The 54 Card Guild: #1

54CardLogo

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I want to invite you to join an elite and secretive organization. It is exclusive, difficult to find, and reserved for only top individuals.

Actually, it’s none of these things. I want you to join me in making games so that we can all improve our craft of design. I want you to join the 54 Card Guild!

A peer recently said “Be mindful of the people from whom you take your advice as many of them know just as little as you.” Over the years I’ve evolved my blog from sometimes pompous “this is how to do a thing” instruction, to philosophical meandering, and finally to more case-study styled pieces based on my own work. I don’t think I’m the worst offender of unworthy instruction, but I do worry that sometimes I’m too quick to make my own thoughts and work front and center when in reality, I want others to learn by doing. It’s how I learn and I think it’s a great method to improve design.

I’ve always been flustered by Game Design Books and GDC talks. They seem to opine in a vacuum bereft of reality, constraints, market conditions, you name it. The seem to be one sided and I feel there are far too few absolutes for monologues in this space. I think there’s more room for dialog, open thought, and experimentation.

The Content

Every 1-2 Fridays I’ll post a written blog and sometimes provide a short video. The idea is to start from the beginning (brainstorming) and continue through a variety of topics, including some layout basics, testing tips, rules writing, and more.

I will likely veer and swerve and hopefully the content is concise, interesting, and useful to you. All articles will be tagged with 54 Card Guild so they’ll be easy to find and reference.

The Work

All of us, me included, will be making a game. I have already begun working on mine so that I can stay ahead of things and use my efforts to guide the content.

The only limitation is that your components are strictly limited to 54 cards or fewer. These can be any cards, not just a poker deck, though doing that is encouraged!

This means no dice. No pennies. No board. Just 0-54 cards. Great creativity is spawned from great limitations. Focus on the core essence of the experience you wish to deliver and do it with a mere 54 cards. You’ll be surprised at what you craft.

We’re doing a similar exercise at work and my friends are making simple deckbuilders, heart variants, and party games. One even said he wants to make a hyper distilled version of Fief that strips out the board and war game and focuses on the social dynastic building.

I’ll try to provide weekly assignments. This isn’t homework. I’m not grading it, and nobody will mind if you miss a date. The idea behind these assignments is to provide milestones to guide your work. I find deadlines and measured goals help me, so perhaps they’ll help you. Feel free to ignore them!

So many words…Let’s simplify.

I want you to make a game with me that contains 54 cards or fewer. I’m going to provide notes and thoughts to aid and guide, but want you to feel free to pursue your own path and borrow what works for you and ignore the rest.

Let’s begin Guide #1…

Note: In order to facilitate sharing, I’ve created a group for us on Slack.com! Slack is a great website and smart phone app for easily sharing ideas and chatting. Email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com if you want to join!

Guide #1: The Brainstorm

A good brainstorm will often emerge if you provide yourself freedom from distractions and a way to quickly record a wide range of thoughts. I do the majority of my brainstorming in 3 places:

  • Driving in silence
  • Walking my dog + iPhone Notes
  • Showering

At work, much of what we do is team based. A good method we have found is to pass out sticky notes and sharpies and individually jot ideas that we then stick to a big white board. This lets us individually focus while also collaborating.

Do yourself a favor and bury your cell phone when brainstorming. Get away from your computer. While Google Docs is a great place to type, having the Internet at your finger tips is just inviting distraction.

This is the easy part. The difficult part is finding your inspiration. There are a variety of nodes from which to draw, and you may be surprised to find they match your preferences in games to play!

  • Classic games. Do you love Poker, Black Jack, Bingo, or Scrabble? Well, games like Rise of Augustus, Battle Line, Samurai Spirit, Hocus, and more draw from these foundations. Hell, Richard Garfield likes making Hearts variants.
  • Favorite games. Think of your favorite 10 games. What is your favorite element of each? Is it that moment when you betray your friend? Do you love rolling that pile of dice? Do you like building a deck before the game? Or creating broken combos? Think of that core and write it.
  • Brainstorm Algebra, or X+Y=Z. Think of combinations, strange and intuitive alike. Drafting + Worker Placement. Zombies + Civil War. City Building + Winter. These combinations can be Mechanism + Mechanism, Theme + Theme, Experience + Experience, or any combination thereof. See where these threads lead. In fact, take items from the first two bullets and plug them in as variables.
  • Real life experiences. What are things you like to do? Cook? Perform stand up comedy? Exercise? Great designers draw from life experiences.

If the experience or thematic angle isn’t working for you, perhaps think of ways that you can use and manipulate cards. Cards are intensely flexible! Below, I’m going to show you a handful of common and perhaps less common ways you can use cards in your game.

The Action Card

Example_ActionCard

This is a very common case that maybe doesn’t need to be mentioned. If you’ve played Magic: The Gathering or Netrunner or Munchkin, you’ve seen cards used in this manner. The core concept is that you have a card with text or a symbol that indicates an action. On a player’s turn, they choose a card to play, and resolve its text.

Action cards are great for having great variety, but don’t get too carried away with complex text. Try to avoid conditional phrases, such as “If another player has 3 or more Coins, you may play this card.” Instead, just say “Take 1 Coin.”

Try to rely on a few key words and see how far you can stretch that before adding complexity.

Drafting

Example_Drafting

This is a beautiful two step process. Step 1: Choose the card you wish to play, for its action (as mentioned above) or to build a new building or structure, or for something else. Step 2: Pass the remaining cards to the player next to you.

Drafting is great because you can present your players with a wide variety of choices, but limit them to only one. You want 3 of the 8 cards in your hand, but you can only grab one. Drafting also allows for the fun method of interaction known as counter-drafting. You might take a card that’s less useful to you in order to prevent an opponent from grabbing it. This method of indirect interaction is friendly, yet potent.

The Military Unit

Example_Military

Think of a miniatures game, but instead of plastic figurines, you use cards. Cards work well for this as you can put all pertinent information on the card. You can use cards as a ruler even to measure and allow for a free form miniature-like environment. You can even use cards for Terrain. One card is a town, the other is a hill to fight over.

Cards are physical objects that don’t need to be in your hand. Summoner Wars shows us you can turn them into units that are just as viable as Memoir ’44’s plastic tanks.

When you use cards as units, be careful about having too much information. Players naturally want to read and know everything. If you have 20 cards out, each with 2 sentences of text, don’t be surprised when players stop constantly to read them! It’s really about slowly building the player’s army, limiting the complexity on individual units, and limiting what you need to know about another player’s units.

Multi-Use Cards

Example_MultiUse_AMulti-use cards are a favorite mechanism of mine that I have used quite often. Put simply, what if every card has two or more uses? Instead of having to perfectly tune a deck distribution, you can instead say that every card has a unique element (the B shown above) and a shared element (the A shown above). You can then play the card for either use. That A can represent a category. In your 54 card deck, you might have 6 categories of 9 cards each. The As could be a Building, a Politician, Infrastructure, Roads, Power Plants, and Wonders in a city building game.

Example_MultiUse_B

You can also take the 7 Wonders approach and give every card a unique attribute, then have global rules. For example, in 7 Wonders you can play a card for its attribute, or chuck it for 3 gold, or use it to build a structure. As long as your global rules are simple, this is a great way to go that doesn’t add complexity to the card’s layout.

Deduction and Peeking

Example_Peek

I’ve been trying to design a deduction game. So far, my efforts haven’t born fruit, but it has been a fun thought process. While thinking of examples for this article, I thought about Hanabi. In it, players can see the cards of other players, but not their own, as the cards are held backwards in front of you. Players can reveal clues by saying “All of these cards are this color,” or “All of these cards have this number.”

What if you hold your cards privately in a competitive game and you must inform an opponent of a shared property of all the cards that share it? So, in the example above, “these two cards have a blue building.” Your opponent then chooses any card to reveal. After so many clues and revealed information, they must make a guess about the contents of your hand.

For what purpose, I don’t know! Maybe you’ll find a gem?

