Simple, Clean, and Fast

graphic-designPost by: Grant Rodiek

A common sentiment I read over and over is for designers to “make ugly prototypes!” This seems to be a rallying cry and I’d like to quietly (mostly due to my low readership) stand up and offer a counterpoint. I realize I’m splitting hairs, which is petty, but it’s an important distinction. I don’t think you should make ugly prototypes for a second longer than necessary. Instead, I think this should be our rallying cry as designers:

Make your prototypes aesthetically functional, simple, and easy to iterate upon. Do not make ugly prototypes.

There’s a flow to this, though, and ugly does have its place; the starting point. Here are the general steps in your prototype’s visual life.

  1. Create a quick and dirty prototype. Suggested format: blank index cards and pencil writing. You need these when you’re sure of nothing, when the game is so bad you’ll be erasing stuff mid-test to fix it.
  2. Quick and less-dirty prototype. Throw away the smudged marked cards from your last few tests. Use nicer hand writing and give it a little more love.
  3. Functional and Simple prototype. It’s time to give your testers something a little bit better. Printed, plain white cards with easy to read numbers and simple iconography. I think this is where you should spend the majority of your development.
  4. High-End Prototype. I let myself do these if I really love the game or I have a moment of weakness, or I’m going to GenCon to pitch. I’ve done this for YorkFarmageddon, and a couple of prototypes I shouldn’t have. Many people go to TheGameCrafter.com far too quickly to print out your prototype. DON’T. You’ll be rendering them useless far too quickly if you leave step 3 too soon.

Perhaps the distinction between number 3 and number 4 is why people stress the “keep it ugly!” so much. But, for the sake of this post, I think you should spend most of your time in step 3 and I don’t think it should be ugly.

I can only speak from my own experience, and what I say is merely my opinion. Remember, everyone’s got one. But, the moment in development to begin taking your presentation more seriously comes more quickly than people think. It’s very easy to say the publisher will handle the art, the publisher will handle the graphic design, the publisher will handle the rules. But, I’d argue thinking about the full experience of your design will not only enrich your prototype, but better your chances of finding that publisher.

Constantly seek to broaden your designer skill set! You’ll be amazed at how it improves the rest of your abilities. It may seem unrelated, but all of this helps you craft better experiences and games. Stop saying “make it ugly!” and think about how you can make sharper games from head to toe.

Rough

I’m only able to test with chicken scratch on index cards for so long before I exhaust my testers’ patience and hit my own quality bar. For one, a lot of time is wasted reading my handwriting and I’ve found people tend to give a game with handwriting a less-than-fair shake when evaluating it. People tend to treat the game like a joke, and to a degree, it is.

Playtesting is a gift and a favor. Every time. Remember that! Do your best to remove all notions that what your testers are doing is not worth their time.

Flip

You don’t need to spend weeks perfecting your layout. You don’t need to be an artist. You can use the Drawing program on Google Drive, free, to quickly create something. This lets you experiment with space and card usability. Use simple, clear typefaces, and get a feel for how much room you have. You can also use Inkscape. Or GIMP. Both are free! I just found another called Pixlr using a Google search.

Sample

If you’re worried about your tuning values, and you should be, leave those spaces blank and write them in with a pencil. This saves paper, time cutting, and allows you to quickly try new things while still presenting something that isn’t distracting.

Bomber_Hogs_Front

You can use Game-Icons.net and The Noun Project to quickly obtain clean iconography to test your system. I’ve tried hand-drawn icons and it’s a waste of everyone’s time.

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When you’re testing your prototype, the most important thing is to get feedback on the game and the actual experience. The closest you can reasonably get to a quality prototype, the better the feedback. Not everyone has vision or the ability to imagine something better. Sometimes they need a leg up. This isn’t their fault, but it’s an opportunity for us as designers to create something simple, functional, and easy to use.

Some good steady rules for building quick prototypes:

  • Add a stroke/border to your cards to make them easy to cut.
  • Get a paper cutter and some sleeves. You can buy a bunch cheaply on Amazon.
  • Use a simple typeface that’s easy to read.
  • Use 12 or 14 point font size. Challenge yourself to create text as large as possible. Like having a 140 limit restriction in Twitter, you’ll find it forces you to get creative and razor sharp with your text.
  • Remember to leave space for illustrations. In most cases, people will want art there.
  • If you think colors and icons will be a part of the game, begin testing with them as soon as possible. Get some colored pencils for the dirty phase, but upgrade to some free, open-sourced icons quickly.
  • Remember how people hold and fan a hand of cards. Put important info in the top left corner, not the top right corner.
  • Use white backgrounds to save on ink.
  • Leave room to write in number variables by hand. Use an eraser to update on the fly.
  • Take advantage of blank labels. You can type on them, print them, then label them on an existing card when you need to make more significant text changes. You should see the scrapbook that were my Farmageddon cards.
  • A good rule, for me, is to try to mimic the Google home page. It’s not flashy, fun, or sexy. But, I can easily identify things and go about my day.

Google

Go forth, broaden your skillset, and make your prototypes aesthetically functional, simple, and easy to iterate upon. Happy designing.

Windmills

don-quixote-windmill

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I don’t sit idly well. It drives my girlfriend positively batty and I’m sure my boss will soon fill my yearly review with comments to this regard. I stay busy, often for good, sometimes for ill.

I’m not letting myself touch Wozzle, at least not the version people are testing for us. It’s a good build, it’s testing very well, and it’s important to us that people download it with confidence knowing we won’t just yank it out from under them every 30 seconds with an update. That’s fine with a digital game, but when people take the time to print, cut, and sleeve, we owe them a steady build.

But. The mind wanders. We really want Wozzle to be just awesome. We’ve chased after a few rabbits already. Some entirely fruitless, or mostly fruitless with one tiny benefit. This weekend has revealed yet another rabbit hole.

Naturally, we dove in head first.

Let’s talk about why I chase them.

Note: Forgive the mix of singular (I, me) and plural (us, we) in this document. I’m semi-writing from my own perspective and that of me and my design partner, Joshua Buergel.

What would your favorite publisher do? Or, what would a great publisher do? I had a mental revelation yesterday. When it hit me, it made so much sense that it astounded me it hadn’t guided my thinking prior to this. As I thought on it further, I realized it had influenced me in the past, but not to the same degree. The thought was simply, in regards to Wozzle, “How would Gamewright handle this?”

I think Gamewright is a pretty incredible publisher of games and I own a few of their products. My most recent addition from them, Cube Quest, has already been enjoyed 16 times in the 2 weeks that I’ve owned it. Their games are simple, playful, beautiful, and just fun to own.

I’ve done this with other games in the past. I designed Sol Rising to be something Colby Dauch and Jerry Hawthorne of Plaid Hat Games would enjoy. I have another in-progress prototype that is meant squarely for Portal Games. But, in those cases it was more a high level “who could I pitch this to?” type question.

With Wozzle, it led us to nitpick our rules. Gamewright only publishes a few games a year. They are aimed at a very wide market of parents, families, and children, which means they need to be colorful, clean, easy to learn, and well-refined.

