Next Gen: Me

The current me has had a good run.

For about seven years I've been exploring card games inspired by Magic: The Gathering and experimenting with many flavors of multi-use cards. Sometimes more overtly (Five Ravens, where cards have two explicit functions), and others more subtlely (Solstice, where you can draft cards to help you or hinder an opponent with blocking plays). I've experimented with several mechanisms. Drafting in Solstice. Deckbuilding in Cry Havoc and York. Tableau building in Five Ravens. Or poker in Hocus. 

I've tried to create a different game each time, though some stand out a bit more (Druids, an abstract with effectively no cards) and others are pretty familiar (Five Ravens is ME in 15 minutes). However, in all my games you can see familiar finger prints. 

  • Cards
  • Multi-use cards
  • Heavy interaction
  • Combos
  • Deterministic outputs
  • Randomized inputs 

I think it's been a good run. But, I think I need to evolve, or I'll crystalize into a boring mirror image of myself that nobody wants to publish. Public stated manifestos such as these have little purpose, except it helps me pen my thoughts, but also is a public statement to try to keep me honest. Change is difficult, and it'll be tempting to ignore it. But, I think I have to change in order to be successful.

Driving all of this first and foremost is my desire to be published. I absolutely love overseeing the art for my games and working directly with customers. However, and you can chalk this up to the human need for validation, I want somebody else to want the games I'm designing. "But Cry Havoc was published" you say, and you're right. But, it's the exception in 7 years of constantly designing new games. Many designed with specific publishers in mind! Yet still, whether I pitch in person or submit via email or mailed prototypes, the answer is always the same: No. Cry Havoc is a lucky exception and I want to work towards being published being actually possible.

I want publishers to want to publish me. To be excited by what I'm bringing. Not to have cold sweats at developing my games. 

What am I doing wrong? I design niche games with a steep learning curve. It is that simple. I design games I like, and some people like, but this is a business and I need to hit a broader swath off the bat. 

I've actually gotten pretty good at designing simple core rule sets. Farmageddon, Solstice, and Five Ravens are all very simple. But, all of these games feature many unique cards with key terms, combo possibilities, and important functions that you cannot fully appreciate until you play one, two, or three games. Everything I design requires a learning game, or two, and this just isn't the market for that. I love this kind of thing in a game, obviously. But without a great IP, or key publishing partner to smooth out rough edges, or convince customers it's worth it, folks are justifiably not willing to take the risk. 

Right now I'm using card complexity to create depth. I think I use it reasonably and with discipline, but the fact remains, complexity scares away players. I can practically write my blindtest feedback before I receive it:

  • "This requires a learning game." 
  • "We didn't use this card correctly."
  • "Some of the tactics will take a few games to fully appreciate."
  • "I wouldn't play this with my mom."

Fundamentally, I need to alter the means by which players get excited by the game. Complexity and card combos need to be de-prioritized. I believe I will be more successful if using fewer, simpler ingredients, with less text (Remember: People don't read) to accomplish deep, meaningful games. You're rolling your eyes and saying "well, duh" but this means I'm stepping away from some of my biggest inspirations in the hobby. This means I'll not be emulating some of the most successful games available! But, the truth is that what works for others, or more importantly, certain publishers, doesn't work for me. It also means that how I've been emulating these games may not be good enough. Sales can also factor in. I'm deeply inspired by Libertalia, but I'm not sure it flew off shelves (It should have). Nobody mentions Race for the Galaxy without also mentioning "it's so goddamn hard to learn." Live and learn, right?

I have to be passionate about what I make, so this evolution doesn't mean I'm making games I don't love. If I have to play a game 100+ times over the course of years in pursuit of publication, that means my soul needs to be invested. It also means my friends need to like it. 

In many ways, it means I need to shift my inspiration to other favorite games. Current me? Obsessed with Netrunner and Magic, Summoner Wars, Race for the Galaxy, Libertalia, Star Wars Armada, X-Wing. 

New me? I should look to games like High Society and Modern Art, where brilliant auctions lead to exciting player driven interaction. A push beyond in complexity is the woefully underrated City Hall, which is so interactive and compelling with its elegant player driven mechanisms. Carcassonne, a game whose rules are draw a tile place a tile. Sushi Go, a game that was promoted as a "pick and pass" design, built over a simple layer of set collection.

It's about finding that depth and clever plays in a new fashion. I still have to design things that excite me, but just from a different angle. 

A part of this came about by asking myself the stupid, but interesting question of "How could would it be to win the Spiel?" It won't happen, for a host of reasons, namely that I'm not good enough. In asking it, though, it led me to ask questions about what it would take to get there, what kind of designs succeed, why, what I like about those designs, and how I can learn from them. 

Five Ravens is the last game of the old style and I'm very excited by it. But, I'm already working on new games with this mindset, and I'm already saying no to my shoulder demons who have super good ideas I wish I could pursue, but know they'll only get me in trouble. I don't know where this experiment will lead. I don't know if I'll be successful and published. In the end, hopefully it prompts a new manner of thinking and I get excited for the next seven years.

Or, who knows? Maybe I'll just make dual use auction games that nobody understands.