I’m Original, No I’m Not

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Friend and fellow designer Kyle Van Winkle asked me if I’d ever written about a moment where I thought I had a killer idea or mechanic, only to find someone else has already done it. The answer, is that I’ve been in that situation, but I hadn’t written about it.

So, let’s do that.

When I started working on Dawn Sector (previously Battle for York) in March of 2012, I was chasing a few elements I thought would make the game more unique:

  • 2-4 player war game with no player elimination
  • Short play time of about an hour
  • Entirely card driven. No dice!

Now, even then, and certainly not now, I wasn’t foolish enough to believe those three things hadn’t been done before. But, I was examining the landscape of games to play and found myself frustrated by the lack of options along the first two bullets. And the card only idea seemed like a good challenge.

Around May or so of 2013, after over a year of development, I discovered the game Horus Heresy. It had many similarities to my game, at least regarding its combat mechanic. Then, I discovered the game Kemet, which also had many similarities. Very close similarities. This all broke me like an avalanche hitting a flan lying on the mountain slope. Why is the flan there? It isn’t important. My internal (and to some degree, external) response was: why the hell bother any more? I’m years too late.

Luckily, I bucked up, found an amazing publisher (Portal), and we created a unique beast that, yes, still has some similarities.

Here are the realities you need to face.

  • It’s 2014. There is very little in the way of mechanics that hasn’t been discovered or attempted. In my case, three different designers set out with a similar goal and arrived at a similar solution. You know what that means? A lot of the other solutions were garbage. My design partner, Joshua Buergel, has over 3000 games. He reminds me constantly of a game that has done it before. At least in some way.
  • Few games are a single mechanic. Yes, your game uses worker placement, but it pairs it with dice. Or it pairs it with drafting. Or it uses it to fuel a war game. Mechanics in a game aren’t additive, but multiplicative. The uniqueness that springs forth from these pairings can exponentially affect the overall design.
  • Too much innovation and uniqueness is overwhelming. Players can only absorb and glean a few new elements. Even if you are brilliant and can create new mechanics, you should do this sparingly.

That might feel rather bleak, but it’s not meant to be. If anything, this is a pep rally, especially for newer designers. I don’t want you to break like I almost did a few years ago.

I think your overall game needs to be unique. I think your overall design MUST bring something new to the table. I’m super proud of Dawn Sector’s balance that keeps players in the game until the end with no elimination and relatively fast pace of play. The battle mechanic is neat and adds a lot of variety to how things evolve. And me and Portal have done some really cool things with dynamic events and such that vary a game with many other deterministic elements. Plus, factions!

In Sol Rising, you can see the finger prints of other games all over it. You’ll read the narrative and think Mice and Mystics and The Expanse/Honor Harrington series. You’ll see the events system and think about Robinson Crusoe’s exploration tokens. You’ll look at ship abilities and think about Summoner Wars.

But, the mix of fleet oriented tactics, how the events affect play, the smooth pace, and unique objectives and scenario balance make this a very unique package. Plus, it only takes an hour to play. And there’s a team campaign.

Had I been bogged down by those individual elements being derivative I’d never get out of bed. A few weeks ago I posted a community post asking about eureka moments. One of my favorite designers, Ignacy Trzewiczek had this to say, which I think is apt:

“Let’s face it – I don’t believe in Eureka moments. I don’t believe that I will ever have this brilliant idea, that moment of enlightenment that will let me invent something that awesome like Worker Placement mechanism (William Attia in Caylus), Deckbuilding mechanism (Donald X. Vaccarino in Dominion) or Pay With Cards mechanism (Tom Lehman in San Juan). It won’t happen. I just sit on my ass and work hard trying to use already invented tools and mechanism to build something fun and entertaining. I have not had many Eureka moments in my life, and yet, I managed to design couple of fun games. So my advice for you is – don’t wait for Eureka moment. Just sit on your ass and work as hard as you can. That’s all you need.”

To counter this, my friend Corey Young, who designed the very clever and innovative Gravwell, shudders at the thought of releasing a derivative game. If you follow him on Twitter, you know this! He seeks to craft unique mechanisms, whereas I seek to craft unique products, knowing full well I’m borrowing heavily in the weeds. Neither methods are incorrect, nor is one simpler than the other.

Therefore, what do you do when you discover that your killer idea is someone else’s killer idea? You keep working on it. You re-examine it through a new lens. You pair it with a mechanic or component that nobody has done before. But most importantly, YOU continue to make the game YOU want. All of us are unique in our tastes and manner of thinking and development. If you give the game time via development and testing, you’ll begin to see a wide distance between what you crafted and what has come before.

Don’t break, don’t give up, and don’t fret the borrowing. Consumers want great games. They want to be entertained. Make something original, either in part, or in whole, that satisfies those qualities.

CCG Diagnosis

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Daniel Solis has been Tweeting about researching and designing a CCG lately. CCG stands for Collectible Card Game, which is similar to Trading Card Game, and somewhat similar to Living Card Game. No game better embodies this moniker than Magic: The Gathering, the gorilla of the table top industry. However, simpler titles like Pokemon and newer contenders like Android: Netrunner, bring in plenty of revenue and customer satisfaction for their publishers.

Me and Joshua Buergel have been emailing each other back and forth about CCGs in a private discussion. It’s something we do often as a topic meets our fancy and this one, for once, seemed appropriate to write about for the blog.

What are the core elements of a CCG? What does one need to consider when designing one? I don’t claim to be an expert on these, though I’ve played quite a bit of Magic, Netrunner, and games with similar to characteristics over time. Nor am I designing one myself. And no, I don’t presume to write this to inform Mr. Solis. No, it just seemed like a fun topic and I haven’t written in a week or so.

A few things at the top: I’m going to assume a basic familiarity with some CCGs. I’ll be primarily using Magic and Netrunner as my examples, as those are the ones with which I am most familiar. I’m not getting into the business model, which for simplicity’s sake you can assume is: players will buy more cards in some fashion. The goal of this article is to identify things that may be a smidge less obvious and pertain to the design of a CCG.

Tight Economy: Many CCGs have very tight, carefully tuned economies to limit player actions and gate strength of a single player over time. A well-tuned CCG provides a ramp as players go from insignificant to a crushing behemoth.

If I recall correctly, Mike Fitzgerald said the cost-curve was one of, if not the most significant decision in designing a CCG. If it wasn’t him who said it, it was Mike Elliott. Both should know a thing or two about the topic!

In Magic, players can only place 1 Land per turn. Assuming a player’s deck is playing nicely, he’ll grow by 1 Land every turn until mana is almost irrelevant as a decision point. Hearthstone works like this: 1 more mana every turn.

In Netrunner, players begin with a small amount of money, which is used to fuel almost everything in the game. However, players are also limited by clicks, or actions. The corp player receives 3, with a free card draw, and the runner player receives 4.

There are exceptions to these rules. In Magic, there are more powerful lands and artifacts that provide bonus mana. There are elves and other creatures that will do such things. In Netrunner, players can play Assets that generate additional income every turn, or can score Agendas that will reward additional clicks.

The tight economy is not always strictly about money and resources. Summoning sickness gates the explosive growth of a wizard’s army in Magic in order to give an opponent time to counter the play. Plus, this introduces the opportunity for exceptions, such as Haste (i.e. ignore summoning sickness). In Netrunner, Ice must first be installed THEN rez’d. Again, it gives the game time to unfold without slowly it in an undue manner.

A good CCG is a tense back and forth between players. It’s not much fun if one player launches out the gate with the hammer of god. A tight economy restrains this and provides a nice ramp of complexity and threat.

Focused Deckbuilding

Either with implied rules or explicit rules, good deckbuilders require focus for success. This constrains the options available to a player and reduces the burden on design teams from having to tune so many combinations. CCGs need to have these limitations and rules in order to constrain their options.

In Magic, players CAN build with every color of Land and use all 5 spell colors. However, that is unlikely to lead to success. Now, I’m sure someone can (and will) point towards a 5 color deck that has worked, but by and large, players stick to 1 or 2 colors. Why? For one, with the exception of Spells that modify this, your Land draw is unpredictable beyond what probability dictates it should be. If you have 3 different colored creatures in your hand and need 3 different lands, you may find yourself in trouble. The rule is implied that you need to focus your deck to increase the probability of paying for the Spells in your hand.

In Netrunner, players must choose an identity upon which to build their deck. The identity will specify a minimum number of cards as well as a maximum amount of influence that can be brought in from other factions. This number is often approximately 15 Influence. Low value cards tend to cost 1-2 influence, with really potent cards costing 4 or 5 influence. If you only have 15, that’s a careful balance of 5-10 cards from outside your core faction.