When viewing Wozzle through the same lens, we started asking quite a few questions. Which of these rules add more complexity than they add fun? Which of these rules don’t suit our target audience? Where can we condense and focus the fun?

An example of something we skimped out is the kicker. This is the concept in poker where you have two people tied with, say, a two pair. Neither of them has a higher pair, so you need a kicker. This could be the card in the Community, which means they split the pot, OR a card from somebody’s hand. The problem is, this is a fairly unlikely occurrence. Furthermore, it’s a really complicated thing to explain. Is it so bad in this rare occasion people just split the pot?

No, we determined. The ratio of fun to complexity wasn’t where it needed to be.

In some cases, this process involves us doing a lot of extra work to go from an 85 to an 87 on a quiz, to use an American school system metaphor, but it is what a big, real publisher would do. Therefore, shouldn’t we hold ourselves to that same standard? Another change is that I re-made all 30 cards to not change the mechanic, but the presentation. Why? We think it’ll be more accessible. It was a pain, but it’s what a AAA publisher would do.

In the software world, we often branch our builds. This is often for the purpose of a demo at a convention like E3 or Gamescom. We branch, isolate, and polish a build for the show. Meanwhile, the majority of the team continues to work on the actual, shipping software.

Another, more recent phenomenon is the notion of A/B testing. Pioneered (I think) by free to play game developers, different tuning variables, art, UI layout, or even mechanics will be shown between different sample groups, called cohorts. The purpose is to find out which solution works the best and propagate it to every build.

We’ve branched Wozzle before with minor changes and now we have not one, not two, but three rules documents that we’re testing and pondering. Why? For the same reason our nefarious government overlords have R&D. We want to see if we can learn anything from our branched skunk works projects that can make the main line better. There’s a pretty high chance that these branches will result in fruitless dead ends. But, by chasing these windmills we’re able to determine that the mainline is in fact the superior solution OR, just maybe, find something even better.

I realize all of this sounds like the indecisive spinning of a mad man. But, we’re not! If anything, I think this is some of the most sophisticated, mature development I’ve ever put into a personal project. I’ve personally taken inspiration from other sources around me lately.

At work, we had a few key features “locked down.” We thought they were done. Then, someone asked if they should really be locked down. We all grumbled, sighed, and then thought about it. Like the multiple stages of grief, we soon found ourselves at acceptance. No, it wasn’t as good as it could be. Yes, it can be better. The result? We made it better.

In another case, I have a beloved elder project that I thought was pretty good. As it turns out, the foundation was pretty good. The core was good. But the details? Not incredible and not as good as they could be. I’ve had all of my beliefs and assertions challenged and it has led to a great leap forward.

There’s acceptance of the known and the embrace of potential. Potential, though, like ideas, is everywhere and sometimes just hot air.

Calculated, thoughtful questioning may be the best thing for your design. If you make an B game, is that good enough? Can you make it a B+? Then an A-? The line for when to stop and when enough is enough is really fuzzy. I clearly haven’t found it, or I simply haven’t been able to identify it.

Who then, can show us the line?

Our players and loyal testers are potentially the greatest line identifiers. With each rabbit hole we’ve engaged a mixture of our most dedicated testers, team members, and peers. The response hasn’t been universal yet and I never expect it will be.

Twice, today, we had our survey return with an answer of “No! Don’t do that!” In a sense, it’s an incredible compliment. What the hell are you doing? Don’t touch it. I like what you’ve done. It’s comforting to know both that people like what we already have enough to yell at us AND that we’re humble enough to return from the depths of our rabbit hole, hats in hands, with nothing but shrugs and mud speckled grins.

The lesson I aim to share is this: when you think your rules are done, take another pass. When you think you have the best set of cards, identify your 3 weakest ones and try to replace them. If your mind conjures an alternate mechanic, branch and test. At least discuss it.

When you walk past the cute girl at the park, turn around. Introduce yourself. She may be involved with someone, or she may become the love of your life. That’s a bit hyperbolic, I agree. But, look around. Yeah, that’s right. I chose that name for a reason.

Encounters with Genius

davinci-sketch

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Lately I have been truly blessed to encounter a few new games that have just blown my mind. Each of them has contributed something to my enjoyment of games, but also, my thoughts as a designer.

It’s not uncommon if you play games frequently to come across great ideas. But, to just be assaulted with an avalanche of brilliance? Truly special. I wanted to quickly highlight some of these brilliant games. Perhaps you can share yours?

Twilight Struggle

TS

This is the number one game on Board Game Geek. I bought this years ago based on a review on Dice Hate Me. I’ve longed to play it and have read the rules probably 6 times. Well, last week I finally had the chance to play it not once, but twice.

My word.

After the first game my friend and I both looked at each other and said “Yep, number 1.” Then we immediately played again. After that, and for the following week, we constantly discussed ideas on how to play differently and just, wow.

Order of cards in decks both abstracts the historical periods but allows the game to go from focused to broad as it plays out. First you focus on Europe, then Asia, then the Middle East and Latin America. Africa is always a good place to distract your opponent. If follows the timeline in a way that respects history and narrows the game at the outset to prevent you from being overwhelmed.

Scoring drives play dynamically. Players are dealt Scoring cards, which MUST be played the Turn they are dealt (a Turn in Twilight Struggle is more like a Round in other games). If you are dealt the scoring card for Europe, you’re going to spend your turn trying to maximize your points there. However, as scoring affects both players, you also need to hinder your opponent. But, how do you improve your standing in the region without completely alerting your intentions?

You must play cards that help your opponent. This is another way the game takes advantage of history without forcing you down a narrow chute. Every card has two basic elements: a number in the top left (typically 1-4) and an Event, with text. The event belongs to either the Soviets, the Americans, or both. You can play cards in one of two ways:

  1. Play it for its Number, the Operational Value. This lets you do things like add influence to the board or conduct Coups.
  2. Play it for its Event. If the Event is yours, you can instead do what the text says. These are often very powerful, or they will unlock additional options.

Here’s the rub. You never want to play a card for its Event if its your opponent’s Event. It’s just bad. But, if you play a card for its Operation Value and its Event belongs to your opponent? Guess what? It happens. This means you play the card for its Operation Value of 4 — great card! But, revolutions will take place in the Middle East that in no way help you. You’re only able to hold onto one card every Turn (again, Turns are Rounds), and typically you can only chuck one card to the Space Race. This means you must play cards that will help your opponent. Which is also true for your opponent. The key is managing it on your terms. Brilliant.

Both players draw from a single deck. However, as I mentioned above, cards “belong” to one player typically. In a sense, this gives you an asymmetric game, but unlike other asymmetric games, you don’t need to learn new rules, or work with a narrow set of abilities. In fact, because both of you will always have a large hand of cards that pertain to both factions, it’s very easy for both players to learn all the cards in just a few games (though learning them to be GOOD is an entirely different matter).

