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.

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?

The Evolution of Gaia

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A few months ago I mailed copies of Project Gaia to four groups for testing. The game was only about 6 months old, but it had gone through several iterations, felt “okay,” and good enough to send to folks without my presence. The goal was to attain validation for the concept. Not to hear “this game is good, box it up!” but to gauge the pulse of folks and get a general thumbs up or down on the concept.

The tests have gone well, but the game had a lot of problems. Most glaringly were the issues with complexity. The game had a lot going on, and it took me a while to find out what was needed, why, and how to do it simpler. Thankfully, one test group in particular, Ruth and Jeff Ashton, stuck with me over 3 or 4 iterations now.

An in game photo taken by the Ashtons

An in game photo taken by the Ashtons

I received a very positive test report from the Ashtons Friday, which was a really nice affirmation of the work that’s gone into the game. It feels like the project is really turning a page, so it seems like a good moment for reflection.

I want to write about many of the changes that have been made. I’ll try to cover it at a high level so it’s both interesting and useful to folks who aren’t intimately familiar with Project Gaia. Another way to see some of these changes are to watch two developer vlogs I recorded, showing the game at two points in time.

Here are the rules for the game. The Print and Play is linked at the top.

A quick explanation of the game: Project Gaia (name TBD) is a combination of my love of CCGs, like Netrunner, and tile games, like Carcassonne. I wanted to make a game where building a deck was core to the experience, but I knew I couldn’t make a full CCG. I just don’t have the testing resources, the financial resources, or the audience.

Therefore, in Gaia, players build or draft decks of 9 cards from a limited pool of 55 cards. There are 3 card types: powers (action cards you play then discard), creatures, which hold territory and attack, and monuments, which act as tiles that grant bonus actions. The cards that aren’t used have Terrain on the back and they are placed as tiles to build a planet.

Players alternate taking actions on their turns to play cards, manipulate the planet, and battle. The result is a 30 minute card game with a nice amount of depth and interaction.

Card Costing: A key to games of this nature is cost. In Magic, Netrunner, and X-Wing Miniatures, cards have a mana cost, click and credit cost, and squad cost, respectively. You even see this in Star Realms and Dominion. If a card costs too little, it’ll become overly dominant and can ruin the game. If it costs too much, players will avoid it in favor of something that’s easier to get out.

In card games of this nature, tempo and pacing are crucial to manage.

I love multi-use cards. Borrowing the Magic mechanism from Summoner Wars, cards originally required you discard other cards to play them. The cost ranged from 1-3.

Going back to the very beginning of the game, this has caused all sorts of problems. Initially, the game was laboriously slow — you were constantly left with no cards. To counter this, I gave you a free draw every turn, and you could spend your entire turn to draw back your discard pile (somewhat like the discard and draw action in Combat Commander).

But, the problem was that people would spend all their cheap cards to play the good cards. You actually saw this a bit in the Summoner Wars meta where players would completely forego commons to play only Champions. The game ground to a halt, as it would take multiple turns to fully draw up, get your big creature, then maybe lose him, forcing you to refresh.

I also noticed creatures didn’t have a lot of purpose. I’ll dive deeper into the iteration of creatures below, but I added a mechanism where every creature you had in play reduced your discard cost by 1. So, if I have 2 Creatures out, a 3 Discard card would cost 1. While this idea is simple, it was very complicated. Players constantly forgot it. They were overwhelmed by the math, as well. Think about it — if you’re evaluating 5 cards in your hand, and all of them have a simple math problem, that requires you work much harder to decide what card to play.

DiscardReminder

The reminder card

Shortly after I added reference cards to help you remember that you had a creature discount, I took a step back, and admitted I was devoting a ton of mechanisms to making this single mechanism work. Basically, I was putting a lot of good money after bad.

I removed the discard cost entirely. It was immediately more fun. Players started with all 9 cards in their hand and they could just play them. One action, one card. Suddenly, the game was simpler, faster, and players were able to enjoy the full range of cards. I removed the free card draw at the beginning of the turn.

However, this too had a few problems. For one, nobody ever spent 1 Action to draw 1. Players would spend their full turn to draw their entire discard around turn 3 or 4, and would never need it again. This felt like there wasn’t really an interesting economy of decisions related to card draw. I removed the 2 Action – Draw your entire discard option. Now, you spend 1 Action to get 2 cards (at random). Therefore, fewer actions, and one that’s more consistently used throughout the game.

But, finally, there was one more issue — some cards were clearly better, but all had no cost, except the single action. My option here is to make all cards consistently powerful, which is both difficult and, in my opinion, boring, or implement a cost. I learned my lessons from the previous iteration, so I returned to the discard, but a much simpler version. Now, cards either cost 1 Action, or they cost 1 Action plus 1 Discard. The 1-3 is gone.

GaiaReference

In summary, there is now a nice way to balance better cards that isn’t complicated and doesn’t require supplemental mechanisms to make it work. There is a nice hand management layer to the game. Turns are simple. Take two actions, which basically means playing two cards, using two cards in play, drawing 4 cards, or some mixture of these.

Creature Evolution: Creatures needed a lot of love. When I decided to have a strong spatial element, I felt like it only made sense, thematically and mechanically, to have creatures on the worlds you’re building. Summoner Wars is my primary inspiration for Creatures. I wanted them to move simply in a grid system and attack to protect your other creatures, protect monuments, and foil an opponent’s plans.

All Creatures have either permanent passive bonuses, conditional bonuses (do this to get a thing), or Actions (like many Monuments). For a while, creatures were in the game just to be there. You didn’t need them for anything and often, players wouldn’t play them. Therefore, to help combat the card discard problem, I made it so that creatures reduced the cost by 1. If you had all 3 creatures out, your cards were free to play!