Be sure to constrain the deckbuilding properties with either implicit or explicit rules.

Factions

A good CCG supports multiple play styles and personalities. David Chott, designer and publisher of Lagoon, once said that he knew which friend designed which deck in college based on its contents. The deck’s play style would have his friend’s finger prints all of it. I think it is SO crucial that like a good RPG, or MMO, or Moba, a CCG supports different play styles through factions.

In Magic, blue, red, green, black, and white mean something. Blue is about control of the board. Red is about direct damage (fireball). Black is about trade-offs — take damage for power (necromancer). Green represents life, druids, and the power of the forest. White represents health, buffs, and paladin-like powers.

Netrunner is no different. You have Shapers, Anarchists, and Criminals in the runner side. You then have four distinct corporations on the other side, who hate the runners and each other.

When a player picks up a new CCG, they’re looking for a familiar foundation. This doesn’t mean your CCG needs to have a black necromancer faction with a few renamed cards. But, you should fundamentally understand why each faction is satisfying and try to emulate those qualities in your design.

These qualities could be overt aggression, subtle and clever card play, setting up big combos, or nickel and diming someone with an efficient setup. I tend to prefer focused decks with 1 or 2 side tricks. Others love to find broken exploits they can somehow turn into a winning strategy.

Support this! Start from a high level position, then drill down and create content examples for each. Without good, clean factions and play styles, you might not satisfy your audience.

Exception Driven

CCGs are complex and intensely inelegant. CCGs often have simple core mechanics, but a million exceptions, conveyed through every card. Although it has gone hog wild in the past, the Magic R&D team tends to introduce 1-2 new mechanics every new cycle and retire old ones. That means every cycle is built around 1-2 completely new mechanics, which are then introduced and twisted with decades of content and ideas.

Netrunner is full of exceptions, with the key being that it is full of knobs to twist. When you begin Netrunner, you must first learn a long list of terms, which are unfortunately asymmetric per faction. Yes, it’s thematic, but it’s confusing that a runner’s hand is called a grip, and a corp’s hand is called HQ. Here are some of the term concepts:

  • Click (i.e. action)
  • Credit (i.e. money)
  • Bad Publicity (Runner gets resources on a run)
  • Trace (an action in which each player contributes money, often to give a tag)
  • Tag (triggers many card powers, allows the corp to trash runner Resource cards)
  • Multiple card types, including Identities, Operations/Events, Resources/Assets, Upgrades, Hardware, Program, Ice, Agenda
  • There are also standard actions, like draw card, gain 1 credit, purge Tags, initiate a Run

Every Netrunner card tweaks how these terms mix and work.

If you aren’t comfortable with exceptions, you shouldn’t make a CCG! At the start, you must identify your core mechanics: how will a player take a standard turn? What does a turn entail?

Once you can answer that question, you need to list and design your standard terms. You need to work from a glossary that is crucial towards keeping yourself constrained and limiting undue card text and terms. Note: try to stick to standard card terminology. Look to Dominion here, not Netrunner.

If you can define a core term and have a list of core terms, you can begin making cards. If it typically costs 1 Click in Netrunner to gain 1 Credit, then a card that costs 1 Click and gains 3 Credits is valuable. Exception! If it typically costs 1 Click to start a run, then a card that starts a run AND lets you bypass the first ice on the server is valuable. Exception!

These are the obvious exceptions and therefore the simple ones. Often times, you can’t create outstanding and devious ones until you’re deep into the game. You need to know it. My best Farmageddon, Dawn Sector, and Sol Rising cards (all of which are exceptions!) were derived from testing, not a brainstorm.

Think of your exceptions like a sitcom: often, the first season is full of a few good jokes, but otherwise weak, forced comedy. However, the truly good shows often have incredible subsequent seasons as the writing team and actors really figure out their characters. Give your CCG time to grow into its exceptions so that it can be more exceptional.

Look to Similar Games

When designing a CCG, you should look to other games that are clearly inspired by CCGs. Why? They did something unique upon the foundation. Some examples that come to mind include Dominion, a game that took the pre-game deckbuilding and exception-based card combos to create a new genre.

How about Summoner Wars, which took head to head, asymmetric, exception driven card play and added a spatial element?

There’s also Lagoon, which is all about combos and unique cards used on a shared spatial platform.

You should also most definitely play Innovation, which is one of the most phenomenal, absurd, and emergent card games ever. The game is defined by game-breaking combos, counter-moves, and exceptions.

Look to the Greats

There are so many CCGs it’s difficult to keep track. When building a CCG, you should conduct research in the best. Magic: The Gathering is required reading for this course. It is a phenomenally influential and profitable design. You can experiment with the digital version for cheap.

Netrunner is also required. It’s Fantasy Flight Games’ best selling Living Card Game and also designed by master mind Richard Garfield. It introduces deep asymmetry, which is fun, and is incredibly thematic. It also has a steep learning curve, which you can learn from. You can get the base set for $25 on Amazon. It comes with 7 pre-built decks to learn.

Pokemon is a simple CCG that has been around a long time. This is a game that is beloved by children and younger players all around the world. You can pick up 2 starter decks at Target for not much at all.

Hearthstone is an emerging monster in the digital space. They have done incredibly well and have gained the attention of many people. Hearthstone takes many of the best elements of Magic, streamlines it (or improves it, depending on your view point), and takes advantage of its digital platform. They are able to do mechanics, like persistent damage, that would be tedious in a table-top CCG.

Other than these, go to your FLGS and find one that has a theme that excites you. If it’s still in print, it’s likely successful, and therefore worth a look.

Else

What did I get incorrectly? What did I gloss over? Share your thoughts in the comments below to counter my potentially poor blog play. Thanks for reading!

Version 5 and the Brink

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Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

Grant: When you reach a design iteration you dub “5.0” it may be time for what my mom refers to as the “come to Jesus meeting.” We’ve been scrambling for months to find a new framework for Hocus Poker. At the top of the Summer we threw away something that worked and had been received well because we didn’t think it was good enough. But, we’ve spent a lot of time since then trying to do it better.

Last week we tested Hocus Poker 5.0 and to be completely honest, had it not gone well, I think I might have walked away.

Josh: I’d have tried to talk you off the ledge, but it would have been time to question some fundamental assumptions. For instance, I’m not sure we could have continued on the path of having no separate betting tokens. It’s something we were keenly interested in getting right, for a number of reasons we’ve talked about before, but our iterations in this area have been unsatisfying.

Grant: To quickly reiterate, we wanted to craft a game that was cards only to save on production costs, portability, and keep the MSRP low. We were sticking to our guns of no player elimination in a game that is built on it. You know, poker.

Josh: But that was down the road. We had time to go for another major revision and see if we didn’t have another shot in us. But where to start? Grant had a playtest that didn’t go well, so that was our starting point. The 4.0 build wasn’t terrible, exactly, but it was unexciting. There were some promising bits to it, as usual, but it just didn’t leave the players excited.

This version had dual use cards (with points on the cards), some special cards in the regular deck, and attempted to feature a short decision cycle with small hands being built up gradually and a series of small showdowns.

Grant: One positive note was that my testers said it was much better than previous versions, but that was a low bar. Still, progress.

Josh: It was becoming clear that the showdowns were a problem, to me. They should have been exciting, fun, and surprises should have happened regularly. What was happening, instead, was really rote. The idea of having them happen as things went along just wasn’t quite working the way we wanted. A good idea, maybe, but not for this game.

Grant: More fundamentally, we had a lack of good decisions. You could see this in the Showdowns, building Hands, and betting. Sound probability indicated a very boring strategy: pick the best pair possible. This would often become a 3 of a kind or Full House once the Community was revealed.

We wanted players to have fun decisions throughout. That seems obvious for any game, but it’s really not. Or more accurately, how to execute against that is not. In Texas Hold ‘Em, you don’t get to change your cards. It’s all about bet management, which is done to bluff, bully, or accurately represent your hand.

In Hocus we  let players change their cards and reduced the importance of bet management. However, with such simple cards, it was basically just a matter of cycling to create the most sure thing you could. It was dissatisfying.

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Josh: Full Houses have been a recurring problem for us. Honestly, we should be smart enough by now to recognize that if they’re popping up too much, we’ve somehow goofed.

Grant: Players felt like they were stuck on a ride. Get in, build a pair, see what happens.

