About Grant Rodiek

I'm a professional designer of digital games. I design board and card games as a hobby. I'm obsessed with my corgi and I love spending too much money on good food with my girlfriend.

Three Development Sessions

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I was just on a walk and I began thinking about the three types of sessions I have developing my game. Two of these are obvious, but one isn’t, so I thought it might be useful to others to discuss how I go about developing games.

Session One: Discuss the Game

This session requires at least one other person. If you have a co-designer, or development friend, this is great. I discuss my games almost daily with Josh or Antonio, and it is a constant aid.

The discussion topics vary based on the point in the development cycle. Earlier, you tend to hear statements like:

  1. What makes sense with this theme?
  2. Would it be cool if players could do X?
  3. What type of mechanisms are you interested in right now?

In the middle of the cycle, especially during early testing, the questions shift to:

  1. X is a problem. What are some ways it can be solved?
  2. Testers are frustrated by Y, but I think it works. Do you think that’s really the issue?
  3. What’s the best way to describe this mechanism in the rules?

Late in development, the questions might be:

  1. Do you think Card A is balanced against Card B?
  2. Are you worried this is a possible strategy or outcome?
  3. What is the optimal layout for the card?

The key to this development session is actively discussing the game, its problems, and its potential with someone who is informed about the game and your goals. It’s important to have questions against specific problems. Earlier you can wander and brainstorm, but very quickly, these conversations bear more fruit if focused.

Do you have a discussion partner? You should!

Session Two: The Targeted Fix

These sessions are typically very quick. This is when I sit down at my computer with a very specific goal in mind. These sessions usually occur after a Discussion session, Testing, or receiving a report from a tester.

The Targeted Fix usually involves:

  • Tuning a specific card, faction, or mechanism
  • Fixing wording, including typos, grammar, clarity, or function
  • Modifying or re-designing card or component layout
  • Editing Rules
  • Re-writing rules
  • Fixing rules

I often complete targeted fixes in minutes. The decision occurred previously and the only element that hinders me is the quantity of the fixes. I typically write rules early in my process, so maintaining them takes seconds or minutes at worst. I invest the time to create card templates so that I can update and modify cards quickly as well.

More lengthy targeted fix sessions include re-writing rules from scratch, or changing the graphic design for the game. Otherwise, this is a very in and out style of development.

Session Three: Fishing

This is the most common and arguably least fruitful form of development, but I believe it’s massively important and can be overlooked. It often feels unproductive, and can easily lose out to watching TV, designing something new, or staring at a wall, even. But, I think you can improve a game’s score by a few percentage points by fishing often.

Fishing is about sitting in front of your games components to re-read them, shuffle them, and ponder them. I often have my rules open in a tab on my laptop and I re-read them while watching TV. I open up my card content excel in another tab and read that. I open up the card files and check those out. It’s about soaking in the content and, if this makes sense, people watching.

Fishing might result in:

  • Finding text errors.
  • Shaving 3 words off a sentence in rules.
  • Finding a better way to write a card.
  • Finding an aspect of your game you present badly.
  • Staring at a thing long enough to admit it bothers you enough to finally fix it. This could be a mechanism, layout, or an individual card not pulling its weight.
  • Spawning ideas for new content.
  • A fresh card layout.
  • A new rules flow.
  • Forcing you to ponder why a mechanism serves your game.

An overwhelming majority of the time, fishing results in nothing. You have to accept that. But, by soaking yourself in your design and forcing your mind to constantly consider every aspect of it, you’ll tease out new ideas, new fixes, and small and even grand ways to improve your design.

It’s easy, and most obvious, to simply test your game and then make changes. But, working to have someone to discuss changes with goes a very long way. It forces you to think through the design change, answer “why this is needed,” then implement it with thought and care. It’s easy to then close your laptop and go do more obviously productive things. But, the key is to not develop a game that works, but to develop a game that’s special. The key is to know why every part of your game needs to exist. The key is to sift until you find that gold.

I challenge you to think about your development efforts. How do you spend your time? How do your sessions serve your design? What are you lacking from your development frame work? If you answer those questions, you can then seek the solutions to improve your development output.

Solstice Beta Wave 1 Results

Post by: Grant Rodiek

You can read the rules for Solstice here. You can watch a still mostly accurate rules video here. You can download a Print and Play with all changes here

The first testing wave of Solstice has been going for a month now, and a lot of small changes are going to be incorporated into the design to make it stronger. The overall feedback has been good so far, and the testers have been great. We have a pretty active Slack channel to discuss things. but testers haven’t limited themselves to that. One tester recorded a 25 minute video of her group discussing the game and answering my question guide. Another tester took a break from work to discuss the game’s theme and other topics for an hour. Super cool.

I should also note, for people curious, that my experiment in selling a POD version of the game, at cost, has been successful. Several people took me up on the offer and they’ve generally been very engaged testers. Woo!

In this post, I want to write about the changes being introduced into the game for wave 2. I want to explain why I’m making the changes, and throughout, offer advice and insight that can benefit you when conducting a blind test program for your own designs.

Balance Changes

Balance has performed well so far, which is good. The game is lightly asymmetric, but unlike Hocus, the asymmetry can be balanced more mathematically and is less of a feel exercise. However, there are a few small notes that needed to be addressed.

Siege is an Event that exists to hinder players who dog pile on a single region and hinder the leader. Previously, it had the following effects:

“Monarchs cannot score this region. Strength Victor loses two points.”

This can be a real double whammy. If your Monarch (no Aristocrat, more on that soon) doesn’t score, that’s a 2-5 point swing. And if you then lose another two points…damn Daniel. The card has now been simplified and nerfed to be:

“Monarchs cannot Score this Region.”

This is a pretty good and clean stopper and doesn’t feel so punitive.

Regarding the player cards, they’re in pretty good shape, but I took some feedback and used it to investigate some issues. Basically, players felt that some clans have much easier ways to score their 3 Point cards. Now, this is true, but if you look into it, it is a little more nuanced.

The Warchief and Vizier that Score 3 are easier to resolve than the Assassin and Monarch. However, their 3 Point Score is minimized by the fact that the other factions score 2 points. So, it’s an advantage, but not a huge one. Conversely, the other Monarchs and Assassins don’t score nearly as much as the others. However, in one case, a faction DIDN’T score the two points others were scoring, so I brought them in par.

I then looked at the Elders and found a few more problems. The Sea Clan could score 4, when the others could only Score 3. I brought them to par. I also noticed some of the other clans were given more points in the stats for which they weren’t strong, which is an unfair tweak. That was an easy change.

Overall, balance won’t see a swinging shift, but it will be brought more in line, which is key.

Content Changes

I finally admitted some cards weren’t working and altered them. Supply Caravan has been a problematic card for a bit. It was too hard to execute, almost always resolved the same way, and didn’t make the game more interesting. Lame!

I replaced it with Escape.

“<Favor> Victory: You may add your Prisoner to this Region (ignoring card limit). It resolves normally.”

This is the first card to leverage prisoners, which makes it interesting. If you have this card, it can/will change how you use the prisoner, and can lead to a very surprising result.

Although not a direct result of the testing, we’re also rolling out the B Sides of the Regions. This is something we’ve been discussing behind the scenes, and many testers echoed a desire for such a feature. Essentially, there are the plain A Sides to every region, which just reward points. The B-Sides, however, reward fewer points, but grant players bonuses to resolve. This will change the game and add a new strategic layer without too much complexity.

The final content change is that we added a new disclosure rule to add variety. On the coast, you now disclose the card’s strength or favor values.This adds more variety.

Rules Changes

There haven’t been dramatic changes to the rules, but there is one that I think will really improve the game.

Players are now dealt a random card that is a prisoner at the start of every game. This has two subtle impacts. One, it increases the number of cards in play, which further reduces the already unlikely chance one player has none of their cards in play. Secondly, it removes the exception that players do not have/cannot use prisoners in round one. Now, all rounds have all content.