This is mechanically simple on paper, but as I noted above, was too complex and didn’t work. Then, I made it such that Monuments could be used by players to complete objectives. I also made it such that Creatures could block regions from use. However, as combat began heating up, players noticed a few problems:

  • If someone just flooded their deck with Creatures, it made them all free to play, and an opponent would be unable to knock them off or score.
  • Creatures were so flimsy. They all died in one hit, which meant they were impossible to keep on the board.
  • Creatures could be played anywhere, which made it even easier to just hot drop a creature next to an opponent’s and kill it. Whack a mole!

I added three fixes to address these. I added a Deck creature limit of three, I did a tuning pass of health and attack, and I made it so that creatures had to be played to a specific land type. This really improved things!

After listening to a fantastic Mark Rosewater Drive to Work podcast about worldbuilding, I decided to put his teaching to work and really think about how the creatures belong to the world. It was a really fun exercise! I thought about each terrain and what it meant for the creatures in that ecosystem. I tried to design key principles for each one. Then, I listed common and fantastic creatures one might find in such a region. Finally, I put the names to paper and tried to find a marriage of theme and mechanism. I think it was a really fruitful exercise. As the game tightens up, I plan to dig into the theme more strongly to find how I can add more of those touches to the experience.

You should read the scoring section for further details. Creatures went hand in hand with those changes. Mostly, creatures became simpler – no card discard cost, no range – but also became more integral to scoring. Players had to have at least one Creature or Monument involved in an Experiment to Score it. Then, only cards covered by your Creatures could be added to your Biosphere. This made Creatures integral and simple. You can take the ground you cover, essentially.

Finally, for now, I recently did a tuning pass on Creatures to further diversify their values per feedback. Now that I had the discard cost back (though only a single discard), I could make some creatures more powerful. I also began using the knobs more fully by experimenting with Movement speed, defense, and the bonuses provided by the creatures. The hope is that a player will choose 3 Creatures that have synergy with their other cards. Somewhat like how Ice or Programs will really dictate how your deck plays in Netrunner, Creatures will be the primary movers and shakers in Gaia.

Here are some creatures.

Creature_BoltMoth

Creature_Serpent

Card Design Evolution: I’m very proud of the work done here. I’ve put a great deal of thought into it and have seen great results come from investing time into the quality of the layout. Now, it’s all placeholder. Obviously, a professional will do the work if/when it gets published. But, for now, I’m super proud of the results.

Initially, the cards had far more components, so more needed to be displayed. A creature, for example, had:

  • Name
  • Creature Symbol
  • Tile Affinity: Basically, play this to a Grassland
  • Discard Cost
  • Card Text
  • Creature Stats: Defense, Movement, Range, Attack
  • Creature Discard Reminder

Yowza! Naturally, some of these things were lopped off as the game simplified. Range was eliminated as a creature component. The discard reminder died with complex discard cost and was replaced with a simple discard symbol.

However, the Creature symbol needed some thought. It seems obvious now, but it took a minute. I wanted to have symbols on the cards to represent the type. The idea being, players would see that symbol, think “this is a creature,” then remember from the rules, “Creatures are played like this.”

The problem was that with 4 card types (it’s now 3), all of which played a little differently, the symbols didn’t help. Players basically had to remember 4 rules that weren’t reinforced on the cards. Lame! It was frustrating, because the rules were really simple.

  • Powers: Resolve the card, then discard it.
  • Creatures: Play to the tile type indicated.
  • Monuments: Play to a Desert.

But, people kept mixing things up. I took inspiration from Ashes from Plaid Hat Games. On their cards, they tell you exactly where cards are played. They use simple phrases like:

  • Play to your Spellboard
  • Play to your Battlefield
  • Play then Discard

I thought about it. Why can’t I do the same thing? I removed the useless icon and at the bottom in tiny text, I just told players how to play the card. Here’s an example:

Creature_GrandBeaver

Monument_Beacon

For each card, Creature and Monument respectively, the bottom tells you how to play them. Just a nice reminder that is driven home. I did a few other simple things to convey differences. Notice there is a bullet shaped frame on the Creature. The idea is to convey, you play it to this type of card. But, on the Monument, it’s in a box. Now, a real designer will improve on this, but one conveys an action, they other conveys a permanent state.

There are other cues I can provide eventually using color and shapes. In fact, I found some art on the internet, just as an experiment, and put together some card mocks. Now, I did them. They look bad. But, it’s fun to see what they could look like with more than white backgrounds.

Mock_BeaconoftheSteppe

Again, ignore my terrible choices. But, you can see a generic grasslands shape on the bottom, so players always know “this is a grasslands.” That lets me remove the icon in the top left. I made a specific icon – the fence – so you can also know that it’s an icon. Finally, more fun art!

I did a similar exercise with a creature.

BearMock

Here, you have a generic forest silhouette on the bottom to remind you where to play it. But, it isn’t filled in, so that it doesn’t state that it IS a forest. You then have the pertinent character stats in the top left corner, all chosen to represent a creature.

Gaia is a complex game with 55 unique cards. I’ve had to put a great deal of work into the layout of the cards sooner than typical to help facilitate that learning. But, every step has paid dividends. Tiny, subtle tweaks have noticeably improved the enjoyment and comprehension of my testers.

Planet Construction: Originally, the players built the planet at the start of the game. After building or drafting decks, they’d turn the cards over, shuffle them, and deal 3 to each player. Players would take turns placing these on the Planet, then drawing a new one.