Josh: I don’t think we’re aiming for a really agonizing game here, but there needs to be a skill component to things, obviously. It should be a lightweight strategy game, not an “experience”.

Grant: Yeah. Honestly, we were making the “It’s a Small World” of fillers, which I don’t think is a good thing.

Josh: To be clear, that’s a Disney reference, people.

Grant: Let it go.

Josh: BOOO.

At any rate, something had to give. We needed a way for people to have some planning in the game. It just needed to happen. Grant and I both had an idea kicking around in our heads, which was simple: why not give people a bunch of cards at the beginning of the round? They could then work on allocating things themselves.

Grant: Things being their hands, the community, or the pot. Collaboratively and competitively.

Josh: On top of that, we could retain the simultaneous hands by putting two communities in play. Now, we got to keep the idea of building multiple hands, which we liked from the previous version, while keeping some form of planning. Once those planks were in place, the 5.0 version came together quickly.

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Grant: That’s a super key point I don’t want to gloss over. Previously, we let you build 2 hands under the guise of strategy. One for now, one for later. That didn’t pan out, but it WAS fun building multiple hands. Naturally, we needed a second place to use that second hand.

If 2-4 players are building a Community at the same time, there’s a little bit of volatility. By building 2 Hands, you increase your chances of capitalizing on one. Two, if you’re lucky or good.

Josh: I was briefly advocating for three simultaneous hands, honestly. Maybe for an expansion?

Grant: I think it might be viable as a wink wink 2 player version.

Josh: Honestly, the biggest problem in this version has been what to name things. “Hand” is overloaded, and people didn’t like “Holding” for what they wanted to call their “Hand.” So, we’ve had to juggle stuff around on names.

So, we worked this out, and Grant had a playtest. And, I would describe it as “triumphant.” He wrote to me, and his email was full of jubilant swearing, which is the best kind of swearing.

Grant: I was throwing hip hop hands in the air. For the record, I did not care.

Josh: Not quite ready to believe it, I ran a test myself last night with three of my friends, grizzled veterans of the Hocus Poker development process. These fine, determined gentlemen have played every major version of this thing, going back to the version with little tiles.

And, one of them said that “it’s the most fun he’s had with any version of Hocus Poker,” and another described it as “very polished.”

There’s clearly balancing work to do on spells, but after the first round, I was just playing the game. I was taking notes, sure, and noticing wording and things to tighten up. But I was just playing the game. It’s been the first time since some of the late 2.0 versions when I’ve had actual fun playing it. That sounds bleak, but we learned stuff from every one of those unfun games which I think we’ve applied. It actually seems good now!

So, where to go from here? What lessons can we learn? Persistence always pays off?

Grant: We have a lot of work left in spell balance, tuning, and proper wording. But, that’s a relatively easy part compared to where we’ve been.

As for high level, a big thing for me is that we kept slamming on the brakes. We threatened to stop the car and we actually stopped the damn car. It was really difficult to do again and again, but it really paid off. You have to hold yourself to a quality bar. There are just too many other good games to make something mediocre.

I also think we learned a great deal about identifying what we want to do with the game and how to get there. We never flailed. It felt like flailing. But, we went about it in a rather constructive and thoughtful way. We stopped repeating bad spells. We avoided known bad ideas that never seemed to work. Yes, we’ve tried Banished 30 times, but we all have to have a windmill or two at which to tilt.

Dude, so many sweet references.

Josh: At least we amuse ourselves.

I think we can identify something useful that came out of each major revision that has still stood up. 3.0 gave us the idea for individual spellbooks.

Grant: This was a huge breakthrough. Instead of all sorts of mixed actions, the spellbooks said: execute one of the four cards in front of you. Plus, your four cards are unique. Great for accessibility.

Josh: 4.0 gave us the gems on the creature cards. Those are integral parts of the game, which are solid ideas that are making things better.

Grant: I love multi-use cards. They are just so much fun. It also works really well for our poker setup. Do you use a card for its suit, strength, or Gem? 3 uses is very simple and easy to process. It provides a nice layer of choice. Looking beyond that, you think about building a pair, a straight, and how to best set yourself up for a bigger hand via the community.

Josh: Those revisions were not in vain, they just, you know, weren’t any fun. A careful post mortem of each playtest helped show which are the parts that were working, and we’ve been able to carry those forward. The ideas in 5.0 are ones that we’ve painstakingly chipped away from all the other ideas that have been floating around.

Maybe that’s a new benchmark for me? Try and salvage one really solid idea from every playtest, no matter how badly things went.

Grant: It’s a good goal and a very achievable one. I can finally talk about this — I learned a great deal working with Portal on York/Dawn Sector. They had no qualms saying “not good enough,” and I wanted to be good enough to emulate that in my own craft. But, man. It can be crushing sometimes.

I think, and this is bold, we should share the rules. You can read them here. They are about 1400 words from start to finish, which we’re really proud of.

Josh: It’s hard saying your own efforts aren’t good enough. This part was kicked off by deciding that a game that people had played and enjoyed didn’t make the mark. That’s rough enough, but continually kicking a bunch of revisions down because they weren’t fun was dreary, but it’s been worth it.

BGG Prep

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Board Game Geek Con is this week and I’m rounding up any loose ends to be prepared for it. Cons are a really big part of our niche hobby for many, but for me they’ve always been a mixed bag. I tend to have a good time, but, what can I say, I’m weird.

This year’s con planning was strange. At one point I was going to attend Gen Con, then Essen Spiele, then BGG, and it’s been a while now since I’ve had direct exposure to publishers to pitch and network. Really, that’s my primary interest in Cons.

I’m hopefully going to be busy at BGG Con and I wanted to write about some of the things going on. Take a look. Hit me up on Twitter if you want to meet up. I’ll be rooming in the convention hotel. I’ll be there from Wednesday afternoon until Sunday afternoon. I’m volunteering at the Portal Games booth, so you can probably find me there most mornings and such.

Why will I be at the Portal Games booth? Well, you should watch Ignacy’s latest video blog for details.

The Pitches

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Sol Rising: I have quite a few games that need homes that’ll be in attendance at BGG Con. Most important, to me, is finding a home for Sol Rising. Sol Rising is my 2-4 player space opera tactics game. I’m proud of its narrative setting, 12 unique scenarios, and the persistence between scenarios. I’m also pleased that I’ve created an intuitive, thematic, light to medium tactics game with a lot of fun randomness in combat and Events.

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I started working on Sol in the early spring of 2013 on my way to the Protospiel Milwaukee event. I’ve put in a great deal of work designing, writing, testing, and developing it. But, it’s a bit of a niche game. I knew that going in and didn’t really care. If I don’t find a home for it at BGG, I’ll need to find a more humble destination for it. The game is too big for me to self-publish with a big print run. Just too risky for me at this time. However, I think I can, and would, make a limited print run using assorted POD services to create copies for any takers.

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Hocus Poker: Ah yes, our little problem child. Hocus Poker is a design with seemingly a million ups and downs, but it’s finally coming together. We (me and Joshua Buergel) have been tweaking, testing, and re-designing this sucker all year. We finally think we have the framework we need.

The current iteration of the game is quite interesting. 2-4 players are dealt 10 cards, shown in the image above. Cards have a suit (their illustration), a strength (1-13), and a gem value. Play takes place in sequential turns, on which, the active player will play 1 card from their hand to one of the two communities (up to 4 cards), as a gem to one of the 2 communities to build a Pot, or as a Pocket card to USE on one of those 2 communities. When the communities fill up, players assign each of their 2 hands to one of the Communities. Best Poker hand takes all the Gems played to it.

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The twist, beyond that, is that every player has 3 unique Spells that let them do the 3 basic actions above in weird and unique ways. We’re excited in that we think we have a unique, original game that borrows some elements from poker, but doesn’t feel like a lazy modification to the game.

John Ariosa created some awesome art for our prototype and we ordered some slick DriveThruCards for fancy prototype copies. We’d love to find a publishing partner at BGG. If we don’t, we might self-publish it, or bring it with us to Gen Con 2015 to pitch some more.

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Landfall: This is the mysterious (or not so mysterious if you haven’t cared) title I refer to as LF on Twitter. It’s another collaborative project between me and Josh that we’re keeping close to the chest. The key word there is project.

I’ll be testing this game at BGG and sharing some of the details on it with folks. This one is for self-publication. We’re hoping to have it ready by late 2015. We’ll see!