Pre-Constructed Decks

Example_PreConstructed

This is a feature my design will use. Pre-constructed decks take a pool of cards, up to 54 in our case, and challenge players to combine them in new and exciting ways to create a new whole. These games are all about creating powerful combos and exploiting loopholes in the card ideas. Much of the fun comes from the deck construction, though the “actual game” must also be fun!

To make these games work, you need to think about the handful of nodes and elements every card needs to have. You can then use other cards to play off of these. In a battle game, a Unit might have health, a cost to play, an attack strength, and a one-time bonus that occurs when the card is played. You can then have other cards that manipulate and modify those properties.

They key is to consider these properties from a high level, then begin experimenting with the details and evolving your foundation as needed.

Role Selection

Example_RoleSelectionPlayers have a hand of cards, much like drafting. Also like drafting, they play one every round, often simultaneously, that determines their power, action, or capability. You want every role to be distinct and present upsides and downsides.

Perhaps Robin Hood shown above is good at getting gold, but can be caught by the sheriff. The Fez is good for scoring points, but a bad role for remaining hidden. And so forth.

Due to the simultaneous nature, you often want a way to resolve ties. Whose card goes first? Above, I added a number, so that the person who played the 1 goes first.

Think about providing players with non-obvious times to play certain roles. Work to ensure that the Fez doesn’t have an obvious time to play. This will lead to tougher, and more interesting decisions.

Throwing Cards

Example_Throwing

You can make a game about throwing cards on a table! Yes, truly! Your cards can have symbols that, when covered by latter throws, provide points. Or, when covered, provide bonus abilities. Dexterity is a wonderful medium that provides great laughs and establishes a casual atmosphere. Cards are physical, have weight, and can hold an image and instructions. Why not throw them?

Tile Game

Example_TileGame

Cards can contain pictures that link up and when placed adjacent form a map, or panoramic picture, or a galaxy, or anything really. The cards might have a strict orientation, like in some games where the cards must be placed in order, or their placement can be up to the active player. With this latter method, players create the map and you have a more random, but dynamic experience.

What surface can you create with cards? And, can you then cover the existing cards? Perhaps you cover a mountain with a snowy mountain to indicate weather? Or remove all water to turn a river into a desert?

My design will feature tiles.

Combining Cards

Example_TwoCardPairing

This is another weird idea I had when trying to think about crafting an AI for a game. What if you need a deck that can work in a variety of situations with only 54 cards? Here’s an idea. What if every player has a character, represented by a card. Each side of the card has a level, indicated by the 4 colors shown above. As you explore the world, you draw a card from the deck. It has 4 pieces of text or symbols on it, each with a color code that matches the colors on your card. If your blue side is facing up? You resolve the blue text. Another player might resolve the red text if that’s where they are at. Suddenly, every card has 4 uses that are contextual.

Not all 54 cards have to be the same! You can mix and match different types, then have them speak to each other in different ways. Think of your cards as Lego pieces.

The Assignment

Find yourself a good, quiet, distraction free location and begin jotting ideas. Think of 5-10 fun ideas using any method possible. Narrow it down to 1 or 2 favorites. Then, using an idea from above, or one of your own, begin thinking about the mechanisms and experience you will leverage and provide. Write these down, loosely, and begin thinking in a more focused manner. Give your brain time to stew and think about these 1 or 2 ideas in the context of a more specific arrangement.

Feedback, as always, is welcomed! Use the comments or email me.

KS Lessons from the 7th Day

Post by: Grant Rodiek

We’re a week into the Hocus Kickstarter and it’s going very well. We’re at over 215% funding and 664 backers. Our fewest backers in a day has been 37, and our lowest amount raised has been $707. If this is at all indicative of the rest of our campaign, well, that bodes fantastically for us. I’m sure it’ll decrease, but what a killer first week!

Hocus: A magical card game -- Kicktraq Mini

Here are some more notes from our campaign.

Have a hook. This is true regardless of your pitch medium, be it to a potential publisher or to customers on Kickstarter. Ours is “Poker Plus Spells.” With Apotheca, Andrew Federspiel mentions “Spatial Strategy plus Hidden Information.” Many people have commented on this in their notes to me and it seems to really be sticking with them. What’s your catch phrase that’s easy to remember? Try to craft one and put it front and center for your campaign.

Plan your updates. We haven’t actually been terribly busy during the campaign, no more than normal development. But, updates are a reality, in addition to Thank You notes, and other such tasks, and you should plan for them. Especially if you’re a slow writer! Thankfully, we have 8 Spell books, which make for great updates. Plus, there is always news and clarifications to make.

Plan your updates out for the approximate span at the campaign, leaving room to be flexible as you communicate with backers. Preparation is truly at the heart of any product’s success and this is just one more area where you can be patient, do your homework, and appreciate the light dividends.

Make a routine of things. This continues the note above, but plan for pockets of time, in your daily life, to look over the campaign, communicate with folks, write thank you notes, and follow up on things. The more you plan before the campaign, the less of a burden this will be. But, if you’re shooting how to play videos, and writing thank you notes, and posting a PNP, and chasing down previews, you’ll be in trouble. Therefore, the first priority, that we’ve really appreciated, is to try to take care of as much stuff as possible before launch. The second priority is to craft a routine and stick to it so that your “chores” are properly cared for!

Obsess over your Kickstarter page. Review your page a few hundred times for typos, poor sentences, confusing sections, and anything that detracts. Ask friends, people who dislike you, and random folks to read it over. Treat your Kickstarter page like a rules document — make it clear, concise, and useful. Organize the data in order of importance, provide clean page breaks, and use basic formatting or graphic design, as your budget and skills allow, to highlight important details.

Really obsess over your page. Whenever we ask people if they have questions, an overwhelming number of people say “Nope, your page had everything.” That’s really the best response. It’s very satisfying and it has saved us a great deal of time. A few specifics, like ones regarding the wooden box, have been added to the FAQ. And really, these are the types of things an FAQ is meant for. Review your page and remove all bumps.

Just 2 days ago we found a bump on ours — our link to our rules was pointing to a not too old, but still out of date copy of our rules. Whoops! How embarrassing! Just think how that could have hurt us if someone downloaded the PNP and couldn’t figure out how to play!

Obsess over your Kickstarter page, then do it again. Typos and sloppiness will only make you look like you don’t care, or at least, you didn’t care enough.

Invest in Art. Our fundamental belief is that great art and a great price will take a Kickstarter very far. It’s a one-two punch. Great art gets the customers in the door. They like what they see in the “window” and pick up the box. They then see the price, shrug, and go “hell I’m in!”

Really invest in your art. It’s super easy to just find someone who can technically do it, but really seek out a partner that will make your game look beautiful and outstanding. It makes a great first impression, makes you look professional, and is the most beautiful way to demonstrate you care about your game.

Have your PNP Ready.  Since June 22nd, just 3 days before our Kickstarter launched, we’ve had about 470 combined downloads of our black and white and color PNP files off BGG. If you include the downloads from our pre-campaign Hotness push, this goes up to almost 700 downloads!

Now, surely many of those can be written off as repeat downloads, and surely the majority of them will sit on a desktop, never to be printed or cut. But, we’ve heard from many backers who have played the PNP with friends and family. We’ve seen several cases of backers pledging at $5 to get the high resolution PNP, they send us a nice note, then increase their pledge to get the physical copy. Have your PNP ready before you launch!

I don’t really have a way to collect data on this, but I’m convinced this is helping us in a big way. It shows preparedness, confidence, and helps people move beyond the flash and really become committed fans. Some of the nicest comments I’ve ever heard about a game I’ve designed have come from our PNP players. Just think how that might work in word of mouth with other potential backers.

Several folks have asked us to write our post mortem and we’d like to do so in a way that’s useful for you. If you have questions about our campaign you want answered, send them my way or comment below!

KS Lessons on the Fourth Day

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Hocus is still performing incredibly well. We’ve had about 60 backers over the weekend, which is enormous for a small campaign like us. You can see the Kicktraq here.

