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.

A Low Chance of Success

Sol3

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Earlier this week, I played Columbia Games’ Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign, 1815. This is an old, classic war game design, with blocks to allow for fog of war, rather elegant mechanisms with a few key exceptions, and lots of dice rolling. We played our first game with the strategic and tactical ineptness you’d expect from first time generals (at least with this system), which meant the battles took longer, more dice were rolled, and we were overall less decisive.

At first blush, it’s easy to say: well, the probability of hitting on the dice was too low and that lead to the game dragging on. You can also say this about Combat Commander: Europe, an utterly phenomenal design that uses dice on cards to represent a dice rolling mechanism. There, too, firefights can drag on. Or, for those who aren’t war gamers, Eclipse. In this game, a 6 is a hit, a 1 is a miss, and everything else doesn’t work. That is, by default. Sometimes battles seem to require far too many rounds to see a resolution.

At a first glance, for all of these, it’s easy to say “the probability needs to be increased to prevent the game from dragging on.” However, after multiple plays of Combat Commander and Eclipse, something else became clear. Low probability of dice (and other randomness mechanisms) exist in order to give the designer, and therefore players, a greater decision space in which to manipulate the game state.

Let’s walk through the options for just these three games to quickly demonstrate my point.

Napoleon

  • By default, most units hit on a 6. The healthier the unit, the more dice rolled.
  • Cavalry hit on a 4-6 when rolled for their first attack. Otherwise, a 5-6.
  • Artillery, when engaged, hit on a 5-6 on their first attack. Otherwise, a 6.
  • Infantry hit on a 6, unless attacking infantry in Square formation.
  • Infantry in Square formation are only hit on a 6 by cavalry, but take more damage from artillery and infantry.

Napoleon doesn’t have cards or ways to modify your units. However, within the battles, you can choose to disengage and re-engage your cavalry unit to gain that huge bonus once again. You can disengage artillery to move them elsewhere to snipe from afar. Because everything hits on a 6, typically, you have breathing room as a player to forego a turn of low efficiency firing in order to maneuver for high efficiency punches. Only players who fail to grasp the depth of the system will pass it all off as pure random.

Combat Commander

You can fire in two ways, essentially: using a single unit, or combining units. If you do the latter, you take the best unit’s default firing score, then add +1 for every additional attacking unit in the group. For both of these, you can play cards to modify your dice roll and add additional bonuses. Finally, in both cases, you draw a card to add a random number to your base stats.

Your initial thought is to attack every turn, as soon as possible. Suffering a single hit can be devastating, and each unit can only sustain one before dying. However, the strategy of the game is to use cards to reduce risk in maneuver, pin down an enemy, and gather cards to unless a devastating hail of fire and grenades from which your opponent does not recover.

Here, again, it’s easy on your first play to ignore these bonuses and grow frustrated by the slow, ineffective plink of combat. But, this is where skill comes in. The game is giving you room to improve your chances. Or, you can rely solely on luck and fail against a superior player.

Eclipse

Last example! Your ships by default hit on a 6 and miss on a 1. However, you can customize your ships with new equipment and upgrades, which is my favorite part of the game. Here, you can increase defense to require a natural 6 be rolled, or improve offensive capabilities so that you hit on a 3 or a 4.

The game lasts about 3 hours, which gives players time to customize, upgrade, and see their fleet grow from a batch of gnats to a mighty, devastating combat fleet.

Mice and Mystics modifies probabilities with equipment, Abilities, and character abilities. Merchants and Marauders lets players outfit their ships with equipment or purchase special ammunition to mitigate the dice and modify things.

There are examples everywhere.

What this means for you.

Naturally, the needs of your games and designs will differ. You may not have a nuanced tactical maneuvering system, like in Napoleon. You may not want to encourage positioning and prep for a big attack or play. You might not care about long-term progression in your ships, civilization, or character.

However, keep in mind that if your dice always have a high probability, the laws of probability indicate one thing will happen. Averages will do what they do: average things. You will have far less room to maneuver as a designer and your players won’t need to think as much because the optimum strategy will be to roll the dice and take the hand fate has dealt them.

In a way, lowering your probability on dice rolls, chit pulls, or card flips is very similar to planning out a proper cost curve for a CCG design. If every card costs only 1-3 resources to play, you’ll quickly find yourself severely limited on options for your power curve. However, if you expand that to 1-6, and introduce even a second resource, you suddenly have a huge amount of room in which to maneuver.

One important thing to consider is the length and pace of your game. If you’re crafting an experience that is 30 minutes or fewer, having a wide range for probability probably isn’t appropriate or necessary. However, once you enter that hour mark, and certainly advance to the 2 and 3 hour mark, you want to adjust your probabilities in order to introduce progression and a long term gameplay arc.

What I mean, is that players in round 4 should not be making identical decisions that they made in round 1. If your game has a strategic layer, then think about decisions players can make in the short term to improve themselves in the long term.

How I plan to use this.

Currently, Sol Rising uses aggressive probability tuning for combat paired with abilities to make it even more aggressive. While this keeps the pacing brisk, it also limits the tactical decision space.

Although this will introduce additional complexity, I want to think about a few systematic mechanisms to allow for greater breadth in the combat resolution probability. This will most likely come in the form of range and close combat bonuses. The core movement and ability mechanisms will remain crystal simple so that this doesn’t turn this medium weight tactics game into a heavy tactics game.

Conclusion

Give yourself room to allow for divergent strategies and excite your players with luck they can better guarantee and attribute more to their skillful play than fate. Allow progression to create a nice arc to the experience, and avoid ways that lead to predictable play.

What are some of your favorite examples of what I discussed? What do you think? What did I get wrong?

Sayest Thou Poker?

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I have some thoughts on branding, naming, and pitching your game to others that have been culminating for some time. Though this is a specific case study, I think what I’ve learned here will apply to your project as well, so give this a read and tell me what you think.

We’ve been struggling to choose a final name for Hocus Poker for a few months now. I think we have a final candidate, but we’ve really gone back and forth to arrive at that point. Really, much of it revolves around the inclusion of Poker in our name.

Despite it being a key component of our origin story, Poker has really become a liability for our little game. For those not aware, Hocus began its life one afternoon when I asked “would Poker be more fun with Spells?” I have immense respect for the game of poker, but I don’t often enjoy my experience playing it. There seemed to be fertile ground as a designer to manipulate. Plus, it seemed easy. You shouldn’t be surprised to find that I’m stupid.

I, and soon after we, sought to change a few things with Poker while adding in Spells:

  • In most hands, your best play is to Fold. That’s not fun.
  • Poker requires money. No entry fees here!
  • Poker requires a group of 4-6 players to be fun. We sought to support lower player numbers.
  • Poker takes a long time to play. We wanted to fit well within a lunch period.
  • Poker features elimination. Everyone’s in until the end for us.

One of the things I love about looking to peer designs is that it becomes easy to quickly create a base line. When you first begin a project the possibilities are overly vast. That list above pointed us in a healthy direction. However, we saw a few strengths with Poker to build the other half of our base line:

  • It’s built around the classic deck. This deck is a wondrous thing. I love a deck of cards. 4 suits, some ranks, go.
  • The classic hands have a really great statistical lineup. The distribution of rarity is quite excellent.
  • The classic hands are reasonably well known by many people. Not all, as we’ve discovered. And holy <divinity of your choice>, do not change them. In any way. Ever.

We saw a good framework here to tinker with. We had our base line. However, framework is one thing. In some ways, it became a big part of our presentation, which wasn’t ideal in hindsight.

Lesson: If you aren’t sure of a name, perhaps consider a super random code name. Don’t look first to your mechanisms.

Perhaps we should have just called Hocus “Project Wozzle” until we had a final name ready?

Poker has been a problem at almost every stage of the pitch for us. I’ve had doors closed in my face as soon as the “ckkkk” leaves me lips, but we’ve also seen wild, angry men rage when they discover what they’ve done to “their” game. The problem with an elevator pitch is that you only have a floor or two, then your listener is either holding the door open or escaping that rapidly ascending box car.