There were two early problems. One, the planet was too big. It had a little too much of everything and there was no conflict or tension. Players would just build what they needed in their own corners. Secondly, the rules were too restrictive. I said you had to attach a card to one of its type. This meant you’d effectively have a Neopolitan planet of Grasslands, ocean, and forests, cleanly separated.

I shrunk the planet from 15 to 11 cards and added an initial seed – 3 random cards played diagonally. But, if one of each type wasn’t played, this meant you could play a card anywhere. So, now it looked like a slightly melted Neopolitan. I removed the restriction entirely. Play a card wherever you want, as long as one of its sides matches the side of the same length of an existing card.

Fundamentally, though, this section wasn’t interesting. It added another 3-5 minutes to setup, depending on the AP of the players. It also felt like a choice that I didn’t want to be a choice. Players would try to build the planet “correctly.” My fear in providing a pre-arranged layout was that the game would become static. But, I ripped off the band-aid to implement the following solution:

Players chose 1 of 3 pre-defined layouts shown in the rules. Cards would be shuffled and randomly dealt, so you’d have a different layout with a different assortment of cards every time. This was simple, and worked pretty well. Then, when I added the special tiles (Mountains, Fjord, Fissure), I had the final twist. After the layout is complete, players alternate placing the special tiles. They can place them in deserts (blank spaces), or displace another tile, shifting the row or column to make room.

Now, the planet is setup quickly, with randomization in the tiles, and a slight, quick player twist to really get it going. The key summary here is that I simplified it and focused on what the game really needed. Building a deck is the cool part. Not tediously building a planet!

Tile Evolution: Project Gaia was in my mind for months before I figured out how to make it and begin testing. I knew I wanted to make a tile game. In fact, the original original idea was to make a game where players would create tile sets, like decks, that they would then use. But, this had some weird product complications, and tiles were too small to give me the flexibility to make a broad, robust game. When I realized I could use the cards as tiles, and save cards by using the cards that weren’t selected, it was a real eureka moment.

Tiles were originally varied and complex.

P_FLeft

O_F

O_DMid

Those are ugly, but you can basically see there are forests (green), oceans (blue), grasslands (brown), and deserts (tan). The problem with this much variety was that it was impossible to line anything up. It also made the game very complex in a weird way that wasn’t intended.

Immediately, I shifted to simple, solid tiles, and cut it down to 3: grasslands, ocean, and forest. One neat idea to deal with blank spaces that would inevitably emerge due to shifting and removing cards was that blank spaces were deserts. This meant fewer cards, but I still had 4 states.

At this point, the Tiles felt rather dry. It seemed like the game needed some punch. Therefore, I introduced Landmarks. On some tiles, there would be bonuses granted to the player on top of them. Due to the random nature of what was in the game, this would add some variety to what powers were out.

ForestGlyph_2

The landmarks would do things like:

  • Increase card draw
  • Destroy planet tiles
  • Add planet tiles
  • Let you move creatures
  • Let you add creatures at no discard cost

The problem with Landmarks was two-fold –

  1. It added more complexity. There were just too many variables to track. And, you had to discern the icons on them, which was lousy.
  2. They were tough to use. The benefit of them was often outweighed by the cost of not using creatures to complete scoring objectives.

The landmarks also exposed a more fundamental flaw with the game — the Creatures weren’t interesting enough (discussed above), and the Monuments weren’t interesting enough. Instead of adding more stuff, I removed the landmarks, simplified my rule set again, and strengthened my core content.

I reverted back to plain, simple tiles. But, the itch scratched again. First, I added Mountains. These two special tiles were added after you setup the original map. Players couldn’t shift Mountains, which meant they locked territory, but also provided a defensive bonus to creatures. Temporary safe havens.

The mountains worked. They were a nice spice. Therefore, I added two more. The Fjord and the Fissure. The Fjord was trying to solve the problem of players just adding Tiles anywhere on the map and immediately completing scoring objectives. Now, you could only add tiles next to the Fjord. The Fissure was the Omega to this Alpha. Any cards, creatures or tiles, that moved onto the Fissure were destroyed. Basically, a caution zone.

The Ashtons reacted negatively to the Fjord initially. It felt overly restrictive and annoyed them. This is one of those cases where you need to take the feedback, but really think on it. I knew the game needed a constraint on adding cards. But, perhaps a single card was too much of a limitation? I made the following change, and asked them to try again.

Mountains now could not be shifted, and took on the Fjord’s power. They no longer provided a defensive bonus. Effectively, there were two Fjords. No change to the Fissure. The change was received well! It gave players some flexibility, while also establishing basic limitations. With these special tiles, the planet was overall very simple, with just enough spice, and the Monuments acted as the primary points of differentiation.

Mountain

Mountain

Fissure

Fissure

Now, players can focus on creating and shaping the planet, and choosing whether to let an opponent keep their Monument in play to focus on scoring, or take it out, in the hopes of gaining momentum.

Scoring Evolution: This section of the game has probably seen the most iteration, aside from changing every single card for wording, balance, or functionality probably 30 times each. No exaggeration!

When I started the game, I didn’t want this to be a war game. I didn’t want it to be about dealing X damage (like Magic) or killing an enemy base (like Summoner Wars). I wanted to have an open path so you could use the cards in a variety of ways and hopefully have tons of variety. Therefore, I was leaning more towards the Netrunner system of scoring points, which can be done in a variety of ways.

I wanted the spatial element to be front and center. You’re creating and shaping the planet, so that should be how you score. Initially, I had scoring cards with very precise goals on them. There were 7 in play. Once somebody scored 3, the game won. There was also a fourth card type that were basically powers, but if you met their condition, you’d score the point, removing the card from your deck. It was like having a secret objective.