A few days ago I wrote a post about things I’d learned in the first 36 hours, and I wanted to follow that up with a few more observations.

Kickstarter is still growing. There’s a good chance you’re going to be someone’s first five backed projects. This has really caught me off guard. We’re at the point now where our dedicated social circle has made a decision on Hocus and backed, so most of our new backers are friends of them, friends of friends, or just random folks off the Internet.

As I write my Thank You notes, I can see how many projects every backer has backed. In many cases, Hocus is their first! Or their third. Or fifth. This tells me a few things that are important to keep in mind:

  1. Kickstarter is still a growing platform. If we take care of this ecosystem, it can be around for new companies for a long time, long after I stop using it as a creator.
  2. You have a huge opportunity to make a great first impression. Though this impacts others, think about the relationship you can build for your company if the first time they dip their toe in the water they have a great experience. More than anything I want people to remember their experience with Hyperbole Games fondly. If we’re one of the first companies, we can make a great first impression.

Europeans very much want to buy our games. Even with international shipping, the number of Europeans interested in Kickstarter is huge. Our game is small, so our costs aren’t too bad, plus we’re subsidizing it slightly and have a good group offer. But, we’re definitely losing a few customers due to our shipping.

Unfortunately, many of the European Friendly methods aren’t feasible for us at this time. They require a level of investment and additional complications we’re not comfortable with. But, if you have a bigger game, or feel you can take on these methods, I recommend it.

As an aside, I find it quite fascinating that brand new companies are expected to have killer international fulfillment options out the gate. Think about this: incredible companies like Portal and Czech Games Edition have been in the business for years, but are only now handling distribution outside of their territories. Previously, they worked with companies like Z-Man to sell in the United States.

When you launch a Kickstarter, you will be compared to everyone that came before you. Even if someone else’s methods are illogical, do not make financial sense, or don’t work behind the scenes, the customers will now have expectations. Either be prepared to meet them, or discuss them in a frank manner.

Folks have had bad experiences. A few times, I’ve mentioned that we’re going to try to not spam folks with our updates and share them at a reasonable pace. Every time I say that, many people come forward to say “Please don’t go silent! More is better than less!”

Now, we have no intention of leaving folks high and dry or going silent. Silence in a crisis only worsens things, if we have one. But, people have been burned before, have seen it done badly, and are willing to come forward and speak out when they have the slightest notion that it’ll happen again.

Have your communication plan in order. Know how you plan to speak to people. Be ready to engage them frequently. You’ll see me say this over and over, but provide a great experience for your customers, whether it’s on Kickstarter or otherwise. You have the opportunity to make them smile and remember good things. That’ll pay dividends long into the future.

People will change their minds. This is a little maddening, mostly because you want to know why, but people will cancel their pledge. This has happened a few times with us already. There are so many possible reasons for this:

  • People are annoyed we’ve sent 3 updates already.
  • People don’t like our no Stretch Policy.
  • People have another use for their $15.
  • People pledged, then played the PNP, and decided they didn’t like it.
  • People want to back a man with more hair than I have.

The possibilities are truly infinite. Don’t let this wear you down or frustrate you. If someone cancels? Fine. You have to be okay with that! They probably just changed their mind, which is what people do all the time.

KS Lessons 36 Hours In

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Our Kickstarter for Hocus launched 36 hours ago and I’m now an expert on Kickstarter! Actually, not at all, but I thought it would be interesting to share my thoughts about things 36 hours into it.

As always, taking things with a grain of salt. What works for us might not work with you. This is my first project, so most of my data is anecdotal.

Repeat Yourself: This is a classic PR lesson. Repeat yourself early and often. You might think your page is perfectly laid out, but people might miss an important detail when reading it on their phone. Or, they don’t watch the video. Or, they just don’t pay attention.

If you have important details, repeat them, often. Here’s an example:

A copy of Hocus is $15. This is a discount off MSRP and shipping. However, additional copies only cost $13. Why? We hope this encourages people to buy additional copies. It’s a good deal!

Well, many people ask “How can I buy extra copies?” This info is on our page, but it’s below a lot of other stuff. We explained this in our first Update and immediately saw people up their pledges. We explained it tonight in our second update and again saw the same result.

You cannot repeat everything, and you don’t want to be a bore. But, if you have key information, it’s worth repeating.

Carefully consider pledge level copy. What do I mean by pledge level copy? The little area that says:

“$15 – 1 copy of Hocus. Backer pays shipping.”

Once you have a single backer at the pledge level you can no longer alter it. This means you need to be very careful about what you say. We didn’t make any mistakes, but seeing as how people are missing our information about adding extra copies, we should have written it here! Lesson learned for the future.

Write your Thank You letters. It is very easy for you to cynically roll your eyes at these. I’ve been a backer 103 times and when I receive some of these, I think “ugh, another form letter.” Don’t be a cynic!

Last night and tonight I took the time to reach out to every backer. It’s a long tedious slog, but it is SO worth it. Why? Firstly, it’s you greeting your new neighbors. You’re saying hello. It’s a warm and neighborly thing to do. Kickstarter isn’t a brick and mortar store — you cannot greet people when they enter the “store.” This is a great way to do so.

Secondly, most people won’t come to you to ask questions, even if they have them. When you reach out to them, you’re giving them a very easy way to reach out to you. You’ll be surprised by what emerges. Some simple questions that you need to add to your FAQ, some great ideas for your campaign, or even a great conversation.

Thirdly, this is an opportunity to resolve issues. Every interaction with a customer is an opportunity. Much is said about how entitled and unreasonable people are, but as Josh told me early today, people are fundamentally good and kind. If someone is angry, concerned, or even just questioning you, and you meet them halfway with sincerity? Even if you don’t agree, you’ll be delighted to see how quickly you build a good relationship.

Finally, it shows you care in a very simple way. You need to care a great deal. Not everyone does this. Be on the side that greets the neighbors.

Unless you’re hilarious, skip the humor and go straight for clarity. Josh and I are snarky people. We think we’re pretty funny. Unfortunately, our humor, like most humor, is based on the people around us. It’s very tempting to make Kickstarter videos that are goofy. Or write comments with sarcasm. Or write jokes into your updates.

Let me rip off the band-aid — DON’T! Unless you’re hilarious, just get to the point. Adam made an incredible video for Coin Age. Shut Up and Sit Down is hilarious. Me? Nah, not that much.

We received a great deal of feedback on our first campaign video. Some of it okay, some of it very harsh. It had a lame joke that we smugly thought was good. Two days before launch we re-shot our video and we’ve heard no complaints. I call that a win!

Keep it simple, focused, and leave the humor for game night.

None of these insights are world shattering, but they are what occurred to me. We’ll write more as we go!

Interview with Adam McIver

Cover

Interview with: Grant Rodiek and Adam P. McIver

A short time ago we shared our interview with the illustrator of Hocus, Tiffany Turrill. Well, Adam is the second half of our incredible art team. Without him, Hocus wouldn’t look as gorgeous as it does. We pulled him off the intense graphics making furnace to interview him about various things, including graphic design!

Grant Rodiek: Adam! Introduce yourself to the people who might not know you yet. Who are you, what’s important about you, what do we need to know?

Adam McIver: I’m just a guy who realized that board games are much more than a hobby to me, then pursued it with as much energy as I could muster. Luckily, folks seem to have appreciated the projects I’ve done so far, and I’ve found myself a part of more friendships and relationships in the industry than I would have believed a year ago. I dunno, is that a good answer? You tell me what’s important about me. That’d be more fun for me.

GR: Where do you live? What personal details should we know? Hobbies outside of this hobby?

AM: I just moved to the Cincinnati area from Chicago with my fiance Kerry. As far as other hobbies, I build 3D crystal puzzles, which I will not expound upon whatsoever so we can move on to the next question.

Crystal

GR: Before we get into development on Hocus, let’s talk about The Cre8tive Dept. A few years ago you started doing graphic design for folks on the side, but your day job was working with a fairly large creative agency in Chicago. Not long ago, you took the leap to exit the corporate world to focus on board game graphics and art exclusively. Why? How is it working out so far?