Here are some of my favorite responses:

  • “Oh, I don’t like Poker.” At this point I’ve lost them. They aren’t going to care to hear us discuss the fundamental differences.
  • “Uh, that’s not Poker.” They want Hold ‘Em. They’ll only accept Hold ‘Em. Unlike people who like worker placement, and therefore lots of worker placement poker players don’t want a twist.
  • “Ah, so it’s a variant.” Ouch! This one burns in the third degree. Nothing like spending over a year of your design life on a variant! The other challenge is convincing someone to spend money on something they perceive as a variant.

Lesson: People have very strong expectations for so many things.

You see this with many genres and themes. I hate zombies. I am so sick of deckbuilders. Ugh, abstracts aren’t for me. You aren’t lying to people by not using these labels. It’s somewhat like how you trick a 5 year old to take a bite of their dinner. They enjoy the food…until you tell them it’s <hated ingredient>. Same with players. Don’t trigger their Pavlovian response if you don’t have to.

Affixing Poker to our name was misleading, driving inaccurate expectations, and for some, giving our game an unfair reputation. I started thinking about how other games handle this. Agricola doesn’t call itself Farming Caylus. Diamonds isn’t called Diamond Trick Taker. And I’m not sure anyone loves Ra Bidding Set Collector as much as I love Ra. I’m leveraging some extreme examples here because it amuses me. But, hopefully you get my point.

Lesson: You can be influenced by a thing without needing to put it on the letter head.

Texas Hold ‘Em is what most people think about when they hear “Poker.” It’s on television, on your smart phone, and many of us have enjoyed a Poker night in our lives. Truth be told, we share very few things with that game, most notable of which is the classic Poker hands. But, the player decisions, structure of the game, and strategies are all unique to Hocus. Therefore, the game deserved a divorce.

So, we knew that the poker moniker had issues. We saw that it was not giving our game a chance to stand on its own. Then, I read this blog post on BGG. I really liked this post. It got me thinking. You can disagree with her examples and precise ordering recommendations, but overall, my key takeaway was that you need to present the experience of the game, what makes it unique, and not just append genre labels.

Lesson: Beyond your name, mechanisms, and easy labels, define your game such that it stands out uniquely and conveys its experience.

For Hocus, this is creating opportunities with your limited cards, choosing the right spell at the right moment, and deceiving and foiling your opponents where possible. That’s broad! What I just said doesn’t really make Hocus sound unique. That’s fine, we can fix that. But, you can also see that we didn’t restrict ourselves to pattern recognition, hand management, poker hands, and alternate player powers.

Keep all of these lessons and thoughts in your mind. I’m a big proponent of developing publicly, but I’m trying to be smarter about it. As much as I want discuss things in the most casual and lax of manners, first impressions matter. How you deliver and pitch things matter. Once you make a first impression, it’s tough to rescind.

Moving forward with my designs, I’ll be more careful to consider project names that are safe and don’t build assumptions. I’ll think about what I’m borrowing to form my baseline, but also more immediately what I’m pushing that’s unique. In the end, I hope it leads to more exciting and thrilling pitches from the start. That’s the hope! This is all one big lesson I keep consuming one spoonful at a time.

Hopefully, this spoon was useful. Tell me what you think in the credits!

State of Hyperbole Games 2014

hyperbole_games_identity

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games writes an annual report discussing his company, their year’s successes and failures, and the next year’s plans. I love reading it and I am going to copy him. I think it might be useful to new folks interested in starting a business.

Hyperbole Games right now is just me as Owner and Manager. Boom! Title inflation.

2014: Revenues and Expenses

In 2014, Hyperbole Games operated at a loss. We earned many thousands of negative pennies. This was expected and fully inline with our plans. We had no revenue sources in 2014. I expected to receive a small sum of money from Farmageddon royalties, but unfortunately 5th Street Games declared bankruptcy and no royalties were paid for the year.

2014 was the first year of the company, which came with many fees. These included:

  • Paying for assistance to found my LLC. I’m not keen on surfing the federal or California state government’s bureaucracy and getting this wrong. You know how politicians like to talk about states being bad for small business? Well, California is bad for small business.
  • Yearly fees to the state of California
  • Art development fees for the prototype
  • R&D fees to mail copies to testers. We invested in our development because it’s important.

At the start of 2014, we were quite giddy and aggressive about our expectations. Like the grinning fool who thinks he just met his wife 10 minutes into the first blind date, we thought we were on the fast track. Then, in a mature moment of introspection, we removed our beer goggles and ripped out our own hearts. We needed more time.

In November, or the end of October, we found our game. Since then, we’ve conducted over 100 tests on this version alone, seeking to perfect balance, rules, and the overall experience.

2015: Plans

Continuing where 2014 left off, we’ve spent 2015 preparing to publish Hocus. This has included several activities, including:

  • Finalizing the name of the game (In progress)
  • Hiring and overseeing art production (March and April)
  • Hiring and overseeing graphic design (beginning May 1st!)
  • Designing and editing our Kickstarter page
  • Arranging for PR opportunities, including Podcasts, news, and previews
  • Finalizing manufacturing and shipping plans
  • Manufacturing supplementary product plans
  • Balancing the spells
  • Making final decisions regarding the product, including variants and such

Our current plan is to conduct a crowdfunding campaign in June and July. The primary purpose for this is to determine demand for our game and leverage Kickstarter’s platform, which handles things like collecting money from customers. These can be complicated and expensive investments and it feels foolish to invest there at this time.

This means the game will be finished somewhere from November 2015 to February or even March 2016.

Expenses will continue to ding us for 2015 as we invest in our first product. We’re investing in Hocus with AAA art and top notch manufacturing. We also continue to pay California LLC fees and the fees of CPAs to help us navigate this landscape. I will need to consider whether the Hyperbole business model and California make LLC the wrong corporate course for me. But, at this time I don’t want too much churn. I’ve made the decision and I’m going to focus on delivering a quality game.

Revenue will still be sparse in 2015. We will hopefully gain $6,000-10,000 (ignoring fees and such) for our crowdfunding campaign. That’s a low estimate, but a fair one. At the high end I think we can reach $25,000, which coincidentally is what my first game earned on Kickstarter in 2012. From my perspective, $25,000 is essentially $5 million. There may be other revenue sources I cannot discuss at this time.

We’ve also begun investing in art development for Landfall, a title we plan to release in 2016, but only after Hocus has been delivered. Our investment at this time is minor, but it exists.

We expect to finalize development of Landfall this year. We have prototypes in testing for much of the project and have done a great deal of cost analysis for goods, fulfillment, and more. Ideally we’ll begin art production towards the end of the year so that we can kick this project off as soon as Hocus is fulfilled. But, as with all things, we’ll pull the emergency brake as needed to ensure quality and the timing is right.

2015: Opportunities

I think we have a few big opportunities that are actually the byproduct of time, performance, and a little luck more than monetary investment. The first of these is growing our newsletter. I would love to have a newsletter of 500 people at the end of delivering Hocus. Why? I want to build that relationship with our customers. I want to have an avenue to reach out to potential testers for future games. This is such an incredible tool that will take years to build, but it’s so worth it.

Another more expensive opportunity is to develop Hyperbole Games to support direct sales. But, this looks premature. I don’t expect to see a spike in traffic to our site, especially for customers. For now, our focus will be on partnering with a quality distributor and selling directly via Amazon.

There are other site improvements, like having a news blog, making the Newsletter subscription more prominent, or having a game page designed to showcase games and not act like a blog.

2016: Looking Forward

I think 2016 will be the first year we’re a real company. It seems bizarre to think about that, but it’s only 8 months away and a lot of things will happen. Firstly, and most importantly, we expect to have Hocus delivered to early Kickstarter supporters and ideally at retail.

Secondly, I am seeking a publishing partner for Farmageddon. If that is picked up, that will be a minor revenue stream. Furthermore, my title with Portal Games will potentially be on the market in 2016, which will be another small revenue stream.