The Plays

I typically saunter into a convention rather lazily with no preparation. I play what I happen to get to and keep it at that. This year, I tried to be more proactive about what I’m playing. I found a forum on BGG for war gamers and signed up for 3 games that should be VERY fun, including:

  • Fief: I Kickstarted this earlier in the year and am very excited about it. The rules make it look fantastic, like a rich, complex, medieval Rex.
  • Command and Colors: Napoleonics: This is a great Richard Borg design from a favorite time period. What makes this even better? It’s an 8 player game.
  • Space Empires 4x: I like this game, but have only played it once. It’s a pretty great candidate for a convention game. I’m also excited that I’m going to be bringing the copy and teaching it to folks. We’ll see how that goes.

I’m also very eager to play a great deal of Netrunner. A few months ago my friend and I stopped simply buying the game and actively began playing it. It can be difficult, in a large game group, to carve out 2 player game time. But, we made it a priority and we just love the game. I’m bringing 4 decks and all of my cards to BGG. I don’t think I’m any good, and I’m sure I’ll be made a fool with every encounter, but I’m nonetheless eager to play.

Imperial Settlers is a game that I very much want to play. I was one of the people Ignacy asked to double check the rules, yet it sold out at Gen Con and I haven’t bought it yet. I am already in for 3 copies of the expansion for a Twitter follower, so I might as well play it, right?

I very much want to play Specter Ops from Plaid Hat Games. They just announced a preview will be at the convention. I really love the work these guys do, so this is an insta-demo.

Finally, Geoff Engelstein of Ludology noted he’s bringing his prototype Fog of War. I read the rules for this a month or so ago and it looks like a really, really clever war game. I want to play it oh so badly.

The Purchases

I’m an eager consumer and I don’t expect to come home empty handed. For one, my copies of Fleet Commander: 1 Ignition and Mysterium from Essen will be handed over. As listed above, I’m eager to try (and let’s face it, buy) Imperial Settlers. The Bots expansion for Theseus might be there.

I’d also love to see if Rattlebones or Temporum are at BGG. Both of these titles seem neat and I’d love to check them out.

Finally, I love when cons have weird, out of print game to try and purchase. I plan to find some gems.

Else?

If you’re at BGG, be sure to hit me up. I’d love to try your prototypes and show you mine as well. If you want to meet for a beer, we can do that too! Hope you guys have a fun convention.

Entries Wanted: 2014 in Review

Just before deadline

 

We’re in the final months of 2014, which means it’s a good time for reflection. In the past I’ve hosted community articles about the upcoming year, as well as ones about the recently completed year. This post is seeking submissions for the latter.

What did you accomplish in 2014? What did you learn? Where did you stumble, and how will you address it? What did you learn from failure? I’d love to compile a collection of these tidbits from our design community to share, enjoy, and reflect.

Here are some details about joining this post!

  • Deadline: November 23, 2014. That gives you a few weeks plus BGG Con to think on this and wrap things up. Of course, sooner is always appreciated.
  • How: Email me your submission to grant at hyperbolegames dot com. Bonus Points for putting “Community Feature” in the subject line.
  • What: Try to keep submissions to a reasonable length. I may have 5, 10, or 25 people participate. If we have 25, well, I’ll make it a week long feature. Ultimately, if you have a lot to say because a lot happened, and it’s interesting, then write it. But, be concise and aware that it’s a community post.
  • Additional Materials: A photo or two are encouraged! If you have a picture of a slick proto or a published game, share it.
  • Links: If you want me to link to your Twitter or Website or BGG entry, please include that. You’ll save me a lot of time chasing it down.

As a final note, keep tone in mind. I’d love for this to be more of an honest story to share. Please don’t send me a press release or sales pitch. Naturally, I’ll work with you as editor if anything seems off, but speak from the heart and share your story. Don’t worry, you’ll get some nice promotion just for being in the article.

If you have any questions, suggestions, or concerns, use the email above or comments below to get a hold of me. Tell your friends about this – the more the merrier.

I look forward to your noble tales of triumph and failure. I know I have mine!

Design for FOMO

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve been listening to Alex Blumberg’s StartUp podcast lately. It’s really outstanding. He was one of the main guys behind This American Life and Planet Money. Really, he’s a masterful audio storyteller. So far, his episodes are primarily centered around finding a partner, as well as investors to fund his new business. He needs to convince people to believe in him with a lot of money: $1.5 million to be exact.

In one episode, he notes that a key to receiving funding is to convince potential investors of FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. As in, if they don’t invest, right here, right now, they’ll miss out on this incredible thing. They’ll regret it forever. For example, one of the investors, who is a billionaire from Twitter, has FOMO from missing out on Air BNB, which is now a massive success.

I think our hobby has something special about it, oddly enough, that really allows for more FOMO. That special thing is our limited print runs. I know that I pre-order some titles because I’m concerned I won’t be able to get them for quite some time, if ever, if I don’t do so. This is especially true for expansions, such as Summoner Wars decks. With video games or books or TV, the data is floating in the cloud. You’ll never not be able to get it. Hell! They’re re-releasing games from my childhood now.

But, a board game may never come back. This is why I was willing to pay $150 for a copy of the Memoir ’44 Air Pack Expansion. It felt like a safe investment.

Board games, as a physical good, that must be expensively produced, warehoused, and shipped, are less perennial. The margins are low and capital is limited, even for successful publishers. Dungeon Run, Plaid Hat Games’ second release, sold out of its 5000 copy print run. Yet, Colby wasn’t sure whether it was a good investment to immediately do another printing. That game has been out of print for years now. And it was successful!

How then, can we ethically and responsibly create FOMO for our games? This is something very key to me and Josh’s plans for some of our upcoming designs. Therefore, I want to discuss it more broadly. Yes, I realize comparing board games to the FOMO of tech start-ups is a bit hyperbolic, but I like the concept and think it’s a fun thought exercise.

The Mystery Box

Publishers like Asmadi Games and AEG have limited mystery boxes. You can see Asmadi’s right here. What’s in the box? Hopefully not a head. It’s fun! Get it. See.

Cards Against Humanity did this brilliantly last Christmas with their 12 Days of Christmas special. For $12, customers received 12 gifts, one each day, none of which we knew about. It was really cool and an incredibly fun experience for me.

I think the mystery box is brilliant for a few key reasons:

  • Receiving stuff in the mail is fun. It’s less common these days and that makes it special.
  • Getting a deal is fun. $77 for $150 worth of games (the Asmadi deal)? Shipped? I can’t resist such a good deal.
  • Not knowing is fun. If you think about it, this is why people love serial TV series. As much as we hate it, we also love waiting for next season’s premier.
  • It being limited is fun. Plus, the fact that I get to do the unboxing and share it with others? Well, that’s a nice bonus in an age of “look at me” social engagement.

Kickstarter

Kickstarter is FOMO wrapped in a fatty piece of bacon. The entire site is based around FOMO. Let’stick these off, and frankly, many of these should be obvious by now.

Countdown

  • There is an actual countdown clock.
  • There is a sense of obligation. If YOU don’t back it, IT might not happen.
  • The need to belong is present. There are many others who thought this was a good idea. You don’t want to not be in the group, right?
  • You get your game first. I think this is not the most enticing treat, but it’s important for some people. And, it has led to controversy when violated.
  • The ecosystem has evolved to be Fomolicious.

Let’s discuss this last one a bit. Over time, the Kickstarter ecosystem for board games, specifically, has evolved to mean:

  • Free domestic shipping and discounted international shipping. That’s a deal.
  • Discounted price. That’s a deal.
  • Additional content included that’ll be sold separately. That’s a deal.
  • Early bird pricing. That’s a LIMITED deal. But, a controversial one.
  • Content or goodies exclusive to your KS backers. Also, quite controversial.

The exclusives has many side effects, some of which are anecdotal, so it’s difficult to gauge how problematic or good they are. I’ve read that some retailers (and consumers) are concerned about getting the full product if they didn’t back via Kickstarter. Then again, I’ve heard some backers exclaim they desire an incentive for buying early. This article isn’t about debating the merits of Kickstarter tactics, but bringing them up as a potentially good (or bad) example of FOMO.

The Preorder

This is similar to Kickstarter, but worth bringing up individually as it doesn’t come with Kickstarter’s expected ecosystem. The Preorder, as employed by folks like Plaid Hat Games, Stronghold Games, Portal Games, and GMT (with their P500) includes bonuses such as:

  • Discounted price
  • Receive the game first (again, wobbly in value for me, but hey!)
  • Variable goodies, such as Promo cards, signed copies, doodles of cows, and assorted items from the marketing closet

Something special about both the Preorder and Kickstarter is that you get a more personal connection with the creators. You’re emailing your favorite publisher directly instead of buying it from the store or Amazon. That can’t be discounted. Personal bonds are a great bonus of our industry. Leverage them! Every interaction with your customer is an opportunity to excite and please them.