Score3b

Above, someone would score if they had 4 Forests in precisely that orientation on their turn. This had quite a few problems. Firstly, there is the complexity of the shape itself. If the board starts with 11 tiles, plus player Monuments and cards, plus this can be mirrored…wowza! It’s tough to watch all that. If you recall, this system is similar to Tash-Kalar which also has that, and it’s tough there too. But, the surrounding framework of Tash-Kalar is MUCH simpler. Vlaada is a genius, after all.

Also, initially, you just got this if it was in the world. There was this agonizing problem of wanting to set yourself up to score, but not get close to it, then your opponent would score. Players would play chicken and have a staring contest. It would grind the game to a halt as players tried to setup the multi-turn setup to create the pattern and keep an opponent from getting it.

It was also tough to focus on all seven goals at once. Therefore, I put in 3 at a time. But, sometimes they were difficult to execute, or painfully simple to execute, based on the random start of the board. I created more to create more variety, but the problem still remained. Sometimes the game didn’t jive well and it was tough to get the precise shapes.

I was worried about players just auto-completing them. I started putting in back pressures. To score,  you had to discard cards. Or, take an action. I tried several things, but the fundamental problem still remained, and adding yet another reason to discard cards exacerbated the discard card cost I discussed at the top. Plus, people were really struggling with the shapes.

I shifted to a much simpler system. Simply have a defined number of tiles of a type touching each other. No patterns, just assortments. Now, players merely had to create a pocket of 3 Grasslands, for example. This is round the time I started involving Creatures more into the scoring framework. An opponent couldn’t use a tile covered by your creature to complete one of these goals. Players could use their Monuments to complete these goals, but not their opponents. Now, there’s a layer of board control which started to create a more cohesive whole.

Here are two of the Experiments. One is a simple Planet one, the other a simple combat one.

Experiment_TheSeas

Experiment_Predators

There was still was the problem of the cost. Eventually, I kicked the framework and made it such that you would complete the goal at the end of your turn if the conditions were met. Three of these Experiments are in play at all times. At the end of your turn, you can score the three if you qualify for them. Then, any new ones are drawn. You would then get a reward instead of a single point.

These rewards led to the creation of the Biospheres.

Biosphere_DiverseA

Biosphere_StrictA

Above are the two possible Biosphere cards players would get at the beginning of the game. One flexible, one linear. When you met the condition, you’d get a reward. You could score a Tile on the planet to your Biosphere, completing that slot on the track, or you could do other things. This idea sorta worked, except it didn’t.

There were too many confusing rules on what you could take, and why, and when. Players were allowed to force their opponents to take cards for their Biosphere, which would cost them points if it was the wrong tile type. So, putting an Ocean where you need a Grassland would hurt. There were also just too many symbols.

I tried again with a new iteration.

Biosphere_Ocean

There were 3 Biospheres, each associated with a tile type. You had a great deal of flexibility going down the track, choosing one available card in each row. If you chose the highlighted tiles, you’d get a bonus. This was better, but still too rigid, and players hated shoving a card in their opponent’s Biosphere. It felt wrong for the game.

I tried to simplify it. To complete an Experiment, at least one of your Creatures or Monuments must be involved. This means you need to maneuver and have presence on the board. This is effectively “the cost.” Instead of discarding cards, which is lame, you have to effectively do fun stuff. You know, moving creatures, attacking your opponent, and setting up your Monuments. I used a strength of the game as a cost.

When you complete an Experiment, you get 1 or 2 Rewards, but never the same one twice. These include:

  • Adding one Tile covered by one of your Creatures to your Biosphere. This was a nice simple solution. If you have creatures, and they are in position, they allow you to score good tiles.
  • Add a tile to the Planet from the Supply
  • Remove a tile from the Planet
  • Add cards back to your hand (if you want to move a Monument, for example)

Adding Tiles to your Biosphere Scores points. Looking to Coloretto, I tried something dead simple. The deeper you can go in a single color, the more points you get. If you have 4 Forests, your forests are worth 7 Points total. If you have 2, they’re worth 2 Points.

This allows for flexibility and it’s very simple. As a final tweak, you also get an immediate bonus based on what Tile type you add to your Biosphere. These help move the game forward.

GaiaReference_Back

On the horribly designed card above, you can see the 3 simple bonuses, as well as the card to point distribution on the bottom.

In a nutshell, the scoring is about manipulating the planet and marshaling your forces to control a sector. Then, you add tiles to your Biosphere for one time bonuses, but also, hopefully, focusing on 1 or 2 tiles to maximize your points. The game ends when the 6th tile is added to a Biosphere.

Conclusion: I think at 4500 words this has gone on far too long! If you have any questions or thoughts, just ask. I’d love to talk about Gaia and where it’s going. Thanks for reading!

The 54 Card Guild: #11

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

At long last, we shall cover my favorite topic: writing rules. As an accessory to this post, we’ll also be discussing diagram creation. Rules are a pillar of game design, whether you like them or not, and being able to write them well is a key tool in every designer’s tool box.

In this post, you’ll find an Outline for you to use on how to create rules. I’ll also provide some key steps and insights. Then, I’ll do a breakdown on how to create functional diagrams, discuss when to diagram, and I’ll share the Tools for you to use. Before that, however, let’s discuss a high level philosophy of rules.

Quick Note: In Guide #3, we discussed a Rules Outline to help you enter a testing phase. 

The fact that customers have to read rules and learn a tabletop game is the single greatest thing inhibiting the growth of the hobby. Thankfully, quality rules are on the rise, and though rules are still oft maligned for lack of clarity, I’ve found that to less and less be the case. But, every designer must remember that they do not ship with every copy of the game. Every player must read the rules first before playing, or have the game explained by a friend (which is actually very common).