We will need to invest in Hocus, if we deem it worthy of such investment, to make it a success. This includes a potential presence at GAMA to show it to retailers, a presence at local cons (San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle), ads and promotions on Board Game Geek, and working with reviewers to recommend and promote the final game.

On the subject of conventions, I don’t expect us to be in official attendance at the large conventions for quite some time. By large, I mean Gen Con, Essen, Origins. We might never be there, depending on how successful we are. I think our money is best spent on art, manufacturing, and promoting our games. We need to build an audience and reputation and hold onto every dollar tightly. I think it will be a mistake to get lost at Gen Con among so many huge, incredible companies. I would love to have a small booth at BGG in 2016, but I have no clue what that costs. That is a wonderful, intimate convention, perfect for a small company with a small game.

We have a rough idea for our next game following Landfall. We have not begun work on it, but we’re salivating at the thought. We have a queue and it’s quivering with anticipation.

Back to the Present

As is common with my every day it seems, I need to go cut a check to my accountant. April 15 is a harsh reminder of both taxes and the birth of Josh. A terrible day, truly.

If you have any questions or thoughts about things discussed here, please ask. I’m trying to provide interesting and useful content for other business folks. The business interested and the business established. Thanks for reading!

Design Muscle Memory

This post sponsored by the Hocus Poker PNP! Download it from BGG (and give us a thumb!) or read the rules.

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Design should become easier the more you do it. No, conceiving a unique mechanism is never easy. Identifying that killer solution to a terrible problem is never easy. But, there are dozens, even hundreds of tiny steps that you can begin to ignore if you’re honing your craft and paying attention. Well, ignore is the wrong word. You won’t think about them because they’ll be ingrained in how you make every decision.

Today, I wanted to share some basic things I think are a part of my muscle memory. The hope, is that by taking advantage of this muscle memory to quickly move past the basics, you can more easily start work on the hard part – crafting unique mechanisms, experiences, and balancing your game!

Here are a few examples.

Card Design: A great start for new designers is a card game. Everyone has owned a deck of bicycle cards, or played a CCG, or played some form of card game. They are immediately accessible and require few components, which is great for new designers.

There are many subtle things I’ve learned about cards in my design travels! Some of them include:

  • Use clear 1-2 word card titles. Keep them short and simple. Make sure titles are easy to read and pronounce. If players have difficulty reading or knowing what the title means, they might ignore the card in their hand. Yes, they will!
  • Good titles should reinforce the function of the card. Pesticides, to most people, are connoted as a bad thing. Good titles can act as a bookmark in the player’s mental encyclopedia. With repeat plays, they’ll see this title and will remember what the card does.
  • Limit the number of functional areas. Let’s assume you know to limit the overall amount of information on a card. However, it’s easy to squirrel key pieces of information in different parts of the cards. Train players to look in 1 or 2 places max!
  • Key info on the left…usually. Players often fan cards such that the left side of the card is visible. Be careful about tucking key info in the right-hand side. There are exceptions! Magic puts their card cost and creature attack/defense on the right.
  • Think about key terms. Develop a language for each game, being careful to not screw with common terms used in other popular games. Key terms save words, especially when you’re explaining key concepts over and over (like Draw, Discard), and constrain you, the designer, with a tool box. How can you be creative with the 5 key terms you’ve established?
  • Think about icons. If you’re going to use a concept often, very often, and it’s dead simple to convey in a single icon? Consider incorporating it. Money is a classic example. Everyone understands “Get 4 <Money icon>.”
  • Make card text concise. You and a tester are falling off a cliff. I don’t know why you’re in this position, but make the most of it. How are you going to explain the card? The more words, the more people can misinterpret. Using your key terms, your icons, and concise language, say what you need to say. You can gate yourself by creating prototypes with 12-14 point font. You’ll run out of space quickly. It will force you to write better.

Example

In the above mock up, the blue squares represent potential areas for you to place functional information. Pick 2 of them! 

I think Dominion exhibits a “best in class” for good card design and it’s never far from my mind when thinking about a first pass layout. You can see a very simple title at the top. Many cards, like Upgrade, Trading Post, and Torturer cue you into the card’s function. You have 2 key areas: purchase price at the bottom and function in the middle of the card. Everything else can be ignored. The game uses a handful of key terms, like draw, trash, discard, and action, so you can quickly ascertain a card’s function. Finally, they bold simple actions, like “+3 cards” or use the gold icon to quickly communicate “this card gives you money” or “this card gives you cards.”

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Cards from Dominion by Rio Grande Games

Netrunner is a far more complex game that also adheres to many of these principles. You see icons used for Trash, Clicks, or Credits. They use the top left of a card and the middle for most information, with a third piece for Trash or the Strength of Ice. They use a series of key terms to keep text short. Netrunner offers a cliff-like learning curve, but thanks to fantastic use of a few icons and key terms, that cliff is lessened.

Note: For that last comment, I’m referring to terms like Click, Install, Rez. We can debate HQ, Grip, and Archives for hours and that’s a topic for another post. 

Netrunner-isabel-mcguire-pic1381139

The above pictures are from Android: Netrunner by Fantasy Flight Games.

Mechanism Design: When designing mechanisms, it’s very simple to explain the idea in your head, play a test hand or two, and spend months working on it before you write the rules. But, it’s very simple to forget that you will not ship with every copy of your game. Don’t kill your creativity or brainstorms, but begin to pair mechanism creation with mechanism explanation.

When I design a new mechanism, I ask myself these questions. Often subconsciously, as it’s just a part of my process.

  • How will I explain this in my rules? How many words will this take? Is the weight and importance of the mechanism equivalent to its weight and complexity in my rules?
  • Does this mechanism add sufficient fun for its complexity and weight?
  • Does this mechanism give me something unique, does it increase the fun, or does it solve a problem?
  • Does this require a diagram in the rules?
  • Does this require examples?
  • Does this require a reference card?

One of the most controversial elements of York, before I licensed it to Portal, was the fact that turn order was determined at random. This drives some people batty! I experimented with several alternative solutions, but all of them were too complex and too wordy for what they added. Random turn order was both simpler, more fun, and appropriate for what I needed. I arrived at that conclusion from testing, but also answering my questions.

Note: Portal has come up with an awesome solution that preserves the experience of random, but is cleaner and more compelling.

In the very first version of Hocus, we had an increasing cost mechanism that was created to make less-used spells a more enticing option. It was a subtle mechanism that did the job well. It was also insanely confusing for so many of our testers. We tried literally dozens of ways to explain it, represent it, support it with components, and more. People really struggled with it. Now, we know that, and we’ll think twice about similar mechanisms in the future.

Many of those questions above are questions potential publishers will be asking themselves when they are considering your game. They aren’t just asking if they can have fun, but whether they can explain this to customers, if the complexity level is right for their target audience, and whether they have the component bandwidth to support your mechanisms. You should have answers for those questions before they arrive at an answer that eventually means the same thing as “Not interested.”

As you grow more experienced in your designs, you’ll have fewer instances of “I’m doing this mechanism because I can.” Instead, because you’re doing things with purpose to save time, you’ll have more instances of “I have this mechanism to improve balance,” or “this mechanism exists to create a story,” or “this mechanism is the key decision point for players.” And so forth.

Probability: Probability is a wonderful tool and one of the most devious bests facing every designer. Over time, you’ll find your handle on probability will greatly expedite the pace at which your prototypes become enjoyable.

For example, dice rolls! If you want you combat to move along quickly, be decisive, and have few wasted rolls, you probably shouldn’t go below a 50/50 hit chance (assuming a single die roll). Even with a 50% chance, you will find that things will rarely happen 50% of the time, but might instead work out to be 10% or 20%.

You’ll also find that perception of progress has a heavy hand here. If players roll 1 die, and hit on a 50% chance, combat can be maddening. But, if they roll 3 dice and hit on a 50% chance, that’s much better. See Memoir ’44 when attacking infantry. In Memoir or Summoner wars, which have up to a 50% (for infantry) or 66% chance (per die) to land a hit, you’re always making progress. You rarely kill an opponent of substance in a single hit, but you’ll steadily plink away and deal damage.