The Art Project

The indie label is tossed around a bit liberally in board games. Board games are such a small business that a lot of big players, like Stronghold, or Rio Grande, and TONS of Kickstarter publishers have 1 or 2 employees who also have day jobs. But, for the sake of this, let’s use indie to mean passion projects that are done to be done. Almost like art and design for the sake of it.

We live in a great time for such projects. The Game Crafter provides tons of excellent print-on-demand products, including printed boxes, plastic standees, and a variety of cardboard shapes now. Print and Play Games features many of the same options, but is also intensely flexible. If you want a custom shape? Andrew can make it. Finally, Drive Thru Cards offers very high quality cards on a per card basis, and Printer Studio offers lovely, professional grade linen cards (at a higher cost, naturally).

When I think of art project, I think of Cave Evil. It’s so metal it hurts. It smashes its battle ax over the phrase “mass market” and just doesn’t care. If you like it? Rock on. If you don’t? Cave Evil will tell you where to shove it.

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Cave Evil’s appeal comes from a variety of things. It has that Brooklyn Artisanal pickle vibe about it. I mean, shouldn’t such a thing exist? It seems hand crafted. It’s a labor of love. It had a tiny printing in 2011, saw a “final” reprint in 2013 of not too many more copies. That makes it rare and something that belongs in some collections merely to say “dude, look at this one.”

The Small Print Run

I don’t know how often this is a deliberate tactic, or simply a matter of viability, but some publishers consistently use small print runs, which I think aids them in some cases.

As opposed to a few years prior, Z-Man seems to produce far fewer titles each year, and in smaller print runs. Terra Mystica sold out very quickly, even at its high price, and due to the law of economics, surely increased demand.

Small Box Games has also been doing very small print runs for 7 years now. They could have upgraded to large print runs leveraging lower cost facilities in China by now. But, they haven’t. In a way, I’d say there’s an appeal to their products. They feel humble, reasonable, and have that local vibe that so many other businesses pride themselves on.

The Version

There aren’t too many examples of this, but the one in mind did so well it’s difficult not to mention. I’m speaking of Pairs from Cheapass Games. Do you love Pirates? There’s a deck for you. No wait. You look like a Goblin kinda girl. No no no no no. You want something with that John Kovalic vibe. Here, this is for you.

Abyss from Asmodee has multiple covers, which is somewhat similar, but not quite the same.

There’s something intoxicating about getting a version that is somehow special to you. I think Pairs hit on something brilliantly.

 Summarizing the FOMO

There are a few standout elements to creating a good sense of fear of missing out in our customers. One, and most importantly, is surprise. How can we surprise and delight our customers? Sending a variety of packages through the mail isn’t exactly cost efficient, but I think we can surprise in many ways.

  • Send personalized greetings to our customers. Recognize them for enjoying your products, and remind them that you care. We can do this on BGG, Twitter, our Vlogs, and Newsletters.
  • Provide discounts and sales to your loyal customers. Start with your mailing list.
  • Plan ahead. Print a handful of promo cards with the main game. At holidays like Christmas, or big events like Essen, mail your pre-order customers, or some slew of fans, the promo cards. A stamp doesn’t cost much and it’s a really fun way to get people excited about the game again.

I think we create FOMO with our brand and our personal image. Through consistency and quality people will begin saying “well, I can’t not buy that game.” This takes years, but the payoff is incredible. Really, you want to be the nicest guy or gal around, with good games, great customer service, and a big smile at every opportunity. People should be sad they weren’t there to support you.

Novelty creates FOMO. We work in a niche industry and I think sometimes we forget that. This is especially true for those of us who do this as a side hobby or business and not a bill paying activity. Even if we do create the next Wits and Wagers or Ticket to Ride, it is unlikely we’ll gain the awareness to capitalize on it. Even if we do create a game that by all means could sell 10,000 copies, we’ll probably be lucky to sell 1,000. Therefore, I argue novelty is not an excuse, but a marker to work towards.

I think the Japanese game fair (or whatever it’s called, apologies) embodies this. As a result, we have Love Letter and the micro-game wave.  You see this quite often in indie PC game development. There are some truly weird, bizarre, and incredible games on Steam and your browser.

Customization is intoxicating and I think we need to find more ways to emulate the Pairs experience. The challenge is to do this in a cost effective manner, obviously. But, providing options and flavors for people to choose really ups the ante.

Finally, and most simply, FOMO requires a sense of urgency and a great deal. Present something with a limited time on it, or a limited opportunity, and people may notice.

Surprise. Quality. Novelty. Customization. Urgency.

How do you think we can create FOMO?

The Like/Don’t Like List

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Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

Grant: Josh and I have been collaboratively designing Hocus Poker since February 2014 and our process has evolved constantly throughout.

Josh: It’s been the fastest evolving game I’ve ever been involved with. It hasn’t been the fastest from from prototype to production – that honor goes to Ascension at Firepeak, which I developed – but it’s been fun watching the game change.

Grant: One new process has jumped out at me recently and seemed worth discussing. It’s something Josh introduced and it’s worked very well. But first, we should probably provide some insight as to where Hocus Poker IS and has been recently.

Josh: All over the place!

Grant: Mostly notably, a few months ago we put the brakes on the version we distributed at Origin. It wasn’t as good as we wanted it to be and never would be. At a high level, we decided the game needed to use cards only, needed to be a more original title (less a poker modification), and work better with five players.

We recently put the brakes on Hocus 3.0, as we called it, to move towards Hocus 4.0. Each one of these isn’t a nuclear shift. We’re always keeping some, if not much, of the previous version. But, the changes are significant enough that we branch the rules and start fresh.

Josh: It has been occasionally dispiriting, honestly. It’s been Grant who has made the tough call each time to try and rethink things, and my reaction each time has been more onomatopoeic than anything: bleeeeaurrrrrgh. Because each time this happens, it’s time to come up with more content, re-think balance, just put everything back on the table. We may not be going nuclear here, but we have to really think about everything.

It’s been the right decision each time, I think. And each time, we accrete more things into the game that I’m proud of. And when (if?) this thing ever finishes, I’ll be happy that we went back into the salt mines each time. But, it can be hard to strap on your boots.

Grant: It’s really painful. There’s the saying that you have to stop tweaking at some point, but I don’t think that’s what we’re doing. I think we have a pretty clear idea for what this game can and should be. Not hitting that is disappointing, especially when all of our solutions keep getting us closer. I think we’ll hit the right iteration soon. I think we’re there now (which I totally haven’t said before). And, I fully expect Josh to finally pull the veto chute when we’re at the right spot and I don’t shut up.

For each of these significant changes, we did a really simple pro and con list. What do we like? And what do we not like?

Josh: The reason I like this approach is that we weren’t starting from scratch for these. We’ve put a lot of effort into this game – hundreds and hundreds of emails, chat conversations, document revisions, and all that. I have a dozen or so built prototypes around this house. Even when we wanted to examine every part of the game for a possible overhaul, we still had this base of acquired knowledge and ideas to draw from.

Grant: To really put this in perspective, we’ve tested and designed probably 100 different Spell cards at this point. We’ve tested several variations on the deck, including suit numbers, strength, and card powers. We’ve done about 4 major structural revisions. Each of these are similar and borrow from one another. It’s just a vast pool of knowledge from which to ponder our next moves.

I think we’re well over 100 tests between our local tests and blind tests. We tested HP3.0 over 20 times!

Josh: So how to decide what to re-consider? Why not list what we like and don’t like? If anything shows up on both of our dislike lists, that seems like an obvious place to start tinkering. No matter where I am with a design, there are always things that I’m more excited about than others. So, when we last hauled Hocus up on blocks to see what we could do, we decided to just put out what we liked and didn’t like.

Grant: The lists were pretty simple and short, but quite telling. The likes really help anchor our sacred cows. And by now, we have some sacred stuff. I don’t think this is a bad thing. These are battle tested goodies.

LIKE

  • Spellbooks: Variety, asymmetry, simple.
  • Building Multiple Hands: Long term planning. Is a nice twist on poker.
  • Gems: I love everything about them. Really simple wager. Giving someone a negative is fun without being too destructive.
  • Short turns: They work once people get it. I do think our turn structure is weird to explain. Maybe.
  • I like the idea of wolves and I want to solve the problem glyphs were trying to solve.
  • I like controlling when showdowns occur.
  • I like how our game scales. It does so decently right now.