Another thing to consider is that everyone learns differently. Some people prefer text. Others need the visuals of diagrams. Others need examples to break down a rule. Some simply need an outline that walks them through how the game works. Finally, some need a video full of examples, like those in Watch it Played. What does this all mean? You need to account for everyone. You need to open your mind, think beyond how YOU process information and learn, and think on behalf of the wide audience.

Many designers put off writing rules until the very end, but in my opinion, this is a mistake. A neat mechanism or idea is only potent if you can explain it concisely, in writing, without you being there. By putting this off, you’re procrastinating from one of the most difficult challenges in your entire process. Answer these tough questions sooner, not later. Furthermore, remembering all of your ideas and nuances will be increasingly difficult. But, updating an existing set of rules takes minutes after a test. Basically, don’t tax your mind!

Finally, if leveraged correctly, your rules can act as a design document. They’ll provide a framework that helps you answer basic questions like how players start their turn, when scoring takes place, or how the game ends. Often, a game will begin with a single kernel that needs to be surrounded by supporting ideas. Your rules will bring those to the fore sooner so that they can be better considered.

Enough philosophy. Let’s start writing some rules.

Writing the Rules

I have a few things for you to look at during this section.

  • Find the Rules Writing Template Here.
  • Find the rules for Martian Empire* Here.
  • Companies like Fantasy Flight Games have applicants write the rules for Rock/Paper/Scissors. Try doing it! You’ll be shocked what you learn.

*I’ve been using Project Gaia as my example template, but it is no longer a 54 card design. Furthermore, it’s a fairly complex design with a very long rule set. Therefore, I’m using another design, which is only 44 cards, and has a smaller rule book.

There are some key things to remember at each step of writing the rules.

Try to explain things in order. That sounds obvious, but take a step back and think about the steps. Use your Rules Outline from the previous Guide so you know what’s important. Think about how Legos tells you to assemble something.

For example, don’t tell them early on that they’ll be discarding a card at the end of the round and placing it in their opponent’s deck. You’ll want to tell them about what they’ll do in the round first, provide clues on what card they might wish to discard and why, and then explain that next phase. Walk them through your ride.

Do not introduce a thing you are not ready to explain, at least somewhat. Be prepared to at least provide a summary explanation. Not every detail and exception needs to be explained immediately. For example, in a war game, you might have a leader unit. You might note that every player has at least one leader, and leaders are units that do not fight, but can be killed. You can then note that leaders generally exist to offset certain die rolls and aid their units in a support role. But, you don’t need to describe, yet, how leaders react to a melee charge versus an artillery blast. You don’t need to explain what happens when leaders are stuck in forests. Save those for when you explain combat, or terrain, respectively. Yes, if you’re curious, I more or less paraphrased leaders from Napoleonics, but in a way that serves my example better than explaining the game.

Be sure to bold or call out key rules that can be easily missed or overlooked. These include exceptions, important reminders, or just fundamental rules that people might gloss over. Telling people they have to take one specific action every turn might seem obvious…and then they forget because it’s just one of eight actions, so what makes it special?

If something isn’t dead simple, consider an example. Go ahead and lower your bar for what you consider dead simple. Lower it crazy far. People aren’t stupid, they’re just busy, eager to play, distracted, and their minds are full of all sorts of things.

If you cannot explain a thing, consider changing that thing. We had an impossible time explaining what the kicker was for Hocus. So, we got rid of it. Seriously. It was that simple.

After you write the rules explaining an element, consider the length of the explanation versus what the idea provides. I have changed or cut rules because there was a far simpler way to accomplish the same thing.

Be careful to use a word consistently. For example, at one point in Hocus, the word “hand” had 3 definitions. Be very careful here! Be careful with words like “play” and “place.” Do not treat them as synonyms. Pick one, and use it consistently.

Furthermore,  you find yourself using a term consistently, good! Stick to it. Create a Key Terms section to tell your players what it means.

One of the best ways to learn rules is to write rules. This sounds insane, but I think I’m decent to good at writing rules and this is due to me writing dozens of rules, reading hundreds of rules, and editing rules for others. It’s a skill you have to work at, just like design itself.

Look to the great rule books to really learn how the masters do it.

  • Pandemic is phenomenal. It has wonderful, clear examples.
  • Fantasy Flight Games has been doing a dual manual system. The first teaches you how to play, the second acts as a reference. Play X-Wing, Armada, Rebellion, or really, any of their new games to learn.
  • The Gallerist is a very big, heavy game with a very wonderfully laid out and explained manual.
  • The rule books of Czech Games Edition are consistently funny and good. Check out Space Alert or Dungeon Lords.
  • Combat Commander: Europe has an excellent reference based rule book for a game that has very few systems, but is basically exception driven.
  • I’m very proud of the rule book for Hocus. Yes, I’m going to reference it! It’s short and we’ve had very few questions about it.

Most if not all of these rule books are linked on BoardGameGeek.com. Go look them up, download the PDF, and learn from them if you don’t have them in your collection. Read other rule books, even ones that aren’t good, and find out where you’re confused, why you have to re-read certain sections, or what just makes sense. Find out how you learn, then study the alternate ways the book supports people who learn through different methods.

You may be scratching your head at the brevity of this post. Basically, 1000 words to teach one of the toughest concepts in game design? Yeah. The thing is, there are 1000s of examples of what good looks like. The template I shared is the one I more or less have been using for years, with tweaks here and there, depending on the game.

You learn to write rules by writing them. Then, stopping to read them aloud to yourself to find things that simply don’t make sense. Then, you have a friend read them and have them explain your game to you.

Tools

I recommend you use Google Drive. Chances are you have a Gmail account which hooks directly into this. Then, you can write word documents that you can then access and share from your computer, laptop, or smartphone. Anonymous people can even comment if you let them. It’s really a great way to go.