One of the criticisms I think is fairly leveled against Eclipse is that combat can take forever. A large battle towards the end of the game may have 5 or more dice rolling rounds, with over half of them resulting in no change of state. Players want to see progress being made, otherwise the game feels broken.

A good counter-example to my argument of 50% or greater is Space Hulk. In this game, Space Marines kill a Genestealer on a roll of a 6 on a six-sided die. This 1 in 6 probability is balanced by a few things.

  • The Genestealers have 1 health. If you hit them once, they die.
  • Combat is often a series of 2-4 rolls. If you continue firing, you hit on a 5+, which is much better odds.
  • A primary component of the experience is the charge of the Genestealer down a hallway to close to melee distance. A single Genestealer on the board is actually an abstraction of many Genestealers. It isn’t that you aren’t killing any in the fiction. It’s that you didn’t stop all of them. Space Hulk is essentially Aliens — think to the scenes where overwhelming firepower still barely hinders the Xenos.

When designing  a game with dice, I use my muscle memory to support the experience I want. I complement this with tuning on other elements. With Sol Rising, ships can sustain 4-5 hits, which means I want them to take damage often to make progress possible. In a game like Memoir, there are usually just 3-4 Hits per Unit, so it should be a little slower. And so forth. Leverage your experiences to set your initial probability to a level that supports the game you’re trying to make.

Conclusion: I fear this post is growing a bit lengthy and hopefully I’ve made my point. What do you think about muscle memory? What are some examples of YOUR design muscle memory? How do you get to the important stuff in your design more quickly? Share in the comments below!

Some Start Up Thoughts

Post by: Grant Rodiek

At the suggestion of most excellent design peer Brett Myers, and in light of the publisher of Farmageddon declaring bankruptcy, I wanted to write about business today.

In the past, I’ve written some basic Kickstarter Advice, as well as some basic advice on game development and production. Today, I’m going to talk about how I’ve been pursuing the business of being a publisher. I’ll share bits about my journey to date, little pieces of advice, and will discuss hopes for where I’m going.

I’m going to discuss some philosophical notes and discuss some specifics. Scroll about to find what you seek!

Keep this in mind throughout. As a publisher you are:

  • Designing and developing games. This is the fun part! It’s a tiny part.
  • Producing games (art, graphics, manufacturing). This is the expensive part.
  • Selling and marketing games to distributors and consumers. This is the intangible part. You’re building your reputation and relationships.

Huge, massive disclaimer: You can find exceptions and counters to everything I’m saying. Only Sith and idiots speak in absolutes, and there is no one right way to conduct oneself in business. In many cases I’ve thought about the alternatives.

Listen and Learn First: I’ve wanted to publish games for years now, arguably since I started messing around with board game design in 2010. I’ve worked for a massive game company for years and I have a great desire to be an entrepreneur and do things my own way. However, I knew I didn’t know enough about board games, design, the market, and publication to do this.

Barriers to entry are falling down every day. It is easier than ever to start a business. Do not let this mislead or fool you. Stop, listen, and learn first. I have a 4+ year old spreadsheet filled with links to articles, questions and answers from quiet conversations, names of artists, graphic designers, review sites, manufacturers, and distributors.

I’m going to tell you right now — if you’re just starting out, you are not a good enough designer. You are not smart enough. You do not know enough. Even if you’ve read every post by Jamey Stegmaier, and that is a killer start, you should also watch Kickstarter for a few years. Observe the trends and “what good looks like.” Ask people which manufacturers they used to find out which ones are good and which ones are bad. Go to Gen Con and have a drink with the owners of Panda, or other publishers. Listen and learn. Take it slow. Board games aren’t going anywhere.

Establish yourself as a known good: When you launch your first product, you are asking everyone to take a huge risk. You are asking everyone to trust you with money. They can already do this with literally thousands of other avenues, so it’s a huge first step. Therefore, you need to establish yourself as a known good. This is a multi-year process. It is slow, and it sucks. You need to start now.

There are multiple ways to do this. For me, I chose blogging as my first path. I wrote on my blog Exiled Here for a few years before launching Hyperbole Games 3 years ago. My intents with this is purely to establish myself as someone who is knowledgeable and cares about design. This has the effect of eroding sand in the grand Canyon. It’s a multi-year process, but it has paid off. Part of the reason I gained an audience with Portal (which led to York getting signed) was my blog. Other publishers have agreed to meetings with me. My Twitter presence has grown because of it. Do people think I’m Eric Lang? Or Stefan Feld? No. Absolutely not. But, it gives me something to point to that says I care and I’ve been caring for years.

I also think you need to have something published. This is insanely difficult. I showed Farmageddon to probably a dozen publishers before 5th Street signed it. I worked on York for 2 years before Portal signed it, and it will probably be 4 years total before it is released. Sol Rising is 2 years old at this point. Hocus is over a year old at this point. Quality development takes time. It then takes time to convince someone they should take on your game. It then takes time for them to finish it.

You need to put a down payment on yourself. You need people to know they can trust you. I did this with a blog, with a relatively open development process, with slow networking, and with other published titles. Figure out what works for you and start today.

Have a crystal clear idea of who you want to be when you grow up. By this, I mean you need to know your goals for being a publisher. These should be directly tied to your financial expectations. If you want to make money, stop. Right now. Full stop. You will need a highly successful evergreen title (insanely difficult) to do this. Which requires great skill and luck. You will need cash flow to print enough copies, at enough quantity, and sell through, in order to stay afloat. This takes a really long time.

My strongest suggestion is that you keep your day job, set money aside to do this, and run it like a hobby. I’ll compare it to the advice I hear when I go to Vegas — don’t gamble expecting to win. See it as the money you’re spending for entertainment. I see that as sound advice, and I don’t gamble, because it’s not fun for me. But running a little board game operation? That is fun and it is worth the money and time I will probably lose.

Over time, you may have an evergreen. Gamelyn has the Tiny Epic series. Crash has Council of Verona. Plaid Hat began with Summoner Wars, and I wager Dead of Winter will be that. For Portal, that’s Robinson, Neuroshima, and probably Imperial Settlers. For Steve Jackson, that’s Munchkin. Fireside? Castle Panic.

I’m making assumptions and guesses, but many of these companies have been in business for years, delivered failures, or less successful titles first, and every step they take is still a very expensive risk.

Have crystal clear expectations of what board games will render unto you. Expect very modest success, at best. If something incredible happens? Be ready to take that leap if you so desire. But, don’t start from the ledge.

Our goals? Deliver small, low cost niche games designed by us. Make games that we want to see, that others probably won’t license. We want to get to the point where we make money to continue to fund this hobby.

Have a secret power. This sounds like obnoxious marketing speak, but I sincerely believe in this and think this is the best way to describe it. You might have heard Alex Blumberg discuss this with potential investors on his Startup Podcast. By secret power, I mean that you need to have a reason to exist in this business. Other than “I want to be my own boss,” why are you here? What do you do really well? What do you bring to the table?

Seek to satisfy a niche, or a certain audience, and do so in a way that is distinctly you. Look to your favorite publishers, identify what they do best, and think about that for some time. Then, look to less successful publishers. What do they do badly? What are they lacking? Find your secret power and work against it.

It is very difficult to have a competitive advantage, but very easy to mislead yourself into believing you have a competitive advantage. Some things that aren’t competitive advantages, include art and nice components. Don’t mislead yourself into thinking these two things, which just cost money, distinguish you significantly. Your brand can become a competitive advantage, but this takes years of good products and good customer service.

What is our super power? What do we do well? Josh and I are very strong developers. He has experience developing games for GMT. I’ve worked as a professional video game developer for almost 10 years. We have a love of tweaking rules, testing, and developing strong products. I think that’s our secret power. Josh also has an intense wealth of games. He’s been playing seriously for 30+ years, all types, and has a collection of over 3000 games. The dude is an encyclopedia.

