Story Realms: An Interview with Escapade Games

I encountered Angie, like many folks, via the growing board game community on Twitter. For a long time, she’s been talking about this wondrous storytelling game called Story Realms. I offered to help, and over the past several months I’ve read over a few revisions of the rules to provide feedback.

Angie and the rest of her team have been working themselves nigh recklessly to revise, test, and produce Story Realms. The game is very unique and interesting and is worth a look if you have creative and imaginative kids, love RPGs but don’t have the time, or just want a good story. 

If you see HG, that’s me. EG are the folks from Escapade Games.

HG: Introduce yourselves! Tell us about Escapade Games.

EG: Escapade Games is a really a family effort. Julian and Angie have been friends for over a decade and are the designers of Story Realms.  Julian’s wife Chrissy does the web design and Angie’s husband Randy does media coordination.  Chrissy and Randy have also helped out with playtesting and developing the game.  We’ve been designing games together for years, but this is the first game we’ve been excited enough about to try and publish.

HG: Well, then, tell us about Story Realms!

EG: Story Realms is a cooperative storytelling adventure game that lets players go on grand adventures in about an hour.  One player takes on the role of Storyteller and runs the adventure while the rest of the players take on the role of heroes and try to save the day.  The players can try to do anything they can imagine to solve the challenges of the quest.  A simple skill system and Tracker cards make it easy to determine whether these ideas work and when the players have won or lost.

The game has loads of beautiful art to feed the imaginations of the players.  The board is a detailed map of Storm Hollow (the game’s setting).  There are Lore Cards for every major character or villain of the story and a Scene Card for each scene of every adventure.

HG: Who do you think would love to play Story Realms?

EG: The game was designed with families in mind, but it is our sincere hope that just about anybody can enjoy the game.  We’ve playtested with a lot of people and everyone seems to have a great time.  With Story Realms, we’ve really tried to make it a game that kids and newer gamers can play, but that parents and experienced games will still enjoy.  The simple mechanics and focus on story and imagination make it easy to get in to.  The artifacts and powers provide some depth and complexity.  Some players might be timid to try a storytelling game.  Experienced gamers might wonder about the simple mechanics.  However, we feel that anyone interested in the theme and willing to try Story Realms will find something to smile about.

HG: What is the best part about Story Realms? Do you have a great story or moment from the game?

EG: I think what I like best is how different the story is each time you play.  We’ve played the opening adventure with dozens of different groups and it never gets boring to run.  Each group comes up with their own fun solutions and their own imaginative stories to overcome the challenges of the adventure.  One scene involves getting down a huge waterfall.  We’ve seen players come up with all sorts of clever plans; including creating machines to fly down, build elevators with ropes and pulleys, and causing the trees at the bottom to grow and shape into enormous size so they could climb down.

One particularly amusing time, two players got back up the falls by freezing it and carving the ice into a slide. Then they used a shield as a sled, strapped mechanical wings on their backs, and shot themselves back up to the top of the falls with wind magic to arrive in style! Everyone was laughing and having a great time and the image of their exciting exploits has stuck with us for months! Also, watching our own young children dive into the game and the world, creating their own memorable stories and engaging with us in our favorite hobby has been immensely rewarding.

HG: I know you’ve been working on the rules endlessly for months (I’ve seen a handful of variations myself). What has been so challenging about writing the rules for a game like this?

EG: Since we are trying to make the game playable by kids and fun for experienced gamers, it has been a long effort to strike the right balance.  The game basics are intentionally simple to help bring imaginative ideas to life and make it easy for newer players and kids to get into the game.  However, the game includes powers, artifacts, status conditions, and other details to give enough depth to be fun for experienced gamers.   We want the rules to be an easy read, but offer enough guidance that new players feel comfortable running the game. We’ve been playtesting for months and adjusting the rules as we go along based on all the feedback.

In addition to all that, as educators and parents it is very important to us to make sure the game is accessible to kids and clear and easy to read. We’ve been working with the latest draft to improve the readability of all of the sections. This has no impact on the gameplay, the depth, and flexibility of the system, or the fun, it just makes it where kids can enjoy the lore, learn the rules, and run the game too!

We’re very proud of the educational opportunities Story Realms provides, and have made the entire rules, components, and flavor text read at a middle school level so that teachers can use the materials as part of a Language Arts curriculum. We’d like to get it down to a grade school reading level, but some of the fantasy themed game terms make it difficult.  Though to be clear, the game has been tested and successfully played by non-reading 5 and 6 year olds. You don’t have to be able to read to enjoy playing the game.

HG: Overall, what has been the biggest design challenge for the game? How did you solve it?

EG: I guess the biggest design challenges were how to allow creative solutions to the adventures so it wasn’t all hack and slash and how to help the storyteller run a variety of scenes in a simple way.  Skills and Trackers were the eventual answer, but getting them right took a lot of effort.  It wasn’t easy to find the right six skills and the best names for them so that they would cover everything we wanted to cover and be completely intuitive.  The names Move, Might, Magic, Explore, Talk, and Think were the results of a lot of discussion, brainstorming, and playtesting, believe it or not.

We also struggled over different probabilities for the skill dice and whether there should be different kinds of dice.  With the trackers, at one point we had different boards for different types of scenes.  Then we revised those boards.  Then threw them out and tried several different kinds of trackers.  Again it took a lot of playtesting and revision to discover that four simple trackers of Progress, Disaster, Threat, and Time would give us the versatility we needed to tell lots of different stories.  After this experience, it is our sincere belief that anytime you see something in a game that seems completely intuitive and absolutely simple that means someone put a lot of work into thinking about so you wouldn’t have to.

HG: Did you have any “ah ha!” or “eureka!” moments during development? If so, what were they?

EG: There have been a lot of those moments.  Character creation as a simple choice of heroic role and unique talent was one, but the precise implementation of that took a lot of work.  Probably the best “ah ha!” moment came from initial idea for Adventuring Kits.  Of all the elements of the game, that one is still pretty close to the original idea.  We knew we wanted a simplified version of adventuring equipment.  When the idea struck for a card that showed what you had and a simple rule about adding an extra die when you have the right tool for the job, it just felt right. Having the pocket spots allowed for creativity and flexibility without a lot of planning and looking things up ahead of time. While the specific items in the kits have undergone a lot of revision, the concept and mechanics for how they work is almost exactly the same as the initial concept.  It was a fantastic “Eureka!” idea that proved to be incredibly fun in playtesting and is still a favorite part of the game for many players.

HG: What were some of your inspirations for Story Realms?

EG: The overall concept of Story Realms was inspired by our desire to play a game with our kids that we honestly enjoyed as adults and didn’t take too long to play.  The concept of the world and the heroes was inspired by our love of folk and fairy tales, classic literature, and some of our favorite movies from childhood like Labyrinth and Neverending Story.

Mechanically, we drew inspiration from a variety of storytelling games; Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and the Whitewolf Storyteller systems were big influences.  We also drew inspiration from D&D, Pathfinder, and Everway.  We discussed games like Betrayal at the House on the Hill and Tales of Arabian Nights for their ability to provide a variety of stories using simple board game systems.  Magic the Gathering was often discussed as a game that manages to communicate a lot of complex game design through intuitive and simple key words and thematic concepts.

HG: What are some of your favorite games?

EG: We love all kinds of games, but have slightly different tastes. Magic the Gathering, Pathfinder, and Dominion are all games that might make it onto both of our top 10 lists.  Both of us really like games that involve cool, strategic decision, but play in about an hour or less.  It can be hard to find the time with kids and family to play longer games.

HG: Anything else you want to add?