Diagram Creation

A key part of good rules are good diagrams. Diagrams can be as simple as teaching you the anatomy of a card, to something more complex that demonstrates the flow of the game.

At the very least, your rules should have diagrams to explain card anatomy. This is a very simple diagram to execute that is shockingly simple to execute. Here’s an example from Martian Empire.

Example_Card

I used Photoshop to create this, but you can use Google Drawings (provided free in Google Drive) as well. Upload an image of your card. Create a red circle, then overlay a number on top of it. Assign a number + Circle to every element of your card. Then, simply explain them for your players. Here is my explanation from my rules.

  1. Initiative Number: The order cards will be resolved on Planets (lowest to highest number)
  2. The Type of card: This is a reminder of what type of card this is.
  3. The Great House Emblem: This indicates the Great House, and is summed to determine Domination (see below)
  4. Text: This determines what the card does when it is resolved, or the condition that must be met to score.
  5. Name and Color: A reminder of the Great House’s name and color

You want to include this diagram around the time you begin explaining how to use the card. Remember above when I said you shouldn’t introduce a thing until you’re ready to talk about it? This is why. Players will need diagrams and examples and you want to be sure they’re ready for the deluge of information.

That’s an obvious diagram. Below is an example of one used to demonstrate to players how cards are used. Often in a game, you’ll be describing things using common terms, like draft. However, other terms that describe a specific way of doing things can be overwhelming. Players might gloss over the details, or miss a key point. Therefore, you might want to dedicate some space to demonstrate how you do a basic interaction.

Example_CardPlay

Hopefully it’s obvious that these are placeholder. But, you can see here where I’ve taken a card and reduced its opacity to indicate a change in state. More transparent equals temporary in this example. The player follows the arrow to flip the card face down onto the planet. Ah ha! You play cards face down.

You might roll your eyes, but Pandemic has a diagram that shows the player holding 4 cards in their hand. Why? Because sometimes people miss things. Some people are visual learners. And, frankly, it’s good to reinforce details.

A final example I wish to share is of a diagram explaining the core moment of the game. Card resolution. This is a key moment to demonstrate because it shows how multiple cards are revealed, sorted, then resolved in a specific order. This is the HEART of the game, so it makes sense to dedicate more real estate to that, right? If we’re reminding players how to hold and play cards, then doubling down on what they will be doing is essential!

Example_Resolution1

Above is part one. It demonstrates how you take the face down cards, explained in a previous example, and flip them over. You then arrange them in Initiative order, the number in the top left corner, from lowest (2) to highest (7).

Example_Resolution2

Now, this final diagram above demonstrates how they are resolved. The cards are placed left to right and are resolved from lowest to highest. The 2 card, the Assassin, resolves. This causes green to score 3 Points and the Ruler, the 3 card, is removed. That is indicated by the red X. It is therefore skipped. The 7, the Heir, then resolves and scores 2 Points for the purple player.

All of this is described in text. When you consider the entire package, the rules do the following:

  • Introduce the structure of the round
  • Explain each phase of the round
  • Explain each phase again with practical examples and illustrated diagrams

Key elements of good diagrams are labels to highlight key elements (sorta like with rules!), arrows to demonstrate motion and how things are played, or even just a birds eye view of the table with the game shown setup fully. Just orient people, like the north start. You don’t need to be a graphics master!

Think about traffic signs and billboards, which use very common iconography, gestures, and symbols that everyone understands at a quick glance. Remember that diagrams are supplements. They aren’t teaching your game alone! Therefore, they don’t have to lift all the weight, just prop it up.

Use color to aid your diagrams – red is bad, green is good. But, colorblindness is a thing for a small percentage of the population and you should work to accommodate them. It’s a tool, not the only solution. Use transparency and opacity to demonstrate and highlight different game states. The letter “X” goes a long way to demonstrating something should be discarded, cancelled, or killed.

A place to obtain high quality icons to use for diagrams and cards is Game-Icons.net. I love it.

Your Assignments

Firstly, read three rule books for three different games. Be careful to study how they use examples, diagrams, key terms, and the order by which they introduce concepts. Notice how good books layer things gradually instead of overwhelming you.

Secondly write the rules for your game. Feel free to send them to me and I’ll happily give them a read and critique them.

Thirdly, have a friend read the rules and teach your game to you. Iterate on your rules and make them better.

Finally, experiment with diagrams based on your friend’s confusion. Where do they get lost? Where do they stumble? Experiment with diagrams! Feel free to draw them by hand and share those instead. Just give them a visual aid!

Thanks for reading.

Design Tenets

Post by: The Community

I sent out a Tweet stating my design tenet.

“Try to manage uncertainty with the tools you have.” – Grant Rodiek

Several other designers followed up with their own, and I thought I’d share them here. I’ll add more if others are sent my way!

“Clarity, with, and surprise. To paraphrase: speak clearly, say something interesting, and smile.” – Brett Gilbert

“Find the fun. Fun = engagement.” – Sen-Foong Lim

“Incentivize interesting decisions.” – Gil Hova

“It’s fun to tame chaos.” – Daniel Solis

As a side note for Solis’, I think it’s interesting because it’s very similar to mine. But, the subtle tweak is that, in my opinion, Solis’ prioritizes the journey, whereas mine the end result.

“Guess what the other players are thinking.” – Phantom Knight Games

“Does every rule serve the game?” – Brian Engelstein

“Managing 10 pounds of crap with a 5 pound bag.” – Joshua Buergel

Josh cheated and sent me a second one.