We don’t have a competitive advantage. One day, I hope brand can be one.

Editor’s Note: Per Nick’s comment below, I’ve revised this to be more clear. I’ve tried to mix a few too many concepts into this section. My apologies for the shoddy writing.

Reduce risk. This is a classic of business that is so easily overlooked. Or, you can lie to yourself about what you’re reducing. When you’re first starting out in the business, identify as many ways as possible to eliminate risk. I would argue, even at the expense of profits. Here are some of the ways Hyperbole is reducing risk:

  • We’re working with a manufacturer that is known for customer service, quality, and guiding people, especially new publishers. We did not price compare much – we did not want to screw up, so we went with that manufacturer.
  • We will probably take the most expensive, but simplest shipping solution, to reduce hand offs and potential missteps.
  • We are more or less not offering stretch goals. Why? They add unpredictability and chaos to the product. We’re going to offer a great product, at a great price, and that’s more or less it.
  • We are using Kickstarter. Not so much for the money — although that’ll help reduce risk — but to gauge demand and use a platform to accept payment. It’s very expensive and difficult to do direct sales. We’d rather not invest in that yet.
  • We’re publishing a very small game. Hocus, right now, is 100 cards, tuck box, and a small folded rule page. No tokens. We want this to be as low cost for us and our consumers as possible.
  • We aren’t licensing work from other designers. We aren’t comfortable with the basics, so we won’t bring someone else, or their work, into our fold. If we go down and screw up? We’re hurting others. We will be our own guinea pigs first.

Deliver everything before the next. This is simple. Deliver product A before you sell product B. This is mostly an issue in the era of crowd funding. Clear off the books. Eliminate your debts. Then, move forward. Use every previous product to bolster the chances for success of subsequent products.

Remove deadlines for your first project. Set goals and milestones, but do not set hard and fast deadlines for your first project. You need to be ready and willing to delay things for the good of the game you are making. If you need more testing? Do the testing. Artist not ready to hire? Wait for her. If you work with a deadline breathing down your neck, especially while you’re learning and doing something for the first time, you, your product, and your bottom line will ultimately suffer.

That is a lot of philosophy. Let’s discuss some specifics. 

Get a manufacturing quote early.  I’ve been conversing with our manufacturing partner for almost a year now. Why? I wanted to know as soon as possible whether Hocus was something we could publish or not. Early in the project, we made a decision to redesign the game, partially to remove all components that weren’t cards. This was a massive decision we couldn’t have made as easily without this knowledge.

There are many manufacturers: Panda, WinGo, Grand Prix International. Email them and request a quote. Be sure to specify:

  • Quantities. Minimum is typically 1500, but this varies. Price breaks are often at 2500 and 5000 and 10000 copies. But, this also varies.
  • Measurements. Use metric if printing in Europe or China.
  • Component Quality. Linen? Matte or gloss finish? Thickness of card?
  • Time frame. When do you plan to do this?

Determine a shipping solution. There are basically 3 options for you. Generally speaking, from China:

  • Pay your manufacturer to handle shipping from door to door.
  • Pay a shipper to pick up the game, get it to the docks, get through foreign customs, cross the ocean, get through domestic customs, ship to your door.
  • Your manufacturer gets the game to the docks and handles customs. You then pay a shipper to cross the ocean, handle domestic customs, and get it to your door.

There are great companies like Dimerco with whom you should speak to gain a quote.

Know where you’re shipping, how you’re going to get products to customers, and figure out the solution that fits your budget, risks, and expectations.

Shipping is the silent killer. Think about it very deeply. Speaking of, you also need to figure out how you’re fulfilling the games to customers. Stonemaier Games has a lesson on how to offer competitive worldwide shipping. This may or may not work for you. It won’t for us.

Will you warehouse the games on your own? Or pay someone else to do it? Did you budget for the boxes or mailers? What about bubble wrap? What about the ink and paper to print labels? Think about all of these little details and plan ahead.

Allow plenty of lead time for your art team. It will often take a few months to book illustrators and graphic designers. If they are good, they are busy. If you want something done RIGHT NOW, be ready to pay for it.

Do not hire an art team until you’re ready to do so. Be ready to pay for quality. I actually wrote about working with artists in the past. My favorite way to find artists is to ask for recommendations from other publishers or artists, or to follow their Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram feeds. You can learn a lot about someone by watching their work.

You can also look at games you like that are already published and contact the artist.

I think good illustrations are insanely important for looking like a AAA game and competing on a store shelf. I think good graphic design is insanely important for accessibility and people enjoying your game. Pinch pennies here at your peril.

Observe your competition. It is foolish to lead yourself to believe you can successfully charge for your game what you want to charge. You need to be competitive with similar games. When pricing Hocus, we looked at games like Diamonds, Red7, Abluxxen (Linko), Star Realms, and Farmageddon. Why? They all play with about 2-5 players in about a half hour and are often card only games. That helps us recognize our price point.

Don’t design a $15 game with $30 components. Design a $15 game with $15 components.

Determine the business organization that works for you. This depends on how you want to handle your accounting and your state laws. Hyperbole is currently an LLC, as I wanted to separate the assets from my personal ones, but due to the complexity of laws and fees in California, I may change it to sole proprietorship in the future.

You need to examine your local laws, preferred tax structure, and liability risks to determine what works best for you. When you do this, I recommend you work with a service like Legal Zoom, or find a friend who can help you. It can be very complex.

Track all of your expenses and have a separate business account. Know what you’re spending, with whom. I recommend you hire an accountant for your first go of things, especially if you live in a bureaucratic nightmare like California.

Have a website. You need an online presence. I hired a friend to design mine built upon a blog platform. In the future, I will probably do something more robust to sell games directly from my site, present games in a gallery more effectively, better drive people towards a mailing list, and more.

Be careful to invest in everything before you’re ready. Three years ago I basically needed a blog. In a year or two? I’ll need something else. Invest carefully as needed.

Have a logo. This goes on your business card, which you need at conventions, and will go on your box. It will also be on your website. It needs to be legible, clear, distinct, and professional.

Prepare hype and buzz for your game. Identify the blogs, reviewers, and sites that will cover your game well. You don’t want to send a strict euro to the Ameritrash blog! Contact these writers as soon as possible. Months in advance! Do NOT email them 2 days before you need a review. It will take a week to get it there and 2-4 weeks for them to play your game. They aren’t machines. Allow plenty of lead time, contact writers, and be prepared to mail them a copy.

This will often cost money. Budget against that. You probably also want to buy ads for places like BGG. That will also cost money.

Prepare for customer service. Copies of your game will be shipped in a mangled state. Will you replace them? A few copies of the game will have printing errors. How will you replace these. It’s key to note your manufacturer will probably send you extra copies and spares. But, this is a cost you need to account for.

How will you handle the email? Who will be handling it? Be sure to remember that in 2015, a good experience — or a bad one — goes a very long way. Someone can and will Tweet about their experience. I see publishers get publicly shamed (fairly and otherwise) all the time.

This is one of the best ways to create lifetime customers. If you invest properly here, you will have devoted fans. It’s also one of the easiest ways to join someone’s personal blacklist. I recommend you think about this and invest in your future.

Recruit and reward testers. We made the decision to spend several hundred dollars (ongoing) to print and mail copies of Hocus to testers all over the place. Why? We want people to know we’re serious about blind testing and as a result, we’ve had quite a few great testers emerge.

We will send them free copies of the game and credit them in the rules. This is what we can offer right now. Over time, I hope to build a network of reliable testers and reward them in better ways. To do this, we need success and budget to allow for such things. But, it is in the plan, and it’ll pay off dividends. Plaid Hat benefits from this. Stonemaier benefits from this. Foster great testers and cling to them for dear life.

If your game isn’t tested extensively with multiple blind and local groups? Stop everything and start there. Don’t move another step forward until you know you have something viable. It doesn’t need to be finished. But, it needs to be decent and viable. You need external validation.

End

Hopefully this is useful for someone just starting out. If I’m wrong, or you disagree, please clarify below! But, remember, there is no single way to do this. Each of us will customize our decisions to our business needs.

In the end, be patient, move slowly, do not expect to grow rich, and do everything for the right reason. Seek to make great products. No, even better, seek to be the publisher you want to buy from. What is your ideal company to support? Become that.

Tiny Rules of Significance

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve been playing a great deal of Memoir ’44 lately. It’s one of my favorite games and one in which I’ve invested heavily. I own all but one minor expansion for it. Memoir ’44 is a very simple rule set and foundation, but it’s scenario driven and covers the broad scope of World War II. This means there are dozens of tiny one-off exceptions that abstract the variety of the war.

I was struck by how simple many of these are, while at the same time, how great their impact is on the experience. I wanted to talk about these tiny exceptions and how they are tiny rules of significance. Key to note, as this is surely confusing, is that I’m not talking about simple mechanisms that are the core of the experience. Hanabi’s rule where players cannot see their own hand is very simple, and very significant, but not the topic of this post.

Commissar Rule in Memoir ’44 Eastern Front: In the early years of Russia’s involvement in World War II, their officers and leaders were greatly encumbered by political commissars. These men and women were more or less spies of the Stalin regime, not professional soldiers, and more interested in absolute loyalty than effective command. It is not absurd to say that millions of Soviet citizens and soldiers died due to incompetent, bureaucratic, and ideologically driven overrides from the commissars.

In early war scenarios, players fighting for the Soviet side must tangle with their own Commissar. This is represented as a red poker chip with a sticker on it.

Memoir44EasternFrontCommand

Here’s the normal rule: On your turn, choose one card from your hand to play. Resolve its text. Draw a new card at the end of your turn.

Here’s the commissar rule: At the start of your turn, reveal the card played under the commissar chip the turn before. Before you resolve it, choose one of your current cards for next turn. Resolve the previous turn’s card. Then, draw a new card.

Essentially, instead of being able to react to what your opponent just did, you must plan ahead. You also have fewer cards from which to choose. Finally, there is a delay until you can use the amazing card you just drew. I bet you hope you’re still alive in 2 turns to use that artillery bombardment, eh comrade?

Tiger Tank Rule in Memoir ’44: Tiger tanks were vicious enemies in World War II. They were monstrosities of metal that shredded the tin-can like American Sherman tanks. Their weak spot was famously the rear, though occasionally a lucky shot might penetrate or hit exposed ammo. If you’ve seen the movie Fury, there’s an incredible scene in which 4 Shermans take on a single Tiger. It’s thrilling.

To abstract how tough and monstrous these beasts were, Richard Borg made a few tweaks.

A typical tank unit has 3  models, which means it can sustain 3 hits before it is destroyed. 1 of the 6 die faces is a tank and 1 of the 6 is a grenade. The tank face kills tanks and the grenade face kills anything. This means you have a 1/3 chance of killing a tank with every dice roll. Tanks attacking a tank unit (without terrain involved) roll 3 dice. Infantry roll 1-3 dice based on range. Artillery roll 1-3 dice depending on range.

For Tigers, there is a single model. It can sustain only a single hit. However. When a Tiger is a attacked, you must re-roll all hits (tank and grenade symbols). With the re-roll, you must roll at least 1 grenade (1 and 6 chance). If you don’t? No damage is dealt.

I can tell you right now, that one simple change beautifully abstracts these terrors in game.

Hero Rule in Combat Commander: Europe: Combat Commander is a game of managing battlefield chaos to execute decisive maneuvers and assaults to silence machine gun nests, eliminate exposed units, and oust entrenched soldiers. One must cautiously prepare their assault with maneuvers using smoke grenades and terrain to protect their units. Why? Every unit killed is one that cannot attack the enemy. Damaged units are far less effective in combat. Finally, killed Units award victory points to your opponent.

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Enter the hero, a dynamic event driven unit. Heroes do not award victory points to your opponent with killed. This means you can send them on a suicidal charge to a machine gun nest. They might still die. In fact, they will probably die. But, in the same way many battlefield heroes put the lives of others before their own, so do your heroes in Combat Commander.

Double Auction in Modern Art

In this fantastic design from Knizia, players choose one card from their hand to Auction off. The card defines the auction type. After the fifth card is played for an artist, the round ends immediately.

The Double Auction does quite a few things, including:

  1. 2 cards are played, not 1, which means you can end a round more quickly.
  2. You can play both cards, or invite your opponents to play 1. This can put them at a disadvantage as they must play their turn on your terms.
  3. You can earn more money.

Every auction in the game has a time and place. Choosing when to use them is the tactic and strategy of the game. The Double Auction is a really fascinating exception to the one card standard.

I asked Twitter for their suggestions. Here are a few!

Munchkin

Suggestion

Valley of the Kings: This one from Eric is in sequence. Read from bottom to top.

EricSuggest

Resistance, Hansa Teutonica, Innovation, and Shadow Throne

Simplemany

China

JaySuggestBrass: This is a lengthy, but a good one. Read from bottom to top.

And

And2

Much emphasis is put on design elegance and simplicity. People treat exception as a bad word fit only for junior or poor designers. That’s absolutely not the case! A key decision for your war game, euro game, filler game, is when to introduce an exception so spicey, so important, it fundamentally alters your game.

Hopefully these examples set your mind spinning. If you didn’t like the examples I shared here, share some new ones below, or check my Twitter feed for others. Potent exceptions are amazing — seek them out and elevate your design.

Designing for Alchemy

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I am very much a combo driven designer and frankly, and probably not surprisingly, it’s something that I love as a player. I often say I design the games I want to play, which is why you see action cards and multi-use cards in almost everything I make. For my current design, I realized that one of the coolest byproducts of the mechanisms I’ve put together is the sheer number of combinations that can come about as a result of player decisions. I wanted to write about crafting combination rich games, or building a sandbox primed for player designed alchemy.

Doing this isn’t just a great recipe for fun, but is also a phenomenal way to gain extra mileage out of every component and infuse your design with high replay value. If a choice is the same regardless of context, it may grow old. But, if a choice can be melded to an element of the game’s current state for unexpected gold, well, you can make choices in your design to better pluck that fruit.

I think it’s key to note I’m not just talking about a game like Magic the Gathering or Netrunner, CCGs which give players massive toolboxes to craft interesting decks. While deckbuilding is great, it isn’t something every game can or should support and I want to make this more relevant for players crafting euros, war games, and other such titles.

The first ingredient for your delicious alchemical stew are (semi-)permanent game states. If we’re just looking at a CCG, players know the cards in their decks. They know their ideal state, if the pairing emerges. That’s predictable, at least to one player. For your design, you should have 2-3 (if possible) (semi-)permanent elements that can be manipulated.

Let’s think of some examples of semi-permanent states. Note that some of these are actually permanent.

  • A region in a war game. Units and structures can be added and removed to it. In Twilight Struggle, this could be Italy.
  • A placement location in a worker placement game. Workers can be added to it. In Agricola, this is where you go to get 1 Stone.
  • A player-built entity. In Netrunner, this could be a remote server built by the Corporation, containing an Asset and Upgrade(s), or an Agenda and Upgrade(s). Protected by Ice (i.e. Firewalls). In a block war game, like Wizard Kings, this can be an army group. You know there are 4 blocks, but you don’t know if they are Archers or Dragons or all Infantry. In Imperial Settlers, players are all building their civilization with structures.
  • A pattern of meaning, particularly in an abstract. In Tash-Kalar, these patterns mean that cards can summon creatures. In Chess, you can protect one’s King, or create an assault group.
  • Event cards with effects. In Robinson, you have an Event card that emerges every round, then joins previous Event cards that weren’t resolved. You also have things like penalties to affect the difficulty of your next construction adventure.
  • In many co-op games,  you have a non-player hostile threat. In Pandemic, these are the infection cubes. In Legends of Andor, these are the monsters. They have very binary functionality, but they provide threat and pressure.

Essentially, you need something that can be modified. This something needs to have presence in the game for an extended period of time.

The second ingredient is a way to make a lasting modification. This must be player driven and it must alter a state (like the one above) for longer than the immediate present. This means that placing a worker on a spot in Agricola doesn’t count. Yes, I’m preventing others from going there, but as soon as the round ends, it’s available again and will be the same as it’s always been. Continuing this point, when the new placement slot is flipped over in Agricola, that also doesn’t count. It isn’t player driven.

However, the cards a player has in Agricola do count. Why? They are player driven, they are an optional play, they affect the game permanently, and they alter the state of things on the board. These, more than anything, may be the special sauce in Agricola. The tiles fill this role in Caverna. These are what make every game different and give every player a way to be unique, clever, and emergent.

Imperial Assault does this lately with character progression. Yes, I see you rolling your eyes. This is an RPG standard, and Descent 1st and 2nd Editions did it prior, but this is the recent one, and one I’ve played. The semi-permanent state is a player’s character (Rebel) or army list (Imperial). The lasting modification are new gear and abilities that the player chooses to apply.

One more example. I played Memoir ’44 this weekend and was reminded of how great a game it is. One subtle way of manipulating the board is by taking key terrain and denying it to your opponent. For example, I desperately needed my tanks to get past a village, which had them pinned down. However, this isn’t a lasting modification. A single retreat flag can push his infantry from the village.

This situation became far worse when an opponent played the Dig In card, which let him place sand bags. These allowed him to ignore retreat flags and forced me to discard additional dice when attacking. Oof!

This dig in card is similar to my favorite part of Combat Commander: Europe. The entire game is more or less ways to manipulate states, though not all are player driven. Players may pop smoke grenades, reveal planted mines, or choose where to use a hero destined to be honored posthumously.

The third and final ingredientat least for this introductory post, are multiple ways to go about this process. Player agency is key for this being a really rich, enjoyable part of your game. Merely having things to affect, and letting players affect them, is not sufficient. It’ll get you far, but it won’t be as sticky as is ideal. Sometimes, sticky is good.

Libertalia is one of my favorite games that demonstrates this point well. At the start of each round, every player is dealt the same 9 cards from a deck of 30. Note: My numbers might be off, but it’s approximately that. However, not every player must play the same cards at the same time. Furthermore, cards carry over into the next round. The patient player might play the Governor’s Daughter in the final round when the other players used her in the first. The Mutineer may reveal himself at the worst possible time for your personal plans.

In Libertalia, every player has the same decision space, but great freedom in how they use it.

Evolution, the recent strategy game from North Star Games, is packed with multiple ways to solve every problem. There are multiple ways to defend yourself, including chucking cards to increase population and size, starving other creatures by sandbagging the food supply, or creating a synergy ecosystem of defensive traits. Every card has value and multiple uses. Due to the state of your opponents’ ecosystem and the needs of your creatures, how you use those cards will change every turn of every game.

CCGs are obvious, so I won’t belabor that point. One of the reasons they are so intoxicating to players is that there is a massive card pool with which to solve problems. I cannot get enough of Netrunner after almost 50 plays. I have so much agency and space as a player to do cool things. Intoxicating is the best word to describe it.

Finally, when discussing multiple use, it would be a shame to not mention Carl Chudyk, designer of the brilliant Innovation, Glory to Rome, and Impulse (which I haven’t played, but have read the rules). Innovation is a masterwork, as far as I’m concerned, and one of the reasons for this post. Every card has multiple uses. Which cards come out, when, how they are scored, when and how they are used, makes every game a new tableau of possibilities. It’s just incredible. There are so many things to manipulate, so many decisions and player can make to affect these states, and multiple ways each can be done.

Let’s end this. Whether you’re making a war game, a bizarre card game, a CCG, or even a euro, design for alchemy. Give your players a rich source of player agency by letting them put their stamp on the game world and change things according to their desires. You don’t need to be a sandbox RPG or trashy dice roller to do this.

  1. Create several semi-permanent states.
  2. Allow these states to be manipulated in a long-term fashion, ideally by the players.
  3. Allow multiple ways to manipulate things to create additional variety.

What are some of your favorite games that do these things? Which examples did I muck up? Which should also be included? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Branching and Experimentation in Design

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m curious how many designers are aware of sunk costs, or are willing to build things, admit failure, and completely try anew? There is an urge to preserve an idea and tinker with it until something emerges, but often times if there’s no spark, there won’t ever be one. Designs, like dating, should be given a few tests and then discarded. It’s not me, it’s you and your fiddly rule set.

I’m not advocating you completely discard an idea, though I’ve done that quite a bit and I think it’s healthy. What I want to discuss is the notion of branching to take a cool idea, revise it, and approach it from a new angle.

Branching is when you put a fork in your design, you zig (instead of zag), and pair a new layer with your original kernel. This kernel can be a thematic one, like “I want to be a pirate on a ship,” or a mechanism, like “I want to assign workers, but each can be promoted to have a higher output,” or a combination of that, or you might be trying to improve upon a previous design you’ve played. There are countless origins and far worse sentences I can offer. Don’t tempt me.

The choice to branch or toss really comes down to the quality of work you have at this moment. Ask yourself, and do so sincerely, “Is this game worth saving? Is there something here?”

I would say yes if you can match a few of the following:

  • The idea is unique. There is nothing like it.
  • There is an obvious, great moment. Not the game necessarily, but there is something very cool you’ve witnessed.
  • People get it. They aren’t fighting the game’s mechanisms, but they get the conceit.
  • You’ve thought of 1 or 2 brilliant thematic abstractions.
  • It matches a market/business opportunity beautifully. This one is tough to know as a new designer without great reach. It’d would have been tough for Love Letter to catch on without AEG’s muscle.

If you don’t match any of those, you probably want to toss the game. Just move on. Return to it in the future, or just do something else. But, if your game has a spark, but isn’t quite worth developing, consider branching it.

When branching a good idea marred by bad friends, your game is like a snail seeking a new home: highly averse to salt and in need of better surroundings. A recent design of mine needed a branch. I’d tested it 3 times. Each test I’d changed a few things, but the core remained quite steady for 3 plays. I liked the game. People were getting it. It had a neat hook. But, the parts weren’t coming together, there wasn’t enough tension, and the decisions weren’t as meaningful as they needed to be. I also didn’t feel the level of interaction was up to snuff.

I re-examined my core hook, which is letting players dynamically create their action menu. After that? I’m throwing everything out. I’m distilling it to its essence and trying new layers. As it turns out, there are 2-3 ways for me to express my core desire, which is to give players a dynamic set of decisions. The one I had? Totally works. Is FINE. Not great, but I have the rules set aside to return to.

How do you know how to branch? If something wasn’t working with the first pass, how can you make productive steps forward to improve it on the new version? Firstly, you need to know your goals for the game. What is most important to you? If you know your goals, you can identify what serves that goal and what doesn’t from the current game.

Next, seek to identify not what worked, but what didn’t. If you cling too much to what worked (or what you think worked), you may have a difficult time making a new branch. For example, technically, my core mechanism in the first iteration of my game works. But, it might also be the root of the problem!

Therefore, examine what doesn’t work. For me, this included:

  • Low interaction.
  • A lack of arc. The game felt highly repetitive.
  • Low tension from decisions. Nothing was nail biting.

Begin examining how to address each of those problems in any way, ideally through the lens of what you already have, but being willing to set those things aside. This will help you identify the root causes of the issue and allow you to re-examine things through a new light. This is how you figure out the new direction to take.

This is a difficult topic about which to blog, because every game is unique and the circumstances in which you might use this process vary so wildly. I don’t want to beat this point into the ground. Therefore, let’s quickly review.

  1. Give your game 2-3 tries. Does it have a spark? Is it singing? Keep going. If not, it might be time to branch.
  2. How do you know whether to branch or discard? Well, ask yourself whether the game is worth fighting for.
  3. If you think it’s worth branching, re-evaluate your goals. What is sacred in this design?
  4. Once you know what’s sacred, take a magnifying glass to what’s currently broken. How are you currently not hitting your goals? What’s falling short?
  5. Reconsider your mechanisms and choices through the lenses of the shortcomings. Fix your shortcomings however possible, while being flexible to revise and toss things away.
  6. Test again.