Josh: The nice thing about this list is that I can point to when we figured that stuff out. And, for the most part, the stuff on Grant’s like list were things that we had figured out in what we call 3.0. That’s great sign, really. These were hard won lessons over a ton of iteration, and now Grant has a list of things that he really likes that we’ve hammered out recently. My like list looked like this:

LIKE

  • I like the spellbooks.
  • I like building multiple hands.
  • I like the Gems being the rewards.
  • I like short, sharp turns.
  • I like, conceptually, the wolves.

There’s a lot of overlap between these lists. We’re both pretty pleased with the innovations that were introduced in 3.0, as a result of all the learning from the first whacks at it. The like side of things, particularly the overlapping items, tells us what we don’t really have to worry about too much.

Grant: Dislikes are also important. Really, after we discuss the likes to smooth over any disagreement, we need to chart our course for the next steps. The dislikes are a big foam finger that says “I suck.”

DISLIKE

  • Endgame doesn’t quite work.
  • I don’t like our hand distribution. I’m frustrated trying to solve the balance of the range of hands. It just doesn’t seem to work with what we’re doing.
  • I don’t like the 2 hidden cards in the community. I like the IDEA of it.

When we start these discussions, I have a habit of just writing for days about everything that does and doesn’t work. I start thinking grandly, then minutely, and it gets rather scattered. This process does a really good job of forcing both of us to think constructively and focus. We don’t need to discuss everything. We really just need to know where we stand.

We agree on A and B. Good! C is contentious. Let’s focus on that really quickly.

Josh: It was primarily the end game that brought you to bringing up changing to 4.0. At least, it was a major concern. I, too, had things I wasn’t totally sold on, so my dislike list looked like this:

DISLIKE

  • I don’t like the numbers in the deck
  • I’m not thrilled with the endgame

To expand it a bit, I was discontent with the composition of the deck. I didn’t like that it was relatively close to a poker deck, still. I didn’t think there was enough differentiation here, enough use of a custom deck of cards. Our attempt to fix that in 3.0, adding some minor effects to some cards, just wasn’t hacking it. And, we see the endgame pop up here again. Clearly, that’s a sore point.

We’ve actually been struggling with endgame for the whole development of the game.

Grant: The Like and Dislike lists gave us incredibly clear discussion points. We knew what was working. We discussed the few differences in opinion there. We knew what wasn’t working, and again, were able to quickly discuss differences in opinions. Now, we have a short action item list of things to tackle, which we were able to do remarkably quickly. I think the time between the initial email and 4.0 was about 30 emails in 2 days. That’s super quick!

Josh: We have a new endgame structure, which may or may not work. We have a new structure for the main deck, which I think we’re both really excited about. And we have a new reward structure to change the way hands are valued, which may or may not work. But, at any rate, we cooked up possible solutions to the things that were bothering us, thanks to having some focus.

Grant: Even if you aren’t designing cooperatively, I’d argue this process has value for you. I know in the past, especially with York, I’d exit a rough test and attack it through the lens of “the game is wrong,” instead of “the defenders have insufficient options.” A like/dislike list would have curtailed that.

Josh: Knowing where you actually are with a design is probably the hardest thing to really understand. Fixing a specific problem is both easier and more fun, but identifying where that specific problem actually is can be tricky. “That test went poorly” is insufficient, and you have to start somewhere to make progress.

What do you guys think? Share your thoughts below.

Self Doubt is my first Tester

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

I have several games in the works right now, which on one hand diffuses my focus and may not be entirely healthy. But, on the other, all of them are in weird places: long term development, early testing, late testing, rules tweaking, pitching, and so forth. All of that stuff consumes one portion of my brain and the other side, the creative portion, has little ideas with which I like to experiment. Some emerge, some don’t.

There is a really good argument to get a game to its playable state as quickly as possible. Come up with an idea, yank out some cards to build it, and test. I don’t think that’s a bad approach, and for some peers that’s the only way they CAN do it, as their mind requires the tangible pieces to move about and consider.

I, however, especially this past year, have found myself moving through a long marination phase of consideration and introspection before I build the prototype or even build the rules. And lately, I find myself building a prototype, then taking another week or so to think on it further.

Self doubt is my first tester and I want to make an argument for such marination to occur. Not to say it’s the ONLY way to do something, or even that it’s the right way, but merely to suggest that you may find gems by doing such a thing.

Firstly, your testers are precious, or more accurately, their patience. If you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by a group of designers, it’s possible to bring garbage to the fore and they’ll be fine with that. However, few have such a benefit. You should take the time to consider your prototype privately before exposing it to your test group, if only to make a stronger first impression. If your prototype is so mechanically broken that little promise can be seen, you’ve done yourself and your game a disservice.

Secondly, without a little marination, you, like myself, may find yourself relying on “old favorites” or “old habits.” I have a crutch upon which I constantly lean, which is action cards. I love them, but it’s stifling my creativity and unique approaches to problems. My first response “this needs spice” is to design 30 action cards. Nein! If you’re rushing to prototype, you’re only allowing your creative brain to conceive so much. You will fall back on comfortable trends, which again, is a disservice to your design.

My suggestion, is to take your core theme and core mechanic, then quickly build around it. If this includes your crutches, fine. Do it with abandon. Then, instead of taking the game to Billy’s, circle back and circle your less inspired concepts with red ink. Quickly list out alternative solutions to solve the same problem. And if something is in your design, you should know why, even at this stage. Challenge yourself from the viewpoint of using a simpler mechanic, or fewer components, or using a specific component to jumpstart the creative process. If you rely on cards too often, use hex tokens instead. If your favorite game in the genre uses a rondel for action selection, experiment with dice instead.

However you go about it, give yourself the time and put forth the effort to do things differently. Let your inner demon speak up and say, “Hey <your name>, can I be honest? You can do better.”

My final element to this simple treatise is that you need to be your game’s greatest champion. I was listening to Alex Bloomberg’s Start Up podcast this morning — hugely recommended, go grab it. In his first episode he’s pitching to a billionaire investor, who notes the most important quality to a company pitching him is their emphatic and devout belief that what they’re doing is important and will be successful. They aren’t saying “this can be cool” or “we think this is an idea.” They say, with conviction, this idea will change the world. This business will make money.

You need to allow self doubt to seep in to challenge your conviction. You need to battle it and emerge victorious. You’re going to receive input, especially early on, that your game isn’t fun, that it’s unoriginal, that it’s fiddly, overly complex, or isn’t as fun as a recent game from <insert hugely successful designer>. They’ll be completely right now, but in the face of that, you need to know why they’ll eventually be wrong.

Allow the early criticism into your design from day one. Take the time to address the concerns, enrich the core, and become your greatest fan.

Eureka Moments

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Post by: The Design Community!

I asked a handful of designers about eureka moments they’ve experienced in designing a game. Something that really opened their eyes to how things could work in their designs, or a way to solve their current problem in a magnificent fashion. Some of the examples seem specific to an individual game, but if you read into them, you’ll see broader themes that can apply to you. And in case you miss it, I break out some of these at the very end.

Note: To avoid a resume-like list, I simply introduced each participant with a single item. If you want me to mention another of your projects, just email me!

Ignacy Trzewiczek: Publisher at Portal Games and designer of Imperial Settlers

Let’s face it – I don’t believe in Eureka moments. I don’t believe that I will ever have this brilliant idea, that moment of enlightenment that will let me invent something that awesome like Worker Placement mechanism (William Attia in Caylus), Deckbuilding mechanism (Donald X. Vaccarino in Dominion) or Pay With Cards mechanism (Tom Lehman in San Juan). It won’t happen. I just sit on my ass and work hard trying to use already invented tools and mechanism to build something fun and entertaining. I have not had many Eureka moments in my life, and yet, I managed to design couple of fun games. So my advice for you is – don’t wait for Eureka moment. Just sit on your ass and work as hard as you can. That’s all you need.

Corey Young: Designer of Gravwell: Escape from the 9th Dimension

Santorini resulted from a chain of eureka moments. The first came while I was playing around with some 1-inch lasercut hexagons I’d picked up at a game convention. It occurred to me that when I split one into 3 sections that each became an isometric block.

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I started fiddling around with these, playing with M.C. Escher-like artwork. While I liked the mind-twisting aspect, it didn’t feel grounded in reality. My primary concern was that each tile had 6 possible orientations. I considered marking the top or bottom corner to indicate “up,” but all the markings were ugly.

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Then, while doodling in my design notebook, I drew an elongated hexagon. BAM! That solved it. The hexes still interlocked, but now there were only 2 possible orientations. With minor visual cues, “up” would be obvious. In some cases, the tiles work in either orientation. The wider format also made the overall image feel less vertically stretched.

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The last eureka moment came when I was trying to come up with a way of getting the tiles to stay together in the right orientation. My original prototypes were simply tiles situated on a tabletop. The inspiration for the inclined board came from a music stand.

Geoff Engelstein: Co-Host of Ludology and designer of Space Cadets

Notable Eureka moment: Making losing fun in Space Cadets. That was by far the last big feature to be added. We had played for years where to win you had this climactic ‘Jump’ attempt, with much yelling and screaming. But you lost just by taking too much damage, which usually simply came down to a die roll. Yeah, it could be a tense die roll, but it just wasn’t the same.

One time I ran back-to-back playtests with different groups. The first won, with much cheering as they jumped successfully. The second lost the game, and it just was like air going out of a balloon.  And the thought just popped up in my brain – “Losing needs to be just as exciting. There needs to be a minigame about losing.”  Very quickly we sketched out the criteria:

  • Needed to involve the whole team
  • Needed to be thematic
  • Needed to help save you from losing.

So you always had one last shot for redemption, and you had to pull together as a team to do it.

It took lots of tries to get something that worked, but ultimately the ‘Core Breach’ mechanic became my absolutely favorite part of the game. I think we really did make losing just as dramatic as winning, and it perhaps creates more stories than anything else in the game.

Joshua Buergel: Designer of Foresight (Coming Soon)

One of my favorite eureka moments came on Foresight. I’m a huge fan of Uwe Rosenberg, especially his early card games. One of the things I enjoyed about them was the unexpected ways he used them. Things like not being able to sort your hand in Bohnanza, or the rotating hands in Space Beans. At the same time, I read an article by James Ernest about creating games that break implicit rules, the things everybody knows about games and game components. I think it was written about the extra turn mechanic in Spree, but I thought it was interesting. Since I’ve been a lover of traditional card games all my life, I decided to see if I could apply those principles, unexpected use of cards and breaking implicit rules, to a traditional pack of cards. It hit me in the shower one day, finally. The implicit rule I should break would be that all cards in a poker deck have the same back. If I broke that rule, what could I do? From there, the idea of putting suit information on the back of the cards came about very quickly, and I had my deck of cards in essentially its finished form.

Gil Hova: Designer of Battle Merchants

My journey so far has been a bunch of smaller eureka moments. I’ll highlight two that stand out, though.

The first came relatively early. My first few designs were simple bluffing games. At some point, I realized that I hated playing bluffing games! I was still new to board games in general, and it was a big shock when I realized that the games I liked the most were not always the games that everyone else liked.

We all play games, but the kinds of games we enjoy are all so different. They offer experiences ranging from contemplative thought to cutthroat bitterness. Not every game is going to appeal to every player. Once I realized my favorite games were deep economic Euros, I was able to focus my designs to what I liked best in games: making interesting plans and executing them around other player’s plans.

The second came much later. I was chatting with another designer over Twitter a few weeks ago, and we discussed the traps our early designs fell into. His fell into the “this card forces you to discard your hand, the next card forces you to lose your next turn” trap. Mine fell into the “roll dice to see how many dice you roll” trap.

Both traps use gaudy mechanisms to obscure player interaction. They seem like they add interesting and meaningful gameplay at first, but in practice, they actually obscure it. It took me a long time to learn how opacity and transparency affect game design. They’re both useful tools, but as a new designer, I tended to toss opaque mechanisms in just because they sounded cool, without realizing how much they pulled players out of the game.

I was lucky enough to fall into the NYC-Playtest group, who repeatedly urged me to cut useless mechanisms and to not be afraid to make radical changes. Prolix, my first published game, had an awful, clunky letter movement mechanism that didn’t actually add any value to the gameplay. Once I followed my playtesters’ advice and cut it out, the game started to really sing.

AJ Porfirio: Publisher at Van Ryder Games and designer of Hostage Negotiator

It was realizing that my game could not be all things for all people. There will always be someone who doesn’t like your game. When I started out, it was painful to hear the tough criticism and sometimes very harsh remarks. Over time, I’ve come to realize that it is ok that everyone does not like a design or publication of mine. What is important is that the target audience DOES enjoy it. So in a nutshell, know who your audience is and make design decisions with them in mind!

Todd Edwards: Writer of the Nerni children’s books and designer of Streets and Sidewalks

There I was, working on a solo combat game to take with me when I traveled. That meant the enemy AI needed enough attack variety so that I wouldn’t be able to predict what was coming, you know, to make it more like playing against a person. So I added cards and added cards until I had 120 or more. The game got too big to fit in the small travel box, which defeated the original purpose. Then I remembered my brief brush with combinatorial chemistry back in grad school. What if each card had two bits of info, and you drew two cards for each attack? Then you can have a much bigger variety with a small amount of cards. Then each enemy got five cards. Not only did that make the game portable again, but it let the AI build combos with the attack from one unit and the modifier from another. The AI felt more like a human opponent and the game turned out better than I’d hoped!

Daniel Solis: Publisher at Smart Play Games and designer of Light Rail

I was testing a bluffing/deduction game inspired by Liar’s Dice, where if you lost a wager you’d lose one card from your hand limit. If you ran out, you were eliminated. The last player standing was the winner.

Unfortunately, this led to runaway losers because a smaller hand size made it that much more difficult to make educated guesses about the overall game state. The game was too long and un-fun.

The Eureka moment came when a playtester suggested flipping the win/lose condition on its head. Instead, running out of cards is a good thing that you’re trying to achieve. This makes a natural catch-up mechanism as the player furthest in the lead has the least information to work with.

Since then, I’ve always kept an open mind about victory conditions when I hit designer’s block. Instead of wanting the most X, maybe you want the fewest? Instead of the tallest building at the end of the game, you want it tallest in the middle and then tear it down as quickly as possible? Sometimes there is a juicy design space in “shoot the moon” mechanisms, too.

Ed Marriott: Co-Publisher at Moon Yeti Games and designer of Scoville

My eureka moments are few and far between. But one moment of note was when I realized you could buy 1000 assorted cubes from EAI Education for around $20. That made my prototyping so much faster. I use the cubes all the time. It’s funny to me that sourcing components is my eureka moment so I’ll give another eureka moment.

When designing Scoville, I fumbled over the grid design for a while with how best to have it operate. When I stopped thinking about it and just chose the simplest method everything in the game fell into place. Sometimes it’s easier to just go with something and test it rather than toil over numerous design iterations in your head. Get your games on the table! You might be amazed at the results.

Kyle Hendricks: Co-Designer of Bountytown

When design started on Bountytown, it was originally supposed to be a Touch of Evil re-theme. My eureka moment was sitting in a meeting room at my day job, thinking about the core conceits of the game, and it hit me hard. The “spaghetti west” is always misrepresented as super white and male. Bountytown then took a MAJOR shift as the main goal was to provide a voice for often under represented folk. Because of that, we took huge changes with mechanics and breaking from our other “formulas” which made it what it is today!

Jay Treat: Designer of Legacy of the Slayer

For Cahoots!, the big eureka moment was realizing that instead of having one suit per player and fiddling with a formula for sharing points with opponents, I could have one suit per player pairing and the scoring would just work automatically. By challenging a core assumption about trick-taking games (that there are always four suits) and by considering my goal for the game rather than my current solution for it, I was able to simplify and innovate at the same time.

Legacy of the Slayer’s genesis was in the eureka of combining two solutions to problems I had with existing story games: Cards to focus the narrative on characters and their development, and a system to ensure that loose ends get addressed before the game ends. It’s important as a game designer to find what bothers you in the games people are playing and imagine solutions; That’s vital practice in developing the problem-solving skills you need, but also one of the better sources of inspiration. When a solution is so compelling you want to build a game around it—even better, when you realize you have multiple solutions that would fit the same game—the end result is likely to be a product that innovates in a way people enjoy (as opposed to innovation for its own sake which is often a dead-end).

Ben Rosset: Designer of Brew Crafters

I was taking a brewery tour at Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton Delaware and the owner, Sam, was so passionately describing how he grew the brewery into a thriving business in such a short amount of time, and talking about all the new equipment they were installing that year and about the new recipes they were researching, and then suddenly it hit me: this would make an amazing game! I went home and immediately got to work on what would become “Brew Crafters”.