AM: I’ve been blown away by how well it is going so far. I have a schedule of projects that has consistently stayed at least 2-3 months deep which really is a great position to be in as a freelancer.

Prior to CR8DPT I worked for 9 years in the corporate package design industry working with some of the world’s largest food companies. I made the switch from a fairly cushy Senior Designer job because as I dipped my toes further and further into creating games it seemed like I would never have enough time to do everything I wanted to. My employer at the time allowed me to switch to part-time and pursue some freelance, and all that did was fan the fire into a full-fledged inferno. I was waking up at 6 am, working on games for 6 hours, then commuting to downtown Chicago to do my serious-business agency work for 4-5 hours, then commuting back home to pick back up and do games for the rest of the day. I really was burning the candle at both ends and I am not really sure how I stayed sane. Maybe I didn’t, who knows?

I kept that up for 3-4 months and decided that it was now or never so I made the jump to a 100% full-time board game person. I still don’t have enough time to work on all the games I want to, but I am living the dream and couldn’t be happier about it.

GR: A long time ago, like Summer 2014, you approached US about doing art for Hocus. Back then I think it was Wizard Poker maybe? We were insanely touched by the gesture and it was a nice morale boost on a very long project. Why did you come to us?

AM: I’ve always been a fan of playing cards and games that use them, and I saw a few clever things going on in the early version that really piqued an interest. I played a PNP with a small group of my friends and we all really took to the design, and I really wanted to be involved however I could. Then you went and threw that all away and I thought you were nuts!

Luckily, you guys seem to know what you’re doing and that gamble paid off with a far better game. You weren’t just cranking something out rushing to get to Kickstarter, you took your time and made the best game you could, and I appreciated that as well.

GR: Your work on Hocus has been really phenomenal so far. There’s so much detail and humor and life in what you’ve done. The icons were fantastic, especially the coin with the little sock hatted wizard on the face. Tell us about icon work — what’s key? What makes it interesting?

SuitsBreak

AM: Iconography can be insanely difficult, but can often be the most important aspect when it comes to ease of play. For Hocus the majority of the icons are suits, so I had to make sure that they were all immediately distinct from each other from a basic shape standpoint, then I added details that would tie them to Tiffany’s artwork as much as possible. There’s a delicate balancing act in iconography between form and function: too much detail will end up making an icon difficult to process at a small size but too little detail leaves them looking boring and generic.

GR: Your work on the card back is phenomenal. We showed Tiffany’s beautiful illustration and the final version that you put some jazz onto. It just wowed us. It just popped and was incredible. What’s your process for things like this? How do you go from A to B when framing an illustration?

HG_HocusPoker_all-cards-01

AM: When I’m working with another artist, I put a great deal of importance on making sure my design elements respect their work while tying everything together. I have to create an information system that doesn’t look like an information system, so I pick up some elements from the artwork, while adding pieces that will aid in organization and readability. I also use some of those same elements for decoration and, if I’ve done my job well, it all comes together as a solidified visual language across all the game’s components. If I’ve done my job really well, players won’t even recognize the information as graphic design because it is so well integrated with the artwork.

GR: Good graphic design, user experience design, interface design, all of that is a real unsung hero of game development. I value the work of my UX designers at work so much. What are the keys to good graphic design? What are the 3 essentials?

AM: In board games, function definitely takes precedence over form. It probably comes down to 1) clarity, 2) intuitiveness, and 3) style.

1) Clarity: The first step to clarity is legibility. A rookie mistake I see somewhat often is finding a “cool font” that looks thematic, but then when you apply it to an entire block of game text it becomes unreadable. Past just font choice, good graphic design communicates quickly. Sometimes, beautifully ornate icons may take longer for players to register versus more simplified ones, and the less clear a game’s visuals the more it will drag.

2) Intuitiveness: Yes, it’s a real word! Players connect with a game and learn it easier when it’s systems are intuitive. A lot of that comes from knowing where players will instinctively look first for information, or from knowing how to subliminally guide players to that information. If a card functions the way a player expects, or components are placed on the board in spaces that make sense, there’s one less barrier between them and the game.

3) Style: This is obviously “in the eyes of the beholder” and difficult to quantify, but a good designer tends to know how the eyes of most beholders will react to various elements. I think this really comes mostly from plenty of experience, and having a finger on the pulse of what is already out there. Making too many design choices based on what is currently “cool” could result in a game that alienates longtime gamers while also setting you up to look outdated in a year’s time. A good board game graphic designer knows how to use style to push the line forward rather than cross it.

GR: With the exception of a few early tweaks, we’ve pretty much approved everything you’ve sent us on the first pass. What do you do to prepare for a project so that you know what to deliver? It’s fairly uncanny that you showed up and just get it.

AM: Well, I’d love to take all the credit… so I will. Mwahaha!! But no, really, I’ve found that the projects that go really smoothly are typically a result of a good amount of mutual respect and trust. You trust my expertise to deliver the right visual solutions, and respect my aesthetic viewpoint. Clients can sometimes get in the way of progress when they don’t respect their artist’s expertise and try to micro-manage or offer their own solutions. It’s the same reason why I will never draw my own tattoos: the person I’ve trusted to permanently insert ink into my skin is going to know better how the art is going to lay on my skin and what will give the best result. I’ve literally designed hundreds of boxes in my professional career, many of which you can buy at any grocery store. You’ve got to trust that I might just maybe know what I’m talking about.

Editor’s Note: Go check the box at the top of the post if you don’t believe him.

On the flip side, I trust that the direction a client gives comes from knowing their game 110%, inside and out. My few plays of a game as I create artwork pales in comparison to the countless times a client has playtested it during development. I have to respect that authority in order to find the best visual solutions for the game. It’s a two-way street.

You had a very confident, clear idea of what you wanted for Hocus, and that helped me arrive at the right decisions very early on. We’re all clearly the best. Kudos!

GR: Tiffany noted her specialty is creatures and line drawing. What would you consider your specialty?

AM: Honestly, I think my specialty is probably vision. (Not eyesight, mind you – I’m actually so nearsighted that if I’m not wearing glasses or contacts I’m practically blind.) I typically formulate a vision for the look and feel of a game within the first few minutes of being told about it. I tend to shift my illustration style pretty widely to match that vision, and if I don’t think I can pull off the style that would work the best, I have actually turned away that portion of a project so another illustrator who handles that look regularly will be able to do so. It’s much more important to me that the final product be as great as it possibly can be than to have it all be “mine.”

I also tend to love tinkering with unusual board and component uses and arrangements. I love creating interesting modular boards (Gold West, Far Space Foundry, the upcoming World’s Fair 1893) and ways of looking at the same old pieces in a different way (like the score cards for Hocus).

ScoreCard

GR: Who are some of the artists or people of any stripe who inspire you?

AM: I find inspiration literally everywhere, more so than individuals that I look up to specifically. I think an essential element in having a broad style is consuming media from as many sources possible. I keep a little scrapbook of sorts where I’ll keep track of things that really catch my eye. Very frequently I’ll watch a cartoon, or read a comic, or see a painting, and I’ll file it away thinking, “I’d love to incorporate that into a game someday.”

GR: What is the absolute “must have” you need from a client in order for things to run smoothly? For all the wannabe publishers out there like us, what do they need to do know when hiring an artist like yourself?

AM: Every client is completely different, but there are a few general tips I would give to anyone looking to hire an artist for a game:

Contract your artists/graphic designers before laying out concrete timelines. I’ve had to turn down several projects I would have really loved to be a part of where a publisher has said something along the lines of, “Are you available for X, we’re launching on Kickstarter in 3 weeks!” Full-time creatives such as myself and other professional artists tend to have schedules and deadlines of their own prior to hearing from you. Don’t miss out on your first (or second, or third) choice because you weren’t able to work around their schedule!