“Design what you know.” – Joshua Buergel

“The players make the game.” – Jay Treat

“Why play this game? Game design is all about a hook or creating a unique experience for me.” – Matthew Gravelyn

The 54 Card Guild: #10

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

Today we must discuss dark, terrifying things. We must discuss a thing that veteran designers know too well. We must discuss The Reboot. Back in Guide #4 we talked about killing a failed idea and being okay with failure. Today, we’re going to twist this topic to discuss resurrection.

It is good to do away with bad designs and move to something else. But, it’s great to salvage something, take the best elements, and start anew a half step ahead of square 1.

One thing about The Reboot is that you often won’t reboot terrible games, or failed games. A bad idea is often a bad idea no matter how you re-skin it. The Reboot is crucial when you have a game that is fine, solid, but not great. This is the path you take when you have an idea that won’t be good enough to fully match the goals and ideals defined in your outline. This is why the Reboot deserves its own Guide, but also, why it’s one of the latter ones. Knowing that something is good, but not good enough, is a really tough skill to obtain.

When trying to figure out whether a game will be good enough, I ask myself a handful of questions, including:

  1. Would I buy this game? That seems like a simple question, but if your name wasn’t on the box, would you pay for it and be happy?
  2. Is this game unique? Every game should bring something special to the table. If you’re too derivative, others will know. Why should people buy your game versus another? Side Note: This is a deeper blog post Josh and I are writing now.
  3. Could you play this 100 times? Is there enough depth and replayability in the current design? Could people play this game for years?
  4. How often are your testers hitting the sweet spot? Generally, I like to think of the 3-5 moments my game should evoke. When those moments hit, do people love it? And, does your design hit those moments often enough?
  5. Can this game become awesome? Obviously, your game isn’t finished yet. It doesn’t have a publisher. It’s not done. But, is the framework you’ve laid good enough to support an amazing experience?

These are tough questions, and if you’ve noticed, it’s really 5 ways of asking the same question: if this wasn’t your baby, would you love this game? People often say they cannot choose between two good things as it’s like naming a favorite child. What if you have to give a thumbs up or down to your only child?

I recently went through this experience with a game called Barbarus. Barbarus was a game for 3-5 players that took about 45 minutes to play. It prominently feature blind bidding as its core mechanism and was seeking to emulate the vibe of a Knizia auction game. Specifically, elements of High Society or Modern Art.

I’ll spare you the full run down of the game — that’s not important. But, for the purpose of instruction, I’ll answer the 5 questions above. When I decided to Reboot the game, it was solid, fun, and simple.

Would I buy this game? The game would probably be $20-25. I don’t think I would have bought it. There wasn’t quite enough to it to justify the cost. Also, I have a few games already that do what it does.

Is the game unique? I sorta just answered this, but no, not really. Bidding is done exhaustively, and blind bidding already exists in several areas. Tying it well to a war theme was neat, but ultimately, it didn’t bring much new to the table. Bidding is well-worn and it needed a twist.

Could you play this 100 times? I don’t think so. The game lacked breadth, because there was one way to succeed, one objective, and not enough information to change your decisions. In my opinion, this game was sufficient for a cult of the new gamer, but not someone that was going to play this repeatedly at lunch.

How often were testers hitting the sweet spot? Semi-often, which is why I worked on the game for so long. When people lost a bid, folks went “aww crap!” and others would laugh. That was great. But, there were several moments where it was clear somebody was going to win, or frustration at not knowing how to win or change your fate. Basically, the sweet was being overcome by the sour.

Can the game become awesome? I don’t know, honestly. After a few months of development on Barbarus, I don’t have more great ideas and I’m not terribly inspired. I feel I’ve run the gamut, which is why I decided to set it aside. I didn’t clearly see the path to the promised land, so it felt like I needed a new path.

Depending on how you answer these five questions, your game may or may not be due for a Reboot. How do you Reboot productively? You don’t want all that work to go to waste. That’s just foolish. No, a good Reboot takes into account what you’ve learned and builds upon the premise. What you need to do, is consider your Goals — yes, I’m bringing Goals up again — and you need to create a quick list of the things your game does well, and the things it does not do well.

Try to think of 3-5 things for each category.

Things I Liked about Barbarus

  • The moment of the reveal. It was surprising, fun, and often evoked a reaction from players.
  • Having a similar set of tools from which to draw. Players all had identical decks, but when they drew their cards, and how they used them, really changed things.
  • Very simple cards. For once, I didn’t go crazy with really complex mechanisms or card text.
  • Very simple resolution. Once things were revealed, a simple comparison often resolved conflicts.
  • Overall pacing and speed. Players were constantly involved and the game moved at a good clip.
  • I liked the simplicity of the scoring. Players compete over cards that state what they are worth.

Things I Didn’t Like about Barbarus

  • Too derivative. I basically just took established auction mechanisms.
  • Too many phases. Every round had too many steps that weren’t always intuitive or easy to remember.
  • Not enough skill. I’m not sure the game allowed for enough skillful play. I couldn’t discern whether you could be “good” at Barbarus.
  • Not enough information. It was tough for players to make informed decisions about the hidden bids.

When you begin the Reboot, you can start by trying to solve some of the initial problems. Take Bullet number 4 from Things I Didn’t Like. When crafting Martian Republic, I used two mechanisms to give players more information about played face down cards.

  1. I introduced a drafting phase. Though you only take 1 card, you have ideas about what other cards are in play.
  2. I introduced an announcement. Players must reveal some information about the cards they play, based on where they play them.

I simplified the new game to a few key phases, namely a Draft, Playing, then a Resolution and Round Setup phase. Players only really make decisions in two of them. This cleans things up and moves them along.