Chevee DoddDesigner of Pull!

I’ve always wanted to design a trick taking game. I love games with a “problem solving” aspect, and trying to deduce players’ hands to figure out the perfect play really excites me. So, I designed a trick taking game PULL! and that’s exactly what it was. A game where playing perfectly was a requirement.

The problem is, that’s not fun for most people. There’s a reason why Bridge isn’t heavily talked about with excitement among gamers… but Tichu is. So, during my weekly gaming sessions I started paying more attention to what makes Tichu “fun” for us. I found the answer during a particularly close game when one player was trying to go out first while setting up his partner. An opponent, who hadn’t done much the entire hand, suddenly throws out a bomb, which wrecked the brilliant play of the other. This happens a lot when playing Tichu, and it’s neat, but that wasn’t the moment.

Shortly after his bomb, the opponents threw out a bomb of their own. BAM! Eat that. Nope. Quiet guy calmly looks at his hand, and throws the rest down. He had an Ace high straight bomb! Just like that he went out, totally destroying his opponents and the table burst into laughter and mocking.

That’s what PULL! needed: an injection of coy little plays that could totally turn the game upside down. That’s when I went to work to make the game “fun.”

Grant Rodiek: Designer of Farmageddon

Early in Farmageddon’s life I was having difficulty solving the tuning of the Crop and Compost cards. You needed Crop cards to plant and Compost cards to harvest the Crop cards. I couldn’t get the distribution right! Players always had too many crops or too few compost, or vice versa. The thought occurred: why not let Crops be used as either? This solves the distribution entirely. In fact, it removes the problem. It also adds a nice little choice: how do I use this crop card?

Multi-use cards have since become a favorite tool of mine. They feature prominently in York, LF, and surely more to come. But, they are also a key element of my favorite games, including Race for the Galaxy, 7 Wonders, and Summoner Wars.

Secondly, and most importantly … I worked on York for years. The core mechanics didn’t change much, but I was constantly polishing barbs and imperfections. Smoothening and removing bumps. A friend noted I was going to strip the screw, so to speak. Over time, it became clear that I had sanded the game into a foundation. I had sought elegance at the expense of fun. Since then, I haven’t feared inelegance or “fat” as I think of it. As long as it makes sense, and increases the fun, I leave it. You can see these changes in Sol, which is full of fun items, Hocus, and LF.

Some highlights, in my opinion.

  • Don’t wait, but get busy on creating fun. The magic will happen as you work.
  • Losing should be fun too!
  • Don’t worry about making games for everyone. Make a great game for someone. Make the games YOU want to make.
  • New mechanisms can be found by breaking current rules and expectations. Break core assumptions to innovate.
  • Take inspiration from the world around you, be it flavors, sights, or key moments in your life.
  • The best doesn’t always have to be the biggest or most. You can win with the fewest or another less obvious fashion.

If you want to contribute your eureka moment, email me, or share in the comments below!

My Dream 2 Player Game Night

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Writer for the nefarious I Slay the Dragon review/news/preview site Andrew Brooks asked me about my two player game list. You see, I noted that Innovation, while excellent, wouldn’t fit in my two player list. Therefore, he wanted to know what was on my list.

Gulp.

I could take the Top 10 Two Player Games for Two approach, but I’m not sure that’s quite the right approach. You see, with 3-5 player games, I think we’ll often have games that exist on both of our lists. But, two player games are so personal and intimate. They really show a player’s tastes and I want to present my list a little differently.

Therefore, I present an Intimate Evening with Grant. Games for Two. That’s me, and you. Some notes about our evening together. The games listed will be games made explicitly for two. They will be games intended for folks who play games, not necessarily introductory games.

Oh hey! Thanks for coming over. Oh, nice, you brought beer. How kind of you. Shall we order some pizza? Thai food? Sounds good. Want to play something simple while we’re waiting for food and catch up on stuff?

Typically when a friend first arrives I like to play something light and stupid. Often, we both have stuff to talk about and it’s fun to just play something stupid. Plus, food will arrive soonish and it’s not fun to insert a large break into an important game.

At the very start of a two-player game night, I’d bring out a game like Revolver or Cube Quest. Revolver is simple, incredibly quick, and packs just enough decisions to stay interesting. It’s highly thematic and asymmetric, which is always a bonus.

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Cube Quest is hilariously quick and destructive. You’re flicking cubes at each other’s castles, which you assemble in secret behind the cover of the game’s cover. I recommend you play with all the cubes and ignore their silly limit rules, by the way.

You can easily get in 2 games of Revolver before Thai arrives, or 5 games of Cube Quest depending on how incompetent you are. Me? I lose fast.

Ding dong! Oh, it’s the delivery guy. Do you have some cash for the tip? Thanks. Come on Peaches.

After we gather the food, bust out the plates, and sit down, it’s time for something a bit heftier. Like a good mixed tape, you want to lead your two player game night in slowly but definitively. It’s at this point I’d bring out Summoner Wars, X-Wing Miniatures Game, or Netrunner. Now, the ultimate choice depends on your date, err, friend.

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Whether Netrunner is chosen or not depends entirely on whether your friend plays and has a deck (or decks) ready to go. It’s really that simple. If the answer is yes, I do have a deck, then Netrunner is an easy and brilliant choice. Like any good CCG, the game beautifully reflects the personality of your friend and lends itself to brilliant table talk.

The choice is similar for X-Wing Miniatures. I have some deceptive, untrustworthy friends that are ideal for Netrunner. I have others who love chucking dice and building squadrons. If your friend had time to tweak their latest squadron and their box packed with miniatures is in the trunk? Well, it’s time to dogfight.

But, if your friends aren’t deeply invested in the above financial drains, or simply didn’t prepare, then Summoner Wars is such an amazing choice. The game provides the fun of a CCG without the C (the first one). If you have all of the content, or even just the Master Set, you have a huge variety of decks to try out.

I love all three, but I often love playing a rematch. X-Wing often goes a bit longer, especially in a close game. Netrunner and Summoner Wars, however, are perfect for a rematch. Swap out your decks and have another go.

Belch. Ah, more wine? /pats full stomach I think it’s time to get down to business. No more of this childish garbage. Let’s play a real game. A big game. Something that we’ll talk about on Monday when we pass each other in the halls at work and glare, remembering the one key play that brought one of our plans to naught.

Every two player game night needs a main course and for me, right now, that means Combat Commander: Europe or Twilight Struggle. These are 2-3 hour games, not for the feint of heart, and, hoo, I need a heart burn pill.

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Twilight Struggle is the big daddy and the current number 1 title on the BGG game list. It’s a brilliant tug of war between the Soviets and Americans over the world. Every single card player matters, which makes it so delicious. It’s aggressive and interactive, but not mean-spirited or painful. It makes me smile just dipping into its machine.

Combat Commander is a personal favorite that just delights with every play. The game is a sandbox for stories and cool moments. Fires will rage where none previously burned. Smoke grenades will protect perilous charges across open fields, only for the soldiers to encounter mines or a hidden machine gun. It’s a masterpiece of clever card and scenario design. Best of all, I love that it reminds us that war and games aren’t fair. But, the best players come out on top regardless.

Well, look at the time. Shhh. My girlfriend came home. We need to whisper. Do you have time for one more? It’s quick, I promise.

I have a difficult time ending game night without a little dessert. A tiny treat that leaves everyone with a positive memory in mind as they trudge home overly full of delivered food and victory or defeat. For me, that game is Dragonheart.

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Dragonheart is the most played game in my collection, aside from my personal prototypes, but also the one from which I’ve taken the most value. I bought the game for $5 from Fantasy Flight’s Christmas sale and at 50 plays, I think that’s a great buy.

In Dragonheart, you must play at least one card to one of the, oh, let’s say 8 spaces on the board. You can play as many cards from your hand as you want to that one space, but you must play at least one. When the requirements are met, you take cards to your score pile. The player with the most points at the end wins. The game is simple, highly luck driven, and very swingy. I love it. Once you know how to play, you can finish the game in 10 minutes. The result is that you find yourself playing your 8th game of Dragonheart at 2:30 am on a weeknight.

I wouldn’t want it any other way.

So long, friend! When are you coming back for more games? Yes, I’m tired too. Well, we should think about what we’re going to play next time, yes? See you later. Be careful and drive safe.

Let’s go to the bathroom, Peaches. Then, bed.