Provide as much detail about your project as possible up front. Your artist’s estimate will be the most accurate when they know how many unique components are involved. “It’ll be in a Ticket To Ride size box” doesn’t really give me a good idea how much work is involved. I could be hundreds of dollars off in my estimate, maybe even dozens of hundreds of dollars!

This one might be more of a pet peeve, but don’t tell an artist that you’re going to be contacting several artists to compare rates. We know you probably are – hell, you probably should! But expressing that comes across as fishing for a discount. I have several friends and acquaintances who do the same type of work as I do, and the last thing I want is to feel like I’m trying to outbid them for work.

Plan the project holistically whenever possible – involve the artist and graphic designer at the same time so they can work out solutions together. The result will be far more aesthetically succinct than buying artwork first then saddling a graphic designer to make it work later down the line.

GR: Tell us about some of your designs. I know you have a nifty hacking game signed with Gamelyn. Can you tell us about it?

AM: Vector started out as a free 8-card giveaway game at Gen Con 2015, following in Coin Age’s footsteps the year before. It’s a take on a worker placement game where players control the avatars of rival hackers, racing them along the circuitry of a network, exploiting weaknesses in their opponent’s system, and trying to steal their data. After Gamelyn signed it I’ve been working to expand it from a 2-player only game to also allow for 3 and 4 players. I’m close to cracking it, so hopefully that will see the light of day sooner rather than later. Michael Coe has been extremely patient and supportive so far, so you can be sure that it’ll be solid.

GR: Do you have any other games in the works? I know it was really tough for us to schedule you…you don’t seem to have much time for such things!

AM: Yeah… I have joked a few times about needing to hire an unpaid intern, but maybe I should actually look into that. Correspondence, scheduling, estimates, invoicing, all that “business” stuff – it takes up so much time! It’s obviously crazy important, and I am getting better at it every day, but I work between 50 and 60 hours a week as it is and the actual “making art” part of my job could easily fill that time alone.

Despite that, I have been making a point of scraping out some game design time for myself here and there, and I have a few promising prototypes underway. One is a game I’m calling “Sandbox Kingdoms” where rival groups of kids are building sandcastles in a sandbox. It feels a bit like a mix between worker placement and… checkers, maybe? Another is a dexterity game about urban construction and demolition that Kerry named “Rubble Rousers” where your dice are trucks knocking down buildings, collecting their materials, and building other buildings with them – that your opponents will likely try to knock down themselves. I also have a concept in very early stages that I’m co-designing with fellow beardo Chris Bryan (of Board With Life infamy) that may be the best game that Haba will ever publish that they don’t even know about yet.

(I’m also trying to nudge Kerry into finishing her goblin nail salon game whenever I can – she has an idea that’s so perfect the world needs to hear it. But she doesn’t want me talking about it. Ask me in private sometime so there’s no record that I told you what it is.)

GR: If people want to learn more about you, where should they go?

AM: You could follow me on Twitter at @ad7m and @CR8DPT, or better yet, come hang out with me at a convention! Who couldn’t use more friends?

GR: Anything else you want to add?

AM: If you haven’t backed Cosmic Kaboom yet, get your ass over and rectify that mistake! I did the graphic design and it could use a little help hitting its goal/stretch goals. Also keep an eye out for Gold West and Steam Works, both from TMG. They have my junk all over them. Is everybody tired of reading my blabbering yet? Thanks for having me, guys!

GR: Thank you so much, Adam!

One Week ‘Til Magic

Cover

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

Next Thursday, June 25th, a week from today, Hocus will go live on Kickstarter. We’ve been more or less ready for a few weeks now, with only a few tweaks to our Kickstarter page here and there per feedback.

We feel pretty good (well? gooder?) walking into things and we wanted to present our case once more so that in a week, you join us by backing our game, helping us prove early demand, and ultimately begin our path as a publisher of weird card games.

Hocus is a unique spin on a classic game. Our game is designed against the idea of “poker with spells.” Fear not — this game isn’t poker. Far from it. Over 18 months, many of them just dreadful and filled with failure, we tested and ultimately crafted a game that is quite fun. We’ve written about the game extensively on this blog, but if you want to cut to the chase, you can watch our How to Play video here.

We’ve studied our peers and competitors in publishing for years now. We’ve asked a lot of questions and taken a lot of notes. Many of you potentially reading this have received DMs or emails from us with sometimes very stupid questions, but we’ve done our best to do the homework and mimic “what good looks like.” We’ve backed over 100 Kickstarter projects each, and we both have sizable collections. We know what it’s like to be customers and backers. We want to be top class there.

We believe this entails…

  • Great presentation. We have a clean KS page, short 2 minute pitch video, a How to Play video, a full PNP and rules, an FAQ, and a manufacturing and business plan ready.
  • Great price. $15 with free shipping in the US and $15 + Shipping for foreign territories is a really good offering. The best we can do, actually.
  • Great art. We’re both art junkies, but we also saw this as a way to stand out and have a great “window shopping” appeal. Hocus will be a beautiful game in your hands. We’ve hired the best we could to make it so, and our thumb drive on BGG seems to confirm this.
  • Great game. I mentioned this above, but we think we have a really good game. This is backed by local testing, UnPub/Protospiel appearances, and extensive blind testing and PNP testing.
  • Thorough promotion. We’ll have a series of previews, video and print, written and radio interviews, and more. We’re also paying for ads. Basically, we’re doing the full court press to get the word out.
  • Be responsive. You guys demanded a two piece box and we figured out a way to move to that. If other issues arise, again, we’ll be responsive. We want to be great publishers with great customers.

Where you come in?

If you’ve followed Hocus, tested Hocus, are interested in Hocus, or even just want us to succeed, please join us on day 1. Whether it’s a token pledge of $1 or $5, or a full pledge of $15 plus shipping (free for domestic backers), your help, especially early, is invaluable to us.

We don’t expect to become millionaires, or even profitable as a business yet. We’re trying to take the long outlook here. We hope to release 1 Hyperbole game every year, each with high quality development and fantastic art. We’re trying to take the long term view here and build a nice little side business. If you can help us prove our viability, we can hopefully enter distribution and become a legitimate entity.

We’ve put forth our best effort and think you’ll have a great time with $15. Next week, on Thursday, we’d love your help.

If you want to know when the project goes live, sign up for our newsletter. It’s once a month only, promise!

Thanks, and we’ll see you next week.

5th Street Bankruptcy and You

Post by: Grant Rodiek

There is a lot of confusion surrounding the bankruptcy of 5th Street Games. I see a great deal of confusion on the Kickstarter page, people I haven’t seen in years are sending me emails, and folks are upset on the Board Game Geek forums. I think this is all justified, so I wanted to write, briefly, some information in one place to help with this as best as possible.

To be clear, this is not my opinion on this incident, no dirty laundry. I’m frustrated, naturally, but this post exists to aid.

Full Disclaimer: I am just the designer of Farmageddon. I had nothing to do with its publication, other than the contents of the game, or Phil’s business practices on Farmageddon or his other projects. As I’m about to publish my first game, and I now own Farmageddon entirely again, I want to make that clear. 5th Street’s problems were not mine and I don’t want my game or my future works to be held against that.

Here are the questions and my answers, as best I can answer them.

What about Livestocked and Loaded? How will I get it?

The manufacturer of the game is working with Ship Naked to send backers their copies of Livestocked and Loaded. They posted on the Kickstarter in an update HERE.There is one catch: you must email them your information and you must pay for shipping. This seems lame, but please consider the following:

  • The manufacturer was NOT paid for this production and many other projects.
  • They will NOT make their money back doing this.
  • They have zero obligation to do this.
  • They are devoting time and money to handle this. Think of the organization and staff hours to solve this.

Essentially, the manufacturer and Ship Naked are doing this out of sheer kindness. Please do not express your frustrations with them — it is NOT their fault. If you still want the game, you can email them, pay shipping, and you will receive an expansion. If you do not want the game, do not want to pay it, or do not want to do with this, that is also fine.