Otherwise, there’s a minor rule change regarding Region use. It was noted that players felt the need to control THEIR region, but there are no rules for that. But, previously, regions were associated with different clans so to aid in setup. For example, if you’re playing with the blue and green clans, you simply toss in the blue and green regions. No more. I removed the clan affiliation from the Regions. Now, you choose regions at random equal to the number of players.

Accessibility Changes

To make the game more accessible, I made a few tiny changes that I think will have strong implications. Firstly, I re-positioned some of the card diagrams to the top of the rule. This way, you have them in mind while learning the rules.

I designed a set of quick start rules for first time players. Effectively, players are dealt a specific set of cards, and use a preset pool of Events. This lets them have simple Events for their first game and they skip the drafting phase. Many players are scared or uncomfortable drafting cards before they know how to use them. This alleviates that.

I separated the two player rules for quick access.

I put all Prisoner rules in a single section. I reference them elsewhere, but I put them in a single place so you can learn them all at once.

Some players were missing the “Play face up” text on some cards. I made sure to bold and underline this text. I did a similar thing for “Discard a Farmer card” on a few cards in Farmageddon and it did the trick. Humans are really bad at glossing over information. Help their brains out and add subtle call outs to key exceptions.

I tweaked elements of the overview and added a few snippets of high level, guiding text to help frame the game for players. For example, I note that favor tends to grant powerful Event bonuses, whereas Strength tends to reward points. The initial overview does a full step by step of the 3 key decision points in the game, instead of glossing over it. These are subtle changes that only strengthen a player’s ability to learn the game.

I added a high level description of a clan’s strength to the back of the reference card. For example, it’ll tell you that the Mercenaries are dominant with their military, and have a total of 8 strength and 5 favor. At a glance, you now know  what you’re good at.

I changed the X on some cards to a 0. The X was meant as: this doesn’t resolve in order, it just is. But, the X was misleading. In one case, a tester noted that it reminded them of Magic The Gathering, where the X means a conditional variable. Always remember how other games use language! By making it a 0, players read the cards first, so they can resolve them before any other. This is such a “no duh” change that I’m ashamed I didn’t think of it sooner.

Finally, I added new diagrams to explain more situations in the rules to better show how cards resolve.

Theme Changes

I had to conduct a bit of theme re-work to mitigate some disconnects and improve the experience. Without art to help me, it’s tough right now, but it’s important to work at it as much as possible.

Firstly, many of the cards had name changes. Most of these are to accommodate the final art and presentation, so I want to change the names NOW to take them for a spin.

Secondly, I re-wrote the game’s introduction and premise. I wanted to better frame the conflict and the characters involved.

Thirdly, I removed the notion of clans. The final game will not be fought by geographic factions, but different ones in the same location. The game is now about the Merchants, Mercenaries, Wizards, and Seers. Four groups with different visions for the future. The players are Machiavellian figures manipulating these groups from the shadows. There was a concern, that’s best highlighted with the question:

“Why the heck is MY Monarch going here? I didn’t put him there!”

The idea behind Solstice is that you don’t have perfect control. You aren’t directing your characters. You’re merely doing what you can to move some people to one place, thematically alert leaders that a Monarch is there, and should be assassinated. If you look back 300 years, conflicts were very difficult to fight because allies couldn’t communicate like we can now. Hell, 100 years ago in World War 1 it was practically impossible to coordinate an assault beyond shouting distance.

The name changes are intended to support the fiction I’m positing. Some people might always have a slight…break with that, and ultimately, I have to accept that because this is the game’s secret sauce. The fact that you can draft and play other player’s cards is important and is one of the neat things the game does.

Shifting the factions around had a few implications. I had to move the military cards to the Mercenaries faction. It didn’t make sense that they weren’t the strongest in the military!

Lessons and Things to Keep in Mind while Testing

Blind testing Solstice is eerily familiar to Hocus, Cry Havoc, and Farmageddon. There are things that are always true, which, if you know, you can leverage to conduct better testing.

Testers are good at finding problems. They’re not always good at finding solutions. When testers share a frustration or a dislike, don’t ask how they would fix it. Ask why they don’t like it. Ask what they want to get out of it. Ask what experience they want to feel. Use that information, and knowledge of your design, to address the root cause. I had one tester recently note I should make Solstice a deckbuilding game to add more player control. Aka, I should completely make a new game! Focus on the why, not the “how to fix.”

Testers will sometimes say crazy things, and you need to ask questions to get to the root concern. Initially when testers said they felt there was imbalance, I disagreed. I had to ask, pry, and poke, and eventually I found out WHY they felt that. Guess what, they were right! Another tester had good concerns with the theme, and it took about 30 minutes on the phone to really understand his critique. You have to dig in most of the time. The initial comment won’t tell the full story.

Take rules, layout, and text seriously. Every time I take the lazy route and don’t update a diagram in the rules, or put off a change, it bites me. Testers always comment on these things. Take your testing as seriously as you can, and your testers will reward you with effort.

This is going to sound dismissive, but it’s not meant that way. But, more and more I think it’s very true. As long as a game is in a prototype state, people will always find things wrong with it. They just will. I bet that if Eric Lang took Blood Rage, a game that has fairly universal praise, but put it in front of people with prototype components, people would complain about it. How do you use this information? Well, know your game. Know your goals. Know where your game is at right now, and where it needs to be. At some point, the game will be finished and you’ll need to flip the switch. If you did your job, your testers will agree.

On Cry Havoc, Ignacy and I were arguing about cards and text until the moment we hit print. On Farmageddon, I was worried about tiny issues until my core test team said “Dude, it’s done. Seriously. It’s good!” It’s human nature to nitpick and critique things that are “in progress.” We go into red pen mode. Know that, and use that information wisely.

Be okay telling testers they are wrong. There are times when your testers will have comments that are inaccurate. But, you need to damn well know they are wrong. I’ve played Solstice 70 times. Most of my testers haven’t played it more than 5. Sometimes they will have a comment that is inaccurate. I need to be able to discuss this with expertise. This doesn’t mean you can be dismissive, or arrogant. This is a good opportunity to ask questions and get to the root cause, or learn more about their perspective. Know your game inside and out, and know your goals, before you go hands off and ask others to dig in.

Not all testers speak game designer. This is useful for evaluating customer feedback as well in reviews. Testers often confuse things like randomness, luck, strategy, and balance. I’m going to say this on almost every one of these notes, but do not fixate on the key term used. Instead, ask a question to better understand their point. They might say “the game is too random” when they really mean “I wanted more control.” They might say “the game is unbalanced” when they mean “I didn’t feel I could recover from the point deficit.” Don’t fixate on words that hardly anybody uses consistently. Instead, have a discussion and get to the root cause!

Work to understand perspectives in order to understand feedback. I had a long chat with a tester who was describing some of the frustrations two of his friends were having with the game. Initially I thought, man, I need to fix this, but then we dug into the play styles and personalities of the players. It turns out, Solstice just may not be their ideal game. Now, as is true with most of these comments, that doesn’t mean I can dismiss their notes! It does mean, though, that Solstice may never be a 10 for these guys. But, I should work to make sure it’s a 6 out of 10, not a 2 out of 10.

Again, ask questions and find out what their true concerns are. In this case, they wanted more control. I made sure there’s a prisoner in round one as a result as it gives more control and improves the probability of the card pool. These testers, who are more inclined towards Euros that have less direct player interaction in your decisions, were uncomfortable starting the game. It was tough for them to draft with imperfect information. Therefore, I made those quick start rules.

Solstice is a drafting game. It’s an interactive game. There’s not a lot of randomness, but players can and will upset your plans. Like with Hocus, and Cry Havoc, and Farmageddon, the game isn’t about a perfectly executed plan, but making the most out of the resources and things you can control. To make an extreme example, Solstice isn’t Caylus, but I need to improve the margins where I can to alleviate concerns.

There will be all types. Players who want more luck, more complexity, more strategy, more variety. Know your game, know your goals, and do your best to satisfy them, but don’t water down your game. You can never make everyone happy. But, you can thrill the pants off your target audience.

Conclusion

This post is beginning to run a bit long! Hopefully this information is of some interest to you, and hopefully these tips are valuable. If you have any questions, comments, or feedback, post them in the comments!

Identifying Opportunity

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A good way to begin a design is to identify a way to improve an established game. This is more or less the Blizzard strategy and it’s worked fairly well for them. Sometimes, this isn’t just a way to provide something new, but it’s an essential approach to enter the market at all. I’m thinking specifically of the living card games ecosystem.

I think about LCG/TCG/CCGs often (and I’m going to simply use LCG as shorthand for the rest of this article), as a consumer, but also it’s been top of mind for Project Gaia as that is attempting to borrow heavily from the notion of an LCG in some key ways. I’m also thinking about why some newer LCGs succeed, and others get sunset like so many in the past.

Ashes, from Plaid Hat Games, is one of the newer ones to succeed, lately. Plaid Hat noted on their podcast that it had sold over 10,000 units, and they’ve begun releasing expansion packs. I think Ashes did a few things right to succeed.

  • Compelling starter decks. So many of these games give you very mediocre starting decks. They require you buy expansions and deckbuild to see the game executed well. Ashes prioritizes good, pre-constructed starter decks.
  • Dead simple resource system. In Ashes, you roll a pool of dice at the start of the round. You then spend the dice, which have one of three symbols, to resolve cards. It’s not dissimilar to Hearthstone’s guaranteed mana per turn mechanism. However, in Ashes’ favor, the dice allow for variance, which I think is lacking in Hearthstone, and there are decisions around dice mitigation that again add depth without greatly complicating it.
  • Strong UX Execution. It’s subtle, but the game’s functional presentation is very strong. They have a few very simple icons to learn. They didn’t go overboard with game terms. And every card has a very simple explanation on how it is played, like “Play this card to your Spellboard.” I copied that for Project Gaia.
  • Simple Turn-Based Structure: The game rounds are very simple, and avoid the temptation may LCGs succumb to of tangential rabbit holes. In Ashes you roll your resource pool, then execute actions one at a time. The game moves briskly as a result, and is easy to learn.

I’ve recently started playing Warhammer: Conquest from Fantasy Flight Games, and they’ve also taken some noticeable steps to make it an accessible game.

  • Even deader simpler resource system. Each round you get some guaranteed money. Some cards increase this. You then spend this resource to add cards. It doesn’t get simpler.
  • The game is always progressing towards the end. Every round, one player will win the starter planet. The game ends when someone has three planets of a matching type. This means you will not stalemate, or wait to top deck someone. The game will progress, it will end.
  • You can almost learn the game from its reference card. The core of the game is really simple. I’d honestly compare the game to Revolver, with a little more business added. I think that’s wise. In a sense, they’ve really hyper prioritized a few key decision points and deckbuilding.
  • They’ve lowered the barrier to deckbuilding.

I want to go deeper into this last point, as I think it’s a key one. We’ve been conducting a great deal of research at work lately to basically answer the question: who really likes The Sims, and why? The basic reasoning is, instead of assuming who our customers are, or what our greatest strengths are, it’d be nice to know, for certain, which group is most invested in our game.

I think it’s safe to say that people who deckbuild are Fantasy Flight’s best customers for their LCGs. These are the people who want more cards, invest in the meta, and play the game even when not playing, simply by fiddling with cards and constructing decks. However, I would wager that there is a precipitous drop from people who buy the game and play the core set, and people who buy additional packs and deckbuild.

Plaid Hat’s expansions aren’t just new cards, but are in fact new pre-built decks. I think this is genius, because it means they’re reducing the percentage of drop off. In Netrunner, if I buy more cards, I have to build a deck with them. They are otherwise useless. In Ashes, like with Summoner Wars, if I buy a new deck, I can play it as is and never deckbuild.

This problem reminds me of an old story with Unreal Tournament. Initially, the developers made bots as an afterthought. It was a game meant for online multiplayer, after all. However, their data found that an overwhelming number of players (it was 75% or more if I recall correctly) never went online, ever. Therefore, they made their bots a priority to make them better. For a while, they were known for their excellent bots.

I bet the number of people who buy a Netrunner, or Doomtown, or Ashes, and only play the default decks is probably 60-75%. I have nothing to back that up, just a hunch.

THEREFORE, it seems incredibly savvy of Fantasy Flight and Plaid Hat to put a premium development effort on minimizing the complexity of deckbuilding. Which, I think they’ve done. They do it in a few key ways.

Warhammer: Conquest: In Warhammer, you must choose a Warlord. Netrunner does this as well when you choose an Identity, and Ashes when you choose a Phoenixborn. It has the not-so subtle goal of focusing your efforts against the Warlord’s benefits.

Secondly, your Warlord requires you add 8 cards to your deck. You cannot use these cards in any other deck, so almost 20% of your cards are spoken for. Smart! Decks, by the way, have a minimum of 50 cards, and generally speaking, you want to remain at the minimum when building decks in games. Generally.

Thirdly, simplifying the system in Netrunner, where you have a number of points you can allocate to out of faction cards, which have an individual cost against them, and perhaps taking a nod from the smash hit Smash Up, you can only choose one faction from which to mix cards. The factions from which you can choose  are also limited.

Image taken from Fantasy Flight's website

Above image taken from Fantasy Flight’s website, which is linked if you click the image.

Let’s pretend you are building a deck using an Ork Warlord. You can take Ork cards. You may also add cards from either Chaos OR Imperial Guard, but NOT both. You cannot take cards from any other faction.

In Netrunner, you have near infinite possibilities in the pool, though many of those possibilities are impractical. In Warhammer: Conquest, you have very focused, finite possibilities. This limits the complexity of deckbuilding, which acts as a method of easing you into it.

Finally, the resource system, as mentioned above, is dead simple. In Magic: The Gathering, a portion of your deck needs to be Lands. If you have multiple colors, you need a mix of those lands. You should also have cards to help you draw and find more lands, and or cards that provide Mana in the event you don’t draw Lands. In Netrunner, you need cards that provide you with Money, as well as aid you in click efficiency. In Warhammer: Conquest, the bulk of your money is provided every round. I’ve just dipped into it, and haven’t even gone through all my new cards yet, but the focus seems to be on combat. It seems they’ve deliberately simplified the economic aspect of the game.

Star Wars: The Card Game from Fantasy Flight also introduces a novel way to get players into deckbuilding. The idea is that instead of choosing individual cards, you choose sets of cards. You choose ten or more objective cards. Each objective card is associated with five other cards added to your deck. So, you essentially make ten choices, not 60 individual choices. This still forces you to think about the harmony of the cards, but as you cannot fiddle quite so much with the details, this lets players deckbuild more quickly.

I haven’t played this game (yet, I plan to), so I cannot discuss its contributions further. But, for the sake of this article and my premise, merely knowing the mechanism is sufficient.

Gaia: While thinking about this over the week for this post, I’m fairly pleased that in trying to solve against the business barriers for making an LCG as a small publisher, I may have made progress in the direction of simplifying deckbuilding.

There are a few obvious barriers for making an LCG:

  • Illustration cost for unique cards.
  • Manufacturing capital needed to craft a core set and subsequent follow-up expansions.
  • Development team needed for such extensive testing. The openness of LCGs is daunting.

In short, it’s the Mount Everest of genres. With Gaia, I decided to take a whack at all three by crafting a game with a small, finite card pool (55 cards, unique) and making the decks only 9 cards. This gives players quite a few options – not as many as Netrunner, obviously — but plenty to get a taste of the experience. Plus making a 9 card deck allows for easy experimentation, and if the core game is successful, I can create standalone follow-ups.

Now, it’s clear Gaia won’t have the legs of Netrunner. Certainly not by itself. But, to actually deckbuild with just a Netrunner core set, you need three total copies of the core set!

I have no clue if this will be viable or it will work. Obviously, my goals are not the same as Fantasy Flight’s. I don’t intend to make a huge expansion based business, nor do I expect to foster a tournament scene. But, I’d like to scratch the itch as a small publisher.

LCGs that Don’t Succeed: A part of what inspired this post was thinking about why Doomtown: Reloaded failed. In case you didn’t know, the publisher recently noted that the game’s upcoming expansion would be its last after about 2 years. Now, you might think “2 years on the market isn’t so bad!” But, to successfully enter the market as an LCG, you have to fuel the pipe a ways out. It’s one of the risks of the format…you need to put in a big down payment well before you know it’s successful.

I haven’t played Doomtown, and I’m not sure I will. It being cancelled means the content I so desire in an LCG is going to be tougher and tougher to find. Furthermore, have you read the rules. Wowza!

In contrast to some of the newer LCGs, Doomtown’s complexity is unforgiving and unrepentant. I own a copy and have read the rules and all tutorial material and I’m still not sure I could play it or teach it. There a few ways I think Doomtown is particularly confusing:

  • Confusing win condition. I actually cannot remember it. You need to have more Influence than your opponent has Control, or vice versa, or…something like that. It’s a dynamic value and it’s not simple.
  • Confusing “thematic” game terms. Netrunner did this too, and it’s probably that game’s most controversial feature. Doomtown is full of terms like Boot, Cheatin’ Hand (yes, removing the G is a thing this game does constantly), Dude, Draw Hand, Play Hand, Hexes (which only Hucksters can use), Miracles (which only Blessed Dude’s can use). It makes the game tougher to learn.
  • Multi-layered deckbuilding. Like most games, you need to figure out which units, spells, and attachments to use. But, you also need to figure out which locations you need, with which to wield control and influence for the win condition. And on top of that, every card in your deck must contribute to making poker hands to resolve shootouts and initiative. That is a lot of stuff to consider.
  • Tangents. The game sends you down lengthy, complex paths. For example, to resolve initiative, you draw poker hands from your deck. If you cheat, this can trigger Cheating, err, Cheatin’ Hand abilities. If you challenge someone, there’s a chance they can avoid it or fight. If they fight, both players form posses. Then they resolve “pre game” abilities (my words). Then, you draw poker hands, using the abilities of your characters which modify them. Then, you resolve any Cheatin’ Hand abilities. Then, you resolve the damage. And once this is finished, you go back to typical terms. There are so many games tucked into this game.
  • Exceptions. The game seemed to have quite a few exceptions, particularly around when you boot cards, and when you don’t. Sometimes you move them and boot, sometimes you don’t. It’s one of those things that in actuality may not come up often, but in reading the rules, I was having trouble keeping track of everything. By comparison, exhausting Units in Warhammer: Conquest is very cut and dry.

Why did Doomtown fail when Netrunner succeeded? Netrunner is also a complex game in the old school sense. In fact, it isn’t just one game, but two games (Runner and Corporation). Did Doomtown go too far with its complexity whereas Netrunner doesn’t quite cross over the line? Is Netrunner’s theme more appealing? It is for me, but anecdotal arguments aren’t useful here. Well, more than I’ve already made!

If I had to put money down, I think Doomtown is too complicated, which has limited the game’s growth and appeal. If your friends aren’t playing, you aren’t playing. Furthermore, its deckbuilding is so tricky that the typical split from those who buy the core game, versus those who buy the core and expansion content, is greater than usual.

Final Thoughts: Because it applies to Gaia, a game I’m actively developing, I chose to focus on LCGs. But, I think this is true of other genres. When trying to make a successful game, you should identify the opportunity to be different, or find a hole to succeed in new ways. For LCGs, I believe the opportunity being pursued by successful companies is simplifying the gap from Core set to deckbuilding.

What are some other genres you want to discuss, and how do you think you’d make inroads? How far off am I for my thesis regarding deckbuilding?

Living in Abstraction

Post by: Grant Rodiek

So, I made an abstract?

I bought Onitama a week or so ago out of sheer curiosity. It looks simple, neat, and it’s a beautiful production. Just stunning. The game comes in a neat rectangular box with a magnetic clasp. The board is a beautifully illustrated mouse pad, basically. The pieces are thick, stocky plastic, with nice cards. Just a nice, elegant product.

My pal Antonio and I played it many times at Kubla Con as our “the booth is slow” or “the vendor hall hasn’t opened” game. It takes 5-10 minutes and practically no setup. Perfect. As we played, Antonio kept saying “man, I love abstracts.” And, I can see why. Antonio is a brute force gamer. Abstracts peel away the crap and are beautiful, brute force elegance. I kept saying “we should design an abstract!” so on Monday afternoon, after the con ended, I went home and stared at the pieces.

Abstract5

I had an idea years ago looking at Russian stacking dolls at a craft store. I thought it would be fun to have a game where who you are changes based on the doll inside you. That idea has two problems: stacking dolls aren’t cheap, and if they aren’t transparent, it’s tough to know who is inside you. But, that is the kernel: you can slot in something that changes who you are.

I also thought about an element of Onitama I really like, which is that it’s relatively easy to gauge where your opponent CANNOT go, which helps you decide where to go yourself. I came up with the idea that you cannot move a piece the same direction two turns in a row. The arrows on the cubes indicate where you cannot go.

abstract1

The other idea was that you can acquire gems, each of which gives you a special move. So, on your turn you move a direction you didn’t move last turn, or you use the gem to move. It didn’t start this way, but most of the gems now just move you to one of the “terrains” on the board. Use the green gem to move to a forest. Use the black gem to jump to the mountains. This makes remembering the moves dead simple, and things can move quickly.

abstract4

When you spend a Gem, they are placed on a cloud. Which cloud? The one clockwise to the first one that doesn’t have a gem. This means you can predict and time where Gems go, and even ferry them to other pawns you have in position on the cloud to receive them.

Component wise, this allows for a satisfying, tactile experience: slotting gems into pieces. Working with Chris Urinko, there will be 1/8 inch thick triangles. These show the direction. They have a hole in them, in which you can slot a 1/4 inch circle that’ll have the gem symbol etched on it.

Abstract2

There are six total gems. Every game, you randomly give one to each player, which is a fun start. Three are then randomly placed in the middle on the mountains. Finally, one is removed from the game.

Here’s what the board looks like with the “terrain.”

Board

The 3 terrains: mountain, forest, and clouds, all have a gem associated with them. One of those, Mountain, has an additional property. There are then 3 other gems that allow basic abstract style moves, (basically a semi-Bishop and limited Rook), and one of those, fire, has another basic property.

The game is won if a player captures all of an opponent’s pieces by moving onto them, or moving a piece into their opponent’s starting point with a Gem. You’ll notice the similarity to Onitama. Finally, if you capture an opponent’s piece that has a gem, you get the Gem AND get to respawn a character back at your home. This allows for more risky play early — sacrificing a character for a superior position.

The Quick Recap

  • Six gems with special moves, but only five in each game.
  • Players each start with a gem, then arrange their pieces however they want on the back row.
  • Satisfying to slot gems and gain new powers.
  • Simple Terrain based movement for half of the Gems.
  • Neat “can’t go the same way twice” mechanism.

That’s it!

Daydreaming

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I find myself daydreaming a great deal lately, because I wish I paid my bills by writing rules, designing, and developing tabletop games. Those who know anything about the industry know that is a mostly ludicrous daydream, which is why the dream aspect of it is apt.

I’ve been solving the same problem at work for ten years now. If you want to know what large scale video game development is, it’s solving big problems, for a lot of masters, creatively. Yes, boo hoo, my video game job is repetitive. But, I’m a creative person, and 8 or more hours of every day are devoted to the same thing since 2005. That’s bonkers. It’s bonkers that anyone can do something like work in a factory for 30.

Frustration’s a big part of the fuel for the day dream. Plus, longing. The aspiration. When I was 21 I really wanted to write for magazines. I read every issue of Outside cover to cover. I loved the adventure, the insight, the history, and the stakes of their cover stories. But, I knew I didn’t have the stomach for it. The it being crawling for a decade until I made it. I’m just too pragmatic. So, I went west and took a real job, which led to my fake real job of making video games in Silicon Valley.

I’m about as close as I can get to being a professional tabletop dude at the moment, in that I have a small company. It comes with taxes, failure, and watching the corporate bank account tick slowly towards zero. Starting a business is a mess because you don’t know how to do anything, customers don’t know or trust you, and everything takes a really long time. It’s really an exercise of can I figure this all out before the money dips below an acceptable level.

I really don’t want to fail. For one, this is my creative outlet. I have 100% control to pursue whatever interests me. I also really don’t want to go back to chasing publishers. It’s awful, not fun, and just maddening. Maybe I’m just super bad at it, but I hate the pitch game. What I like doing is making stuff, developing it, ripping it up, and making more. If this Hyper  Bowl thing tanks (more), I may just use DTC and be done with it. Pitching gives me anxiety. It’s like someone took the worst part of dating and removed the fun.

What’s crazy is that Hocus is successful. It’s not a runaway hit or anything, but it’s well received and it’s a nice, steady seller. That’s a really big deal. But, it’s just a smidge over profitable. This is a tough business and I need a lot of smidges.

I had a call today with my manufacturer for Hocus (2nd Printing) and Farmageddon. Both ate a big chunk out of what’s left in the Hyperbole bank account. Plus, I still have to pay the 2nd half, and the shipping cost to get it here. I really need both to sell. If they don’t, I’ll need to clean dishes for artists to make the third game. Last I checked, I don’t have exposure to offer, and it’s not worth a damn regardless.

The next 12 months are going to be really lean. It doesn’t matter how successful a prototype is on the table if I cannot finance it, so I’ll need to squirrel away a few bucks, square away with Uncle Sam while I’m at it, hooray normal life taxes, and will the current two games into successful existence. Go jazz hands, go.

So, that is what is floating through my head. Daydreaming is easy because in the end I don’t have to do anything, be right, or figure it out. It’s just there already. Sounds nice.

The Martian Empire Patch

Post by: Grant Rodiek

My development partner and life troll, Joshua Buergel, finally played Martian Empire this weekend. This means he’s able to chime in on the game and help as a developer. Woo! Some good things came about, including the fact that his group didn’t hate it, one clearly grasped the Dune vibe, and had some bones to pick.

This last part is key. I didn’t think the game was perfect. But, I didn’t know how to change it. Now, we know the direction to head. Josh noted that counter-drafting wasn’t strong enough. It didn’t feel worthwhile enough to counter-draft. I didn’t fully agree (having played about 50 games), but I didn’t fully disagree either.

Josh mentioned Twilight Struggle’s Space Race track for inspiration. There, you can ditch a card face down without resolving it. This is a good way to bury an opponent’s good card. So, okay, what if instead of playing a card, you can tuck it under your reference card? That’s easy enough. What’s the benefit? Here, I took inspiration from the chopsticks in Sushi Go. The change is called Interrogation. When drafting, if you Interrogated a card the previous round, you may draft your one card normally. Then, if you want, you can put the Interrogated card in your hand and draft a second card instantly. This gives you a powerful double draft, that you sacrificed the previous round for. And, it puts the tucked card back in circulation. Dangerous!

The other issue, which is one I’ve wanted to fix for a while, is to limit the number of cards that can be played to every planet. This limit will be six. The tension is that if you play a card soon enough to guarantee your spot, you may expose yourself. If you wait, you may miss your spot! This is a nice, simple rule that will force players to spread around.

A third issue is one that makes sense in light of some of the other subtle changes. A few weeks ago, every player had an Informant. Now, the Informant is an Event. This means there are only 6 player cards instead of 7. This means there’s a higher probability a player’s cards are kept in the deck instead of being dealt out. To refocus the deck, there are now only 8 Events instead of 10. Just a minor course correction.

But, with card casualties, how is there room in the deck to reduce the number of cards? Well, I’ll tell you. Again, as a result of losing the informant, it was clear removing a card semi-permanently after assassination was hurting the game. One, it put a player already behind too behind. Two, it led to a semi-fiddly phase where you had to update which card was removed. Now, at the end of the round, players put a token on their reference card for every casualty sustained. Then, the cards are shuffled back into the deck. This means all players remain equal. At the end of the game, every casualty is -1 point each. Furthermore, the Heir is no longer worth 4 points if kept alive. This means Casualties are less punishing before, but should still affect the end game.

There’s one final rule. This is a nutty one that I think is really exciting. Josh noted that it was lame that the last card you draft is not used. It’s often obvious which card of the two to draft in games like 7 Wonders and Sushi Go. He noted the card should have purpose. It should enter play. We talked about this quite a bit and came up with a fun solution.

Now, at the end of the round, the cards that aren’t chosen are played randomly, face up, to each planet. This happens before you begin playing cards. This does a few things:

  • Every card matters. Draft it if you want control on how it resolves.
  • It provides an anchor. Want to avoid Atomics? Want to protect that Ruler? Now you know it’s there.
  • It takes up one of the 6 slots on the Planet.

There’s not a lot of randomness in the game, so this adds some nice spice and makes everything relevant. Every draft is important.

If you’re curious about the new rules, you can see them here. And no worries, none of these rules affect the cards if you printed them.

There are a lot of cool changes going into Martian Empire as we dig in deeply. We’re going to experiment and really hone the experience. I cannot wait to try these changes!

Hyperbole Road Map

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I am constantly thinking about the future of Hyperbole Games. As you saw in the 2015 Annual Report, I am in the midst of phase 1, which is a 3-5 year plan. The focus of this is establishing a brand and releasing good, solid games designed by me, me and Josh, or Josh.

Games take a really long time to come together. Development entails at least a year to start talking. Art can take several months, but more importantly, good artists are busy and you need to give them ample lead time. Graphic design can take a month or two and again, lead time is key. For manufacturing, cash flow is key. It’s good to plan things out in order to align everything and prepare for success.

Remember, amateurs study tactics. Professionals study logistics.

I thought it might be fun, or interesting, to reveal where we are at with our various objectives, what is planned, and what we’re working towards. The idea is to reveal the “under the hood” thinking of a small publisher.

2016 Efforts

  1. Farmageddon Farm Fresh Edition Release
    1. Status: with the manufacturer (aka development, art, and graphics complete)
    2. ETA: September-October 2016
    3. Funding Plan: Hyperbole Games financed
    4. Pre-Order Plan: Pre-Order when the game is on the boat, modeled after Plaid Hat Games. 30% discount, discounted shipping, promos.
    5. Should be at retail for Black Friday.
    6. 2500 copies
  2. Hocus (Reprint)
    1. Status: Files updated. Waiting on April sales report.
    2. ETA: If we hit the button (very likely), it’ll ship with Farmageddon to save on cost. September-October 2016.
    3. Funding Plan: Hyperbole Games financed
    4. Pre-Order Plan: We’ll offer a deal for people along with Farmageddon to hopefully drive a small influx of cash flow.
    5. Should be at retail for Black Friday.
    6. 1500-2000 copies (Not decided)
  3. Foreign/Publishing Partnerships
    1. Farmageddon (Trefl): Hoping for a summer/end of year royalty check.
    2. Cry Havoc (Portal): Gen Con release. Early royalties probably in early 2017.
    3. Hocus partners: Reach out to 2-3 foreign publishers about foreign distribution.
  4. Development
    1. Project Gaia:
      1. Development ongoing.
      2. Working towards POD prototype to send to testing audience.
    2. Martian Empire
      1. Development Ongoing. Begin broad blind testing this summer.
      2. Need to hear from a few more trusted validation points.
      3. Working on theme and worldbuilding development.
      4. Manufacturing quote received.
      5. Artist selected. Contacting soon.
      6. Begin art in late fall after Farmageddon pre-order cash infusion (?).
      7. Schedule graphic designer for November/December (?).
    3. Kriegspiel early design investigation.
    4. GOATS early prototyping.