I hope this was useful. Really, just leave knowing that it’s not a mistake to throw things away, try again, and branch. You should be experimenting as much as possible in your design until you find something that really, honestly, sincerely, awesomely works.

Basic PNP Advice

Post by: Grant Rodiek

There are things that you take for granted in your processes and don’t think to improve upon. But, when a solution emerges that makes your life better, one that’s so simple and so obvious, you can’t help but ask “why didn’t we do that a year ago?”

I have an obvious solution to share, one that is Josh’s idea for Hocus Poker.

Hocus Poker is and has always been a large Print and Play file. We have been pushing it aggressively because it’s honestly the best way to get new testers. Even if we get only one new tester every week, it’s huge. The print and play for Hocus involves 60 cards, which are the play deck, 18 cards for spells that players just read like references, 5 reference cards, and 10 cards to track the score.

Here is Josh’s insight: our print and play does not need to mimic the final version in components. We, locally, have already verified and tested the components as for how they will work in the end. Others don’t need to do that, especially if there’s no feedback to be gained. Where possible, we can, and should, make the PNP best as a PNP.

The 60 cards you use in the play deck? You’ll always need to cut these out as cards. There’s nothing we can do there. However, we can make everything else simpler.

Players don’t need to print and cut our 10 scoring cards. Instead, they can gather pennies, cubes, Netrunner tokens, anything from their home to keep score. You don’t need many of them, just a pile of things.

Our spells and reference cards are just references. You don’t play, shuffle, or deal them. They can just be on a single sheet, like this:

Chaos

What you see above is normally 4 cards. Now it’s half a piece of paper. In a future version of Hocus, assuming this original one is successful and there is demand for such a product, it’d be cool to have a larger version in a box with big spell cards for every player and tokens to keep score. But, that isn’t the pocket change version we think is best for our current audience.

In summary, when making a PNP, your goal is to get people to download, cut, and assemble that PNP. Make it as easy as possible. Find places where you can merge, eliminate, or modify components to ease this task. The end result? More testers.

Hope this helps! Here’s the new PNP for Hocus Poker!

Great Tension

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Tension is one of, if not the, most important ingredients in a great design.

Recently I played a new game for the first time. I was very excited to play this game based on the initial read of the rules. I actually enjoy reading and writing rules and I find them the first point of excitement for me. This game had 2 really neat mechanics, one of which is called Tension.

As we played the game, it became clear that the Tension mechanic was a lie and that tension had been removed almost entirely from the game. It completely removed the fun, the excitement, and the thrill of the game.

Josh and I can relate to this from earlier versions of Hocus Poker. As we wandered through the iterative wilderness trying to find our game’s soul, our game lacked tension. We realized this about the same time we hit our eureka moment, but now it’s a notion that’s so stuck in my craw I daresay I shant forget it soon. In these versions of Hocus, players had no pressures on their decisions. They had few risks to take. The game rewarded conservative play and waiting until you could win it all.

There was no tension and as a result, our game suffered. When we added limited turns before the end of the round, which can be determined by your opponents’ play and schemes, and limited the amount of things you could accomplish? Hocus became a game.

Let’s talk about tension and why your game desperately needs it.

Tension has a few definitions. I know this is a cliche way to begin a discussion, but it’s relevant here.

As a noun:

  1. the state of being stretched tight
  2. mental or emotional strain

As a verb:

  1. apply a force to (something) that tends to stretch it

Let’s keep these in mind as we identify the key elements of tension.

Constrain

The definitions sound negative, and there are times when we fear we’re pushing players too hard, but that’s not the case here. You can’t always get what you want, in life or good games, and you’ll find that if you force a difficult choice upon your players, there will be great satisfaction when they discover what it is they really need

The state of being stretched tight is beautifully demonstrated in games like Ra, 7 Wonders, or Race for the Galaxy. Yes, you can try to dominate every category, but really, working on 2-3 is sufficient. Monuments and pharaohs? Perhaps! Science and military? Also valid.

Worker placement is also excellent in this regard. You have 3 workers. What resources do you most wish to collect? What is the chain of events you most need to see occur?

Eclipse does this simply with an economic limitation. Sure, you may wish to research a new laser, and conquer a new system, and assault your opponent, but all of those tax your limited and fragile economy.

Netrunner deckbuilding does this with a limit on non-faction influence. With a Chaos Identity, you can use all the Chaos cards you want. But you’re strictly limited on Shaper and Criminal cards. I think one of the most important deckbuilding decisions is not what cards you take from the limitless pool, but which you take from the finite one. These cards show your wit and innovation in play.

Constrain your players. Put a box around them! Do not force them through a narrow shoot, which is limiting and boring. But, fence them in and let them decorate their personal diorama as they choose with their actions.

Obfuscate

Obvious choices are poor ones and grow old after some time. Or, rather quickly. If everyone can easily ascertain the value of something in an auction game, it deflates the balloon of joy with all the pomp of a slobbery fart sound. If you are locked into a strategy, either due to the shallowness of the design or your choices, you may check out as the game meanders to a close.

Obfuscation leads to mental and emotional strain. The good kind! You want the situation where player A takes their turn, player B says “Damn you!” and player C groans and puts their head in their hands. Uncertainty and a lack of clear direction is so delightful.

Modern Art does a great job of obfuscation as you don’t know how much money (i.e. points) your opponents have and some of the auctions are blind. But, it’s not too opaque as you know the approximate value of what things are worth.

X-Wing has great obfuscation as you don’t know precisely where an opponent’s ship will maneuver. You know where they could go. You know where they should go. You know where you’d like them to go. But you don’t know where they will go.

Netrunner does a great job giving the Corporate player a wall of fog to put up before the Runner. Is that an Agenda that they can score? If so, how soon can they score it? Is it a trap that can kill me? Is that an Upgrade that’ll make my life more difficult? Is that an Asset that’ll give them a fat payout?

City Hall, if you pay attention, seems clear. You can see that Bob is trying to build more housing. You know he needs two actions. You also see he has quite a few cards in his hand, but you’re not sure how many are Influence, how badly the others want the action, and how much they’ll drive the cost.

Obfuscation is about eliminating perfect information, but also about curtailing the number of possibilities such that the strain is fun, not overwhelming. People are bored by indecision, both their own and that of other players. Games with too many possibilities feel directionless.

Tax

These elements are ingredients and optional ones. To have great tension you probably need a few of them, but not all of them. I say that as this one will be highly contentious. You need to tax your players. Things should come with a cost.

There are many ways to do this, ranging from simple to cruel.

  • Hand limits — you can only keep so many!
  • Discard to play (ex: discard 1 card to play this other card)
  • End of round upkeep (ex: feed your family)
  • Spend finite or recurring currency to pay for actions (ex: Netrunner credits or Magic Mana)

Taxation is similar to constraint, but in addition to having limited actions and choices, you also need to pay for it. You need to lose something to gain something. This additional trade off beautifully complements constraint.

You only have so many silver bullets. When, and at whom, do you fire them?

End It

I couldn’t think of a clever verb heading for this one, but the idea is that you must always be advancing the game’s end state. Like death and taxes in our real lives, players need to know that the game will end, whether they want it to or not, and they need to make the most of their finite time on this Earth. I mean game.

In Farmageddon, players draw from the deck every turn and when that deck is empty, the game ends.

Many games simply have a limited number of rounds.

Many games lately literally have a time limit. We call this “real time” (as opposed to false time?).

Constantly advance the game state and force it to conclude. This creates wonderful tension and makes the final decisions all the more agonizing. Force your players to create a strategic bucket list.

This is getting a bit long for a Friday blog. Your game must have tension to succeed. You must challenge your players to work within constraints, and force them to accomplish twice as many things as it seems they are able to do.

What are your favorite ingredients for crafting tension? What are some great examples of tension in games?