I just received a letter about Phil’s bankruptcy. What does this mean for me? 

Basically, nothing. In legal and accounting terms, Phil owed you an asset, which in this case is a game. You will not receive those assets from Phil. For Livestocked and Loaded and some other projects, Ship Naked and the manufacturer are handling it now. Please check your Kickstarter pages. I can only speak for Livestocked and Loaded.

This letter essentially closes the loop. There is no action for you to take. You do not need to show up in court. The letter basically says: you were owed an asset, you will not receive this asset from Phil.

What will happen to Farmageddon? 

At this time, I don’t know. I own the full rights to the game design and its art. It is mine, free and clear. If you’re a designer signing a contract, be absolutely certain there are revert clauses in the contract for you.

I really like Farmageddon and I’m very proud of it. The first print run of 2700 copies sold out and won a Parent’s Choice Award, with practically no con presence and very little marketing. I know some portion of the second printing sold as well, again, little presence or marketing.

The game was published in 2012, and since that time I’ve observed numerous critiques of the design, and I’ve become a far superior designer. I’m just a better craftsman. I wrote about some of the changes I would like to make, and I am confident that it can be a viable game. Yes, it’s a take that, but it’s very charming, short, and has some nice small decisions between the crop hand management and which cards to play.

I am in talks with various people, but it’s too premature to discuss any of it. If any of these things occur, I’ll be delighted. If they don’t, well, I now have Hyperbole Games. Assuming Hocus performs well and I’m not throwing in the towel in a few months, I might publish a revised version of Farmageddon. At a high level, this would include:

  • Improved 2nd edition cards, including some full redesigns, and much rewording.
  • Completely new graphic design. Imagine the current art with, say, Adam McIver’s graphic design?
  • Touched up illustrations. Both Brett and Erin have expressed interest in notching them up.
  • Single box with Farmageddon, Livestocked and Loaded, all FrankenCrops.

The idea is that this would be the definitive edition of the game. Folks who like it, and folks who like it, but are disengaged, might come take a second look.

But, that’s all very premature.

Those are the big three questions. If you have others, email me, or post them below. I’ll do my best to answer them.

The Thumb Commotion

Cover

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve been rather annoying this week on social media (Twitter, Facebook) asking people to click a link to our cover image for Hocus. This link leads to Board Game Geek and the image, at which point I’m hoping people click a little green image where they thumb it.

With sufficient thumbs, the image enters the front page image gallery, which gains more exposure. This seems like a lot of very annoying, tedious effort for us to get our picture on a page for some form of accomplishment, but it really matters a great deal.

Briefly, I wanted to detail why publishers like me seek out your thumbs and what it means for us.

Firstly, some perspective. The figures I’m going to give you will not be impressive. Remember, the board game hobby is a very tiny niche hobby. I am at the absolute bottom of that niche as a first-time publisher. We all start somewhere, and I’m a scum guppy choking down mud in my pool.

With 98 (and growing!) thumbs on our cover image, and 43 (and growing) thumbs on an image of our cards, we have two images in the front page gallery.

Image

Our social network, being our Twitter followers, Facebook followers, and personal friends who happen to have BGG accounts, helped us get onto that front page. Once there, people who do not know us gain access to our product and what we’re offering. Without me putting it in front of their face personally, they can take a look, click it, and go “huh, this looks neat.” With one click from there, they gain access to our page, where we have links to our PNP, a how to play video, and our publishing page. These BGG users are learning about us on their own in a less obnoxious way and they’re beginning to use our content.

Since our image hit the front page, we’ve seen:

  • A dramatic spike in Fans on BGG (up from 2 to 17)
  • A spike in thumbs for our PNP (up to 30)
  • A spike in PNP downloads (over 50+ since we hit the front page)
  • A spike in comments, primarily on our image files
  • More newsletter sign ups. This is SO valuable!
  • More Facebook fan sign ups.
  • More Twitter followers.

As a result of this traffic and activity, Hocus is now on the Hotness of BGG.

Hotness

The Hotness on BGG is updated once per day, I believe in the wee hours of the morning. For one day, you’re one of several games with front page exposure. The Hotness is based on some formula that is a combination of thumbs and activity. Basically, if people are engaging with your game, talking about it, that sort of thing, you’ll join the hotness. Often it’s represented by very popular games, like Twilight Struggle – people are always discussing it. It’s also where you’ll see many popular Kickstarter games. The reason, is that people hear about the Kickstarter, then go on BGG to engage with them. See images, read reviews, chat in the forums.

The Hotness seems like a silly banner for silly people, but I think it’s important. I have no data to back it up, other than the fact it is slowly helping us build awareness. However, BGG is a hyper targeted site. It is THE destination for board games. People who know about and like board games GO TO BGG to learn more about them and discuss. You know what advertisers crave? A hyper focused audience. Often, you hear about “18-24 year old males,” and huge demographic swaths. With BGG, everyone is there for one reason: board games. I pay every year to remove ads, but I never do. Why? Because most of the ads are for board games. Products I want to buy.

This is partially the reason for Twitch.tv’s success. Their audience is hyper engaged video gamers who want to eat, sleep, breathe, and buy video games and their accessories. Many of your favorite productivity apps exist as a way to gain a hyper focused following to then appreciate ad content.

Updated 6/13/2015: Still climbing!

Updated: Still climbing!

Thoughts on advertising aside, by being in the Hotness, and on the front page for ads, we are now on the front stage for the premier platform for board games. Though our social network is not insignificant, there is a stark difference between followers and active fans. Our active fans, and those who happened to see my post (there’s a lot of noise!) have now propelled us in front of dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of other potential fans. This is an immense gift, just shy of two weeks of our Kickstarter launch.

As a small publisher, in a small pond, we have few assets to gain recognition. One of the reasons we’ve been so slow and patient in shifting from just designers to designers who also publish is that it takes a VERY long time to build an audience. You may have 4,000 followers, but how many will click an image? Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re that popular. One of the reasons we invested so much in art, and we did, was because it helps us with window shopping appeal. People who are just browsing BGG might notice our shiny, gorgeous cover in the background. People might stop to pull it off the shelf, metaphorically in this case, and learn more.

Yes, our art is a part of the game, but it’s also an advertising asset.

In addition to organic thumb drives, publishers have a few other tools to gain attention and build a direct conversation with customers. The first and most obvious are social platforms. I recommend you use all that you think you can provide valuable content for. I have to treat FB and Twitter differently, so I do. I don’t use Instagram for publishing because I don’t have viable content at this time. Secondly, you can buy ads. This is expensive, but it’s effective if you use the proper platforms. We have ads planned for Hocus, at a time when we think they will be the most effective. We’ll probably also have ads when it goes on sale for post-Kickstarter customers, but that’s some time in the future.

A final method is to pay for a contest on BGG. This is a pretty clever solution, but it costs money. The contests on BGG ask you for many specific details related to the game. Details that require you to engage with the game on BGG. If you have hundreds, or even thousands of people suddenly visiting and clicking on your game page? Well, you’re guaranteed to be on the hotness. Next time you see a contest, see if the game is on the hotness. Hint: It is.

I hope this reveals a little information about why we, and other publishers, come stomping about, hat in hand, asking for thumbs. It’s a relatively low cost method to gain exposure and new followers. It isn’t free! You need to have good art and a social network established to do this. But, it’s effective.

Revising Your Design Process

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m obsessed with my game design process. My mind is my primary tool, but the way in which I exercise it, extract from it, and push it, must be constantly re-examined to ensure I’m doing my best work most of the time. I Tweeted about this earlier this week, but I wanted to write about it in greater detail, provide some context, and some actual examples.

I want to be a great designer. Not a prolific designer, or a best selling designer, or a famous designer, but a great one. At some point, when it happens. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take all that other stuff, but first and foremost I want to be really good. I believe the rest typically follows. I think a part of that path is doing things well.