When working on the Reboot, be sure to not lose things that worked well. Instead of creating several different cards, I gave every player 7 identical cards. This greatly simplifies the learning and makes it easier to draft. You know there are only 7 types of cards, not 30! However, to add some spice and introduce some of the variance the previous game had, different cards are worth different amounts of points for different players. This adds a slight twist that really makes drafting more compelling.

When trying to solve the overly derivative nature of Barbarus, I examined my mechanisms, and thought about interesting twists. For Martian Empire, you can draft and play any player’s cards. However, players only score for THEIR cards. This means you can use your information to put someone else in a bad position, but you want to balance how much control you cede to other players. At some point, you need to stop sewing chaos and score points!

Conclusion

I can drone on forever, but the purpose of this post is not to tell you everything about my new game, but to share the tools and key pivot points that I leveraged to create a new, superior game from the framework of the old design.

Assignment

Take the game you’ve been working on and ask yourself the five questions. See how your current game stacks up and really, really be honest with yourself.

Then, regardless of whether your game overwhelmingly succeeds with your answers, or bombs, try to list 3-5 things you really like about your current game, and 3-5 things you really don’t like. Again, be honest! Good designers can often think of 3-5 things they don’t like about excellent games that are published and considered to be good. No game is perfect, but you should use this opportunity to evaluate your games strengths and flaws to see how you can improve the former category and decrease the latter.

Thanks for reading! Look forward to a new 54 Card Guild very soon! It’s already in the works.

Inspiration for Inspiration’s Sake

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve had a very interesting experience lately designing a new game and I thought it was worth sharing, as it may be a tool I use in the future, and may be something that could aid you in your efforts.

Barbarus is a design I’ve been working on for months and it’s a solid, fine design. It isn’t great, and I have doubts on whether it can be great and unique, so I took a step back. Like we did on Hocus, I evaluated the moments I really enjoyed about the design.

  • Playing cards face down.
  • The moment of the reveal of the cards.
  • Interactive, but not mean.
  • Playing cards towards a specific goal that others share.

As we did with Hocus, I set Barbarus completely aside, pulled out a deck of cards and a notebook, and begin working from those principals. I removed the Ace, King, Queen, Jack, 10, and 2 from every suit, and set the rest of the cards aside. I thought, what if each player represented a suit, and the cards all had a specific use.

I thought about the key elements of a feudal kingdom. Many of the cards leaned right into it.

  • Ace = Assassin
  • King = Ruler
  • Queen = Ambassador
  • Jack = Commander
  • 10 = Heir
  • 2 = Peasant

I then created 5 parts of the Kingdom and set the game in the midst of a civil war. Four lords, or houses, capturing parts of the Kingdom to ascend to the throne.

While iterating on the game after a few tests, I realized something: I effectively created Dune. Yes, Dune, the phenomenal, groundbreaking science fiction novel based on the desert world Arrakis and the Great Houses subservient to the Padishah Emperor Shaddam the IV. Dune is my favorite book, one that I’ve read 3 or more times, and one of my favorite fictions. It’s probably not too surprising that I subconsciously stumbled into a design that abstracts it.

I’m not the only one who takes such inspiration. Just last year, San Francisco artist Tom Kraky drew extensively within the universe. You can see his Part 1 and Part 2. If you Google “Dune Illustrations,” and variations on that search, you will see hundreds of pieces from so many artists. Some just illustrate the Fremen, or the sandworms, or the Baron Harkonnen. Others draw Stilgar and Count Fenring and the Sardaukar.

The key, is that unlike Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or Star Trek there has never been a definitive representation of the book in a visual medium. The world is so strange, so unique, and so alien, that it’s open to literally infinite interpretations.

It’s a wonderful garden for creativity.

It’s also more or less an impossible license. Not that I have the capital to obtain any famous IP, I certainly cannot obtain one that Fantasy Flight Games was unable to get. Therefore, obviously, this isn’t really a Dune game.

But, there is so much killer inspiration for mechanisms.

  • The galaxy is a feudal one, with Great Houses owning their planets, at the behest of the Emperor, who oversees it all.
  • The Emperor’s power stems from his command of the Sardaukar — the greatest soldiers in the galaxy.
  • All the Great Houses are reigned in by the Guild — the only faction with control to interplanetary travel. Even the Emperor cannot land his army if the Guild doesn’t allow it.
  • None of the Great Houses have technology like thinking computers, so they have humans trained and conditioned to be computers. Mentats.
  • The Bene Gesserit work from the shadows forming alliances to work towards their plans generations in the making.
  • Open warfare is difficult, so the great houses use assassins, forbidden technology, and other subtle methods to exact revenge and negotiate the hard way.
  • Everyone requires the Spice Melange, a substance that allows every faction their powers, but only comes from a single planet.

Effectively, every faction is balanced by another faction. There is open warfare, diplomacy, betrayal, and assassinations. It’s a brilliant universe.

I’ve been using this universe to inspire my thinking, to create new mechanisms, introduce subtle asymmetric balance to represent the Harkonnen preference for Assassination or the Atreides focus on loyalty.

Had I sought to replicate “fantasy” or “science fiction,” I might have found some of these ideas, but not others. By referencing Dune, and using a fiction I know incredibly well and love even more, I was able to quickly come up with good, compelling ideas that were exciting to me.

For your next design, or even your current one, consider choosing a favorite book, movie, or comic to inspire you. Peg your design to that world and see where it leads you. The goal isn’t to obtain the license, but to use your familiarity and passion for an exciting new idea. In the end, I won’t be selling or pitching a Dune game. I’ll be pitching one about intrigue and secret moves and deduction. But, the first few chapters are definitely steeped in a brilliant world imagined by one of the greats.

Perhaps you might benefit similarly?