EG: We’d just like to thank our families for all the support they’ve given us through this game’s creation and development.  It’s been stressful at times, but their support has definitely kept us going.  We’d also like to thank the fine folks at Game Salute for believing in the game and helping us make it a reality.  Our art director Dann May and our character artist Kelly McClellan and cartographer Herwin Wielink have done a fantastic job creating stunning art for the game that has definitely helped it stand out and catch people’s attention.

And thank you, Grant, for giving us the opportunity to talk about Story Realms. This game has already come so much further than we could have ever imagined.  We feel very fortunate for the chance to develop and share this game with people, and incredibly excited about the upcoming Kickstarter campaign.

If you’re interested in Story Realms, check out the Kickstarter pageThe official Story Realms website is here.

Poorly Boxed

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Before I begin, I want to clearly state that I chose the box art for The Settlers of Catan because it’s so well known. I am making no specific commentary on their box or this game.

I was thinking about Empire Reborn the other day and how I would potentially market it to others. Or, how I’d describe it for a playtest. My first thought is to call it a war game. It’s about war. War games were my initial inspiration. But, “war game” has very specific connotations for players. Things like history (my game’s fictional), complex simulation (mine’s greatly abstracted), long playing (my game is an hour), and more. If you examine the Top War Games list on BGG, you’ll see a simulation of the cold war, D-Day, Napoleonic things, and more.

The other issue is that war games are greatly polarizing. For some players, the words “war game” are worse than “take that” or “random.”

I also began to think about how board games in general do a poor job of giving players a clear idea of what the game is about from the box. I feel like this is a problem far more unique to the board game hobby than others, potentially due to its more niche audience.

If you see a movie poster with Arnold Schwarzenegger between the months of May and August, you can safely assume it’s an action movie. If you see an Xbox 360 game with a dude with a gun, anywhere, you know it’s a first-person shooter. At best, board games tell you the setting and that’s it. Sometimes, not even that! However, it’s very difficult to know what you’ll be doing without reading a review or the rules.

Board games have a severe barrier to entry compared to other mediums that is a hindrance regardless of the rich meaty goodness that awaits players if they only persevere. Board games have rule books and tons of new mechanics. How much more terrifying do you think a non-Hasbro game is to people passing through the store if they know nothing about it?

Then, there’s the other side of this equation (Editor’s Note: How many sides are we at now?)…can you tell customers too much? Plus, space on a box is a premium commodity. Do you waste it on potentially boring explanation? If I say that Empire Reborn is a “Card driven area control game with a 19th century war theme” you would probably call me a nerd and throw produce at me. If I said that Farmageddon is a “Light strategy game of risk taking in which you manage a hand of cards to earn the most points” you would keep walking.

Let’s simplify it further. Do normal people know what any of the following terms mean?

  • Set Collection
  • Push your luck
  • Area control
  • Worker placement
  • Dungeon crawler
  • Abstract

From my own experience working alongside nerds, the answer is “typically not.” Is there iconography we can use to clarify these elements? Alien Frontiers uses a lot of great iconography to tell you what’s possible for players — perhaps there’s a lesson there? How foolish am I in thinking we could show players, on the front of the box, through simple iconography: This is a game for 2-4 players, ages 10+, in 60 minutes, that uses an Area Control mechanic.

One of the things that fascinates and drives me in this hobby is how much more we can do to give customers a better experience from start to finish. There are so many things we can still improve: Cleaner and more accessible rules and designs, shorter play times, more convenient distribution methods, more broadly appealing and novel themes, having a fantastic web presence to reach customers and answer their questions more conveniently. Now, I feel that we can add more informative packaging to the list. Oh boy, more to do!

Here are some ideas I have for improving this:

  • Prominently feature the Age Requirement, Play Time, and Number of players on the front and sides of the box. Most games do this already and that’s good as it’s the first thing I check. I noticed Seasons did this very prominently on its front cover and I appreciated it.
  • Show the setup game on the back of the box and walk the customer through the experience and why it’s special. Risk: Legacy does this very well. Granted, people already know Risk. It’s a classic! Still, this box does a great job of telling you why  Legacy is special.

  • Use the front cover to get players “in the door” with a compelling theme and art style…
  • …then use the text on the back to reinforce your explanatory image. Focus on mechanics and function, not more theme. Obviously, use a little. We’re not selling toilet paper, but toys! Perhaps note the type of person who would like this game. “This is a great game for players who like to work together and trade!” or “This is a game for players who love to lead great armies in battle.”
  • Prominently feature the active components. Try to reinforce visually what players will be doing every turn. If they are going to place tiles, make those clear. If they roll dice, show ‘em. I saw this on a box tonight at Barnes and Noble and thought it was interesting (bottom right next to the time):
  • Make sure language is playful, but not overly so. At some point, puns and alliteration are a distraction. Crisp, precise copy must be the focus. You’d be surprised at how witty you can be without slapping someone in the face with a Three-Stooges style honking device.

Update! I brought 1812: The Invasion of Canada into work today and noticed that they do a great job of highlighting important elements for the game on the back.

One thing I think we can steer away from is a  Component list. I don’t think these are terribly useful on the back of the box and they take up quite a bit of space. If you’re being examined by an experienced gamer, they’ll know. If you’re being examined by a new gamer, they won’t care. Plus, your imagery should show them the BEST stuff already — miniatures, a gorgeous board, cards, etc. Look how big the components list is on the back of Catan.

I may be over thinking a problem that may not need to be solved. I just looked at my copy of King of Tokyo. Aside from telling me how many players, at what age, and how long the game takes, there is NO information other than the title. The back of the box is literally a blank image. King of Tokyo sold out of its first print run and is selling like crazy on round two. So, perhaps I’m creation solutions that are unnecessary?

What do you think?

Salmon Run: An Interview with Jesse Catron

Almost a year ago, Jesse Catron mailed me a prototype for a game then called Pond Farr. It was a very clever, well-designed, and highly entertaining game about Salmon Racing. He told me in confidence then that the game had been picked up by Gryphon Games and it’d be on Kickstarter. Delays unfortunately occur, but, the wait will have been well worth it. The Kickstarter launches August 15.

I told Jesse months ago I would do what little I could to help him promote his game. This is the first of two posts on the subject; an interview with the designer. Learn about the game, Jesse, and his development process on this really fun game.

Hyperbole Games comments are noted with HG. JC is from Jesse Catron.

HG: Introduce yourself!

JC: I’d be glad to! My name is Jesse Catron and I live in Maryland with my fantastic wife, Eileen, our 6 dogs (sorry no Corgis!), and various other pets.  I love to play board games, but I love to design them even more.  The upcoming game Salmon Run (formerly known as Pond Farr) will be my first published game.

HG: Tell us about Salmon Run. What is the game? 

JC: Salmon Run is a race between salmon to swim upriver past waterfalls, rapids, and hungry bears to reach the spawning pool. The game is for two to four players and usually takes 20-45 minutes, though I have seen a few particularly contentious 4-player games last an hour.

The game uses a path-dependent deck-building mechanism. You start with a swim deck of basic movement cards.  As you use these movement cards to progress upriver, you may add more powerful cards by landing on special hexes.  The deck you build depends on the path you choose.  The added cards include enhanced movement cards like Double-Swims and Wild cards or interactive cards like Bears, Eagles, Rapids, and more.

The game also has a fatigue mechanic using cards added to your deck to slow the salmon down if they overexert themselves or encounter bears.  The river uses modular boards so it can be different each game and can be customized by difficulty and length.

HG Note: The fatigue mechanic uses a negative feedback loop as wonderfully explained by Jesse in this guest column about positive and negative feedback loops in game design. 

HG: How long has Salmon Run been in development?