Sometimes these changes emerge organically. There’s a lot of that with Hocus and Landfall with Josh. Hell, that all started with an email that said “Uh, I think you’re my co-designer?” When you work with someone almost exclusively through text, it changes how you communicate, how you express ideas, and how you work. Some of that can also be brought over to my solo designs.

I’m recently trying something entirely new, with great success, for Sol 3.0. I’ll write about this and Sol 3.0, but first, I want to talk about some of the things I’ve tried.

Most commonly for me was Brainstorm, Write Rules, Build Prototype, Test. I used it for Farmageddon. This works well when an idea crystallizes perfectly in my mind. I’ll walk my dog, stop at the park to write a note on my phone, go home, and write it all down. It all makes sense, I have no questions, it just works. The problem is, how often does that happen? So rarely. Maybe once or twice. The rest of the time, that first attempt to write the rules is akin to Pooh Bear trying to squeeze through the hole. I’m trying to force so many ideas against so many uncertainties. As soon as I finish a setup section, I’m trying to figure out how a player will win. Then I ask, but wait, what do they do on their turn. Oh crap! Are there turns? Is it a round? Check Twitter. Oh, I’ll mock up a card for a bit. Hmmm…what does this mean?

Suddenly, I’m so lost and stuck and I forgot why I started the design in the first place. There is a graveyard of half-finished rule sets in Google Drive that rivals the banks of the river Styx.

I’ve also tried a process trademarked as Cheveeing It, by my friend Chevee Dodd. Chevee thinks with his hands. He makes stuff in his wood shop, throws pieces together, and tinkers until something emerges. He’ll have a kernel, but as soon as he has that kernel, he busts out a poker deck, his dice, and anything handy. I’ve used this some, most disastrously with larger games, for many of the same reasons listed above. The larger the game, the more moving parts, the faster I get lost in a morass of things. Only now, instead of a partially finished rules document, I have a partially finished pile of index cards covered in ancient Grantieform.

This process did work very well for me with Hocus. I began the game with a deck of Bicycle Playing Cards, a bag of pennies, and 30 pieces of paper with Spells written on them. I whipped up the game in the morning, a friend came over for breakfast, and we played.

I think this process works in games with simple decisions, few components, and few mechanisms. Cards with numbers style games (Red 7, Abluxxen, Hocus, Modern Art, High Society), simple dice games, or maybe even light abstracts. In a way, you can call it the Agile of tabletop design. Agile can work incredibly well with small teams that produce simpler, low dependency software, but in my experience, works heinously with large, highly complex projects.

Another process, most recent for me, is the Remote Collaborative Chute. This is what Josh and I did for Hocus and if you can find a partner, I highly recommend it. I think, due to being remote, we had to do things differently than if we were in the same room. In the same room, I still think things would have gone well, but we would be doing a two player version of things I mentioned above.

Remotely, most of our important conversations occur in email. One of us will make the long argument for something. I don’t mean argue as in disagreement or yelling, but argument as in a pitch with thoughtfulness to back it up. When we’re brainstorming, we’re spitballing via messenger software, doodling pictures and mailing them, crafting mocks in Google Drawing, or sending pictures of games on BGG. “Like this, but with this.”

We review every single line of text together. Every decision. Every tuning pass. It’s intensely thorough, but it’s required so that we both know what’s going on and can discuss it. Many things are just rubber stamped. Josh or I both have our moments when we say “I think X” and the other person grunts and waves their chalice, sloshing cheap wine on the hounds. Then there are the “wait a moments,” where the chalice is set aside and we discuss upon the bear rug.

I don’t really have any faults for this process, but it requires a good partner. Like finding a good significant other, it’s not easy and sometimes it just works.

But, not everything I do is with Josh. Just, a lot of it. So, it’s time to revise some of my solo practices. Cheveeing it doesn’t always work. Nor does my rules first method. I recently picked Sol Rising back up with the intent to overhaul it entirely. Sol began its life as Blockade, where ships were actual blocks with pegs. This evolved to Sol Rising, with card based ships and a full thematic campaign. Then, Sol Rising 2.5 late last year, where I took some steps to integrate story more thoughtfully. 2.5 gave me some really good ideas. There were some elements I really liked that I thought made the game very unique. I felt like, if I were willing to throw a lot of work away, the end result might be smoother, more exciting, and easier to pitch. That’s what I’m doing.

But, when building a new game on top of a 2+ year old foundation, it doesn’t make sense to do what I normally do. I have a lot of good ideas I’m bringing with me. Things that are incredibly well tested. I also know what isn’t good enough, and I have high level ideas for what I want to accomplish. I felt like, in a way, I needed to pitch myself.

First, I opened a word document and listed about 12 high level things, from the experience perspective, that I wanted this game to have. Some are entirely new, others directly lifted from Sol, and others still a partial version of what Sol contained. I bolded the key point, then typed out a few sentences to provide a gist for what I’m looking for.

I wrote my goal, first. 

“Play an epic space opera with 2-4 players. Enjoy a persistent narrative campaign with friends in which your characters grow, get promoted, and die, and experience a smooth and dynamic combat game.”

I started listing ideas. Here is one that is a modification of my guns/missiles combat mechanism, which has always existed in every version of the game in some form.

“Advantage Rock Paper Scissor: Stealing from D&D, to emphasize the weapon systems Rock Paper Scissor I really like from the current game, I’m going to have situations where you’re at advantage and this gives you bonus dice to roll or situations. For example, Interceptors are at advantage against Bombers. Bombers, when close in with heavy capital ships, are at advantage. Battlecruisers against destroyers are at advantage. All will be on the card, and advantage will mean the same thing across the board. This will reward you, but not devastate you, for having the right ships for the right problem.”

Here’s one that’s almost a direct lift from the current game.

“System Failures: One of my favorite systems from the existing game. I want to make this system more robust and compelling, not just something that ticks away stats.”

Here’s something new.

“Custom Dice Combat: Custom dice that are rolled in combat. Different ships and Commanders will have different uses for the same die faces. This way, you don’t need to memorize rules, just chuck the dice and see what that ship does. The goal is that different ship types and commanders feel unique, results are varied. Commanders and ships can have faults that lead to interesting problems.”

So I have my guiding principles. I can sit in a meeting full of marketing executives, wave my hands about, and watch them nod as I list off high level ideals. I’ve been in those meetings, I know what’s going on. But, now I’m at the point of conflict that I typically find myself in for the first two methods. How do I explain everything? What do I do when I get stuck?

The thing about a prototype as mature as Sol Rising is that I just know it. I can live it and breath it. I can picture it in my head, even the new version. One of my first goals was to remake the map entirely. I hadn’t done that in almost 2 years. It was a weakness of the game. This is an entirely visual exercise, so I made a simple mock.

MapMock

Then I thought, where are the Units? How are the players represented. So, I added those. They’re the numbered diamonds above. I then thought, how are they controlled? Who runs them? I made play boards and tried to create a point of view for what that would look like.

PlayerBoardMock

You’ll notice at the bottom I have a hand of cards. I didn’t bother mocking those up…I wasn’t there yet. And when this was made, I just put in slots for things. I thought a character card might be cool, but I left it blank. I thought multiple squadrons and orders might be cool. I didn’t know how they would work, so I made a slot, and left them blank. I knew there would be phases to the round. But…I didn’t know what. So, I left it blank. I began creating a to-do list of things to fill out.

I made a mock for all 6 sides of the custom die. Then I realized I knew what I wanted my characters to do. That helped inform the dice further as well as the round order. Knowing the round order informed what the ships needed to contain.

ShipMock

I even made token mocks and cards for damage and such. Leave no stone un-turned, and no opportunity to make a lousy mock safe.

Tokens

None of these icons are final. I used the basic shapes provided in Google Drawing. And, if you’re reading he text above and going “But Grant…?” just ignore it. I needed to create basic examples just to get a feel for how the systems work.

So, after a week of chipping away at it, I’ve storyboarded my entire game. Like Pixar with a movie, or George Miller with Fury Road, I know how every step can and should play out. Now, I’m going to draft rules based on this framework. Now I’m going to write the dialog and the story. Once I have that, I can flesh out all the first pass content that I can test. Then, I can strap the story and scenarios I’ve been crafting for years and update them for the new system.