2017 Efforts

  1. Martian Empire Release
    1. Status: See above.
    2. ETA: It won’t be ready by October, which is the latest it can be crowdfunded before holidays. I also don’t want to cannibalize focus from Farmageddon. Looking at a February Kickstarter, with a summer release (July/August).
    3. Funding Plan: Hyperbole Games covers art, graphic design, development, and has manufacturing buffer. Use Kickstarter funding to aid.
    4. Pre-Order Plan: Kickstarter. Discount, reduced shipping, promos.
    5. Copies: Ideally 3000-5000. The hope is that we surpass our Hocus success (3600 copies).
  2. Hocus Reprint (?)
    1. 1500 copies (?)
  3. Farmageddon Farm Fresh Reprint (?)
    1. 1500 copies (?)
  4. Farmageddon: Livestocked and Loaded Development
    1. Pending Farmageddon retail success
    2. Short development needs to balance it with Farm Fresh Edition changes.
    3. Update graphic design to be compatible with Farm Fresh Edition.
  5. Project Gaia Development
    1. Broad balance testing.
    2. Begin illustration.
    3. Schedule Graphic design.
  6. GOAT Development
    1. Pending design and early testing.
  7. Kriegspiel Development
  8. Hocus Sequel Design
    1. Standalone Game
    2. 1 New Suit (to replace Owls), 6 new Spell Books
    3. Bigger Box to hold both games, sleeved
    4. Drafting Format (?)
    5. Compatible with Hocus, completely standalone

2018 Efforts

  1. Farmageddon Farm Fresh Edition Reprint (?)
  2. Livestocked and Loaded Release
    1. Status: See 2017
    2. ETA: Send to printer at start of year for Summer Release.
    3. Funding Plan: Hyperbole Games
    4. Pre-Order Plan: Direct pre-order with discount, discounted shipping.
    5. Copies: 2500
  3. Project Gaia Release
    1. Status: See 2017
    2. ETA: Early year Kickstarter. Summer release. Share shipping with Farmageddon reprint and L&L.
    3. Funding Plan: Kickstarter to aid manufacturing. Hyperbole Games to cover cost of development, art, and graphic design.
    4. Pre-Order Plan: Crowdfunding via Kickstarter
    5. Copies: 3500
  4. Kriegspiel Publishing Prep (?)
  5. GOAT Publishing Prep (?)
  6. Hocus Sequel Publishing Prep (?)

You can see that we have a lot of plans and a lot of unexpected elements. Many of these things can change, may never happen, or the entire company may die before any of these opportunities can occur. But, this is the plan and it’s a lot of stuff that will take a long time to execute against.

Currently, the things limiting more rapid growth include low capital (only one product on the market for revenue), and limited testing resources. Hopefully as we demonstrate our competence as a publisher, more people will be willing to help us test!

What do you think? Useful? Not?

A Moment of Understanding

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I have a quick story and commentary for you based on moment that occurred at the Protospiel San Jose event.

There is a great deal of good talk right now about being inclusive in the gaming hobby, particularly for women and people of color. It’s a good topic.

I’m a little reluctant to write this post, because I don’t want it to come off as me, the publisher, trying to wield this for my own good to sell copies. I’m trying to be sincere and helpful here, so hopefully that feeling doesn’t come across.

I’ve thought about the structure of this post a bit, and I think the best way to share it is to quickly write the story, then provide my commentary.

The Story

Protospiel San Jose was this past weekend, April 15-17 at the excellent Game Kastle store in Mountain View. I have attended all three years as it has become one of my favorite game events. Each year I’ve participated on a panel that is always a bit ad hoc. It typically focuses on game development, design, publishing, and of course, gobs of Kickstarter questions. We usually provide our own questions, but often take questions from the audience. It’s a good panel.

The first year I was just on it as a participant. Last year I was asked to moderate it, which I did. This year I emailed the event organizer on a Monday or so and said “Hey, can I help with anything?” He responded “Yes! Do you want to setup the panel.” I said sure, and asked him for names. He sent me the list, I reached out, boom, we have a panel.

The folks on the panel are good, qualified local folks. People who are published designers, small publishers, someone who works with distribution. In the past we’ve had David Sirlin and Ted Asplach and the guy from Slugfest Games, so a decent pool of expertise.

Just before the start of the panel while we’re getting our mics setup and people are beginning to filter in, a woman in the front row asked me: Why aren’t there any women on the panel?

Editor’s Note: Because there are a lot of stereotypes and cliches around this situation, I want to be clear. The woman was not angry, hostile, or rude with her question. In fact, she could not have been more polite and respectful in how she asked it. It was an honest question, fairly asked.

In response, I didn’t have a good answer. I said something along the lines of: I don’t know why. That’s a good question, and I don’t know.

We have the panel for 90 minutes. We answer lots of questions. It’s a good, solid panel and once again I’m glad to have been a part of it.

Afterwards, I find the woman. I thanked her for her question and apologized for the fact it was a panel of six white dudes. I noted that I didn’t actually know any local female designers or publishers, but also, that that wasn’t an excuse.

Just as a note, the women I game with don’t design, and 99% of my gaming is at work or at my house.

I told her that the panel was very last minute, but that next year I would plan for it and I would seek out a more diverse group of panelists. I was sincere and she seemed to appreciate it.

Overall, I think it was a very positive experience.The situation could have been better, but I recognized this and sought to fix it. Next year, I shall.

The Commentary

A great deal of the commentary around being more inclusive of women and other minority groups often focuses on correcting the negative elements, namely the bigotry and misogyny. If we’re conducting triage, I think that’s the right place to start. But, and this is the crux of this post, progress and fairness does not simply trend towards neutral. It cannot merely end at “Hey, I don’t have to sit at a table with offensive language,” but must strive towards “Hey, I have the same shot as everyone else here.”

Everyone at the panel was qualified to be there. But, 50% of the population is female. The Bay Area has an enormous Asian population, a large Hispanic population, and a large black population. Our panel was not indicative of our customer base, the design base, nor what the future of publishing could be. What does it say to the female designers in attendance if they see the same gatekeepers in tabletop that they see in corporate America, politics, television, and more?

A frequent counter to having minorities be chosen is that it’s a compromise of quality, or that you’ll weaken the product, in this case the panel, for choosing by skin tone and chromosomes, but not merit. But, the panel wouldn’t have suffered! For one, you don’t need 6 people saying the same thing. You don’t need the same perspective. It also simply preserves the status quo. If your product suffers based on making good choices, you need to work harder.

A useful addition to the panel could have been aspiring and hardworking designers who aren’t yet published. We may have discovered how different backgrounds foster different ideas. We could have spoken to artists and more visually oriented folk to find out how they pursue creative ideas.

One of the reasons I thought this post was useful was just how blindsided I was by the question. If I had asked a bunch of people and they said no, that’s one thing. But, it didn’t even occur to me! And, I’m proud to say it normally does. My boss, bosses boss, and bosses bosses boss are all women. Half my direct reports are women. I seek out diverse artists as a publisher and strive to have diverse presentation with my games. But, here, I just didn’t even think about it. Life is broad and complex, and it’s useful for us to keep our eyes and minds open so that we can continue to make this a better place for everyone.

The good news is, this is an easy problem to solve. At least in my case. I look forward to next year’s panel and hopefully I can populate it with a group that represents our community.

The 54 Card Guild: #12

54CardLogo

If this is the first time you’re seeing The 54 Card Guild, I recommend you begin with Guide #1. It will explain everything. All of the posts are tagged with 54 Card Guild. There is an active Slack group, which exists to brainstorm, pitch, and discuss games. It’s a fun, casual supplement to this course. If you’re interested in joining us, email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com. 