JC: Though it sometimes seems like forever, in truth it has been in development  for two years.  It has gone through a lot of refinements and a lot of testing.  The original version had a fixed board and simultaneous turns! This didn’t work well at all.  Fortunately, I was able to work these issues out and make a fun and balanced game.

HG: What was the initial inspiration for the game? Why Salmon racing?

JC: While working on another design, I started thinking about all the good times I had playing board games with my brothers in my youth.  I wanted my nephews and nieces to have a similar experience.  I stopped working on my medieval siege warfare game and started to brainstorm for a theme that both they and myself would enjoy.  I looked to nature and animals.  I figured there had to be a compelling and unique theme in nature that could make a good game.  Firstly, I thought about migrations. Then for whatever reason, salmon came to mind.  Perhaps because I had made an abstract game with fish and a shark a few weeks earlier?

Nevertheless,  salmon swimming hundreds of miles against the current, most of them dying along the way via bears or exhaustion,  seemed like a compelling theme to me.  While salmon may not be the coolest animals, you have to admire their persistence!  Plus, bears and eagles are awesome.

HG: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced developing the game? How did you solve them?

JC: One of the biggest design challenges was balancing the power of the current. For those who haven’t played, there are a series of arrows on most hexes of the board representing the flow of the river. When the current is activated, all salmon must move backwards in the direction of the current arrows.  I always knew I wanted to simulate the power of the river and the struggle of the salmon against it.  I really wanted the current to be a major factor in the game.

In early versions, the current would activate after each round, sending all the salmon backwards. This made for a very slow and frustrating race.  I tried a few tweaks, but nothing really worked. A race shouldn’t feel like running on a treadmill.  Eventually, I decided to put the power of the current into a card and put the current card into the starting deck.  This both lessened the frequency of the current and gave players some nice decisions on when to play it.  This was a tremendous improvement but not a perfect solution.  With everyone having a current card in their starting decks, the game was still too slow.  Players were getting sent over waterfalls repeatedly, gaining fatigue card after fatigue card.

The final solution was to remove the current from the starting deck and to enable players to counter the current by discarding a current card of their own from their hands.  Players now have to acquire the current cards over the course of the game by moving over special hexes. While the current is not as much of a factor in the race as it once was, it is still a very powerful card both offensively and defensively.

The current card itself led to another design challenge.  Sometimes solutions to one problem lead to a new problem! The special cards that you can add to your deck often come in balanced pairs and the board often offers a choice between them.  For instance, the Double-Swim card represents speed while the Wild card represents maneuverability.  Because the current was now a card, I needed a card of similar power that would be a viable alternative.  I came up with the Rapids card, but it was a real struggle to match the power of the current. The Rapids have gone through more versions than any other cards combined!

At last, I decided to yoke the power of the rapids with the number of current arrows on the board.  This gave it the same situational feeling as the current;  the timing of when the card is played is important.  Stifling the players options via discarding cards from their hands seems to be a viable alternative power to the current.  It also can make a nice combo with the Eagle card.

HG: You use modular boards, which is a feature I and many other gamers love. Did any challenges come with creating a modular board system?

JC: Absolutely!  Like I mentioned earlier, early versions of the game had a fixed board.  From the outset, I knew a modular board would be better, but I was unsure how to properly make one. I wanted to first focus on the basic mechanics. 

The foremost challenge in designing modular boards is deciding how they will connect.  Each board must be able to seamlessly connect with every other board.  Each board’s exit/entry (i.e. edges) needed be compatible, especially with the currents of the river.  Being a race, the size of the boards was also a big factor.  Too many large boards would make the game too long, too few large boards and there wouldn’t be enough variability.   Short but wide boards made the most sense.  Because they are wide, it gives me enough space to make interesting features and build in spatial decisions.  Because they are short vertically, I can use a higher number of different boards to increase the variability of the river’s set-up.

The other challenge in using modular boards is balancing how the features of each board affect the system as a whole.  When the board is large and fixed, you can balance its elements over the entire span of the board.  You can more easily balance the number of special hexes, left turns, right turns, the spacing of the bears and waterfalls with a fixed board.  With modular boards,  I found it necessary to somewhat balance each river section individually while still keeping in mind how it will affect other river sections.

For instance, the numbers of each type of special hex should be similar across all boards. However,  it’s not possible to achieve the same degree of control over the boards’ features with modular boards as you can with a fixed board.  Invariably, some board combinations will be better than others.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just something you have to accept in using a modular boards.  In fact, I think it is desirable.

Another great thing about using modular boards was the ability to rate the difficulty of each river section.  Players can customize the game by difficulty as well as length.

HG: How did you come up with your Action cards? What was the mix of mechanical and thematic inspiration?

JC: You may be surprised to hear that the Jumping mechanic came first.  I borrowed the idea of combining two vectors into one movement from the abstract fish game I mentioned earlier.  I knew that’s how the salmon would get over waterfalls. Consequently, the movement for the game would use cards and the cards would indicate directional movement.  The race is linear, so the movements would be forward, right, and left (though right and left are really diagonally right and left).  I really wanted to simulate the long enduring struggle of the salmon upriver, so the movement system needed something more.  I wanted the players to have to choose not only the direction they swim, but also the pace at which they swim.  Usually in races there is only one speed: go as fast as you can.  Salmon are not in a sprint but in more of a marathon.  I needed a way to reward pacing and punish overexertion.  The answer was Fatigue cards that would accumulate in the player’s decks and make a  deck less effective as the race goes on.  This necessitated individual player movement decks and deck-building.

I always knew bears would be a large part of the game.  I wanted them to be a threat on the board and a way for players to interact and affect each others’ progress.  It seemed natural to make the bears add fatigue to the salmon.  I’ve already mentioned the Current and Rapids cards.  With the Eagle,  I really just thought about how eagles catch salmon.  They just swoop in and snatch them out of the water.  It’s very quick and precise.  I thought the best way to emulate this in the game was to have the Eagle card pluck a card from the  targeted opponent’s hand.

HG: Now that you’ve designed a game with a deckbuilding mechanic, what are your thoughts on the mechanic? Would you create another game with deckbuilding?

JC: I am quite enamored with the deckbuilding mechanic. I know there is a lot of deckbuilding fatigue out there right now from gamers.  Perhaps it’s justified with all the Dominion clones out there? However, I believe there is a lot left to explore with the mechanic.  The key is to see deckbuilding as an integral mechanic and not as the core of the whole game.

Deckbuilding allows the players to build an evolving engine and to receive nearly immediate feedback on how well they built it.  The power of the deckbuilding engine grows depending on the input you put into it. I find this positive feedback system fascinating.  I believe there are many  innovative ways it can be used.  Just look at games like A Few Acres of Snow, Mage Wars, and Eminent Domain.  These are games that utilize deckbuilding as a mechanic for a greater purpose and not as the game itself.  I see Salmon Run as a racing game that uses deckbuilding rather than a deckbuilder with racing.

I would absolutely create another game with deckbuilding.  In fact, I am currently working on two different deckbuilding games!  One is a sci fi game about smugglers in space.  In it, your deck represents your ship and its different weapons and systems.  It’s basically a pick up and deliver game that uses deckbuilding for ship upgrades, combat, and navigation. HG: Several months ago I worked on a ridiculously similar design about smugglers in space. It used a deckbuilding mechanic as well. I shelved the game for various reasons, but I’m glad you’re doing it. I’m sure it’ll be a superior game!

My other deckbuilding game in the works is called Strangemare.  In Stangemare, players are trying to wake up from the prison of their own nightmares. The player’s deck represents his or her mind and is riddled with nightmare cards that he or she must purge.  Both are early in development.

HG: These ideas both sound excellent. Feel free to write about them here. One thing I always loved about the game (Salmon Run) is just how accessible it is. Was this a goal for you at the outset? 

JC: Yes, this was a goal and it was something I had to keep in mind throughout its development. As a gamer, I have a natural tendency to want to ramp up the complexity to make things more interesting. At least for me, it took a concerted effort to resist that urge and keep it simple.

I really wanted Salmon Run to be a game that non-gamers and gamers would enjoy playing.  It can be a tricky line to walk.  You have to keep it simple and engaging enough that non-gamers can grasp it, but have enough depth, tactics, and choices so that gamers will find it interesting.  I believe I have succeeded in this regard.  I remember demonstrating the game recently with a family of four at a convention.  It was pure joy for me to see a gamer mom, a gamer dad, a teenage son, and a preteen son all having a blast playing my game.

HG: This is a very difficult line to toe and it’s one I foolishly take on for every game I design. My randomly determined turn order mechanic for Empire Reborn raises eyebrows from many core gamers, including you!

Did you have a difficult time finding a publishing partner for the game? Orcs and space marines are so typical that it’s delightful to see a game about salmon making a…eh hem, splash.

JC: I feel very fortunate to have found a publisher as quickly as I did.  I submitted Salmon Run (then called Pond Farr) to two publishers, one of which was Gryphon.  Gryphon contacted me a few weeks later asking for a prototype.  They conducted their own testing and a few months later offered me a contract.  I believe the key was having a well-polished and tested game with some unique attributes both thematically and mechanically.  I have a feeling that the bizarre theme of salmon racing may have helped catch their attention!

The other important aspect was choosing a publisher that was a good fit for my game.  I looked hard at what type of games different publishers put out and who their target audiences were.  I made my pitch accordingly, emphasizing what set my game apart and why it would be a good fit for their company.  I am very pleased to have partnered with Gryphon.

HG: Anything else you want to add?

JC: Foremost, I would like to thank you for a great interview and especially for all the playtesting and feedback you have given me.  It really was invaluable and helped immensely.

HG: The pleasure is all mine. This is a good game and people need to play it! 

JC: Secondly, the Kickstarter Campaign for Salmon Run starts on August 29th and is sponsored by Gryphon Games.  Please consider supporting my game.

Note: The game is available on Kickstarter now if you’re interested. I dove right in, myself! 

A Makeover for Empire Reborn

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I was smugly satisfied with the quality of the prototype I brought to GenCon (shown above). Perhaps it was the actual design, but for some reason I looked upon the hideous prototype much like a 4 year old proudly gazes upon his heap of mud. The praise was undeserved, even if it emanated exclusively from my mind.

As noted in this post, one of the biggest pieces of feedback I received with the prototype was that it was poorly presented. Information was not easily obtained nor retained. Things were not presented in a way that reinforced the actual gameplay. It was merely a smattering of information and the player had to both find what he needed to find, then re-learn how and when to use it.

The two biggest changes were made to the game board and the player Reference boards. Let’s take a look!

Game Board Updates

This new board features:

  • A score tracker for players to easily reference and track their scores.
  • A place to set the Strategic Victory cards (previously they were off the board).
  • A larger board to accommodate 4 players and many pieces.
  • A more balanced map: more territories more evenly distributed, equal distribution of valuable territories for all players, and modified placement to eliminate edge rules.
  • The Score indicators on the round markers now tell you WHEN a scoring phase occurs, but also WHAT is scored (using icons).
  • An actual map with some decent art! A friend, Chevee Dodd, quickly whipped this up for me. You can quickly see the difference between cities, HQ, normal territories, and Seaports. Plus, you can do so when setting up.

Here is the map from the rules with the call outs for all the components (click on image for a larger version).

Player Reference Board Updates

These saw about 4 or 5 significant revisions. Before I go too deeply, here is a quick snap of the boards I tested at GenCon:

Here is a new card with the explanations on it (this is from the rules):

  • Instead of merely listing the round phases, I now present them from left to right in Black boxes with numbers. These are at the same level. The intent is that everything you can do in THAT phase is listed accordingly.
  • There is space (at the top) to store all of your tokens and markers. This is for easy upkeep, but also, I can glance at your board to see what you have.
  • Tactics, previously very confusing, are shown as you can use them. Defensive Tactics pointed to. Then offensive Tactics.
  • Lots of color coding. I will reinforce things subtly and then with a sledgehammer.
  • Little rule and scoring reminders sprinkled throughout.

Card Improvements

Cards were given some tweaks as well. I’ve upped the sizing from mini-cards to standard poker cards. I also created a very simple box in the top left of the card to hold the functional information. I was inspired by Morels here.

The other big change is that two of the cards no longer have their functionality listed on the Reference boards. This was stupid of me and the information is now on the cards. Here are two cards so you can see the difference. The top is a simple one used for Tactics or Reinforcement. The bottom is one from the same faction for the Field Marshal card. For now, I’m using the same art for each card, with every faction having different art.

Else

Overall, the protoype will look and feel much better. Presentation and satisfying tactile elements are so fundamental for a good board game experience. The new prototype now features:

  • Full poker cards for the player decks.
  • Mini-cards for the Strategic Victory cards.
  • Quad fold board. This will be far higher quality than the mat used previously.
  • 10mm cubes (up from 8mm cubes).
  • More tokens for Control and white disks for the Battle flags.

And for my own personal prototype, I obtained these…

If this prototype tests well, I hope a few things will happen immediately. One, I hope to send one to the publisher. Two, I intend to post a Print-And-Play version for enthusiastic people to download and try. Finally, if there’s interest, I’ll allow folks to buy this beta version IF they want, with the understanding it’s still in development.

Thoughts?

GenCon Diaries: Testing Empire

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Some of the photos for this post were borrowed from Jason Tagmire’s post on GenCon here. Secondly, I want to thank the many people who helped me test Empire Reborn. If you’re reading this and your name isn’t in the playtester section, hit me up in the comments.

Aside from promoting Farmageddon, my number one task for GenCon was to test a quality build of Empire Reborn. I assumed (correctly) that GenCon would provide me access to dozens of testers. This is far above and beyond my typical week. For the past several months, I’ve been pushing Empire as much as possible to really take advantage of the show’s audience and hopefully show it to a publisher.

Before I get too far down, you should be aware of the First Exposure Playtest Hall at GenCon. I paid $150, and in exchange they promoted and recruited dozens of excellent testers for my game. Every night, for four hours, I ran 4 tests of Empire Reborn. At a cost of $12.50 per play test, I think that’s money well spent. If you have a game you wish to test seriously, I highly recommend you take advantage of their program. Also, don’t forget UnPub.

The purpose of this post is to outline the significant revisions I’ve made to Empire Reborn and my purpose for doing so. Really, everything falls under one of three primary things:

  • The change is implemented to improve the pacing of the game.
  • The change is implemented to eliminate a question.
  • The change is implemented to improve the presentation of information for players.

These changes were fairly clear from observation (especially the second one), but I was fortunate to have a publisher and several of his designers sit in and play the game once. Their mixture of precise and philosophical feedback really pushed me in the right direction to update the game quickly and decisively.

Before I get into what I fixed, I should note the core mechanic of the game of playing cards for Reinforcements or activating battlefield tactics worked and was well received. Someone asked how to buy it in every play test. More surprisingly, the results were fairly balanced. Not surprisingly, the more straightforward Imperial and Brigade factions won the most (tied), with the Militia and Yorkans winning slightly fewer. Finally, nobody was able to “break” the game, which was a relief.

Improving the Pace

Empire is intended to be a relatively short, 60 minute game for up to four players. Currently, it’s 75 minutes to 90 minutes and far more if the players are prone to analysis paralysis (AP). In addition, there’s too much space between player turns. Players play actions, conduct battles, and more. By the time the fourth player’s turn rolls around, folks may be lost on their cell phones.

One thing that’s very much within my control is shortening the length of the game from 7 to 6 rounds (potentially even 5). I also jump-started the game by giving players 3 Units on the board at the start of the game. One of the three scoring rounds was removed.

The game, as it was presented at GenCon, was very conducive for AP players. There was too much information available on the board and the information was presented such that players would often check, double check, then triple check their options. One test of four AP players lasted for an astonishing two and a half hours! I’m removing some of the information.

  • Only one turn order marker will be drawn from the bag at a time. This means a player will have limited information as to who will follow him and what they will do.
  • With only 2 scoring rounds, players have fewer turns to over-optimize to squeeze out one or two additional points.
  • Battles resolve in a new phase following turns. This means players take fewer actions during their turns and remain engaged to participate in the battles.

This may lead to some significant balance problems with the game. It may also completely shake the game I’ve built so far. However, I’m confident the next test will be mostly positive and the information gained from IT will lead to something special.

Eliminating the Questions

In order to appeal to new players and not exhaust existing players with questionable mechanics, I took notes on every recurring question in order to just cut them out. Put another way, I began to streamline things.

Instead of making it such that you can only use seaports to travel to territories adjacent to the ocean except headquarters, I just made all of the headquarters landlocked. Rule removed.

You can no longer place a control token in a territory with a headquarters. It does nothing to have two, except confuse players.

The Fighting Withdrawal tactic used to remove 1 Unit from each Army. However, if the Brigade has only 1 Unit, it begs the question of “Do they still get a trophy then if I lose?” Now, the Brigade doesn’t lose a Unit, they inflict 1 casualty and retreat.

The notion of Actions versus Reinforcement versus Support Tactics baffled players for the first round. And for good reason — it was clunky. Here is the new player turn order:

  1. Reinforce
  2. First Action
  3. Second Action
  4. Reinforce (only if not done in step 1)

You still only reinforce once and it’s clearly presented so that you do it at the beginning or end of your turn. As for Support Tactics, they are now called Staff Orders and they are one of the four Actions available to a player. They were always more or less very effective Actions, so they are just that now. The world is better for it (I hope).

Instead of putting the text for the Field Marshal and Imperial Guard cards on the Reference boards, they will now just be on the cards. I had a strange obsession with removing all text from the cards, but the trade off was not valuable.

Previously, territory could be controlled in one of three ways: have control of the fortress, have a control token, or have the most units. This last one was very rare and was unclear. Now, it will only be the first two. This also means I can setup the player reference board so that instead of counting your control tokens, you’ll just see the space you have that indicates how many are off and you can then do simple math.

March and Sail were two very similar Actions. I’ve merged them back into one; mobilize. I’ve also reduced the number of Strategic Victory (formerly Bonus Objective) cards (from 4 to 3) to reduce the amount of information players need to process.

The rules are also greatly clarified based on slight details and questions that can only be obtained from thorough testing.

Final side note. The other night while browsing the About page for Academy Games, I saw this helpful information, which they call the Warcholak guide, by Nicholas Warcholak.

1. Is the rule necessary to simulate the TYPICAL (over 10% of the time) conditions and outcomes on the battlefield? If YES, keep. If NO, go to 2.
2. Does the rule require significant mental resources to remember to play? (Significant is defined as needing to remember more than 2 facts.) If YES, dump. If NO, go to 3.
3. Does the rule add to the fun of the game? Does it produce outcomes that add significant replayability, oh-no moments, gotcha moments, or simulation pay-off outside the general flow of the game? If YES, keep. If NO, dump. 

Improving the Presentation

The biggest problem here is that my current reference boards are, put simply, heinous. They are a sloppy assortment of data that is barely functional and does not make it easy to obtain or retain data pertinent to the game.

The board is not much better. My little “score box” is supposed to show you what earns you points, but the iconography is illegible and it is sorted in a way that confuses more than aids.

I’ll start with the cards. The layout here won’t change much, but I took inspiration from Morels. Here are the cards prior to the tests:

Notice how the number and symbol are smashed in the top left? Now, notice how Morels does it:

Symbol followed by number. Much easier to read. And to restate, special cards will have explanatory text at the bottom.

The board will now contain far more essential details and spaces to contain information. The score tracker will have a symbol to denote when scoring takes place as well as icons that display WHAT to score at that time. There will be 3 spaces for the Strategic Victory cards that will lead nicely to the end game scoring.

The board will have a score track, which I think is better and more easily viewed than private coins. There is no need for the information to be private in this game. The board will be slightly larger, which will allow for more room of the pieces.

The Reference boards will receive the majority of the graphical design overhaul. I will probably do an entire post JUST on them after I make them, but here is the gist of what I intend.

  • The top will display the icon, color, and a short description of the faction and how to play them.
  • There will be spaces for players to place Units, Control Tokens, and Trophies. This expedites setup AND makes it easier for a player to glance across the table to see the status of an opponent.
  • Tactics and Staff Orders will be arranged and color coded based on when they can play. The board will tell a story from right to left so that the player sees what he can do now, then what he can do next.
  • In particular, the battle order will break out and better present the Offensive and Defensive Tactics so you know only the information relevant to you.
  • All of the Actions will be listed on the board.

Other Changes

The board will be increasing just slightly to allow for a little more maneuvering and strategic setup. The number of player Units will also increase from 12 to 15 as a result.

Several of the Tactics have been modified to account for the new phase system.

Players each have 6 Control tokens instead of 3. I began testing with this halfway through the GenCon sessions and it was a significant improvement.

The Field Marshal now lets you draw +3 cards, so in effect, +2 for the turn. I want playing the Field Marshal to be a significant, not obvious decision, because the turn you use him should be decisive. After all, it will allow you to more likely play a second (or third!) Tactic or Staff Order.

There will now be numbered Battle Flag tokens to mark the order of battle resolution.

There are now 8 Strategic Victory cards instead of 4. There will be 3 each game, so this should add some variety to the game. Controlling an enemy HQ is now a Strategic Victory. This should greatly clean up the scoring and this rule.

Coal territories have been renamed to Cities.

If you’d like to read the updated rules, you can find them here. Please note they might change. In fact, count on it. You can always find the most current rules linked at the bottom of the Empire Reborn game page.

Thoughts? Concerns? Feedback? Anything jump out as “wow cool!” or “please no!”

GenCon Diaries: The Games

GenCon was full of many most excellent games. Due to the fact I had an exhibitor’s badge, I was able to snag a few of the games that sold out very quickly (Seasons, Battle Beyond Space, Cities). And, due to the fact I hang out with a solid core of designers, I also played many prototypes in development.

Let’s go down the list, shall we?

If I’m Going Down 

If I’m Going Down is a solo/co-op zombie game designed by AJ Porfirio of Van Ryder Games. I consider AJ a friend and I was glad to play the final version of this game with him.

AJ sent me an early prototype of IIGD almost a year ago and it has come a LONG way since then. He’s added counters, more art, streamlined the zombies, incorporated some cool features (new heroes, pop up zombies, flame thrower), and it’s generally a completely different game.

IIGD is somewhat of a tower defense. You’re a survivor (not for long) and you’re trying to kill as many zombies before the end comes. The game is a solid mix of choices and luck and it plays relatively quickly. Best of all, it tells a story. AJ and I had a HORRIBLE game in which we killed only 2 zombies (after modifiers were factored into the score) and we laughed about it for days.

You can pre-order the game from Game Salute.

Gyre

This is an abstract prototype in development by another friend, Eric Leath. I’m typically not a fan of abstracts, but this one intrigued me. In fact, Eric returned home to find two long emails from me about the game. It’s still on my mind.

In Gyre, each player controls a unique deck of 54 cards. These cards have gears on them with colors and symbols on some of the nodes. The goal is to have a set number of your color facing the same direction.

However, players can remove gears, shift them through chain reactions, lock them in place, and manipulate the discard pile. I see a lot of potential for this and I’m looking forward to his progress.

Seasons

Seasons attracted me with its beautiful production values and short play time. After two plays, I’m very glad that it’s also a very fun game. We’ll see how it goes as I play more, but for now it’s delightful.

The beginning of the game is crucial. Players draft 9 cards which they will obtain throughout the game. Cards are summoned and provide powerful one-time, perpetual, or activated abilities. Then, players roll and draft dice for resources and other benefits. By the end of the game, every player has a set of cards in front of him and each is trying to score the most points.

I’m very curious to see how this game progresses as I move from novice to mastery. For now, it is $50 well spent.

Dungeon Heroes

Dungeon Heroes was a neat game designed by Michael Coe (Rise!). It struck me as an abstract with theme, which, considering Michael’s background, isn’t a surprise. One player plays as a team of four adventurers (standard rogue, cleric, warrior, wizard). The other player is the lord of the dungeon. It’s a very distilled, streamlined game compared to many dungeon crawlers.

The adventurers win if they get four gold. The dungeon lord wins if he kills the adventurers. What stood out is that the two players play entirely different games. The lord randomly draws, then places tiles like traps, gold, and monsters. At the beginning of the game the dungeon is passive. Things are dormant.

The adventurers are revealing tiles, dismantling traps, and more to gather intelligence during this passive phase. Then, the dungeon comes alive and the lord begins moving and manipulating monsters. I’ll be curious to see how this game develops further in the coming months.

Mars Needs Mechanics

Mars Needs Mechanics is a delightful game designed by Benjamin Rosset. Before we go too much further, it needs to be said that Benjamin is an absurdly kind, genuine, sincere person and obviously a very intelligent designer. He went out of his way to say hello every day and that meant a great deal.

In Mars, you are each a mechanic trying to prove his worth and craftiness in order to join the expedition to Mars. The game is fundamentally about buying goods low and selling them high and manipulating the market with a strong timing mechanic such that the result favors you. I can see where a sharp lad with good intuition could be very good at this game.

The game was easy to learn and played in about an hour. It also helped that I played with Cyrus Kirby and his brother, two excellent gentlemen. This game will be on Kickstarter on August 31 I believe. Furthermore, I’m working with Benjamin to get an interview or designer information on Hyperbole Games. Stay tuned for more.

Story Realms

I hesitate to bring up Story Realms, as I literally just watched it played for a few turns over Chris Kirkman’s hulking shoulders. However, its production value was top notch and it has such a great premise (a more accessible board game RPG).

The presentation value, even with the quick and dirty prototype, looked really good. There was magic and wonder and folks were discussing how to tackle the situation (like D&D) without all the headaches. Plus, I also witnessed the dice hating Chris Kirkman, which was a treat.

I’m going to work with Escapade Games to discuss Story Realms further as it approaches its Kickstarter date. Angie and her husband have been killing themselves to make the game perfect and I’m excited to see it enter the stage.

I also picked up MorelsBattle Beyond Space, and got a first-hand look at Matt Worden’s Magistrate.

The rules for Morels read beautifully and were full of little dashes of wit and humor. I purchased a copy with the hand-carved wooden tokens and it’s such an outstanding touch. The husband and wife duo that run Two Lanterns Games were very kind and I hope to chat with Brent more in the future. This will hit the table shortly.

I read the rules for Battle and it looks as if it will be a lot of fun. The game was easy to learn and seems like it has a nice amount of depth. It also has great components and really hits a thematic note for me. It’s on the docket for Friday at lunch.

Finally, Magistrate looks very good. Matt Worden noted he and I are tackling similar goals in different ways with Magistrate and Empire Reborn. If that’s the case, I’m eager to play it. Matt is a great guy and a friend. But, aside from that, if you’ve been playing or following his games (I have), you’ll see that Magistrate stands to be a culmination of some of his best stuff.

It has subtlety and intrigue, like Subtilla. It has some worker placement elements like you’d see in Colonies of the Jump Gate and planning several turns ahead in a chess like manner (Subtilla, Castle Danger). I loved hearing him discuss the breadth of his testers’ experiences, the different strategies, and how well it was received. Jump Gate made a big splash for Matt a short time ago. I really hope Magistrate does so as well. I hope he sends me a copy!

If I didn’t list a game here, it’s because I didn’t buy it or haven’t played it yet. I have many other games I wanted to see, but if I didn’t, well, I figure you should go elsewhere for that information.

What did you play that was excellent? What did I miss?

GenCon Diaries: Stories

Post by: Grant Rodiek

GenCon is a place to buy games, play games, pitch games, or sell games, depending on your role in this nerd ecosystem. But, as I quickly found, and hoped, it’s really the site for great stories. GenCon attracts a mass of people dressed as 10 foot wookiees, the skinniest Spider-Man I’ve ever seen, lads with incredible beards, little steam punk children, and normal Tom and Sallys. It’s as if the largest dive bar in history were opened and great people from everywhere showed up to have a beer (or three) and pass the time masterfully.

Okay, four beers.

If you go with the right crew, GenCon is a great four days. I traveled with a fine posse of guys whom I’ve never met in person, but have built a friendship with via the magic known as the internet. I met and hung out with many fine folk, but most of my time was spent with AJ Porfirio, Matt Worden, Chevee Dodd, Cyrus Kirby, and Eric Leath. I mean this in the best way when I say we’re a pretty great group of assholes.

Matt brought me a hot dog at the booth, my first meal of the day at 4 pm. AJ repeatedly gave me a chance to run to the bathroom. He also woke up earlier than he wanted every day to drive me into the Con to work my booth. Eric and Chevee frequently hung out with me to play demos with potential customers and the former instigated one of the most awkward scenes I’ve witnessed in my life. I’ll just say our fiend of a waitress pulled off a hilarious Machiavellian maneuver. Chevee made sure to express his displeasure with Empire’s turn order mechanic and was on hand when a tester made precisely the same suggestion (details, execution, everything) an hour later. I wish that fedora wearing fool had taken a minute to go to the bathroom at that moment.

We played Seasons, Empire Reborn, Dicey Curves, Gyre, made fun of Cyrus, and acted like we’d known each other for years. It was really awesome. Especially making fun of Cyrus. The dude ordered a beer called Osiris purely because it sounded like his name.

I met Colby Dauch of Plaid Hat Games, Brent Povis of Two Lanterns Games, Christopher Badell of Greater than Games, and Uwe Eickert of Academy Games. I consider these people celebrities, mostly because I value cool gamers over C-List actors. Christopher in particular is this shrewd fiend of an upstart publisher. He makes me want to figure out co-op games. It’s amazing when you can bump into significant players who talk to you and treat you so well. It’s a small industry and I love the camaraderie.

I met so many others, but for the sake of brevity I’m cutting it off here.

Not all the people are so fresh. GenCon is packed with hilariously bad smells from people who clearly refuse to bathe. I’d like to think Gandalf the Grey was standing in these people’s shower screeching “you shall not pass,” and they were like “gotcha bearded dude.” It’s one of the oldest geek stereotypes that we are not a bathing people. I took my daily shower, but it appears not everyone got the memo.

GenCon is about violence, though more often than not the plastic sword variety. But, not always. Two young siblings literally broke into fisticuffs when the older brother played a steal card on his younger sister. At one point, she was flat on her belly on the table flailing at him to get the card back. It was a heaping mess of hilarity.

On one hand I was bothered she was scaring away potential demoers, but on the other hand I felt like I’d created the best game of all time. I mean, she was furious because of a card I designed. That’s passion!

One aspiring designer boldly told me his friend designed a game with 28 perfectly balanced factions in only a month. I bet he thought I was stupid when I told him it had taken me 6 months to develop  Empire to its current point. I’m so inefficient! Speaking of which, I’m adding orcs and turret turtles to Empire. No I’m not. I’m adding anthropomorphic donuts.

I played 42 games of Farmageddon from Thursday to Friday. It seems like 9 out of the 10 people who played with me went to purchase a copy, which is the ultimate compliment. I love showing my games, always have, and my time demoing for a large corporation has served me well in this regard.

Many people who played with me on Thursday came back on Friday to tell me the combos they pulled off the previous evening, or took the time to wave when passing by on Saturday. I learned, once again, that little kids love a good high-five and that once and for all trying to make a pun out of the German word würst is, well, you know…

You can’t blame me for trying. A guy said “Oh that’s the worst!” To which I responded, “No, it’d be the würst if you were farming sausages.” He stared at me blankly. When I threw my hand up and shouted “Up top!” to receive his celebratory high five, he shook his head and said “no, I’m not high fiving that.”

I playtested Empire Reborn for 14 total hours. I had three groups of testers return for second tests because they enjoyed the game. They spent four hours with my prototype instead of something else. One double tester paid me the ultimate compliment when he said the game was exactly the game he’d been looking for. I sent him home with one of the two prototypes (Worden took home  the other containing my “hand crafted” fort tokens) and can’t wait to show him the revised rules. I also played it with a publisher and one of his designers. Excellent feedback was received and the next iteration is really going to take a big step forward (read about it later this week).

Perhaps most exciting was that I finally met Phil, the publisher of Farmageddon. Phil’s been busting his butt to promote and distribute my game and it seems to be working quite well. He’s also a nice guy and at the end of the day, that counts for quite a bit. Slowly but surely we’re going to carve out a name and I’m glad my silly crops are steaming ahead with him.

I told several people before GenCon that I was excited to promote Farmageddon and test Empire, but I really wasn’t sure about the Con. I’m just not a huge con goer. From where I stand right now, I’m not sure I’ll miss another. I’ll need to plan the birth of my children such that I don’t miss it, such is my dedication.

Embrace this great community as a designer, a tester, a player, and a publisher. I’m pretty sure I’d be ripe for a mid-life crisis any day now if it weren’t the joy of designing games and sharing them with great guys like Matt Worden. Or joking about square rondels with Patrick Nickell. Or designing a game around a Twitter hash tag. GenCon 2012 was, for me, an outstanding story and I’m delighted to see where it goes from here.

Fingers crossed it’s something akin to The Fast and the Furious. Not 2 Fast 2 Furious, Kirkman.

GenCon Diaries: Intro

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I just returned from an amazing 4 days in Indianapolis, which is where GenCon 2012 was held. You probably know what GenCon is if you’re on this site, but if you don’t, it’s the biggest board game convention in the United States. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say it was four of the best days of my life.

Over the next week or so I’m going to be rolling out a series of posts I’m tagging as GenCon Diaries. I’m going to write about the awesome folks I met and the hilarious stories that emerged. I’m going to write about testing my new game, Empire Reborn, the feedback I received, and what it was like to play with a potential publisher. I’m going to write about demoing my first game, Farmageddon, the up and coming FORCES in this business, and generally, tell a story of these four days.

Some of these posts will be sappy and fit for Lifetime movies. Some will be more akin to my typical philosophical posts. Some will hopefully be funny.

As always, I want you to feel free to contribute to this story. I love guest columns and I am just one of many perspectives. Plus, I was chained to a table for about 14 hours a day.

The Importance of Scalability

Post by: Grant Rodiek

One of the most important decisions you will make when designing a game is the number of players it will support. In fact, this will probably be (or at least it should be) decision number two or three for the project.

The impact is massive. It determines the components needed (and therefore production costs), the length of the game (more players typically means longer), its complexity, pacing (how do you keep 3 players from falling asleep as they await their turns?), and who will purchase your game. After all, many people such as myself will rarely consider a game that doesn’t play with two. I’m currently designing a game that plays only with two and it terrifies me to think how that will limit the game.

I’m going to make some bold statements. After all, debate isn’t fun when somebody meanders forth with a soggy opinion.

Statement #1: Your game should be excellent in every variation specified on the box. If you say two to four on the box, your game should be fun with two, three, or four players.

For many, the “two” on “two to four” is a joke. This is often thrown in hastily by a publisher seeking the broadest possible audience. A friend recently noted his 2-6 game was originally designed and tuned for 3-5, but it was changed by the publisher. 7 Wonders, a wonderful game loved by many (myself included), boldly states 2-7 players on the side of the box. That 2 is optimistic at best.

I learned this lesson the hard way when I initially released Farmageddon on The Game Crafter. I assumed that nobody bought it to play with two players. In reality, many people bought it for two players and they weren’t pleased with the result. There were a few problems I had to resolve.

Many of the cards simply didn’t work with two players. Crop Rotation used to change the order of play. In two player, it skipped the other player’s turn. Not fun. Foul Manure was a two turn blocker. In two player, it was a pointless card.

The pacing was off. Drawing only two cards per turn meant the game took forever. Action cards were too potent. Because you only had one player to target, the game became mutually assured destruction.

I took this feedback to heart and set out in earnest to improve the experience. Over the course of its development, two player Farmageddon is one of the most thoroughly tested aspects of the game. Now, every card works regardless of the number of players. There are no special two player rules on any cards. To improve the pacing, players draw more Crop cards every turn and must play more as Fertilizer. This keeps the game moving at a steady clip. The Action cards vary more in function now and aren’t pure offense. The Action deck features offensive, defensive, and support cards. Finally, players draw fewer Action cards, which means if you spend all your bullets hastily, you’ll have far less ammo.

Two player Farmageddon is different, but it’s good. How can this be applied to other designs? What are the core questions one must ask? I encourage designers to always establish goals at the outset of every project for the play experience. When testing for player number variations, test against these goals. Here are some to consider:

The pacing of the game is fun. It doesn’t take too long for the game to end, nor do players grow bored from waiting. In 7 Wonders, players take simultaneous turns. In Bohnanza, players trade regardless of whose turn it is. You’re never far from a decision.

The complexity is sufficient. One of the reasons many auction/bidding games require 3 players is because a two player auction isn’t very fun. On the other hand, one of the reasons games like Ascension or Magic: The Gathering are less fun with more than 2 players is that there is too much information to track with too many players.

The amount of uncertainty is appropriate. War games are, by their very nature, confrontational. If the theme wasn’t war, people would potentially call them a “take that.” Because of this, many war games feature only two sides to reduce the amount of uncertainty and back and forth. You know who your enemy is. With King of Tokyo, the amount of information on the board is low and the probability is easily gauged. Therefore, the amount of uncertainty with even 6 players is just fine.

Choices aren’t obvious. It’s not much fun in a game when your choices become obvious. As I noted above, this was a problem with Farmageddon. If you have only one opponent and a pile of weapons, of course you’re going to use it against your one opponent. Design your game such that it isn’t just WHO to target, but HOW to target and with WHAT. King of Tokyo does this very well. Often, when two players are left the game is a race to the finish. Will you go for points? Go for the Knock Out? How will you do either?

If you take the time to ask the questions and devote efforts towards testing the answers, you’ll find that your 3-5 label isn’t a lie, but a bold proclamation for variety and fun. Also, in making your game work for every player number variant, you may find that you’ll improve the game overall. Testing for two players revealed some of Farmageddon‘s worst elements.

Statement #2: Your game should scale with as few tweaks as possible. There are varying degrees of acceptable modifications here on a scale. There are exceptions in all things and degrees of variance with each of these states. Nothing is set in stone, but it’s good to create a starting point.

Worst: Fake players (i.e. you must manage an AI)

Less Worse: Add or Replace Rules

Okay: Vary Existing Rules

Better: Modify the Presentation or Game Content

Best: No changes

Making no changes between the number of players is clearly ideal. This means your players read the rules once and are set forever in every situation. This isn’t always feasible. Forbidden Island does this. With only two players, you have fewer class abilities (less flexibility), but you draw flood cards less quickly. It’s a great trade-off and you don’t need to change anything.

Modified content is the next step. If your game has scarce resources, you may need to vary the supply per the number of players. If you have a war game, you may need to alter the number of armies allowed. Bohnanza states which bean types to remove for certain games, Small World provides different boards, and Die Speicherstadt has fewer cards auctioned each round. They are the same games with slightly modified components.

Varied rules can be used sparingly. In Farmageddon, I varied the number of Crop cards drawn at the start of the turn (+1), increased the amount of Fertilizer to be played (+1), and reduced the number of Action cards drawn (-1). You still have the same rules, they are just executed slightly differently. It’s not too bad, but even I have to reference it if a great deal of time has passed since I’ve last played with 2 players.

With new rules, you need good justification for doing so. I’m currently doing this for Empire Reborn. Though it has tested well and is pretty straightforward, it leaves me uneasy. In a three and four player game there are sufficient units to cover the map. However, with only two armies, instead of creating a map for only one play type, I chose to modify the rules. In a two player game, each player controls one main Army, like in any game, as well as one ally army. The ally army is severely curtailed in capabilities and therefore adds little overhead or too much additional management. They essentially help fill the board with warm bodies. I’m currently exploring a different way of creating the boards to more easily allow a board that scales for 2, 3, or 4 players. This would replace the current two player rules, relegating them to variant status.

I explain the two player rules with under a half page of quick bullet points, but I’ve seen some games with pages of rules for different player numbers. This is dangerous ground and is burdensome for your players.

Finally, fake players, in my opinion, are the worst way to allow a game to work with multiple players. Requiring players to fully manage their own team as well as remembering to maintain a neutral third entity is not much fun. Creating a game with excellent pacing is already difficult enough. This just kicks your pacing squarely in its shins.

More statements can be made, but I believe this is a good stopping point for now. What games scale the best in your opinion? What scaling problems have you encountered? What assertions did I get incorrectly? Comment below!

Mechanically Sound #4: Eclipse Edition

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I recently had the opportunity to play Eclipse, the highly praised epic space opera game that currently resides as the #5 game of all time. Because of its high ranking and quick ascendancy, the game is somewhat controversial for some. There will always be naysayers. However, after only one play it’s clear to me that this game is very special.

Furthermore, the game is incredibly well designed. Nothing is out of place, nothing was confusing (for me, at least), and everything was richly thematic.  It seemed fitting and appropriate to dedicate a Mechanically Sound column to a few of the things I enjoyed most about Eclipse: Ship customization, battle, and the economy.

Ship Customization

Examine this player board. At the very top, from the left to the right, you have 4 ship types: fighter, cruiser, dreadnought, and space station. If you look closely, you’ll see a variety of squares with symbols on them.

Ships have a few variables:

  • Initiative: This determines who attacks first.
  • Movement: How far the ship can move with a move action.
  • Power: Weapon upgrades, engine upgrades, etc. require power. If your ship doesn’t have sufficient power to equip the part, you cannot do so. You can also upgrade a ship’s power supply.

On top of this basic framework, you can outfit a ship with improved guns that cause more damage with every hit, better engines for more  movement, shields to hinder an opponent’s hit chances, armor to increase life, computers to improve your hit chances, bombs to devastate planets, and my favorite, missiles, with which to launch a single, hopefully devastating broadside at the outset of every engagement. If you’ve read David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, the missiles in particular will be very exciting. I loved them.

This may sound complicated, but the presentation is excellent. You place the upgrade components (square pieces of punchboard) and place them on the ship. Ship numbers are limited by the number of components and typically you only have a handful out at a time. As a first time player, I had zero problems knowing what my ships could do and what upgrades were available for them. I was also able to keep tabs on my opponents’ fleets.

I think the biggest reason for this is that instead of going incredibly broad with ship types and a slew of variants, the designers went narrow and deep. Only 4 ship types, two of which have very simple component possibilities, and everything ultimately feeds into battle or movement.

Battle

I thought the battle system made a lot of sense and had a good dose of randomness and luck (it uses dice, after all), but still seems to reflect the upgrades and capabilities of the ship.

Ships attack in initiative order and players roll the number of dice indicated by upgrades. This usually means one or two per ship. Any 1s rolled are always misses. Any 6s rolled are always hits. Between these extremes is where modifications come in.

If you have a targeting computer for +2 hit chance, for example, you will hit on a 4 and up. If a 6 is a hit, then 4 + 2 (from the computer) means 6. That’s a 50/50 chance,which is much better than 1/6. However, let’s say your opponent has a shield, which gives you a -1 hit chance. Well, then you hit on a 5 and up. 1/3 is still far better than 1/6!

Occasionally, a battle can have a seemingly endless number of back and forth re-rolls, especially if neither side retreats (the game gives you an incentive to fight the battle to the death, even if it’s your death). But, in most cases this system perfectly reflects the capabilities of one’s ships without slowing the game with cumbersome tallying.

I really want to see how this system varies and changes over multiple plays. Currently, I think it’s the bee’s knees.

The Economy

For the longest time with Empire Reborn I tried to craft some form of turn-order determining system that reflected a player’s current status on the map. Essentially, a player with many armies widely disbursed should be more cumbersome than a player with fewer armies tightly focused.

Ultimately, I scrapped this to streamline the game and focus on the battles. However, Eclipse, which is a much heftier game, solves this goal in a really cool fashion.

Look at the bottom portion of the board in the image just above. There are red disks and little red squares on three tracks (orange, pink, and brown). The tracks are:

  • Orange Track: Last number revealed is the amount of money (a currency for taking actions) you earn at the end of every round.
  • Pink Track: Last number revealed is the amount of science (a currency for researching technology) you earn at the end of every round.
  • Brown Track: Last number revealed is the amount of materials (a currency for building ships) you earn at the end of every round.

There are 5 actions you can take every turn (multiple times, any order). To indicate you took an action, you place the rightmost red disk into the action space. This reveals a negative number on the bottom track. The left most revealed number at the end of the round is the amount of money you must pay. So, the more actions you take, the more money you pay.

Now, examine this picture again:

Each hex tile is a system. The owner of the system places a colored disk to indicate ownership. This disk is removed from your track at the bottom, which means colonizing planets permanently increases the cost of taking actions. Similarly, systems have a varied number of orange, pink, and brown cube spaces. When you take control of the system (with a disk), you can place cubes onto the board. So, if I claim a system with an orange and a pink space, I remove those cubes from the track on my board. This means I’ll earn more money and more science every round. It also means some systems are better than others, or may be better or worse depending on your strategy.

If you want to build ships? Go for systems with brown (manufacturing) spaces. Need to up your economy for more actions? Find the orange.

Thematically, this is excellent. The larger my empire, the more costly it is to manage it. And, as I develop star systems, my economy, science, and manufacturing capabilities increase. These things are so tightly connected and intertwined. There is no fluff and it’s just excellent.

As you can tell, I’m a bit enamored of Eclipse. This is probably the closest thing you’ll ever see to a review on this site. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that other games use very similar systems, but I haven’t seen things quite like this in my experiences, so they were very new and very welcome to me.

Have you encountered any stellar mechanics lately? Do you have a love letter to write? Note it in the comments below!