To put this in perspective, in a single game of Summoner Wars, there are about 60 cards, split in 2, that pertain to only a single faction. That’s way more difficult to learn how it all plays. Not only do you need to learn yours in isolation, but you need to learn your opponent’s.

Overall, Twilight Struggle feels like a sandbox with the right boundaries that let you play a massive “what-if” in the Cold War time and time again. My highest recommendation.

Cockroach Poker

Cockroach

A friend recently bought Cockroach Poker and it has become our lunch game du jour. With no hyperbole, I will look you in the eye and say that this is the best bluffing game I’ve played. The game is elegant, quick, plays with a large number of players, but most importantly? People never stop laughing. It’s just a hoot to play.

 

The game features 8 each of 8 types of cards. The cards have a creature on it (spider, rat, cockroach, fly). That’s it. You lose if you have 4 of a single creature in front of you, or you don’t have cards to play. It’s that simple.

The game has no turn structure, which was wildly eye opening for me. At the start of the game, one player passes a card to an opponent. The card is face down from the initiating player’s hand. “This is a roach,” the passing player says. The receiving player can say “I believe you,” or “I don’t believe you.” If the receiving player is correct, the giving player takes the card face up. If the receiving player is incorrect, they take the card face up.

Or, the receiving player can simply look at the card and pass it to someone else. The process then repeats until it ends with someone. No single player can be involved with a card more than once, so at some point it’ll end somewhere. There is this glorious, semi-cooperative habit of “alley ooping” the card from one player until you finally get it to the player you want to lose. The trick is, one player loses the game. Everyone else wins.

This means it’s quick to gang up on a player. However, that player has a lot of power to open up a second front, as they say, and stack the odds against someone else. Fortune’s can turn quickly in the game and a really good, and lucky player and outlast even the most overwhelming of onslaughts.

It’s so good.

Ultimately, the game has a million strategies, all revolving around its bluff mechanic and group dynamics. A game like Coup has quite a few little mechanics, which in a way narrows how you play. But Cockroach Poker is wide open and as a result players are constantly trying new ways to fool and outwit their friends. It’s just magnificent.

One Night Werewolf

one

Before I encountered One Night Werewolf, I must admit I’d grown wary of deduction games. The Resistance is fun, but it felt very formulaic, at least for me, after a while.

  1. Players go through the first two missions with almost zero information.
  2. Players shout at each other for 15 minutes with zero basis for doing so. “You’re the spy!” “No you’re the spy!”
  3. Sometimes people figure some things out. Often, people just shout and one side gets lucky.

This isn’t the case with One Night WerewolfThere are several characters with very simple abilities, like looking at other players’ roles, swapping roles, or having the ability to kill someone regardless of the vote. This is really important, because it means there is enough info to deduce and solve the puzzle. But! Don’t forget that people can and will still lie and bluff. And they are working against you. So many games like this are purely social. One Night Werewolf is half social, have logic puzzle, which means you might win the puzzle, but lose the vote.

That game is also absurdly quick, but no less epic. We played 6 games in a row over a one hour lunch the other day. After we learned the ropes in the first few games, the last few? Just incredible.

Combat Commander: Europe

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Combat Commander blew my mind. This game is a wild-west sandbox of chaos, war, artillery landing all around you, and heroes emerging to save their beleaguered comrades.

The game is entirely card driven. If you don’t have the action on a card in your hand, you can’t take it. Some people prefer the ability to always move, or shoot, and that’s fine. In Combat Commander you need to make the best of what you have. This makes it mechanically simple (play the card for the thing), but HIGHLY varied.

But wait, there’s more!

Every card has two ways to play it: Order, or Action. Orders are things like Move, Fire, Rout, or Command Confusion, which is a hard that gums your hand. Or, they can be played for Actions at any time, even on your opponent’s turn. Actions often modify Orders, like throwing down suppressing fire with that Fire Order, or throwing out a Smoke Grenade to hide your sprint across the open.

When you attack, both players flip their top card and use the dice in the bottom left corner as their roll. This is important because it means instead of purely random dice, you can have a dice-like effect where the designer can set the overall average. For example, the German Army will probably be better than the Italian Army. Some of these dice rolls trigger events. Flip another card, because every card has an event on it.

Events might be sniper attacks, unexpected reinforcements, a fire in the forest (that WILL grow), artillery shell holes to use as cover, and more.

Over the course of a 1-3 hour game, the map evolves and your choices constantly change. It’s just incredible. The rule book includes this quote, which I think is perfect:

“The reason the American Army does so well in wartime, is that war is chaos, and the American Army practices it on a daily basis.” – from a post-war debriefing of a German General.

Have you played anything lately that was just incredible? What did it teach you? Why was it incredible? Share in the comments below!

Wozzle Patch Notes

Wozzle3

Post by: Grant Rodiek

We’ve been testing Wozzle furiously with anyone who will give us a half hour of their time. The game continues to test well, locally and with blind testers all over. In an effort to give people time to test and not feel assaulted with updates, we’ve tried to let the PNP sit and soak for a few weeks.

We’ve gathered some notes and have made a few changes. We’ve updated the PNP and I’ll go through the notes here.

  • You can get the PNP here. This includes cards and instructions.
  • You can read the rules here.

Overall, if you already have a printed set of the game, you can probably keep playing it. At some point you’ll need to update your cards, but I don’t think you need to do that right now. The biggest change, which is cutting Antes and replacing it with Base Cost, is mostly a presentation change for accessibility. The overall game feels very similar. But, it does change every card.

Patch Notes

  • Added a frame to cards. It looks nicer and it makes it easier to cut them.
  • Removed Antes and Mana inflation to the economy. Now, a 4 player game has 40 Mana in it the entire game. No influx of Mana.
  • The removal of Mana inflation has naturally reduced the number of Mana tokens needed.
  • Cut Glutanas and replaced with Donation.
  • We’re experimenting with tightening the starting Mana for all players to 7 for two players, 9 for 3 players, and 10 for 4 players.
  • I can’t remember what we cut, but we replaced it with Purge. Some notes, I know.
  • Removed the 2 player limitation on Raise.
  • Made Raise cost 2 Mana onto Spells, not 3 Mana.
  • Added Base Cost to every card. More on this and the removal of Antes below.
  • General clarity and example improvements to rules. This is really key and we’ll never stop pushing to make these better.
  • Added Pauper’s Whim, a third Starter Spell
  • Players now start with 7 Mana instead of 6 in a 2 player game.

Antes and Base Cost

When you design a game, there’s typically a thing or two that work really well, mostly, but there’s one tiny lingering thing about them that you just don’t quite like. We really like how our spell activation mechanic works. Previously, this was pay 1 Mana to the Pot for every Mana on the Spell, then add 1 Mana to the Spell itself. This slowly ratcheted up the cost of the Spell by 1 every use.

The problem, primarily for first time players, is that although the mechanic is simple, it had this light layer of math and would confuse some people. They’d ask: “how many do I pay?” And someone would always put all their Mana on the spell instead of the Pot. But, people always got it after a round or two. Generally, people paying attention picked it up and didn’t have an issue.