Post by: Grant Rodiek

The timing of this post is impeccable, by which I mean lousy. But, ideas strike when they strike. For this guide, I want to talk about how you can best prepare and take advantage of wonderful events such as Protospiel or Unpub. I’ve been to local Protospiels and one in Milwaukee, as well as a few tiny Unpubs (though never the main one on the east coast). These events are invaluable for the amount of sustained testing, but also for giving you an opportunity to learn from the community and immerse yourself within it.

This guide will cover two primary topics:

  1. How to maximize your testing as a designer at a test event.
  2. How to maximize your testing as a player at a test event.

Topic the First

When you have a room full of people who are ready and eager to play your prototype, you want to maximize that opportunity.

Firstly, practice your pitch and rules explanation. You want to practice it so that you can do it quickly and in the right order. I’ve been teaching Farmageddon the same way since 2012. I teach Hocus the same way every single demo, complete with choreographed card placement and little jokes.

Here is the basic script for Farmageddon:

“This is a farming game. Whoever has the most money at the end of the game wins. On your turn, you’re going to plant Crop cards <place a Sluggo Corn face up> by placing them in front of you like this. Crops have two values <point at them>: required fertilize before they can be harvested, and money earned when harvested. Money is points!

To Fertilize, take any crop card from your hand <show two crop cards and point at backs> and place them face down on the crop <place them down>. You must always fertilize at least once every turn. This Sluggo Corn now has two fertilizer and can be harvested. There’s a twist! You cannot harvest it on the turn you plant it. It has to survive until your next turn.

In addition to this, you can play up to two Farmer cards on your turn. These give you bonuses that break the rules. Farmer cards let you protect a crop, steal a crop, destroy a crop, increase its value, give you cards, and other bonuses <slowly place farmer cards one at a time>. Finally, Frankencrops can also be planted and harvested <show one>, but they have bonuses as indicated. If you have any questions, this is a friendly game — just ask.

I’ll take the first turn so you can see how it’s played.”

Hopefully you can see in my language when I place cards down. You can see how I teach the basics, then layer in exceptions and key moments. You can see how I don’t overwhelm them with every detail.

To provide one more example, here is my Hocus teaching script:

“Hocus combines some of the classic elements of poker and mixes them with wizardry and spells.

In Hocus, we play until someone has 25 or more points <here I point at the point pile>, at which point whoever has the most points wins. The game is played in rounds. Each round, you will have a hand of cards <here I fan out a hand>.

There are four suits, <lay out one of each suit> each with a unique illustration and suit icon, a strength, which goes 1-13 and is just like 2-10/Jack through Ace, as well as a point value. <pick up cards>

On your turn, you’re going to take ONE action <place a reference card in front of each player>. I’ll show you these now.

Firstly, you can place any card from your hand face up in the community. <place one there> Unlike Texas Hold ‘Em where these cards are played randomly, we will build it dynamically. This will end with four cards <place 3 more>.

Secondly, you can place one or two cards from your hand into a personal pocket <place them down>. You will mix these with the community to make a 5 card Poker hand <reveal my cards and push them to show the combination. Place a reference card with the hand listing>.

Finally, we need to compete for points. Remember the point value? <show the point value> You can place one card face down in a community’s pot and only its point value matters. <place a second card> If I win this hand using my pocket and the community, I’ll get 5 points <tally the two now revealed pot cards>.

There is a twist. There are actually two Communities, you can have a pocket for each of them, and each has their own pot. The game is not about having the best hand, but figuring out what hand you need to win the Pot. The round ends when the communities are full, so you must carefully manage your time. A player who spends their entire round building a Full House won’t have time to put points in the pot.

Let’s play a quick round. I’ll go first.”

At that point, I always play to the community. I then say to the next player:

“Now, you can add to this community, or play to the next one. You can play to the pot, which is a good way to stall. Or, you can place cards in your pocket if you think you can use this.”

The keys to teaching your game:

  • Use visual cues to support what you are saying
  • Layer things in carefully. Teach the fundamentals, then highlight exceptions
  • Leave out values they don’t need to know. You can deal the right number of starting cards. You can enforce how many rounds.
  • Setup the environment as a learning game, not a competitive game
  • Break the ice!
  • Repeat key rules when you have opportunities

Secondly, you need to know what you intend to gain from testing. This will alter how you discuss the game, but it will also frame the feedback for your testers. To be blunt, most testers are not designers, and they don’t always know how best to help you, even if their intentions are solid. If you just say: “What do you think?” be prepared for them to tell you. If you provide an open ended forum, you will hear feedback from all over the world.

In this situation, you’ll have someone telling you your game needs zombies, or they hate that there is any luck at all, or that they wish it had a worker placement element. Not joking! You must frame the discussion from the outset.

Possible testing goals include:

  • Balance. Your game is far along and you want to fine tune balance. This means you are stating: the mechanisms are 99% good.
  • Layout and presentation. You’re less worried about game feedback and more worried about its graphic design and visuals.
  • Accessibility: You’re not testing deep, elder gameplay, but you want to gauge how simple it is for new players to test so you can smoothen the onramp.
  • The Concept: You’re stating, hey, it’s early, but what do you think about the core idea. Be crystal clear in stating what you hope it becomes! Look to your Vision to answer this!
  • Decision Space: You know what you want the game to be, but you aren’t sure about the current player actions. Does there need to be a card draw action? Does the scoring work? Here, you want to state your vision, you want to be clear on what you tried, and be prepared to moderate a discussion about where things went and why.

At last year’s Protospiel, I was exclusively testing Hocus’ spell balance. We were happy with the mechanisms and simply wanted to gauge balance.

The year before, I was testing the concept of Sol Rising. Did it feel cool? Did people like the story objectives?

This year, I’ll be testing the strategy and concepts of Gaia and Martian Empire. Are people excited by them? Do they feel rich? I’ve been hammering on the Gaia Decision Space for months now, so I feel it’s ready for the next step. In both cases I’m less concerned with accessibility and more with elder gameplay. I’ll try to get players to play two or three games in a row.

In prior years, I was simply testing the accessibility of York. Did players understand my player aids? Did they know how to score and take actions? Were they fighting battles in a sophisticated manner?

Know what you want to get out of your test and push people toward’s that.

Thirdly, you want to push the discussion towards identifying the problems, not picking the solution. Now, sometimes you may want to have an open brainstorm. I posit that only you really knows what you want to do for the game, and the brainstorm will render far too many ideas you cannot use or do not want. It’s wasting everyone’s time.

However, during and after the test, you want to ask questions about mechanisms and balance concepts that have you concerned. You want to clearly identify what your problems are and WHY they are problems. Then, once you have this data, you can solve it.

If you ask for solutions, or try to solve it, it’ll become an improv session complete with “Yes, and…” Guide your audience towards the problems.

Fourthly, you want to remember to leverage some simple tools. Show up prepared. It’s really simple.

  • Bring a notebook to list the number of players, play time, scores, and key notes for each test.
  • Prepare a sheet that identifies the Pitch of your game, key information, where it’s at in development, and what you want to gain. See below for an example.
  • Print a few copies of your rules for people to look at while playing or thinking about the game.
  • Bring some tape, scissors, pencils, and markers to update your prototype.
  • Bring anything needed to improve against your goal. If you want to test visuals, have a tablet with a Pinterest board showing art.

Pitch Sheet Example

<image of the game> + <image of the game being played>

Martian Empire is a game of drafting and deception set in a feudal science fiction society.

Key Information: 2-4 players, 30 minutes, low to medium complexity

Key Mechanisms: Drafting, hidden information, bluffing, Variable player powers

Development Stage: Early Beta – Mechanisms are solid. Trying to identify if the hook is strong enough, strategy is strong enough, and worrying about balance.

Testing Goals: Does the game excite you? Do you enjoy the strategic decisions?

Fifthly, bring a great attitude. Be passionate and enthusiastic. Be the cheerleader for your game! When people have bad ideas, write them down and discuss things, do not shoot them down. Thank people for their insights and work to take criticism in stride. If someone makes a suggestion you’ve already tried, feel free to walk them through the process and why that didn’t work, but follow up with: how would you do it differently, or why do you think that would make the game better?

People want to help an eager, kind, and receptive designer. Bring a great attitude and it’ll pay dividends!

Sixthly, when testing with others, especially at an event, put work into a good looking prototype. Do not bring hand-written cards to a prototype event. At the very least your cards should be typed. But, with Game-Icons.net, The Noun Project, and more, you have all the tools at your disposal to make something that is clean and professional. Seriously, put the time in to make this better.

You remember when some old dude told you to dress for the job you want, not the job you have? That’s a little silly for me as a Silicon Valley tech nerd, but it applies to your prototype. You want people to to know you take this, and their time, seriously. Your presentation IS YOUR INTRODUCTION. And, the smile mentioned in the section just above.

Topic the Second

You may think these events are all about you testing your own games, but it is equally important that you play the games of others. You should spend at least a third of your time at someone else’s table, and really, you should strive to split your time evenly between personal tests and helping others. Really!

Board gaming is a small, niche hobby. At every opportunity you should be a steward of the community. Help others and the returns will be paid in full, if not immediately, but down the line.

When you are testing, you can help creators by being a better tester. Ask some of the following questions:

  1. What kind of game is this? How do you want the experience to feel? You ask this so that you don’t tell someone making a take-that game for children how to make their game too complex or too strategic.
  2. Where is the game at in development? From above, this will change your feedback. Balance feedback is premature when the mechanisms don’t work.
  3. What kind of feedback are you looking for? These are all similar questions asked a different way.

When providing feedback, be sure to give feedback not based on your personal desires, but the desires of the designer. Focus primarily on problems, not YOUR solutions. Tell them where you struggled, where you were frustrated, and where you were confused.

Be sure to also provide good notes! Tell them what you liked. Tell them what was exciting. Tell them about the things you think should be more important. They may be focusing entirely on the wrong thing.

Be a good steward! Encourage them, champion them, and support them. Who knows, after you test for them, maybe they’ll test for you.

Be honest. But, don’t be cruel. There’s a difference. You can provide blunt, crisp, tough feedback in a way that is kind, well meaning, and fair. You can also caveat your comments, as needed, with: personally, my preference is for X to be the case. For example, if someone is playing Farmageddon, I’d love to know before they dump their comments on me that they hate any game with aggressive interaction. That’s a key thing to know!

In summary, be the tester you wish you could have. It’s really the Golden Rule.

What did I miss in this article? How would you improve this?

Your Assignment

  1. Write your teaching pitch
  2. Practice and perform your teaching pitch for a friend. Or, at the very least, record and watch yourself performing it.
  3. Identify your testing goal. What would you want to learn right now?
  4. Write a personal list of problems you want to solve. Get the conversation prepared.
  5. Prepare an info sheet for your demo table. Share it with someone for feedback.
  6. Prepare a nicer version of your prototype that is typed.

My Proposed Design Curriculum

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I was thinking about Game Design degrees the other day. To be honest, as a 10 year veteran of the digital industry, I don’t put much stock in them. As a degree holding business major, I don’t put much stock in that, either. The thing is, design and business are things that you need to learn organically through experience. You’re good at them based on your personality, your ambition, and the supplementary skills you have that bolster it.

I thought about the things that aid me most in my design and development efforts, so below is my proposed design curriculum for folks going to school to be game designers. I hope you’re ready to enroll!

Statistics: Probability and statistics will teach you the fundamentals of almost any game. What are the chances of a particular outcome happening? How likely are you to win? What are the chances of a certain event revealing itself?

It’s not just important that you understand this to craft the engine of your game. It’s also important so that you develop basic muscles to gauge how difficult it will be for your players to calculate their odds. If players cannot make an educated decision based on the mechanisms you provide, your game might as well be random. So, leverage statistics to create a complex engine, but also use them to reign yourself in.

Macro-Economics: I think people often mistake Economics as a mathematical measure of a nation’s money. More than anything, I think Economics are a method to explain human behavior. Economics often explains why people do the things they do. If you look to many of the most pivotal revolutions in history of them, many of them revolve around grievances…that are based on economics.

This is perhaps the most important class you can take at Hyperbole College of Games. Macro-Economics will introduce you to concepts such as:

  • Trade, and why people do it
  • Opportunity cost, and how you can leverage this in your design
  • Dynamic cost, driven by supply and demand
  • Scarcity
  • Sunk cost theory — are you throwing good money, or effort, after bad?
  • Market driven economy (which is another way of stating things already stated above)

Going deeper into economics is only to your benefit.

Intro to Computer Science: A basic understanding of computer science is crucial not so that you can code a digital version of your game, but so you can leverage the rigid logic of computer software to create smart, progressive decision chains into your game. Computer programming, distilled greatly for our purposes, often revolves around a few basic concepts.

  • If this is the case, do this thing.
  • If this is the case, do this thing OR this thing.
  • If this is the case, do this thing, otherwise, do THIS thing.
  • This thing always equals a set value.
  • This thing always equals a set value, unless another condition is true.

Computer code is a series of simple Lego pieces that layer upon each other to create a rich and sophisticated series of commands. I am not a massive proponent of elegance at all costs. I am okay with complexity, but only when it has a purpose. As soon as you start introducing exceptions and conditional statements, the software that is your game is more complex.

We seek to provide a fundamental course on these Lego pieces so that when you add complexity you understand how it affects your overall software.

History: History is such a rich background of inspiration. There are so many excellent quotes that inspire ideas. If you look to military history alone, you can draw from it for decades of work.

Where Economics often provides a mathematical reason behind some of history’s greatest events, the Historical angle tells the story. By focusing on the characters and how events change their lives, you learn the human perspective that makes it interesting and fun.

History is vast and has so many perspectives and interpretations. I recommend for your coursework that you focus in an area that is exciting to you. Recommendations include:

  • The Roman Empire
  • The History of the United States
  • The Italian Renaissance
  • The Russian Revolution and history of the Soviet Union
  • World War II
  • The History of Space Exploration
  • The History of the British Empire
  • Post-Colonial India
  • Ancient China

Political Studies: Understanding the structures that govern humanity and why these structures are overturned is fascinating. Political studies will teach you about manipulating human passion, negotiation, compromise, and contracts.

We recommend you study political studies after you’ve taken a few courses on history and economics. These two will provide the foundation you need to understand HOW politics are fully leveraged, and why choices are made for certain political structures. Politics will teach you the levers by which to manipulate your opponents and how, as a designer, to provide your players the tools they need to create a rich, treacherous environment.

Technical Writing: Essential to design is the ability to communicate clearly and concisely to your audience. You will do this via cards, tokens, and most importantly, rules. Technical writing will teach you the crisp, precise language that you need to illustrate vast, complex worlds that are your game.

Technical writing is about excellent grammar, a broad vocabulary to know the perfect word for the situation, and how to communicate a great deal with few words.

This technical writing course will be full of practical course work. You will constantly be tasked with writing rules for simple folk games, using 15 or fewer words to communicate complex mechanisms, writing copy for advertisements and pitches, and more.

Geometry: Games have a lot to do with spatial relationships. I’ve always personally been on the Geometry side of the Geometry versus Algebra split, and I think it’s a fantastic mathematical discipline. I especially love geometric proofs, which are a wonderful exercise in logic that will aid you greatly.

The Art Sampler: You don’t need to be a fully fledged artist, but the art sampler will teach you some basic skills that will aid you in bringing your experience to life. And, also thinking about your game from a different angle. You’ll learn about:

  • A primer on anatomy for humans and common animals
  • Color theory
  • Basic principles of graphic design, specifically for legibility in what you’re presenting
  • Discussing lighting
  • A primer on perspective and camera angles
  • A sample of Art History to appreciate the greats

What has aided you in YOUR design efforts? What courses are missing from the curriculum?