlety. Be bold.

If you cannot create something unique at a high level, don’t bother fiddling with the rules or implementation. The unique rules and variations for each faction need to be obvious for your players. The conceit needs to be plausible, else your players will be consulting the rules or ignoring your over-designed implementations. Minor tuning changes may not be sufficient for creating unique factions.

My current 4 factions are as follows (Don’t worry too much about the names. I’m still fiddling with story/world development).

  • Imperial Army: They are designed to be the basic, well-balanced Army. They are inspired by the professional regular armies of Prussia and Britain. The Imperial Army are essentially the Terrans from Starcraft, if that helps.
  • Yorkan Clans: The clans are heavily inspired by the Native American tribes during the Indian Wars of the American West, the Spanish Guerrillas during the Peninsular War, and the Vietcong. They are a guerrilla Army focused on hit and run tactics, Ambushes, and not getting caught in a head to head battle.
  • Royal Brigade: This is a highly mobile, cavalry based Army. They are honestly more inspired by the Blitzkrieg tactics pioneered by the German Army in World War II. Speed, mobility, encirclement, and hitting the enemy in his flank.
  • Republik Militia: These are the rabble that have risen up under the promise of a better, democratic government. They are ill-trained and led by politicians turned Generals. They don’t fight well, but they have large numbers and can manipulate their opponents through political means.

One thing that helped me visualize these four factions is that the Army I have been testing featured many of the same Tactics. Now, the Tactics are distributed such that each Army has a very small, but unique subset of powerful choices that make them unique.

Every faction should have a strength and weakness. After you conceive the base idea for your faction, you should immediately begin to answer the following two questions: What is this faction good at? What is this faction bad at?

For the guerrilla Army, they are good at appearing in unexpected places of the map and hit and run tactics. They are everywhere you don’t want them to be. However, they are very bad at straight up fights. If you pin them down, they will be in trouble. It’s key to move them and time your strikes well, because going toe to to with the Imperial Army may result in failure.You may find at this stage that your answers sound very similar for different factions. If this is the case, you may want to take a step back and revisit the high level concepts.

Quick Recap. Know your overall game before you being fiddling with factions. Treat factions as exceptions to the core rules. Design within a limited framework and seek at all times to limit complexity. Focus on boldly unique entities. Subtle blends should be reserved for “down the line.” Every faction should have a strength and a weakness.

Did this help? Did this answer any questions? If not, post your additional questions below in comments. I always want to improve my content, so if I could have explained a point better, please tell me!