We thought about solutions on how to represent it different. So many solutions. We received blind feedback on this from somebody we greatly respect, so we really pushed ourselves to fix it over the weekend. We left no stone un-turned. We experimented with an entirely new mechanic and 3 different ways to change how the info was presented.

We just didn’t like any of these new solutions. In many ways they just shifted the issue. In other ways, they worsened the issue. Still, we kept pushing. What we’ve rested on finally is a nice compromise that is just a tiny difference.

Previously, there were Antes on some spells.This had two purposes:

  1. Make some Spells cost a little bit more initially to make them a less obvious choice. It didn’t prevent people from using them, which is good because overall we want people to use lots of spells. But it made them think.
  2. Slightly grow the economy by introducing coins from the bank.

Now, all spells have a base cost of 1-3. The rule, is that the cost to activate the spell is its base cost (top right corner) plus any Mana on it. You put all Mana, except 1, into the Pot. The last one goes on the Spell to increase its cost for the next activation.

Example: Fissure has a base cost of 1. The first person to use it puts 1 Mana onto Fissure. The next person to use it must pay 2 (Base Cost + Mana). He puts 1 Mana on The Pot, one on Fissure. The third person must pay 3 (Base Cost + 2 Mana). He puts 2 on The Pot and 1 on the Spell.

This also keeps the economy stable, which we think helps with math and overall balance as you play. As a side effect, it removes about 40 tokens from the game, which will be great for game cost.

Overall, Josh and I continue to be very happy with the progress the game is making. The spells are not changing much at all anymore. We’d love to know which ones don’t work, but we haven’t heard mass confusion on text, problems with use of Spells. We feel like we’re working diligently on tiny issues now, not big issues. That’s a good place to be.

Thanks for testing and don’t hesitate to ask any questions.

Analysis Paralysis

Just before deadline

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A few pals were fretting over game group peers with analysis paralysis this morning. I wanted to write about the behavior as well as how you as a designer can work to limit it in your designs.

I don’t tolerate much analysis paralysis in my game groups. Honestly, it just doesn’t match my personality at all. I’m not impatient, but I do consider myself very decisive in my play and life. I pick a direction and I go. As soon as I find out I’m wrong, I redirect. Furthermore, I want to win when I play games, but not so much that I’m going to send my friends racing for their phones. I also like to see what happens, because sometimes that’s more fun than winning.

What is analysis paralysis? I define analysis paralysis, or AP, as when a player spends an unnecessary amount of time to make a decision in a game to the hindrance of the enjoyment of others playing the game.

I once took Blockade (which is now Sol Rising) to a prototype event. At this point the game was painfully simple and a player’s turn mostly entailed:

  • Choose which squadron to move (which was limited, so it was only 1-3 choices)
  • Choose where to move them (also limited by engines)
  • Choose a target to fire at (usually quite obvious or simple)
  • Roll dice

Essentially, reasonable players often took their turn in a minute or less. One gentlemen at this prototype event spent 45 minutes taking his turn. 45 minutes was typically the length of the entire game. The result of him doing this was that the other 3 players were entirely disengaged, bored, on their phones. I finally just thanked everyone for their help, told them I had the data I needed, and swept the game into a box.

A second example may be useful. Once, in a casual work league of Magic: The Gathering, a co-worker spent 15 minutes deciding which land to play on his first turn. I don’t know if you’ve ever played Magic, but a first turn is often a matter of seconds. It is often:

  • Play Mountain
  • Maybe tap Mountain to play first creature
  • “Your turn.”

In this case, my opponent spent 15 minutes, played his mountain, though a moment longer, DIDN’T PLAY anything, then said “your turn.” I never played him again.

Why is analysis paralysis bad? Games are meant to be a fun, multi-person shared experience. Games should be social and full of moments of interesting decisions, surprise, and tension.

One of the biggest threats to a board game and the experience are disengaged players. Smart phones, side conversations that don’t involve others, or distracted, disinterested play. If someone is spending an inordinate amount of time making a decision that doesn’t involve anyone else, this leads to distracted play. This will kill the experience. It can be perceived as a pretty selfish and rude way to interact. In a way, it’s like dominating a social conversation and not letting anyone else talk.

The only time I think AP is acceptable is in the context of a tournament. If there are stakes on the line, it’s totally fine to take a moment to make your decision. However, I think the best players are able to play decisively and without a million cycles of thought. Put in a chess clock to limit permanent spinning. The Plaid Hat guys did this after they had a few tournaments end in draws due to time.

What causes analysis paralysis? I consider myself to be a pretty decent observer of human nature and behavior. I think this is a strength of mine that directly benefits my designs when testing and developing. In my experience, analysis paralysis is often a result of a few key symptoms:

  • A strong desire to win: One could argue this strong desire is also unhealthy. Some people want to win very badly and really only gain fun from the experience if they win. A person who is no longer a part of my game group once admitted he was “desperate to win,” which is why he took so long. This is difficult to fix. If someone is hyper-competitive, regardless of the reason, you need to bring it up and discuss it. A simple, “hey dude, this is a friendly game” might do the trick. It might not.
  • Fear of making a mistake: This is a bit of a symptom of the previous notion, but some people are petrified of playing poorly. They can’t stand the thought of making the sub-optimal choice. Or, simple, they are afraid of being seen as foolish and stupid. The key thing you can do here is gently nudge them to make a decision and don’t criticize or belittle their decisions. It’s key to be welcoming, supporting, and encouraging. Still, people should play!
  • Confusion: If someone is confused, they may not make a decision. This could be another instances of fear of making a mistake. Sometimes this is the fault of the game — it could be very difficult or overly cumbersome. Sometimes the player is at fault. If someone isn’t paying attention, won’t get off their cell phone, sure, they’ll be confused. The key here is that as a host you need to know the game and teach it well. You need to work with various players to teach the game in a way that makes sense for them. I have a friend who cannot learn with a rules explanation. We have to essentially play for him to learn, which means I’m constantly introducing new mechanics as they enter the experience. Sure, it takes time, but it’s worth it to ensure everyone has fun.
  • Indecisiveness: Some people just cannot decide. They have too many options, or are afraid, or are a little confused, and they just can’t pull the trigger. There are studies that show people spending hours in the cereal aisle. Indecision can also be a sign of a lack of engagement. If someone doesn’t really care, and the “right” choice isn’t immediately apparent, they may just spin. In that case, it may be simply a case of “Bob, hurry and decide!” to make it clear he’s hindering the group. If someone doesn’t care enough to decide? Then it won’t really matter what they choose.

How can you limit analysis paralysis in your designs? There are a few really great ways to limit opportunities for analysis paralysis in your game design.

  • Uncertain Outcomes: If a player knows that playing X card will always render Y result, and they have 7 of these cards, you’re giving them the opportunity to slowly consider every option. However, if the card says play X card and draw 3 Chits, that is no longer a guarantee. If you say play X card and roll this die, you’re reducing the ability to math it out. I think the best uncertain outcomes have math that is easily understood. Generally speaking, your players should know if they are very likely, somewhat likely, or unlikely to accomplish their goal. When you play Rise of Augustus, you know the general chance of drawing the token you need for an “Ave Caesar!” After one or two rolls in King of Tokyo, you have a pretty darn good look at what’s likely to occur.
  • Imperfect Information: If your game has perfect, fully public information, you’re giving players an opportunity to run mental cycles on everything in the game. However, if someone has a hand of cards, or their perfect actions are muddied with uncertain outcomes, you’re reducing the value of pulling out Excel to run formulas.
  • Real Time: This isn’t appropriate for most games, but if everyone has to play the game at the same time with no breaks, you simply can’t be indecisive. This may be why some people hate real time games.
  • Limited Interaction: If a game is full of interaction, which is something I like, you’re making it very difficult for a player to understand what their opponent can do. This gives players the opportunity to consider not only their move, but the moves their opponents might make in response. I think games like Libertalia and 7 Wonders do a very good job of limiting the interaction. In 7 Wonders, you can only trade or go to war with your neighbors. Therefore, you only have two people to watch, and to do so in very simple terms. In Libertalia, you can only use the sword against your neighbors. Furthermore, cards like the mutineer only affect the top card. By limiting interaction, your reducing the number of possibilities in the matrix.
  • Provide Avenues to Catch Up: If you consider my suggested causes for analysis paralysis, you can also identify potential solutions. If someone is terrified of making a mistake, a clear solution is to provide ways for players to recover from poor play. This leads to a greater discussion of Catch Up Mechanics, but ultimately, I believe that in most cases, a single sub-optimal decision shouldn’t pitch someone out of contention for the win. If players know they are reasonably free to experiment and take risks, they’ll do so, and they’ll do so more quickly.
  • Hide Points, or obfuscate the victory: SAT word! If someone knows precisely how close they are to victory, or precisely how close they are in comparison to their opponents, you’re giving them the opportunity to min/max a great deal of things. Games like Small World make victory tokens private information. In Modern Art, my currency sits behind a screen. Or, put a slightly different way, in Twilight Struggle, only one player can have a scoring card at a time. This gives them the advantage the other must ascertain.

This post has gone on a bit longer than I’d like. Much like a player with analysis paralysis taking their turn! Ho ho, the jokes.

What are some other solutions to curbing analysis paralysis in your designs? Do you think I identified the causes well? Share your thoughts below in the comments!

The Greater Niche

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

What a great time to be a game designer! The last few years have been incredible in the digital space with the growth of lower cost platforms that allow for smaller, more nimble independent teams to publish outside the traditional publishing framework. iOS, Android, Steam, more powerful browsers, Facebook (for a while), Xbox Live Arcade, the Playstation — it’s just outstanding.

We’re seeing a similar revolution in the board game space. Kickstarter, obviously, is the biggest one. Or more generally, the internet and things like Amazon fulfillment, which lets relative nobodies fulfill customers around the Earth. And foreign printers being more accessible than ever. Go to the Panda GM site and check out how simple it is to fill out a quote! They have drop downs that tell you what you can choose! But, perhaps more importantly is the growth of Print on Demand (or POD) sites. Not only their growth, but just how robust and high quality they’ve become in such a short period.

Over 2 years ago when I first self-published Farmageddon via The Game Crafter, it came in a dinky, nondescript cardboard box like the one I used to store Magic cards in when I was in junior high. The cards were mis-cut, the colors were off, they printed rules on plain office paper, and it was…humble. Now, games that ship in their fully printed boxes are shrink-wrapped with fantastically cut cards, thick cardboard tiles, tons of minis, and even stickered custom dice. Many people are even using them to fulfill their games!

TGC doesn’t include the also excellent PrintPlayProductions, with their excellent chipboard variety and great interface (as well as many of the things TGC does), Blue Panther with their cool wood stuff, and more. If you’re doing cards only? DriveThruCards prints ‘em at $.08 apiece, no limit (if I recall correctly).

I think many immediately rush to “how can I get in on this?” or they see dollar signs (or your preferred currency), or they think only of wild, off the wall innovation. All of that is fine. But, one thing that’s really comforting to me is that this movement allows us to give niche ideas their proper due. It lets us retread well-worn favorites knowing we don’t need to sell 50,000 copies, but maybe just 500.

Think about the power of that for a moment. That obscure RPG you want to write? You can now find your audience. That non-World War II conflict about which you want to make a war game? You can now find your audience. Want to craft a trick-taking game? Or a game built around poker? Go for it. You can find your audience.

There is power in that. A few years ago I would cut ideas because I didn’t think I’d be able to reach enough of an audience to obtain a publisher’s eye. Now? I don’t have to limit myself to “can this compete with Ticket to Ride?”

The key to keeping this revolution alive is passion, quality, and customer service. That sounds awfully business-y for a design-oriented post, but it’s key. If you’re targeting a niche, you don’t have a lot of customers to churn through and anger. Each one is precious. You can lose a customer with one misstep. However, if you please that niche customer? Someone who knows there are only so many creators making their preferred experience? They’re all ears. They want you to succeed. They’ll help you succeed, not just with dollars, but with their passion. If you give them outstanding games and experiences that go above and beyond to make them happy, they’ll reward you for it. Plus, their word of mouth will slowly expand that niche outwards.

It’s all too easy to put your game on a POD site and walk away. It’s too easy to say “well this is what I want” and check out. Don’t do that. Don’t forget that our current age is an absolute gift for creative people. Finally, we get to make the games we want on our terms. That doesn’t mean we should cast aside publishers. Absolutely not. I love publishers and plan to keep working with many of them. But, when you find your Wozzle, or your Pull!, or the game that delights you and just a handful of others?

Go for it. It’s 2014 and that’s completely possible.

What’s the niche you want to see more of? What’s the game you plan to make?

Your Variance is Showing

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Quick Note: Last year I observed many of my blog posts were overly specific about my games. Many of my posts were very specific and assumed a great deal of previous knowledge on the reader’s part. As a result, unless you’d read everything on the topic, a blog post would often feel like jumping in the middle of the season of Game of Thrones. Huh? What the heck is happening?

As a result, I’ve tried to broaden my topics and write about my games as examples for a broader subject, not THE subject. This means I need to wait until an idea hits that I can turn into a larger topic, but hopefully it’s working for you readers.

Let’s talk about variants. 

What is a variant? I shall define a variant loosely as a minor rule change that seeks to modify an experience without a significant variance in overall experience or components. That definition is already suspect as a.) I just made it up and b.) I used words like “minor” and “significant.”

Typically, I’m actually against variants. If I’ve ever read one of your rule sets, you can attest to me leaving feedback to ditch the variant and focus. Variants to me often feel like half baked ideas. They feel like concepts that weren’t good enough to officially add to the game, but were a pet of the designer and snuck into the final rules.

My general philosophy is that a game should have everything it needs: no more, no less. I’m hugely in favor of expansions, so I’m a big proponent of designing games with natural paths to expansion. Expansions are a good way to add additional content, new strategic layers, or even additional complexity that experienced players can appreciate. But, I feel like expansions come later in the life cycle once a game has matured and is needed by its loyal players.

Variants typically ship with the game, in the rules, and have a fuzzy vibe of official about them. Why is this here?

Variants feel like uncertain twists. Instead of draft 1 and pass, you draft 1, keep 1, and pass. Instead of winning the game with 15 points, you instead win when all of your cities are level 4. The thing is, when I see little twists like this, the first thing in my mind is “well, which is it?” I don’t really want to feel like I’m beta testing a final game. I don’t want to find the best way to play. My hope is that you, the designer/publisher/developers have already determined that for me. Tell me how to play. Don’t give me a buffet here.

I approach variants much like I approach mods in PC gaming or house ruling — I don’t want to do it. I just want the right game, the perfect edition, and I will love it to death. Therefore, it may just be a matter of preference?

Should you vary? 

Variants are very appealing as a designer. They give you a community approved outlet to toss in a few things that you think may be better or just happen to personally prefer. But, approach them with caution. Game design is ridiculously difficult. The long-term development process of testing out every rule, every card, every variable, and every player number is very thorough and trying. You need to test your final rule set so many times to find every hole, imbalance, king making opportunity, and exploit. You need to test your final rule set to squeeze every ounce of fun into the game. Time you spend testing variants is time that detracts from making that single, perfect experience.

As learning designers, something I consider myself to be, we must challenge ourselves to create beautiful experiences. To do that, we must focus, refine, test, and be incredibly clever and creative. Use variants to test and find the right solution — don’t stick to the first one that seems to work. But, don’t use variants as a crutch to be indecisive. Don’t use variants as a way to pad your game content.

One of the best places to vary is for player numbers. It is often very difficult to make a game work with 2, 3, 4, and 5 players. Don’t be afraid to add rules tweaks, within reason, to make the different numbers work better.

The Wozzle Variety

Now, to go against everything I just wrote, I’m going to talk about how I’m including variants in WozzleWozzle is my 2-5 player card game that takes some of the core elements of Texas Hold ‘Em Poker and twists and refines them to become and entirely new game. I’m pretty proud of it and it has been testing quite well. You can watch my short video walk through of the game here.

The first variant for Wozzle came about when we began testing a card that every player started the game with. It gave them a one-time use power. The card is relatively simple and it was testing well, but it had a few problems that made me question it as a core aspect of the game:

  • By giving players a starting card, it added an additional thing to learn when playing.
  • It’s an advanced card for players who really know the game.
  • It’s a card that doesn’t get played in every game. It can have a narrow use.

I removed it from some of my tests to streamline them and found that it wasn’t hurting the experience with its absence. Then, I tested it with and spoke to my development partner — it still had value. We decided to make it a variant. This then opened the door for additional variants that use this system of everyone begins the game with 1 card of the same type. We added a second one, specifically to make 5 player games more interesting. In a sense, it’s like a minor expansion that adds just a few cards and light gameplay.

The game also needed some light modifications for both 2 player and 5 player. Due to the economy mechanics, the game absolutely needed a way to slightly tweak the 2 player game to work better. It’s a minor twist and easy to learn. The 5 player tweak was trickier. With 5 players, it’s easier for some players to get left behind and feel like they are out of the game. If everyone is winning, the game can also take a little bit longer. The solution was to add a minor way for players to win points, even when they don’t win.

With 2 player, one blind playtester, the excellent Robin Lees, noted he missed a poker mechanic in Wozzle, especially in head to head games. We discussed it and ultimately came up with a solution that we’re now testing. It adds a single card, which contains one minor rule that works within the game’s framework. As of now I’m worried about the complexity it adds, so I’m tentatively treating it as an advanced variant. But who knows? It could make its way into the 2 player core rules.

The Lesson?

Really, there is no right way or wrong way. I think focus is important. I think you need to create the best, single, perfect rule set for your players. But, some games lend themselves better to micro expansions and variants to tweak complexity and provide different experiences. This works really well for Wozzle and in some ways makes it a bit of a sandbox for me in Wozzle. But, the idea of adding variants for YorkSol Rising, or even Farmageddon just doesn’t seem appropriate.

What are some of your favorite variants? Which games do it right? Tell me in the comments below!

Titanfall Got me Thinking

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Update: I was able to play Titanfall at lunch. This game is the real deal. Respawn did it again.

I don’t typically talk much about video games on this blog. My personal design passion is for print games and besides, I spend my entire work week developing PC games. I’ve seen how the sausage is made, as they say, so when it’s my personal time, I prefer board games.

But, Titanfall released this week and I just can’t ignore it. Yes, it has beautiful graphics, MECHS, parkour like movement, and tight, small-scale infantry combat. And mechs. But, the things that have me excited most are its lineage and its scope.

Respawn Entertainment is primarily comprised of former Infinity Ward employees. Before that, they were a part of EA LA, responsible for arguably the best Medal of Honor games. These things mean a lot to me, but they may not, to you. Let me walk you through their titles.

  • Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (2002)
  • Call of Duty (2003)
  • Call of Duty 2 (2005)
  • Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007)
  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009)
  • Titanfall (2014)

Now, you might roll your eyes at that series of sequels and games that share a genre: first person shooter. I get that it’s your first inclination, so go on, be snarky. You done? Cool.

Before Call of Duty, most games made you, the player, a one man army. You’d kill thousands of Nazis, zombies, tanks, fly airplanes, and generally be this god of war. It was fun, mostly, until you found yourself crawling through the same level trying to optimize your next dart for a health pack. It just became redundant and stale. These are the guys that helped fix it (alongside studios like Bungie with Halo).

Call of Duty put you onto the battlefield. You were one member of a larger army fighting an enemy army. Unlike other games with a squad, you didn’t have to control everyone. The game took care of that for you. Your job, private, was to avoid getting shot and join the charge. Suddenly, the Assault on Brecourt Manner, the Battle of Stalingrad, climbing Pont du Hoc? Completely new. Overwhelmingly epic. Just incredible. The smoke, the sounds, y our commander shouting at you…I still vividly remember the P-51s saving my butt right as that German Panzer was about to push us off of our defensive position.

Infinity Ward didn’t stop with cool, massive battles. With Modern Warfare, they reduced some of the battles to elite, 3 or 4 man teams. You weren’t alone and they made every moment cool. It was around Modern Warfare that they really began pushing our expectations of what defines a scripted game experience. They began introducing more interesting story moments, like when I was killed in a nuclear blast as a foot soldier. They killed me! I couldn’t believe that.  They began creating really incredible one-off experiences, like when me and my sniper partner infiltrated this massive army outpost and, after he was injured, I pulled him to safety.

Modern Warfare 2 went batty with one-off moments. Ice climbing. Getting airlifted out of a subterranean prison right as the ground beneath me exploded. Setting up gun turrets to defend an American fast food restaurant from Russian assault. Retaking the white house. Or having a shoot out like the shower scene from The Rock.

Infinity Ward put me into the game better than anyone before. Without them, I’m not sure games like Unchartedwhich took it to the next levelwould exist.

While they were making incredible progress towards the ultimate scripted experience, they also did some really cool things in multiplayer. They weren’t the first to add persistent stats to a multiplayer FPS, but their Perk system was incredibly innovative and let players easily create the character build they wanted. I didn’t always love the community, but there is some great design there.

Now, Titanfall. The game is intimate. Where so many games keep going massive, Titanfall pits a small number of players together in intimate combat. Instead of dozens of vehicles, each with a unique control scheme, the game gives you powerful mech walkers that are intuitive to control and wield. Titanfall also introduces a parkour-style of movement, including wall running and other fluid environmental manipulation. And jetpacks. Yes, we’ve seen this before in games like Tribes and Mirror’s Edge, or even conc-jumping in Team Fortress, but these experiences were often incredibly difficult to pull off and weren’t designed from the ground up to be the game. And Mirror’s Edge was purely single player.

The game also oozes personality. The experience shines through. It’s packed with cool moments, like ripping another Titan pilot directly out of his mech, watching the console light up as you boot in, or the rush of launching from your ship. These guys took the lessons they learned from single player and infused them into multiplayer.

Finally, in a day and age when ever game has to have a huge single player, and co-op, and multiplayer, and free to play, and…Titanfall gives us one killer mode. I cannot tell you how cool that is. As a PC developer, if someone said “do this one thing super well” I would kiss them with joy. Respawn, as a new company, really doubled down on this. Hopefully, Titanfall is a huge success and they expand the universe with new experiences.

But for now, I’m happy to fight against other players. As we know, man is the greatest opponent. FPS muliplayer games like Titanfall may not be your cup of tea, but there are some great people there doing some really cool stuff. It isn’t just another FPS. I can’t wait to strap in.

Disclaimer: I work for EA, but I’ve had nothing to do with Titanfall or any of the games above. I’m not even in the same division — I work for Maxis on The Sims 4. My opinions on this blog are my own. I’ve been a long-time fan of the work of this studio and I wanted to talk about it.

Visual Design 101

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

So, graphic design.

I’ve been very happy with Wozzle. It is consistently testing very well locally and blindly, in numbers ranging from 2-5 players. Whenever a game really starts hitting its stride, I get the urge to really notch up its visuals. I love art in games, and though I’m not an illustrator or graphic designer, I strive to improve and learn at the latter as it has a big impact on my games.

This post is about my efforts to improve the visuals of Wozzle and make it a nicer prototype. I’m going to walk you step by step through what I did in the hopes it helps others in their own games. Basically, this is less about Wozzle and hopefully more about tips that perhaps you fellow amateurs can leverage.

Concept: Like all design, you need a vision at the outset. You need to understand your canvas and the information you’re trying to convey. Make sure you fully understand the use-case for the element and drive all of your efforts towards making it work in its natural environment.

At a high level, my goals for the Spells were:

  • Give the text plenty of room.
  • Make the text easy to read, especially if the cards are in the center of the table.
  • Have playfulness in the visual treatment, but don’t overwhelm the functional text.
  • Keep the cards relatively printer friendly.

In Wozzle, the spell cards have a bit of text on them. They are placed in the middle table, much like a board would be, and are used by all players. This means they need to have a large font so they can be easily read.

Because these cards are never held in any players’ hands, I knew that I could use a landscape format. Landscape (horizontal) works really well when you have lots of text that you want to give a larger font size. When you have a lot of big text in portrait, it can be an unnatural experience. The player must go to the next line every few words.

As for visuals, I wanted to have a little whimsy on the cards. I want them to feel a little like they belong in a world of wizards and magic. For my typeface, I chose Ringbearer. I’m not very good at typefaces. Basically, I’m able to detect whether it’s legible or not and if it seems somewhat thematic. Ringbearer is, obviously, from Lord of the Rings. I feel it’s easy to read and seems to fit the vibe. It’s a good placeholder for now, at the least.

When I search for a typeface, I go straight to Google and see what emerges. There are so many typeface repositories — get outside your Windows Office comfort zone and try one.

Framing: Once I knew the high level concept, I began working on my first card. I wanted to try a few things and get a feel for what was possible in the space. Note: I use Photoshop, so I’ll speak generically about what I did so you don’t need to have Photoshop per se.

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  1. Title: I picked an average length Spell name and put it in the top left corner. There was plenty of space, even at a 24 point font size. I stuck with plain black, but then lowered the layer’s opacity to give it that slight grey feel. I then added a drop shadow and tweaked the opacity there as well. This helped the text jump out a little without being oisy.
  2. Body Text: I used an average length spell action text and began moving it around the center. I made sure I had enough room for the text even at 18 point font.
  3. Background: I Googled parchment and sampled a few pieces. I settled on one that was simple and provided a little texture. I set this to my background layer. I stretched it a little, but not too much. At some point you lose the sharpness. One thing I want to add is a frame, but I don’t have Illustrator and I don’t really know how to do this. For now, I’m going without.
  4. Flourish: I wanted a flourish, so I Googled around the premise of “fantasy frame” and “fantasy graphic” until I found a piece I liked. That’s what you see in the bottom right corner. I reduced its fill to subdue it and let it act more as an accent than something to dominate your eye space.
  5. Spell type: I wanted a way to denote Basic versus Advanced spells (bottom left corner). I liked the simple Book icon from Game-Icons.net and used it for the Basic. I then chopped up another icon to add some pizzazz for the Advanced version. These are in the bottom left corner. Their importance is low, so I gave them a low priority on the card. For the Advanced Spell, I increased the opacity of the book, rotated it slightly, and subdued the little wings so the Book stood out. I also gave the book a light stroke.
  6. Ante: I needed to find a place for the Ante symbol, which is a mechanic on some cards. It’s very important and needs to be easily seen. I originally put it just to the right of the title, but one of my testers noted it should be flush right so it has a consistent place on every card. Good idea. You don’t want players to have to relearn the layout on a per card basis, even if it’s a slight tweak. That just adds up over time. For the Ante, I took the mana symbol (the center), but put a frame around it. You’re supposed to put a Mana token on the card. My hope was that the frame drew the player’s attention and helped him target the placement.
  7. Art: I want each card to have a nice illustration, something to drive home the feel of what you’re doing. But, the text doesn’t leave a lot of room for such things. Not if I’m unwilling to sacrifice the big, fat, 18 point font (which I’m not). The idea that came to me was using a watermark style treatment. Put the illustration front and center, but subdue it in the background. I’m really pleased with this subtle addition. I dropped the opacity to 30% and just put them in the center. They are quite faint and as such, I’m allowed to keep them reasonably big. One thing I had to keep in mind as I chose and placed images was to make sure they didn’t collide with the specific text.

Icons within the Cards: Taking inspiration from Dominion, I wanted to add a few really key icons to the body text to help the player’s grasp the concepts more quickly. My rule was that I needed to use the term more than a few times and it needed to be something easily represented with an icon. Here is a quick shot of the icons I use for this purpose:

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Some of these icons you’ve already seen in the examples above. The left two represent cards (with the number in the center) and Community cards. The hat, of course, represents Wizard, i.e. player. I use the term Wizard exclusively in lieu of player in the rules. Next to Ante, you can see the icons for Wisdom (points) and Mana (coins).

Will this solution work? I’m not sure, but I’m hopeful. It uses a bit less text than writing everything manually and it’s quick to read certain concepts, even from across the table. I imagine it may need some iteration, but I’m confident this is indicative of the final direction.

Here are a few more complicated Spells.

A_WizardlyPlans

A_Abundance

A_TruthingSpellText: Taking inspiration from Dominion, Magic: The GatheringKing of Tokyo, I resolved myself to use very consistent text language. Doing this very early really helped constrain my ideas in a good, meaningful way. It also allowed me to use the icon system described above. Plus, it helps with accessibility.

Conclusion: Was this post useful at all? Any questions? Anything else you’d like me to talk about?

Thanks for reading!

To Arms, Brothers!

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Board game pal Ben Bruckart asked about gateway war games on Twitter after having a fun experience playing Richard Borg’s outstanding Memoir ’44 at Prezcon. War games are my favorite board game experience and gateway board games reside at the top of my personal list. Basically, this topic was like candy for me.

War games are an incredibly old genre, and an interesting one. Whereas the rise of Euro games is only about 20 years old now, people have been abstracting war since about the 1950s (if you exclude games like Chess, and if my memory of the Ludology podcast is correct). However, as an elder genre, they’ve really gone off the deep end at times to precisely abstract and simulate every tiny detail of every tiny element of a battle. As a result, when you go to Board Game Geek’s top war games list, you’ll see a lot of games that look far too complex for most people to really enjoy. 6 hours for 2 players and a 90 page rule book? Eesh.

The Virgin Queen by GMT is a great example, hilariously depicted by Shut Up and Sit Down.

That makes gateway war games all the more important to me. When someone finds a way to distill a complex subject in a way that preserves the intent and spirit of the experience, I’m intrigued. That’s good game design AND arguably more importantly, those are the games that are most fun to play. For me, at least. And this is my blog, so I get to say things like that.

Therefore, I found the notion of recommending a war game very exciting and interesting. It also seemed like good fodder for a post. Where to begin…

The Definition

For me, a war game is a game whose focus is to represent an armed conflict between two more more entities, be it historical or fictional. It is interesting that this genre is defined thematically, not mechanically. Drafting, worker placement, trading — all defined by mechanics. Perhaps in that sense, war games are the original Ameritrash?

The Right Theme

I have found that theme is very important for one’s appreciation of a war game. The conflict that is the topic of the game is very important to your enjoyment. For example, I love Richard Borg’s Command and Colors system. Many people look to C&C Ancients as the best title. It focuses on the conflicts of Ancient Rome (ex: Punic Wars), which just doesn’t interest me as much. When I read the rules, I found them overly complex and tedious. However, C&C Napoleonics is a huge hit with me. Why? It puts the system to use in the period of Napoleonic warfare. Fun tip: The rules are about the same level of complexity as Ancients.

Your first step in finding the right war game for you is finding the period or theme that interests you. If you like World War II, the infamous charge of the light brigade, commanding huge armies in the 7 Years War, or commanding a squad on the moon, you need to figure that out. Once you answer that question, you know the right direction for your needs.

The System

One thing that is interesting about war games is that many of them adhere to an established framework or system to represent conflicts. Some examples include the COIN System (ex: Andean Abyss) to represent counter-insurgency, the Command and Colors (ex: Ancients), or Conflict of Heroes (ex: Awakening the Bear 2nd Ed).

What makes this compelling and worth noting is that once you find a system you enjoy, you are able to purchase or experiment with other games without having to learn a new game. Games within the systems aren’t mere copy/paste jobs with a new theme slapped on. They make changes where appropriate to properly represent the warfare of the time. This keeps the experience fresh and exciting without requiring the initial learning curve.

A similar comparison would be a worker placement game. Once you learn one worker placement game, you have the gist for how another one will work. Are there changes? Of course. But, you know that typically when you place a guy, something will happen and you’ll block a space.

Some Starter Suggestions

My first recommendation is always a game from the Command and Colors system by Richard Borg. Within it, you’re able to find a breadth of experiences that represent numerous conflicts. Many war gamers have a favorite Borg game, and it’s often the one that is about their favorite conflict.

These include:

Ancients

Command and Colors: Ancients: Ancient Roman warfare, defined by melee oriented infantry (spears, swords), and fun things like chariots and elephants.

This one is well supported with expansions.

Napoleonics

Command and Colors: Napoleonics: Napoelonic warfare, defined by a variety of mass infantry formations (skirmishers, elite lines, militia), cavalry, and artillery.

This one is well supported with expansions.

Memoir

Memoir ’44: World War II. With the expansions, all theaters are represented. Most scenarios focus on small scale infantry battles with armor and artillery included.

This one is well supported with expansions. My personal collection is shown below.

Memoir

Battle Cry

Battle CryThe American Civil War. Mass infantry formations are key, with slightly higher caliber weaponry than Napoleonics.

BattleLore

Battlelore 2nd Edition: Fantasy warfare with the full minis treatment and some neat custom scenario tools.

Abaddon

Abaddon: MECHS! Do you like Mechs? You should. This one techs you to the future where mechs duke it out using really fun, custom dice.

Samurai

Samurai Battles: In case  the title wasn’t self-explanatory, this game focuses on ancient Japanese warfare in feudal Japan. Really cool minis with this one, though it’s a bit of setup work.

If I had to pick a Borg to recommend, I’d choose Memoir ’44. Days of Wonder are masters of great production values and accessibility. This is a smooth game to learn with 15 scenarios in the base game. Memoir has fewer exceptions with unit types than his other games. Furthermore, World War II is a popular conflict to study and is familiar to a wide range of people. Finally, the game has a great deal of awesome expansions, though some are out of print and a tinge difficult to find. Nonetheless, if you want lots of cool World War II content, this game has it in heaps.

1775

In addition to the Borg title of your choice, I also recommend 1775: Rebellion by Academy Games and designers Jeph Stahl and Beau Beckett. Or, if I may be so bold, I’d recommend this INSTEAD of a Borg title. Why?

For one, it plays with 2-4. Most war games only play with 2 players, which can make them challenging to get to the table. Secondly, 1775 supports team play, which is just outstanding. Finally, it’s just a great piece of design. The core actions and content are so simple, yet the game is so full of depth. It’s an outstanding example of design to which I aspire.

If the American Revolution doesn’t interest you, consider its sister game, 1812: The Invasion of Canada. I own and love it as well (and it plays with up to 5). A third game in the series based on the French and Indian War is also on the way.

Where to look for more War Games

War games are an odd breed. They gather and hang out with themselves. Really, it’s no different than other publishers. If you see a game from Queen, chances are it’s a euro. If you see a game from Iello, well, it’ll be something awesome and probably French.

Here are some dedicated war game publishers who just might have a game for you.

Thoughts? Comments? Share them below!