I’m really excited, both by the future of this game, but also using storyboards and mocks to craft the game and take it out of the cave of my mind.

What is your process? How have you evolved it? What do you do to remain sharp and improve? Share your thoughts on my article or answer these questions in the comments below.

Planning to Plan

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Today, June 1st, marks the final month of planning for the Hocus Kickstarter. Hocus, Hyperbole Games’ first published game, goes live on Kickstarter on June 25th and will run for 30 days. The project seeks $6000 and a single copy of the game can be obtained for $15. Press Release jargon out of the way, I want to get to the topic of hand — planning.

I’m a producer for a living in the video game industry on a very large team, though I’ve worked on quite a few small teams. A goal of mine for the Hocus project, out of what is to me a necessity, as well as personal pride, was to have things run smoothly. All too often, businesses of every stripe and experience level rush too quickly towards milestones without adequate preparation. I’m scared enough by the notion of publishing a game to begin with. The thought of stumbling about things at the last minute gives me heartburn.

Then again, this is my nature. I was the kid in college who had his paper written weeks before the deadline. I was panicking that my printed, neatly stapled paper would disappear, not that I’d finish it in time. I hate all nighters, so Josh and I worked to plan ahead for a smooth KS launch. Now, we haven’t launched yet. The proverbial poo might hit the fan. But, we’ve tried to polish off loose ends and I wanted to share our methodology in the hopes it aids you as well.

We knew in November that we had the version of Hocus we wanted to publish, assuming final polish and development. We had several blind testers give us a thumbs up, plus, my mom really liked it. Around November we started to look for an artist and shift things into a very serious gear.

Pick a Date. You need a final date by which you expect everything to be ready. For us, that was our Kickstarter start date combined with the final fulfillment date. Those two are tied together, and there are critical months, like Christmas, and Chinese New Year, that we wanted to consider. We chose late June and decided to run for 30 days. We didn’t want to launch in the middle of either Origins or Gen Con (due to the noise), and feel like November is too late (Christmas shopping, BLACK FRIDAY), so that narrowed our choices. Once we had our date, we began to work backwards.

We felt that 8 or so months would be sufficient time to finish development (just barely!), art and graphic development, final tasks, and any unexpected things.

If you’re curious about the things we’ve done in these 8 months, a quick summary of significant and insignificant tasks includes:

  • Balance testing, content editing, rules editing
  • Maintaining PNP files, finding testers, and shipping them to testers
  • Collecting and acting on feedback
  • Manufacturing planning
  • International shipping planning
  • Fulfillment planning
  • Business model planning
  • Add on planning, design, testing
  • Creating a KS page and all that entails
  • Debating with each other
  • Building a plan for press for the campaign, reaching out to press, arranging for copies and so forth. This includes previews, podcast appearances, interviews, etc.
  • Business things, like getting UPC codes, dealing with taxes, yadda yadda

In addition to these are “non-essential” things like working on new designs, blogging, playing games, and some days, staring at the wall and doing nothing. And my real job, fiance, dog. What I’m trying to convey is that you’ll have a lot of things to do. Some big, some small. Some with very long lead times. You will also have real life calling you, whether it’s kids, a job, or just a game day with friends. Deadlines are fantastic for forcing decisions and moving forward, but you need sufficient time to tend to a lot of things. Especially if you’ve never done it before.

Identify external dependencies early. What are things outside your control that you need to nail down? Who do you need help from? Seek those people out, talk to them, and make those the first things you plug into your schedule. For us, this included things like:

  1. Hiring and scheduling our illustrator. We needed our style and all illustrations before we could schedule our graphic designer.
  2. Hiring and scheduling our graphic designer. Adam needed to know what he was working with, which meant illustrations needed to be finished.
  3. Before we could fully move with our graphic designer, we needed specs for our box, rules sheet, and cards, which meant we needed templates from our manufacturer.
  4. For some of our add-ons, we needed some early icons to start that process.
  5. We needed to prioritize a portion of the game (namely cards, spells) so that we could create decks using DTC (whose schedule we cannot control) and mail them to press soon enough to have them play the game.
  6. We needed to identify willing press partners who had time in their schedule to check out the game.

There are things outside your control, other people who have independent schedules, and more unknowns. Identify these things and slot them into your schedule first. If they don’t work? Revise your dates and try again.

Be Decisive. You have lots of decisions to make. One thing I think we’ve done well is just deciding. We have frequently gone back and changed things, including #tuckboxgate, but we are always moving forward. Being decisive pairs well with giving yourself a nice long lead time. If you don’t rush things, you can afford to be wrong. You can make a decision, then think about it. The worst thing you can do is to choose nothing. Deciding actually changes things and forces you to examine a problem or task from the other side of the fence, so to speak. If you just wait, nothing changes, and before long you’ll be stuck with a decision. Sometimes that’s okay, sometimes you’ll enjoy a sub-optimal outcome.

A while ago we were discussing whether to initially put rules on cards, then put them on a rule sheet if we met a stretch goal. We had to book Adam (our graphic designer) and didn’t want to do the work twice. So, we decided to hope for the rule sheet and wait. We signed our first contract with him without this. Later, we decided that was the wrong choice — the rule sheet made the most sense from a cost and product standpoint. Thankfully, we had time to adjust.

Be ready and willing to adjust. I’m continuing the previous point, but be decisive, and continue to question and challenge your assertions. We frequently made assumptions about costs and worked against incorrect assumptions for a very long time. You’ll do this often with manufacturing. Do 90 cards cost less than 99 cards? Nah! Well, actually yes. Sometimes it’s a matter of pennies, other times it can be significant.

Create a detailed to do list with everything. Assign due dates that are reasonable but set when they are needed and stick to these dates. Take it seriously and you’ll receive serious output. Assign owners for every task. Who owns what, and what does that task entail? What is the deliverable you expect to find? This is often just a sentence or so, not a novel.

Our to do list is broken into sections, like Illustrations, Graphic Design, KS Page Prep, and Press Support. We would over list things, some of which were nearly checked off the second we wrote them, or discarded later because they weren’t tasks. But, by completing this slightly tedious task, we were able to really take a step back, examine the project, and appreciate everything we needed to do.

Partnership. I cannot stress enough how fantastic it has been having a partner through all of this. You may not have a co-designer, or a publishing partner, but you need one. To some degree. Find a dedicated sounding board for your ideas and your process. You’ll be surprised at how well most people grasp some business basics. Surround yourself with people who care, or pay attention, and frequently run things past them. Sanity checks, you might say.

Furthermore, develop your relationships with the publishing community at large. There are so many friendly people who were in your shoes just weeks, months, or years ago. I am constantly firing off emails and DMs to people who know more than I do. Find these people, scratch their back, and seek their advice.

Plan for Promotion early. A lot of Kickstarters fail here. It takes time to print a prototype, mail it, and for the person on the other end to play it several times. All too often, people mid-campaign hit up journalists and hope for immediate coverage.

First, we identified our press partners. We did this by considering sites we enjoy ourselves and/or have a relationship with. Getting a preview is often a favor. We evaluated them based on the cost. Some previews cost money, which is fine. They are essentially providing you with an outside presentation of your game. It’s far closer to an ad than a review. I wouldn’t pay for a review — these aren’t one. We also decided based on people we thought would enjoy our game based on their play preferences and habits. We might be off here — the jury is still out!

Once we had our list, we contacted folks months in advance. We told them about the game, provided our timeline, made it clear we would provide them with a game, and asked about their concerns and questions. We received some positive responses, some nos, and we moved forward. The key is to identify this early and plan for it. Don’t just hope it works out.

Conclusion: Originally I hoped this post would be a little less philosophical, but in many cases, it didn’t seem useful to list out the things we’ve worked on. Hopefully by the end it came to a nice compromise. I hope this is useful to you in your efforts. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask!