The Lost Fleet

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

After months of thinking, design, graphic design, and prototype building, I finally brought a re-imagined Sol Rising to the table. The Lost Fleet emerged victoriously, at least for now, and a huge wave of relief has washed over my ego and looming sense of fear that I wouldn’t have it ready to pitch at BGG Con.

By the way, in case you didn’t get the reference in the title and intro, I’m referring to The Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell. I’ve read the first 6 books and recommend it!

I want to write about the revised Sol Rising today to answer the questions:

  • What is the design now?
  • Why did it change?

I’ll cover what the design was through all of its previous iterations. This is a great post to catch up on the game, somewhat like a “previously on Sol Rising.” 

Blockade

Blockade: The very first iteration of the game featured long stickered blocks. Players would arrange the blocks in little formations, revealing or covering weak spots and gun emplacements on the ships. The gun emplacements would indicate the color of dice to roll, which were intended to represent different weapon types. Two green hits could turn into a yellow hit, and so forth. The idea was that a battleship could smash ships easily, but a pack of small ships could band together to take down the big ships. There were also cards to augment play and mix things up.

This version worked and was fun, but it lacked depth. The blocks were very costly, the dice mechanism wasn’t intuitive, and players spent a lot of time summing colored symbols to figure out how many dice they would roll. It was tedious.

I recognized that I was trying to make a more complex game than the blocks would allow, so I scrapped this to try again.

Sol Rising 1.0: The major change here was that I represented the ships with cards. I kept the formation mechanism, mostly, but the orientation of the cards would now be represented by triangular or rectangular tokens on the board. If the ships were in triangle formation, there’d be a triangle token. The game was played in rounds, called Command Sets, in which players would alternate ordering a single squadron. An order included movement and/or a one-sided attack.

Ships2

With cards representing the ships, I could provide stats and special abilities. This ship has guns, this one missiles, and oh, they have a special ability. Special abilities were limited – only once per battle, and every player only had 5 total ability uses. Furthermore, ships had a shielded or unshielded state. If unshielded, ships lost their ability.

There were some issues with movement and the combat abilities, but the most important lesson was that the time to design the scenarios had come. I needed to create the story.

Bombers_Wordens_Normal

Sol Rising 2.0: This was by far the longest period of development. As you can imagine, it took a very long time to write the narrative for a story spanning 12 scenarios. Then, design all of the scenarios.

Sol

Every scenario included setup for the fleets (which ships, where they start), board layout (asteroids, space stations), some custom rules (ex: stealth rules), 1-3 unique objectives, and persistent effects based on those objectives. Most of this time was spent playing the very first scenario. I had to figure out the structure and rules before replicating it a dozen times.

SolRising

A great deal of work was put into improving the wording, potency, and clarity of the card abilities. I tested the campaign a few times with friends and tweaked some of the rules and balance, and shifted the ability system to two times per command set. Abilities were fun to use, so incorporating them into the game constantly was just better for the game.

Sol Rising 2.5: I played v2.0 with a publisher at BGG Con and went home with some feedback. Primarily, setup was too complex and time consuming and the story needed to be better integrated into the game. I also had some lingering concerns about the formation mechanism, which had really fallen out of my favor.

I eliminated the spatial mechanism and shifted to a shield mechanism – ships with shields protect other shielded ships from ranged attack. This made close-combat ships more valuable and made maneuvering more important.

AsteroidBoard_BottomLeft

I did another pass on ship abilities. Then, to work towards meeting the publisher input, I baked some common board elements into the board directly, so instead of having to add asteroid tokens, they were just on the board already. This greatly expedited setup and reduced the number of components. 

Mission1_Obj1_A

The publisher also wanted me to better integrate the story into the game. At the time all of the objectives had to be referenced in the campaign booklet. I did a lot of revision to bake the  objectives directly onto the cards. The players could then hold onto them and reference them more easily.

Taking a note from the Legacy games and Robinson Crusoe, I wrote the narrative directly onto the story to drive home why the objective existed. I also noted how to set it up, and what the trigger was. When the player satisfied the objective, they got to flip over the card, read the other side, and discover what they unlocked.

Cmd_Schmidt

Finally, the publisher asked me to better integrate the characters into the experience. Previously, they just existed in the narrative.

I was worried about adding another thing to worry about, but I was really happy with my solution. I took the commanders from the narrative and put their bios on the backs of the cards. Then, on the front of the cards I put their image with an ability and an event symbol. Every commander was assigned to a squadron. If the event symbol was drawn, the controlling player got to use the ability. This meant there was some unexpected flavor and decisions without having to play for them.

The response was fine, but not great. The game wasn’t good enough and it wasn’t signed. With my beloved design back in my hands, I needed to do some soul searching.

What is the design now?

I spent some time thinking about Sol Rising. I took a step back and really tried to honestly identify what I liked and what wasn’t good enough. My notes more or less resembled the following:

  • Movement is tedious. It sucks.
  • There are too many ship abilities. It hinders accessibility without leading to more interesting play. I just made a ton of variety, but not meaningful variety.
  • My original idea of having distinct ship classes is better. Give destroyers or interceptors a role, don’t worry about making 50 different destroyers.
  • The persistent story is cool.
  • The game needs to play with 2-4, not just 2.
  • The event system is cool.
  • Setup needs to be way faster.
  • The length of play is good.
  • The quick pace is good.
  • Combat should be more interesting.
  • The missile and gun mechanism is sorta complex and doesn’t really add much.
  • The dynamic damage system is cool.
  • The commanders are cool.
  • The objective cards are cool.
  • Is the circular map cool enough?

I had a pile of goals and a list of grievances. I decided to just start making stuff. I wrote about the process here, but the gist is that I created visual mocks of everything. I just started making the components to see what emerged. The result is a very different game that I think addresses my concerns and leads to something more dynamic, more unique, simpler, and more fun.

Let’s take a quick visual tour through 3.0.

BoardSetup

The boar is now built with double sided square tiles. The blue dots are NavPoints — fleets, the red and blue disks, simply move between these points. This lets you very quickly create a huge variety of maps with minimal effort.

In my dreams, the disks would be miniatures. The small wooden numbered tokens represent objectives and points of interest. Spawn points, things to blow up. We’ll get to these in a second when we talk about Orders.

Fleet

You can see up to three formations arranged around the player’s reference board. Formation 1 is represented by token 1 on the board, and so forth.

Every formation has a commander, whose ability is triggered during combat if the event symbol is drawn. Players can secretly assign squadrons of ships to each formation. Squadrons include interceptors, bombers, destroyers, interdictors, and more. You don’t quite know quite what’s in a squadron until you fight.

Do you see the face down cards on the commanders? These are orders, all played simultaneously in secret, then resolved in command order. Orders say generic things like:

  • Move to or Guard Objective 1
  • Attack enemy formation 2
  • Warp exactly 4 spaces

The idea is that you lock in your plans simply before you see how everything plays out, then you resolve it with some leeway. It’s simple and works really well. Especially in a team format. Teammates can pass cards back and forth to share and review orders.

Ships

All ships of the same class are identical. This means you have nine ships to learn, not 60. Furthermore, every ship class is very distinctive  and has a very explicit role and purpose. Let me explain the ships really quickly.

Top Left Corner

  • Health: the amount of damage a squadron can take before its destroyed
  • Dice: the number of dice the ship adds to a fight. Big ships like a Battleship will make the fights way nastier. But, small ships like interdictors can also do it. They “pin” the enemy fleet down to lengthen the conflict.

Top Middle and Right Corner

  • Squadron Type: Battleship, interceptor, etc.
  • Squadron Class: Fighter, Frigate, and Capital

Middle Italics

  • Any passive elements. For example, interceptors cannot be hit by slower missiles…but they also cannot use them.

Bottom Abilities

  • Advantage: I’m SUPER proud of this! Advantage and passive elements are the two main ways I make every squadron type distinct. One of the die faces you can draft in combat is the Advantage die. We’ll get into combat in a second. Every advantage condition is specified. For example, Interceptors have advantage against the slow, lumbering bombers. If that condition is met and you draft that die, you can use the ability. Advantage abilities are like critical hits, or flanking. To continue the interceptor advantage, you simply destroy the bombers. Boom. Gone.
  • Ability: These simply specify the die to draft and the effect of doing so.

I’m very proud of the fact that everything is on the cards. You don’t need to know what guns do or how dodge works. You simply assign the die (matching symbols) and do what the text says.

I think it’s time to discuss combat.

DiceRoll

Combat occurs when two opposing formations are in range. You roll a pile of matching custom dice, determined by the number of formations and the ships in them. Players reveal their cards.

Firstly, if two Events are rolled, you draw and resolve an event card. In the image above, the yellow side is for Events. The Events are fun and add some spice and activate Commander abilities. Then, you turn the Event dice to other facings. How? By re-rolling them until they aren’t Events? No! The Event card simply tells you how to change up to 4 dice. It’s a simple tweak, but one I’m happy with.

DieFaces

You can see all the Dice Symbols explained there on the reference card. Most of them trigger abilities, though you can also use guns, missiles, and dodge generically to cause damage or avoid it.

AssignDice

So, you’ve rolled the dice, resolved the event if it happens, and now it’s time to fight. In an order dictated by your Commanders, players draft 1 die at a time and assign it to resolve its ability. This keeps combat brisk and dynamic, even with 4 players, or if 2 of the players watch while 2 others quickly choose 5 dice.

The fictional idea is that commanders need to react and make choices in battle. You can see your opportunities in the pool, but you don’t know what your opponent will pick first. If you have multiple good choices, ah, tension!

That’s basically it. The flow of the game, in summary, is:

Movement

  1. Form squadrons
  2. Give them orders
  3. Resolve those orders

Combat

  1. Roll dice
  2. Resolve Event
  3. Draft dice

I’m at the point now where I’m going to revise a few pieces of tuning, tighten the mechanisms, and port the first three scenarios of the campaign over to the new mechanisms. The first three scenarios form the introductory arc to the campaign, so it makes for a nice, finite package to pitch at BGG.

I’m really excited to have found the fleet again. I think this might be THE version, but that’s up to a publisher. I don’t think Hyperbole can publish this one properly. The custom dice and miniatures and story book really make it a hefty, terrifying project for me at this point. If you have any questions or comments, please list them below. If you want a demo at BGG Con, just ask!

Thoughts on Pandemic Legacy

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Cover image provided by Z-Man Games on Boardgamegeek.com

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I played Pandemic Legacy five times with my friends last night and I really wanted to write about it. I’m writing about the game experience and the design and will in no way discuss specifics or spoil anything.

My group played ten games of Risk Legacy a few years ago and mostly really enjoyed it. The premise was so novel — a game that evolves in permanent ways — and most of us were greatly amused by it. Unfortunately, two members of my group didn’t really care for it at all, and in the end, the game was still Risk.

I’m nostalgic about Risk, and nostalgia isn’t an emotion I reach towards very often. But, it’s not a very good design any more and the Legacy version didn’t do enough, with good reason, to fundamentally alter the map and core mechanisms. What was initially a 30 minute game that led to delightful envelopes soon became a 2 plus hour back and forth slog. Envelopes only go so far and in the end, we were sitting around a pig with a lot of fun lipstick.

That sounds harsh. I was really taken with Risk Legacy, but I think it was more the potential than the reality.

Pandemic Legacy fully recognizes that potential. My word. It really isn’t a surprise knowing the team involved. I think Matt Leacock is a brilliant designer. Pandemic is a beautiful example of an elegant and dynamic experience. Furthermore, the Pandemic rulebook may be the best one I’ve read. You can see Leacock’s experience in UX design throughout. Pandemic is maybe the best “mass market” hobby game we have, up there with Catan, Carcassonne, and Ticket to Ride. I have opinions on those, but we’ll save that for now.

Then you have Rob Daviau, the dude behind Risk Legacy. From what I’ve gathered on podcasts, and I may be mis-paraphrasing here, Rob had to carefully navigate the bureaucracy of Hasbro to make Risk Legacy at all. Now, you have Filosofia and Z-Man surely wanting to make their big hit even bigger. From what I understand, Rob is fundamentally a storyteller. A lover of D&D and DM’ing.

So, huge publisher + brilliant co-op designer + storyteller and legacy designer + gobs of designer experience. That’s an amazing formula.

If you’ve played Pandemic, the Legacy version will fit like a glove. Your first game is basically Pandemic…mostly. This is brilliant, because it let’s you get comfortable. It’s a familiar setting.

Unlike the sporadic and less predictable envelopes of Risk Legacy, Pandemic Legacy provides new content and legacy decisions after every game. The drip is steady and delicious. In many ways Pandemic Legacy feels more conservative, but the output is more calculated and sharply delivered. Matt and Rob have carefully charted an incredible narrative arc. Like a choose your own adventurer, there are character progression and map choices you can make that make your adventure distinct, but roughly speaking, they know where you are.

This may sound strange, but the game doesn’t feel innovative at all because everything feels so natural. As we played and unveiled new content, we excitedly grinned and began scheming towards the next problem. “Of course this is in the game,” we thought. “Of course this is what Pandemic Legacy is.” In many ways, it feels like what Pandemic should have always been. It’s just so natural and smooth. So when I say it doesn’t feel innovative, I mean it absolutely as a compliment.

Like Innovation, or Android: Netrunner, and Combat Commander: Europe, I predict Pandemic Legacy will be a benchmark of tuning and development. After five games the game becomes more difficult or easier based on your performance. Its challenges progress in conjunction with its narrative. It feels plausible and thrilling as the plot continuously thickens. You can just feel the hours upon hours of labor, calculation, and minute tweaks that make every step feel so good.

The final note I have for Pandemic Legacy is regarding its length. The game takes…just as long as Pandemic. Some games clock in around 40 minutes if you succeed or lose quickly. Others take a little longer if it comes down to the wire or you open a lot of new items. But, this, to me, is a massive improvement over Risk Legacy and another sign of great development. When we shut down the game around midnight, we all realized we could play the game at work over lunch. We all work together and the game takes an hour or less. That’s…fantastic. It means we can definitely finish the game without signing blood pacts or requiring absurd marathons.

I really really liked Pandemic Legacy. It’s a warm blanket of fun. It’s a great story. It’s tense. It’s the best version of a great cooperative game. I highly recommend it, and considering it’s so easy to play and so quick, it’s very tough to avoid it.

Very much recommended.

The 54 Card Guild: #7

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If this is the first time you’re seeing The 54 Card Guild, I recommend you begin with Guide #1. It will explain everything. All of the posts are tagged with 54 Card Guild. There is an active Slack group, which exists to brainstorm, pitch, and discuss games. There are over 25 people in it. It’s a fun, casual supplement to this course. If you’re interested in joining us, email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com. 

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Typically when I think of worldbuilding, I think of a writer setting the foundation for a story they’re writing. One of the reasons The Lord of the Rings is such a phenomenal work, according to George R.R. Martin, is the level of worldbuilding that went into it. Instead of “Once upon a time,” paired with a healthy dose of literary yadda yadda, Tolkien created a world, a history, struggles, and the fabric of the universe. He created lineage, ancient conflicts, and motivations. It made everything more real and meaningful. Middle-Earth is almost a real place.

Except for Tom Bombadil, of course. That dude is weird. 

I’ve been listening to a great deal of Mark Rosewater’s Drive to Work podcast. It’s a series of observations, essays, and thoughts regarding the design and creation of Magic: The Gathering, primarily through the lens of the design department, which is Rosewater’s role. It is difficult not to be taken aback at times to hear casual mention of the infrastructure that exists to create Magic: The Gathering. Namely:

  • Design establishes the vision.
  • Development optimizes the vision.
  • Creative brings the vision to life through illustration, stories, and flavor text.
  • You then have marketing and sales and such, who also help. Stop rolling your eyes.

Although I don’t think Magic is the most thematic game, it is a very flavorful game that is cohesively designed. When it’s at its best, they do so from start to finish. The team behind Magic knows what a red creature is, what it does, and why. They know the philosophical motivations of a black planeswalker in the fiction, as well as that of a player who plays with black. While it’s easy to discard this as a cute exercise, or merely a really extensive and elaborate process to inform illustrators, there are functional benefits to worldbuilding. Yes, even in a game that isn’t super thematic.

Gaia

I’ve begun worldbuilding for Project Gaia, because I want to improve the quality of the output. The idea, is that at the outset I define a loose framework to create within in the hopes of ultimately developing a strong, rich game. Note that I didn’t say a rich theme!

In this post, I want to step you through the worldbuilding process I’m using to guide Project Gaia. Perhaps you’ll have insights to share, or you’ll find value in my explanation for your own game. Gaia is still incredibly early in design, but I’m hoping the effort I put forth here will pay dividends in the long slog that will be this game’s creation.

Bear with me as I go through this. I’m going to walk through the entire process, with more explanations at the end. I promise I’m taking this somewhere.

Firstly, I defined the perspective of my players. They are immortal beings, incredibly powerful, who take advantage of newly created worlds due to the machinations of the cosmos to build their own power. Imagine god-like beings fighting to create planets in their own image to better serve them. It’s galactic war at its finest, a creation myth driven by the players.

From there, I thought about the actions being taken by the players, these immortal beings. The players are building a planet, then modifying the planet with species and landmarks and casting disasters (like tidal waves). Therefore, I needed to think about:

  • What kind of planet is being made? Lush planets? Desert planets? Earth-like planets?
  • What kind of creatures and beings would inhabit the planet? Real? Mythological?
  • What sort of disasters and events can occur on a planet, especially one in formation? Do I look to things that plague us now (hurricanes?) or look to ancient creation myths, like the floods mentioned in several religious texts? Or both?

These first two questions provide a perfect opportunity for worldbuilding! I thought about the terrain types I wanted on my planet. After a bit of churn, I settled on the following:

  • Desert
  • Wetlands
  • Forest
  • Grasslands

There are a few possibilities for each of these. The desert can be sand and heat, like the Sahara, or wasteland, like Fallout and Mad Max, or arid scrub, like the Mojave. I love Dune, and the vision of Arrakis and its dunes, so I chose the Saharan desert flavor.

Wetlands were originally the ocean, but saying “ocean” didn’t work well with the game. To me, ocean is a vast, deep body of water. In the game, ocean tiles are frequently surrounded and are more like lakes. Therefore, I chose wetlands. This better connects the tiles to the rest of the land spaces. Plus, swamps and wetlands are foreboding. Alligators, moss, crazy swamp people are all now possible.

The ocean also creates gameplay expectations. Can a land-based creature swim in the ocean? Maybe. It can definitely cross wetlands. What about from the other angle?  Can a sea creature like a whale move on land? No, that’s totally weird. Worldbuilding should reinforce the expectations of the mechanisms where possible.

Next, I went back and forth between forest and jungle. In the end, the deep jungle had strong a vibe of jaguars, monkeys, and more exotic faire. Things in which I was less interested. The jungle was also too much of an extreme next to a desert (extreme dry versus extreme moisture) and jungles present little to no room for civilizations to form. They’re just too dense. Fictionally, it was the wrong platform. I didn’t want to take players out of the world.

I liked the classic imagery of the forest, the kind you read about in stories and fiction. I love the ominous woods of Snow White, the deep forests of ancient Europe, and how snow speckled conifers look wonderful on mountain ranges. I wanted owls, wolves, and dangerous forest men in my game.

Finally, the grasslands. This one seems obvious, and it’s the one that hasn’t changed throughout development. There is something romantic about the Native Americans of the plains and the majestic herd creatures moving in search of food. The peoples of the steppe, most famously the Mongols and the Huns, are also exciting. Grasslands are a nice middle ground between every other land type. They are the vanilla in the Neapolitan sandwich I’m crafting.

With the world established, we have our stage. We have our battleground. I know that I want creatures tied to these terrain types. This means I have the origins of my factions, if you think in Netrunner terms, or my colors, if you think in Magic terms.

For each terrain type I came up with three keywords to define what kinds of things would happen there and what that part of the world means. This is the point of origin.

  • Desert: Potential, Dangerous, Extreme Heat
  • Wetlands: Mysterious, Turbulent Weather, Stench
  • Forest: Darkness, Evil, Stillness
  • Grassland: Fertile, Bright, Windy

As a similar exercise, what are the three key words you’d use to describe elves, dwarves, hobbits, and humans in Middle-Earth? These keywords aren’t locked in stone, and they aren’t the only ones that define these terrains, but they are a point of origin for me.

Next, using these keywords, I began thinking about creatures that might exist in areas described in the manner I used.

  • Desert: Sandworms, djinns, hawks, scorpions. These are creatures that can survive such a dangerous, extreme climate with almost no water. I looked to reality, Dune, and Arab fairly tales as a starting point. I’ll need more, this is just a start.
  • Wetlands: Frogs, moths, alligators, swamp thing-like monster, and Nutria rats. I looked to the actual creatures of Louisiana and the Florida Everglades and southern mist. I thought of things that could withstand the weather and hide, potentially underwater.
  • Forest: Wolves, bears, owls, spirits/ghosts, the leshii, spiders, and serpents. All of these creatures move silently and stealthily. They are all predators. Some are evil, like the spiders and serpent and spirits. Others, like the wolves and bears, are a more noble counter.
  • Grasslands: I think of civilization forming from here. Farming and bountiful resources. I think of Humans, horses, bison, locusts, and mice.

From here, I’ll begin to conceive mechanisms that fit the setting and the creatures. But, things are getting lengthy and I want to get to the point.

Wow! That’s a lot of blathering without a point. Any idiot can say a desert has a scorpion, right? What is the output here? What is the purpose? There are a few reasons.

If the mechanisms match the setting, they’ll be easier for players to learn and remember. If the desert is harsh and dangerous, players will not be surprised when cards evoke that effect during the game. Or, creatures from the desert are particularly hearty. My game is about deckbuilding, which is a challenge both when making a deck or playing a deck. If a player sees and opponent taking several forest creatures and cards, he should know that stealth and surprise will be his opposition. Players will begin to internalize that wetlands cards mean a certain thing.

Don’t believe me? When running against Jinteki, you know there are going to be traps. You know to draw cards to protect yourself against damage. You know NBN are going to tag you. You know that when you play against red in Magic, you’ll be hit with direct damage and creatures with haste. You know blue will counter you and then do it again.

These worldbuilding techniques also keep me focused as a designer during content creation and development. When I did the content slam for Gaia, outlined in Guide #2, I merely came up with modifiers to flesh out the cards. The exercise was to provide a foundation to test the core mechanisms, not create cards that will lead to a compelling deck construction experience. But, ultimately that’s what I need!

There is a common design mistake in thinking that card variety alone leads to compelling content. The variety that does exist must lead to meaningful and different play situations. They must legitimately vary the choices a player has, not just jostle the numbers.  This worldbuilding exercise will focus my content creation so that I remain focused, consistent, and do so within a framework. It is setting a box within to work. Constraint is a gift to a designer!

Let’s say I need to make 6 creatures for every terrain type. Using my keywords and creature ideas, I know that the creatures should follow the structure of my world:

  • Desert: Resilient.
  • Wetlands: Poisonous and treacherous.
  • Forest: Stealthy and brutal.
  • Grasslands: Swift, abundant, mobile.

Those notions translate to mechanisms. As mentioned in the paragraph just above, it’s a win for accessibility if players know that desert cards tend to be hearty and strong. It’s great if both players generally know that forest creatures will be stealthy. They’ll attack silently and brutally.

Finally, worldbuilding can help me craft mechanisms that match player expectations. I already discussed this above, but it bears repeating. If I have ocean creatures that walk on land, I’m screwing with player expectations. I’m deliberately creating an experience that isn’t intuitive. Worldbuilding can hem my efforts so that they are coherent and thoughtfully made.

In conclusion, worldbuilding is a useful exercise to:

  • Bookmark an experience, such as red means a certain mechanism, for my players
  • Create a constraint within to work
  • Craft more intuitive mechanisms that match player expectations.

I’d love to know what you think about this exercise, whether you think this is useful, and if you have any ideas to share. Thanks!

An Exercise in Art Direction

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m not an artist, nor a professional art director, but on several occasions now I’ve hired artists as a publisher or foolish designer to create art for my games. I say this not to boast, but to establish some credentials before providing information on how to do it better.

This includes Farmageddon, working with Brett Bean and Erin Fusco, Sol Rising, Hocus, and Battle for York prototypes, working with John Ariosa, and Hocus, working with Tiffany Turrill and Adam P. McIver. I also have credits as a producer on numerous games in The Sims franchise, working closely with artists.

I’ve written about Working with Artists before, and there are some good notes there. But, today I wanted to discuss a practical exercise to help you refine your craft as an art director. If you want to be a publisher, you owe it to the artists you hire, the designers whose games you license, and the customers you aim to serve.

Good art direction, in my opinion, is about a few things:

  • Overseeing a consistent execution. This is less difficult with a game in which you hire a single artist, but when you have a different graphic designer and illustrator, or multiple artists, this burden increases. Farmageddon has 3 artists. If you look at the art for the second suite of FrankenCrops, they clearly look like somebody else made them. That’s frustrating!
  • Setting a quality bar. You get what you pay for, and unfortunately too many publishers are quick to hire folks who lack skills in perspective, anatomy, and motion. A good AD establishes a clear vision and quality bar.
  • Crafting a world that seems plausible. The world should be plausible and the imagery should support it. Just because you can put bacon with eggplant doesn’t mean you should. Create a world that helps immerse the player. Make it real.

Art direction, therefore, is often about details. It’s not necessarily about the broad strokes that every expects, but the subtle nuance that should almost just sneak in under the radar. Like good graphic design, some of the best art design is just there. You notice it when it’s bad. So, in today’s post, let’s take a walk through San Francisco’s Japan Town. I did a tour this weekend with my short corgi friend to take a bunch of photographs to illustrate my points. Let’s go to Japan Town to identify the details and improve as art directors.

For this post, I’m going to share some photos, then discuss the details from them.

BiLingualSign

Let’s start with a simple one. Something you see in an ethnic neighborhood are bilingual signs. I don’t see these a few blocks away in Pacific Heights. It’s a subtle detail.

FirTrees FirTrees2

I noticed throughout Japan Town there was an abundance of fir trees, which aren’t incredibly common throughout the rest of the city on sidewalks. Other tree types are used. These trees also had interesting shapes, somewhat like large bonsai trees. Perhaps in order to remind folks of the homeland, they deliberately planted trees reminiscent of that location.

Characters

You can see large characters from the language adorning the walls.

FanSign

Signs shaped like traditional Japanese items, like the fan.

Sign2

Street signs reminding people that you’re in Japan Town and it has events.

WoodPaneling

This wasn’t even a Japanese book store, but the sign was wooden, which isn’t typical, and had an ornate tree in the center. This stood out to me as something unique and distinct.

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Sign

Let’s discuss signage further. Aside from the obvious distinction that many of the signs have Japanese characters, I also noticed that many had a large icon or symbol to go with name. And before you roll your eyes at Benihana, the focus was on good examples. These aren’t the only ones, just good clear pictures.

Lamp Lanterns

Distinct lighting and lanterns were present throughout the neighborhood. The hardware store feature numerous lamps of shapes you won’t find at Ace Hardware.

Fountain Inscription

I looked to the art and the symbols. Here, you have a fountain/park resting place, as well as an ornate inscription on a bench. I can look further into these symbols to see if seahorses and turtles mean something and are important.

Menu

Instead of or in addition to menus, Japanese restaurants prominently display plastic versions of their food outside for passersby to observe. This is very different! The Greek restaurant in my neighborhood doesn’t have their dishes in plastic out front.

Building Building2 Building3 Pagoda

The architecture of a local Japan Town hotel, community center, and home, were very different. They also had the Pagoda, which is a traditional architectural icon. You can see differences in the openness of the windows, the shingles and tiles, wall textures and materials, and paints.

WeirdStuff

Finally, cartoons and animated characters are very prominent in Japanese society. The consumption of comics in their country dwarfs that of American society. And, let’s be frank, their characters and cartoons are very distinct. They are weird and imaginative.

As you look at these, hopefully you can see examples of the details that are important. We both live in buildings, eat food, and listen to music, but there are subtle details that distinguish Japanese society from non-Japanese society. You may be wondering how this is useful for your super hero game, or war game with mechs, and the exercise is still relevant.

  • What is a typical day like for the people in your world?
  • What does normal look like?
  • What are the desires, motives, and concerns of the people in your world?
  • What is the history of the people in your world? Where do they come from? A coastal place? A rural countryside?

Answer the broad questions, then begin thinking about the details. For your world to feel real and consistent, your details need to match with the visuals you provide. This is why art direction is so important, and why you should seek every opportunity to hone that skill set.

What do you think? Was this walk through Japan Town useful? Tell me in the comments below.

The 54 Card Guild: #6

54CardLogo

Post by: Grant Rodiek

If this is the first time you’re seeing The 54 Card Guild, I recommend you begin with Guide #1. It will explain everything. All of the posts are tagged with 54 Card Guild. There is an active Slack group, which exists to brainstorm, pitch, and discuss games. There are over 25 people in it. It’s a fun, casual supplement to this course. If you’re interested in joining us, email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com. 

Welcome to Guide #6 of the 54 Card Guild! Do you remember back on Guide #5 when I said this post would quickly follow? Yeah, well, I grew busy yet again and it didn’t happen. I’m the worst. But, Guide #6 is here now and we can dig in to one of my favorite topics, which is development and iteration.

Step One: THE VISION

I’ve been listening to Mark Rosewater’s Drive to Work podcast and it has been quite inspirational for me. Who is Mark Rosewater? Only a 20 year designer veteran of Magic: The Gathering and the current Head of Design. You know, a design nobody.

In one of the podcasts I recently listened to, Rosewater said the following: “Development is optimization of the vision.” That is an incredibly succinct and quite frankly perfect definition. If you take nothing else from this guide, remember those 6 words.

Well, what is our vision? We’ve been beating around this issue with the Outline, discussed in Guide #2 and the elevator pitch in Guide #5. It is difficult to define the Vision in a Webster’s like sense, so I’ll do so in a historical one: the Vision is your Alamo. If you’re not from Texas like me, I’ll explain further. The Vision is the point from which you won’t retreat. It is the line you will not cross. It is your “not one step back.” The vision is that which is sacred for your design, or the most important special sauce element.

Why do you need a Vision? It focuses you. It will help you make a call between Option A and Option B, because one of those will better preserve the Vision and the other might not. Frederick the Great said “He who defends everything defends nothing.” Choose your battles carefully and win those you need to win.

Examples will help clarify this exercise.

In York, which is now Cry Havoc, to be published by Portal Games in 2016, my Vision was a 2-4 player war game that played in an hour, didn’t include dice, is asymmetric, and is very aggressive and battle focused. How did that Vision steer decision making?

  • When determining a turn order mechanism, I opted for the simplest version. This removed complexity from a non-essential part of the game (not battles), and added unpredictability to the game. You needed to conquer with the knowledge that your opponents might take a turn before you.
  • Incentives are greatly skewed towards aggression, and the clock is ticking. You cannot win by sitting in Australia the entire game.
  • Abilities are tuned to favor the attacker versus the defender.
  • It is relatively easy to recover from attrition, so players shouldn’t be overly cautious when it comes time to fight.
  • Players are rewarded with bonuses for taking territory. The first player on the scene reaps the rewards.

For Hocus, our Vision was Poker plus Spells. We sought a game with its foundation rooted in poker, but surrounded with asymmetric and unique spells that rewarded skillful play.

  • We had to remove mechanisms that overly rewarded players for being lucky.
  • The clock is ticking and actions are limited. Players need to play decisively and cannot simply sit back and wait to cash in.
  • Spells that were too similar to previous spells, or were obvious choices were balanced to require more decisions and thoughtful play.

If you’ve been following all of the Guides, you know that Project Gaia is my 54 card design that I’ve been designing and using as my example. Therefore, it’s only fitting I define the vision for Gaia here.

Gaia is intended to be a self-contained game about pre-constructed decks. It is crucial to the vision that the game provide a huge amount of variety in deckbuilding, not just in what’s possible, but that the decks are compelling, competitive, and intuitive. It must also feel distinct from existing CCGs, else players will simply play those instead!

You’ll notice I tend to design my Vision around an experience. Where possible and appropriate I inject theme (York, yes, Hocus, no) and flavor, and I strive to have interesting mechanisms. But, I’m focused on how my players feel and how my game will be experienced differently than other games. I’m less an inventor, more a director. That approach works for me, but you might find a different origin orientation the superior choice for you!

Assignment #1: Define your Vision for your game. Try to do so succinctly. Can your Vision fit in a single Tweet? Your Vision needs to have as few parameters as possible so that it acts as a tool to narrow your efforts and aid you in development.

Step Two: DEVELOPING the VISION

If you’re following the design diet I’ve been slowly laying out, you should be testing with other players at this point. You have a Vision and testing feedback, but now you need to leverage those two items in a way that leads to a better game.

Speaking at a very high level, development tends to have different priorities at different phases. This will vary for different designers and even games, but I’m going to propose some priorities for you now. In the future, I’ll try to craft more specific Guides against these ideas.

Here are some good phases to develop against.

  1. Find the Fun
  2. Balance the Complexity
  3. Write them Rules
  4. Accessibility Testing
  5. Balance the Game

Find the Fun: This is the first phase of development and often one of the most difficult. In this phase, you’re trying to see your vision expressed in game without a mountain of caveats and frustrations in a play session. You want to see an inkling of that idea that’s been in your head for so long. This phase might take a very long time. It took us about 10-11 months to find the fun for Hocus. It took about 3 tests for Farmageddon. Your mileage may vary!

During this phase, feel free to experiment and take wild swings. Introduce vastly different methods of beginning or ending the game, different score conditions, and introduce and remove new cards with abandon. Don’t create any sacred cows. The only thing sacred is the vision, which isn’t tangible or expressed in any single mechanism. You should try branching ideas and see if Option A or Option B solves a problem better.

While you’re experimenting wildly, you should still do so within the framework of the scientific method.

  • Create a goal (hypothesis) for a specific test. What do you want to occur?
  • Identify problems during the test. Take notes, ask questions, and find out why or why not that goal was satisfied.
  • Try to isolate your problems and until you grow more comfortable, work against them one at a time. Some mechanisms are more difficult to isolate as they are core to the experience. But, where possible, try to isolate your issues.
  • Re-examine your goals. Are they the right ones? Will they meet the vision?
  • Ponder solutions to these problems. Then, implement them.
  • Repeat.

What I’m trying to get at is for you to test with purpose. Experiment with purpose. Branch with purpose. Don’t throw spaghetti at the wall and expect Agricola to emerge. Know what you want, why you want it, and focus intently on reproducing that result.

Once the game is fun, you’re ready to move on. How do you know it’s fun? People are laughing, smiling, asking to play again. People don’t cringe when you ask them to test. This doesn’t mean the game is finished or perfect, but it’s fun. It demonstrates your vision.

Balance the Complexity: This is a difficult phase and one that is learned, not taught. This is something you’ll improve at as you make more games. It’s something that’ll become apparent after years, not individual tests, and is a true reward to the persistent.

The elements and mechanisms in your game do not hold the same weight or importance. As mentioned above, the battle mechanism in York was incredibly important. Turn order and scoring, less so. When I developed the battle mechanism, I never shied from complexity, exceptions, and new hooks. The battle was the most important part of the game and it was crucial to be awesome. But, I can only fill the “cup” so much! The cost to adding complexity to one item was that I needed to remove it elsewhere.

You’ll frequently hear experienced designers recommend you have a single innovation in a game. More than this, and players will be too lost and unable to play. Make one new thing, then surround it with familiar things.

Always look to your vision. What is the single most important element in your game? What is the one thing you want your players to take away from their play? What is the thing that sets your game apart? Once you have your answers, you can make the right and appropriate calls.

A good way to gauge the appropriate level of complexity is to compare your design to similar games. Always be playing new games! Examine games that have similar mechanisms, play length, and price points. Why? One could argue that the same people who bought and enjoy those games might buy and enjoy yours! If you have a 16 page rule book when another 30 minute competitor has a 2 page rule book, you might be too complex. Not always, but maybe! If you’re making an epic 2 hour game that is as light as Ticket to Ride, it might not be very successful. That’s a long time to spin around so little complexity.

As you can tell, this is difficult to express. It really comes down to a gut feeling, an understanding of the competitive landscape, and watching how new people learn your game. If you find them still stumbling 20 minutes into a 30 minute game, you need to re-examine your complexity. Maybe. The obvious exceptions to this are Netrunner and Magic: The Gathering.

A key takeaway: do not be afraid of complexity. Do not be afraid of exceptions. There seems to be this movement that the best designs are the simplest, that there should be no exceptions, that elegance is to be prized above all things. I disagree. Exceptions are a tool and like all things, can and should be used in moderation. I often find that a game is good because of those 1 or 2 exceptions the designer introduced for a really good reason. It’s okay for your game to be complex and to have a learning curve. If it’s good, people will return. It’s really about finding the right level of complexity. If you plant a mountain on someone’s table, be darn sure there’s a payoff.

This is why we return to the Vision. What is the game you’re making? For whom? Why? If you know that, you can use it to guide your mechanical complexity.

Write them Rules: At this point, you really need to think about your game in a more final product sense. How will people learn your game? By reading the rules. That means you need to be able to explain your game in a written format.

Mark Rosewater (that guy!) noted that as an interview challenge, they have people write the rules to Rock, Paper, Scissors. You might roll your eyes, so I challenge you to take a minute to write the rules for Rock, Paper, Scissors. Once you’re finished, read them and see what you missed. See how you explained the complexities of orienting one’s hands, dealing with tiebreakers, or deciding how and when to display your hand.

  1. One-Two-Three-Shoot (show on shoot)
  2. One-Two-Three (show on three)

By the way, option 1 is correct. Oh, and does somebody count aloud? Who? How is that decided?

I have changed mechanisms in the past because I was unable to explain them succinctly and clearly. I tend to write rules earlier, but not everyone does that. If you wait too long to write them, however, you’ll miss a very crucial examination of your game — how it is taught to others.

Write your rules and examine your design through the lens of instruction. Can it be taught to others? When others read your rules, do they play appropriately?

Accessibility Testing: At this stage you have a mature design. Your game is fun, it has the right level of complexity, and you have some rules. Here is when I start testing with non-gamers or novices to see just how difficult things are. This is where I see what impediments exist to learning the game and having fun.

Sometimes this changes my mechanisms, sometimes it simply varies the starts, and other times it just affects the graphic design. Accessibility testing is a great way to snick off the rough barbs of your design. Unless an item is incredibly crucial, you might find you’ve been holding onto something unnecessary.

This is a great time to test:

  • The layout of your cards. Is the information presented with the correct hierarchy?
  • Colorblind friendliness. Can the colorblind play your game? Can you introduce symbols and vary your color palette to make it more accessible?
  • Diagrams in your rules. A picture is worth a thousand words, especially when learning a game.
  • Reference cards and player aids. How can you best remind your players of crucial, but oft overlooked cards?
  • Scoring and end conditions. It is painfully obvious how to win and when the game will end?
  • What to do at the beginning? Some games are so broad and lack mid-point goals. Give your players something obvious to work towards to drive them in the first few games.

On this last point, a few games do a good job of this. In Clash of Cultures, the expansion provides civilizations with bonus technologies. These essentially broadcast “You are good at these four things!” and give you a very early direction in which to head. Some may disagree with this, but family feeding in Caverna is an excellent early goal. It tells you that you need food and need to spend some time obtaining it. You can do this by buying it with Gems, Adventuring, Farming, or Ranching. It’s up to you, and all of those things will help you win. But, the feeding tax gives you a nice mid-point goal to focus you in an otherwise vast game.

Find some people you don’t know who may not be as familiar with games. Throw them off the deep end into your design and see how they fare. If you pay attention, you may identify simple methods to improve your accessibility and encourage players to return for a second test.

Balance the Game: This will definitely need its own post. This post itself is growing quite long, so we’ll focus on the essentials.

If your game has asymmetry, the different powers and factions need to be balanced such that they have an equal chance of winning if played well. If your game has multiple paths to victory, those paths need to have a chance to win in relation to their difficulty.

Various options, like actions, need to be compelling at different times, and ideally, many actions will have non-obvious moments of opportunity. If the best decision is obvious at every turn, players will quickly grow bored. The game is playing itself!

If random events occur in your game, they need to play out such that players tend to be affected equally, or they present opportunities for different players. Or, their effect on the game needs to be such that a single player cannot claim victory from them. If one player is hit by every event and that cause them to win, that won’t be terribly compelling.

Generally speaking, the player who plays the best should tend to win your game. I think luck should factor into games. It should tip the scales from time to time, such that someone can get lucky. In that sense, it acts as a wonderful probabilistic rubber band, like in Mario Kart. But, if player skill doesn’t really factor into your game, you may turn off many players who want to invest themselves in your experience. Balance your game accordingly.

Assignment #2: We’re all trying to Find the Fun. Write down 3 problems you’ve encountered so far. Identify why they are problems and/or why they hinder the vision, and propose solutions to solve them.

Here are some examples for Gaia.

Problem 1: Players aren’t sure why they should have creatures. What is the value?

Solution 1: Creatures can destroy an opponent’s Lands (which give Actions) and other Creatures. I’ve also modified the score conditions to reward players for having Creatures. Thirdly, Creatures lower the cost of other cards, acting as living mana. It should be very valuable to have creatures now.

Problem 2: Too many options to consider at once, especially at the start of the game.

Solution 2: I removed the 9 unique gods. It was tough to balance them and they created one more thing to look at. I also made it such that players randomly remove 4 cards at the start of the game, which means their initial hand is only 6 cards, not 9. I made it such that the 7 Score conditions are the same in every game, so players can build decks against those and not have to guess. I added a reference card for players to see their possible actions. Finally, I have taken several passes to simplify card text and remove conditional statements. The hope is that cards are potent and obvious.

Problem 3: The game’s pace is plodding. It seems to take too long to do things.

Solution 3: I’ve made it so that you draw 1 card at the start of every turn so that you can always have new cards. I’ve also given an option to draw all of your cards if you use your entire turn, which lets you quickly get back in the game. Previously, players took one Action on their turn. Now, players take two Actions. As mentioned above, Creatures reduce the cost of other cards, which means fewer cards are discarded. When activating creatures, you activate all creatures (as opposed to one at a time), which should greatly expedite Combat and creature strategies. Players start with fewer cards in hand and should tend to have around 5 cards in hand, which provides fewer options to consider. Finally, I’ve reduced the cost of all cards, so that the curve is now 0-3, not 1-4. This means players tend to have more cards and can play more often.

I hope this Guide was useful. Until next time!

Selling Yourself: Con Presence

Booth

Post by: Grant Rodiek

The inaugural Twitch Con occurred this past weekend (September 25 and 26) in San Francisco. Quite appropriately, this was the first convention I attended with a Hyperbole Games booth. In the past, I’ve merely attended conventions, but here, I was manning my booth and demoing games for two straight days.

Conventions are incredibly important to your success as a publisher. Today, I wanted to share my thoughts on why, as well as discuss some of the future plans for Hyperbole Games at conventions.

Conventions are the single best way to build rapport with your audience and convert people who are merely interested in your game to people who are loyal fans of your company. There are ways to do this outside of a convention, naturally.

  • Being friendly via social networks and conversational, not just promotional, goes a long way.
  • Managing a successful and ethical Kickstarter campaign also goes a long way. In general, being ethical, fair, and kind helps regardless of your sales method.
  • Having consistent, timely, and high quality customer service will also pay dividends long term.*

*A frustrated customer can be a gift if you do the right thing. It’s an opportunity for you to set things right and completely flip their perspective. At Electronic Arts we’ve done research and found that customers who have a positive experience with customer service are significantly more likely to not only return as customers, but as more passionate and avid customers. 

Conventions present a few unique opportunities that cannot quite be grasped via the phone, email, or an online social platform. For one, there’s human touch. That sounds odd out of context, but saying “Hi, what’s your name?” and extending a hand is powerful.

Furthermore, you can teach your game online via a video, but at a convention, you can teach it and foster the ideal environment in which to experience the game. What do I mean by this?

Me

When I play my games with people at a convention, I do my best to break down walls as quickly as possible. I immediately start playfully talking shit (pardon my crudeness), I poke fun at people, I crack jokes, and I highlight the cool things happening in the game.

Many publishers say you should let the demoers win, and there’s value to this. But, I’ve often found value in executing high level strategies or subtle combos, then explaining it so that people could see how cool the game CAN be beyond that learner’s game.

For example, when demoing Farmageddon, I often like to use Crop Insurance on lousy crops, then whack them with a Thresher to show that I can earn extra money through “insurance fraud.” This gets a laugh and demonstrates a clever aspect of the game. In Hocus, where possible, I love to setup a community to mislead people, then trump them with a superior hand. This weekend I setup an obvious Straight — everyone took the bait. I then flipped over my cards to reveal a Flush. They all laughed and went “Oh!” It was an eye opening moment for them as they all began thinking about future sneaky possibilities for themselves.

DemoGame

Obviously being able to do this takes practice, enthusiasm, and passion. You need to be able to read your audience and decipher whether they’ll be comfortable with you poking fun, or more comfortable with a more flat, even demonstration of the game. Both options are fine! Read the room. Then, create the best possible experience.

Conventions also give you an opportunity to demonstrate that you’re a person, not a company. Prove you’re flesh and bones, not a legal construct. The goal is that when people pick a Hyperbole Game off the shelf, or click “order” via Amazon, they do so thinking “I liked that guy. He was nice.” You can enthusiastically show your proof that you just received from China and create a moment and story out of your product. You can talk about the effort that went into the game and detail stories about the wrong turns taken. Copy used on websites is often impersonal, salesy, and to the point. It’s really about saying what the game is and why it’s the best use of a customer’s money. At a convention, around your booth, you can open the doorway to reveal some of the more amusing cruft that’s often edited out of the web copy.

Pack

Use the opportunity of a convention to sell yourself. Turn your personality and enthusiasm for your products and craft into a competitive advantage. Anyone can make a game, fill it with high quality components, and set a fair price. But, nobody can be you! That’s corny as all get out, but never undervalue who you are and what you can bring to the table. Charm the pants off your customers and they’ll give you an edge when it comes to spending money with you versus a similar product for which they don’t know the creator.

Convention Essentials for Publishers

If you’re a new publisher, you might be wondering what exactly you need for a convention. Good question! For Hyperbole, I invested in the following items.

  • Vertical vinyl sign for Hocus. This is our own game at the moment and it has gorgeous artwork. This is what will draw eyes to our booth.
  • Horizontal vinyl sign for Hyperbole. This is our back of booth/in front of table namesake. If you’re going to buy one sign, buy this one.
  • Hyperbole t-shirts. These give us an air of professionalism and associate us with the company.
  • Business cards. I made fun small cards that share my name and email. People all said “ooo neat cards!”
  • Stickers. This was a little bit of an unnecessary reach, but they didn’t cost too much and they’re really fun. I have a great logo — I love it. Many people responded to it. Giving people something tangible to take away, especially when you don’t have a game for sale just yet, is crucial.

Cards

Some mixture of the above will give you a professional booth that will keep you from looking like a handful of hacks. But wait, there’s more!

  • Create a newsletter sign up sheet. Simply go into excel, write “Join our Newsletter” at the top, and have a Name and Email address column. Done.
  • Bring a table cloth. Were you raised in a barn?
  • Have a method to collect payment! Paypal, Square, and more. They all have simple apps and will send you a card reader.
  • Tape, scissors, and rope. You never know what you’ll need to McGuyver to hang up. Bring some tools.
  • A Buddy. You will need to pee. Have someone on standby to let you sprint to the bathroom.

Hyperbole Conventions for 2016

Our convention presence for 2016 is really about  managing our budget and time effectively. Hocus will be the only game for sale in 2016, barring anything unexpected, which means our potential revenue at conventions is limited. I feel it’s a mistake to attend Gen Con with fewer than 3 games, unless Hocus REALLY takes off in the mean time. It’s just such an expensive convention to attend. I can put those resources to better use I feel. Your mileage may vary!

Currently, I’m hoping to attend Kubla Con here in the San Francisco Bay Area, Strategicon in the Los Angeles area, Geekway to the West in St. Louis, and depending on pricing and availability, BGG Con in Dallas. Josh may be able to attend some in the Seattle area, though that’s still somewhat up in the air.

If you know of a great convention we should be attending, send it to us in comments.

Thanks for reading! Have a good week!

The 54 Card Guild: #5

54CardLogo

If this is the first time you’re seeing The 54 Card Guild, I recommend you begin with Guide #1. It will explain much. All of the posts are tagged with 54 Card Guild. There is an active Slack group, which exists to brainstorm, pitch, and discuss games. There are over 25 people in it. It’s a fun, casual supplement to this course. If you’re interested in joining us, email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com. 

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I apologize for the delay with this entry. It appears I have a day job and in the midst of that, a trip to Texas was incurred. Today, I want to discuss testing. This post will be followed up with Guide #6, which concerns iteration and development. Due to the close proximity of these two topics AND the horrendously unreliable pace with which I’ve been writing them, they’ve been written at the same time. Yes! Guide #6 will be released shortly.

If you’ve been following the assignments, you have:

  1. Brainstormed and narrowed down an idea
  2. Filled out an Outline to answer high level questions
  3. Completed a first pass of content for your game
  4. Completed a rough rules outline to guide your instruction (and hopefully answer more questions)
  5. Conducted a solo test
  6. Iterated against that solo test

If you’re ahead of me here, then bear with me. Side question: how did “bear with me” become a saying? I would think other things would occur when “bearing” aside from patiently standing idle. Like, mauling people taking selfies, or catching salmon with one hand like a Heisman trophy winner, or climbing into a hammock, or stealing pickanick baskets. My knowledge of bears is off…

Let’s find some suckers willing testers who can get our game off the ground and into development.

Designers often note that you need to test with people who will give you an honest opinion and not sweet talk you, else you’ll think more highly of your design than it deserves. However, such a notion is pre-mature at this stage. You don’t need 4 members of the BGG elite telling you precisely why your game fails. At this stage, your game is probably a hot pile of garbage. You’re not looking for nuanced critique, but warm bodies to help you triangulate the fun and identify gaping holes in your hypothesis.

Therefore, Step 1 is to find a number of people that matches your ideal player number who are kind, open minded, and patient. These should probably be friends or family. Should you include yourself in the first test? At this stage , I could go either way.

  1. If you AREN’T playing, you can focus your efforts on explanation and furiously take notes.
  2. If you ARE playing, you can guide players through the rough spots of your rules and mechanisms by taking turns and demonstrating how to play.

I tend to be fairly observant and good at taking notes while moving, so I tend to play in all of my initial tests.

Final note before we get started: buy pizza for everyone and provide cold beverages. Bribery is a wonderful way to warm folks up to pain you’re about to inflict. Always remember — they could be doing something else. Something fun. When I’m at work with lunch, I bring cookies for everyone. It helps!

Now, we’re at a table, ideally with melting cheese in close proximity, and some number of people chosen more for their kindness than analytical skills. For your first handful of tests, typically 1-5, you’re demonstrating more a work of high concept than gameplay. It’s a rough draft and you should present it as such. Before I deal the cards or explain the rules, I give everyone the elevator pitch.

I’ll use Gaia as an example to demonstrate my point.

Gaia Elevator Pitch

“I love Netrunner for many reasons, one of which is my love of crafting decks ahead of time and showing up with something unique. I love building a plan out of a pool of cards and pitting against an opponent’s deck. So, pre-constructed decks. Naturally, I cannot have infinite cards like Netrunner, which alters my design.

I also love Carcassonne. I think tile laying is a simple, tactile, and brilliant experience. Therefore, I asked myself, how can I combine these two experiences?

In Gaia, two players are powerful beings, more or less gods, who are fighting to take control of newly formed planets. You will build, shape, and influence the planets. Each player will construct or draft a 9 card “deck” out of a small pool of only 45 unique cards. This gives you a taste of deck construction without the mental or financial investment of a traditional CCG.”

Rules Outline

Reference your Rules Outline (from Guide #3), which you should be keeping up to date, to explain your rules. Naturally, if you’ve explained rules before, you don’t need the Rules Outline! But, if you tend to be wayward and distracted, or, as it’s a new game, you’re not clear, use the Rules Outline to introduce the game. Remember! You’re using your friends’ time that could be otherwise spent playing something fun. Respect their time and give them a nice, focused piece of instruction.

Bustin’ a U-Turn

In a recent interview on the Shut Up and Sit Down Podcast, Eric Lang noted that during a play test if something isn’t working, he’ll immediately adjust and change the design to seek the fun. I believe this is pretty standard, but if I’m wrong and it’s not, hopefully you’ll listen to Eric Lang!

The idea is that you shouldn’t struggle to the bitter end. You aren’t testing balance. You aren’t validating a fair end game. You’re trying to determine whether your core mechanisms, your core ideas, and your fundamental conflicts and decision spaces are compelling.

Note: This illuminates the need for a Guide devoted to the core loop. I apologize. I’ll write one.

How do you know when to change?

  • Look at the faces of your testers. They will truthfully reveal their emotions when they aren’t having fun, or when they are having fun!
  • When someone pauses for a minute to consider something, ask if they’re confused, or stumped, or frustrated.
  • When another player is thinking about their turn, ask the previous player what they think. Use that moment to get a quick pulse.

When you think you’ve found a hiccup or a problem, say “stop!” Explain what you’re changing, why, and how it is changing. Make sure everyone gets it — never forget that your players are taking in a lot of new, fuzzy, maybe poorly presented new rules — and move forward again.

When something goes wrong, pull the e-Brake and bust a U-Turn. Just change it. Use your time wisely to test as many theories as possible and find the answer as quickly as possible.

Notes

Throughout the test, note your observations. Do not seek to immediately identify solutions, or fully understand why you’re making the observation, but note things which you observe to reflect upon later.

  • What do players ask questions about?
  • When do people pause?
  • When did people laugh? Smile? Frown?
  • Something seem too easy? Too tough?
  • Is the game advancing too slowly or too quickly?

In a sense, you’re conducting a session of people watching around your game. For these early tests, you’re trying to figure out whether your game makes a good first impression. It’s like bringing a friend to meet your core group, or meeting the girl you’ve been talking to via Ok Cupid. People are making quick judgements of your game — try to capture these judgements, when they are made, and why they are made. Just watch and learn.

The End

Overall, relax and take a deep breath. Take it easy. Check your emotions at the door. Your game is most assuredly going to be bad. Take advantage of your friends’s kindness and good spirits and bolster it with your enthusiasm for the game and appreciation for them being there.

You might not play a full game — it’s okay if you don’t. I’ve tested Project Gaia 3 times without actually finishing a game. Why? It’s not ready. It’s not there yet. I learn a few things every game and then stop the test. I’m hoping I play a complete game for #4, or maybe #5. It’s key not to waste people’s time. It’s also key to not try to solve every problem your game has in a single test.

When you get home, examine your notes and compile them all in a small diary. Read them a few times, then, when you’re ready, begin iteration. We’ll cover that next time.

Assignment

Write an Elevator Pitch for your game. Review and update your Rules Outline. Finally, call an ideal number of friends over, order your favorite pizza, and conduct your test. Open a Word document or Google Doc and begin a development diary listing your notes, changes, observations, and desires for the game.

The 54 Card Guild: #4

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Firstly, I’m sorry this post is a week late, and it barely made it at that. I’ve been swamped at work and have found myself making no progress on my designs and the blog has fallen lowest in the queue. The good news is, Hocus is making excellent progress in manufacturing and I noted in Guide #1 that some posts might not be weekly. Way to cover your butt, Grant.

In a weird way, Guide #4 is a great stopping point. I urge you to go back and take a look at Guides 1-3 and examine your work so far. We’ve brainstormed and catalogued a series of ideas, created multiple outlines and initial content for each, and even conducted a few solo tests. Maybe if you’re ahead of things (good!), you’ve shown the game to others and played it once or twice.

What if you made a turd? What if, at this point, it’s clear the game is a failure? Or, worse, you don’t know? That’s the topic of Guide #4: Failure. How to recognize it and what to do about it.

As a culture (American), we are generally terrible at recognizing failure. We generally believe that hard work and a can-do attitude will lead to success, but the truth is that success in a creative space is elusive. I like to think I take a pragmatic look at things, but hilariously when I started board game design I thought I’d have one game signed by a publisher every year. Well, it’s around year five and I’ve just barely signed 3 contracts, only 1 of which has appeared on the market. That doesn’t mean I’m a hack, but it is a good reminder of reality.

Designer Dave Chalker (Get Bit!, Heat, Criminals, many RPG contributions) has mentioned a Rule of 10. The general idea is that:

  • 1 in 10 ideas lead to prototypes
  • 1 in 10 prototypes lead to a game worth developing
  • 1 in 10 developed games leads to a contract

Don’t get too hung up on the numbers, but do consider that funnel. Most of what you make will be a failure, and even when you make good things, they might not be good enough.

I have terrible prototypes, like Poor Abby Farnsworth, and Frontier Scoundrels, and Driving in the Rain, and Tell, and FLABS. I have mediocre prototypes like Flipped, or Blockade. I have good games like Sol Rising that are good, but not good enough. I learn from these experiences, they enrich my skill set and teach me new things, but they are failures.

Be willing to experiment and fail. Be willing to put your time into your good ideas and work on them tirelessly because they are precious. I’m taking my fourth major revision against Sol Rising because I love it and know what it can be. That game alone is almost a “Rule of 10.”

How do you know if a game is a failure? There are a few questions to ask to evaluate it.

  • Are you running into unsolvable problems? This could be a dominant first player problem, a runaway leader issue, a terrible AP issue, or sheer imbalance. I read a comedy writer say “write downhill” the other day, meaning don’t fight an uphill battle for a joke. Good jokes will flow, naturally. If you cannot solve something, maybe it cannot or shouldn’t be solved.
  • Has forward progress halted? Have you tried three changes or solutions or modifications and the game is still busted, or blatantly not fun? If you’re making progress, keep at it. But, if you’re in a rut, maybe it’s time to move on.
  • Do you have any early fans? If I put forth a design that’s really bad, my friends will tell me quickly. It’s not hard to see they aren’t interested. Even if something’s broken, but it has a neat kernel, my friends will at least give it a nod. Listen to your early audience. Do they believe in the future?
  • Does your game offer something unique? If you’re just retreading old ground, considering starting something else. Why work so hard at developing an idea that’s already been done well by someone else?
  • Do you like it? Do you? Really? Do you see yourself loving the idea? If not, move on. You’ll be partners for a long time. Love needs to be on the horizon.
  • Does the game have a potential audience? Does it have a hook? If you can successfully identify who would love your game, then it’s worth pursuing. We believed that “poker with spells” had a home. This drove us for the year it took to find our game. If your game isn’t going to fill a slot or completely please an audience, you may be spending time on a dud.
  • Do you want to still work on it? Do you have a burning desire to get back into that rules doc or spreadsheet and keep spinning?

You’ve asked these questions now and believe you might have a stinker on your hands. What next? Firstly, take a deep breath. It’s totally fine. You don’t suck. Feld has bad ideas. So does Vlaada. Well, maybe not Vlaada…

Secondly, set the idea aside. You might be missing something and need a fresh perspective. Go read a book on the topic, or seek inspiration from another avenue. Give it a few weeks, or a month. Just think about it. If you still like it, but cannot crack that nut, then just think on it. I do this often. Gaia took about 4 months before it became a physical card game.

Thirdly, return to your outlines. Why are you making the game? What is interesting about it? Why should it exist? You may find you strayed from the path and can return to those core ideas with a new execution. In fact, if you still love that core idea, that’s what you should do. I used goals constantly to evaluate York and what it did and didn’t need. I always came back to the core ideas of it being an aggressive, battle heavy game for 2-4 players that played in an hour. I didn’t want camping or defensive strategies to be viable. That helped me over and over again.

Finally, remember that you should only be working on stuff that thrills you. That you love. There’s almost no money in this hobby, so don’t run headlong into a wall for something that makes you miserable. When you’re failing, simply make the decision to re-align towards success.

Design downhill. Design such that you’re always smiling. Find a great idea, and work it until it succeeds, or becomes a bad idea.

Fail fast, fail often, fail happily, and use it to strengthen your craft.

Assignment: Evaluate your current idea. Is it a failure? Is it the game you should be making? Is there another game you’d rather make? This isn’t an invitation to get distracted, or stop making progress. It’s an invitation to fail and be fine with that.

Many Diaries

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m a big fan of Slate’s The Gist, a daily ~30 minute podcast that features Mike Pesca, formerly of NPR. I highly recommend it if you enjoy witty wordplay, commentary of culture and politics, interesting interviews, and most importantly, Mike Pesca. Liking him is essential. He’s a huge personality.

A recurring guest on the show is Matthew Dicks, an award winning storyteller. Dicks frequently comes on to coach storytellers and generally discuss how to tell a good story. It’s fascinating how simple his points are, but also, how pertinent these notes are for game design.

Last week, Dicks came onto the show to discuss one of his latest tips. You can listen to it here, but I’ll summarize it for you. He recommends that every day at the end of the day, you open a diary or spreadsheet or some device and in just a sentence or two, log the most meaningful thing that happened during the day. A singular moment.

This could be a small conversation with your wife, almost dying on the freeway (my last Friday), signing a contract, or having a hilarious moment at lunch with your friends. What was the most significant moment of your day, briefly noted?

The idea is that it will help you remember things, not just for future reflection, but the act of accessing your memory will remind you of other events. It’ll slow down time, cause you to reflect on what you are or are not doing with your life, highlight trends and patterns, and will hopefully inspire you.

I’m 8 days from the conclusion of my 32nd year on this planet. As I go from 32 to 33, I plan to start this diary on a daily basis. I’m curious where it leads. New game ideas? Stronger inner reflection? A good sense of place on this earth?

Never mind that. You came here to learn about design.

Also inspired by Matthew Dicks, I intend to begin keeping a diary for all my games in testing. Traditionally, after a test I simply make the changes and move forward. The “why” of particularly small decisions is lost to the world. I remember key changes, typically, and why they came about, but nothing specific. Towards the latter half of Hocus, I kept a diary sometimes to log what changed. I’m doing that now with Gaia, but from the start. The hope is to build a history of the game and see how it emerges in a step by step way.

The diary is simple. It tracks:

  • The date
  • The number of tests
  • Who tested
  • My notes

Here are my notes from the first test: 

Make all tiles single type.
Remove actual Desert tile, just make it blank spaces.
Remove Event card Type.
Remove Flying key word.
Add 2 reference cards.
Only build planet to 15 (then add more over time via the supply).
Fix a few glaring balance issues from cards used in test.
For Immortals, did “deal 2, keep 1.”
Change to “deal 3, keep 1.”
Dealt 5 cards at a time from which to draw.
Didn’t finish the game.

Here are my notes from the second test:

Play tiles however you want, no complex rules. Start with 3 random tiles in diagonal line.
Add more ways to remove tiles.
Randomly discard 3 cards from hand at start of game to deck to randomize start.
Cover Means: cover physical card or land
Add Means: play in desert
Desert counts as tile
Add tile accents to make world building more interesting and drive early strategy. Perhaps card affinity?
Spend 2 Actions: Draw your whole hand (speed up game)
Always get top card at start of turn, end of turn shuffle deck.(speed up game)
Murkle – Improve wording
Tidal Wave – remove shift clarification
Tempest – Move 3
Bhuta: “Shift 1 from Bhuta”
Tectonic Shift: “Move any 1 tile and anything on it to any space on planet
Many cards too expensive
Need to fix scoring — it’s too tough
Too much public information to track
Simplify immortal bonus.
Perhaps an affinity or scoring arrangement for Gods? Grouped them by Ocean/Forest/Plains.
Creatures can only spawn on affinity tile.
Didn’t finish the game.
Remove most conditional statements. Make cards more flexible and powerful.
Simplify Text

The idea is that I catalog my thoughts and take notes on when things changed. Hopefully, I can observe the progression of my game. Hopefully, as I write these down they’ll spark other ideas and force me to really examine what I’m up to.

These are my two new diary projects. Hopefully they bear fruit. One for me, one for my games. Do you catalog your tests or your thoughts? How? How do you keep track of the world around you?

The 54 Card Guild: #3

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Posted by: Grant Rodiek

This is the third entry in the 54 Card Guild, a loosely guided course for designers new and old interested in crafting a game consisting of at most 54 cards and nothing else. If you’d like to read the first post, check here. If you’re interested in joining our discussion on Slack, email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com. 

At this point, we all have an idea that we think has a kernel of fun. We’ve brainstormed a variety of themes and mechanisms to emerge with a solid pairing. We’ve filled out the Outline to answer some basic questions for the experience and we conducted a Content Slam to actually design the game. Hopefully, from there you built the cards!

Note: Members of our Slack group gain access to Paperize, a free program that lets you export a Spreadsheet with a single button click to create your cards. I’m not lying when I say it saved me 12 hours of layout and card creation work.

We need to test our game, quickly. It’s time to begin development! However, before we put the game in front of others, let’s ensure it’s actually a viable game. We are going to run a solo test to kick the tires, identify and eliminate huge, obvious flaws, and polish up the test to ensure your first testers don’t waste their time.

Before you play your game with others, you should validate your game functions and identify your first problems. Leveraging the scientific method, you want to build a hypothesis towards the elements that will hinder the fun of your game. When you test, you should do so with a goal, and knowing the problems you have ahead of time will improve the effectiveness of this.

There are a few tools that will help you solve this effectively: a Rules Outline and a Pre-Test Check. Let’s discuss the Rules Outline first.

Note: In the future we’ll go into depth on rules writing and game testing. For now, let’s focus on these interim steps.

The Rules Outline

At times I’ve advocated for writing the rules before I even build my prototype. But, I think this is a path that’s atypical and overwhelming for new people. I don’t want to create a brick wall that gates your steady ramp into design, so let’s instead pare the rules down to a simple outline.

Similar to the previous Outline, we’re going to create some questions to arrange our thoughts. I’ve created a Rules Outline template here, which you can read, download, and use as you see fit. Below, I’m going to discuss it and fill it out for Gaia to provide an example.

This rules outline acts as a reference for you. It’ll arrange your thoughts so that you can cohesively explain your game to others. It’ll also act as a reference for you to look at to see what you thought in isolation. In your first 10 tests, your core rule assumptions will be frequently challenged and it’s nice to have something written in ink so you can firmly say “Oh, I thought this, but it seems like it may be wrong.”

Q1. How many people can play the game? 2 Players

Q2a.  How do players set up the game?

  1. Each player chooses 1 Immortal. Set the other 7 aside.
  2. Each player chooses 9 cards from the deck of 45. You can use a basic drafting mechanism.
  3. Shuffle the 27 cards that were not chosen and deal each player 3. Players use the back side and one at a time begin placing these tiles to build the planet. Build until it’s 15 tiles.
  4. Each player gets a reference card.
  5. Shuffle the 7 Immortals not chosen and deal 3 face up. These are the initial Scoring conditions.
  6. Oldest player goes first.

Q2b. Draw a loose diagram showing a game setup to play.

GaiaSetup

Q3. What is the structure of play? And what happens within the structure?

The game is played in alternating turns. On a turn, a player takes any two Actions. The same actions can be chosen multiple times and they can be chosen in any order. There is a bank of two actions.

Q4. What is the win condition? A player scores 4 Points.

Q5. When does the game end? A player wins.

Q6. Are there any special rules or exceptions that need to be considered?

Tiles must be placed such that they pair with their land type, if possible. Otherwise, they can go anywhere. On the very first turn, the player takes only one action.

Q7. What are some of the key terms in your game?

Discard, Return, Draw, Attack, Devastate, Adjacent, Add, Shift, Cover

[For the sake of space, I didn’t write the definitions out, but YOU should!]

Q8. Are there any special rules based on the number of players?

No. It is exclusively a 2 player game. Though, there is potential for a 3-4 player experience with multiple decks. Not important at this time.

Q9. Can you provide an example or explain how different pieces of content work?

There are multiple card types. Land cards are added to the board and provide new actions for their owner. Creatures cover tiles and can be moved around to attack the creatures and Land of opponents. Score cards provide one-time actions, but can also be used to Score points. Powers are one time abilities that are then discarded. Immortals provide a powerful benefit for your Creatures.

Q10. Is there anything else a player might need to know to play the game? Any high level direction?

Try to choose cards with synergies. Pay attention to what score options are available and try to stop your opponent from achievement them before you.

You can see now that I can guide someone through the game and I understand many of the parameters needed to play. Teaching your game while muttering through a jumble of rules and concepts is very difficult for others. Prepare an outline, a syllabus, a guide, to focus your teaching and square your thoughts.

Preparing a rule outline will also force you to being thinking about how you’ll teach your game. Even if you aren’t writing actual rules just yet, always remember that you will not arrive in the box with your game. Others must learn it without you. If you cannot teach a mechanism, you shouldn’t use a mechanism.

Pre-Test Check

We have our outline. Now, we need to create a Pre-Test Check. We’re going to do this twice: once before you conduct your solo session, and once after you make your changes before you test with others.

For the Pre-Test Check, ask yourself:

What do you think is most likely to not function? For Gaia, I was fairly confident that the tiles would not have sufficient connections, or too many situations would be created where the tiles couldn’t be played. I also worried about the synergy of the cards. CCGs are about creating combos and complementary engines and I feared I wouldn’t have any. Finally, I worried the scoring might not be possible in some situations, leading to a stalemate.

This question is often difficult to answer as it requires a firm knowledge of other games and often having created other games before. But, looking at my rules, I began to consider the motivations and actions of a hypothetical Gaia player. I looked at setup.

Every card back has a tile type with one of four land masses. These tiles are arranged randomly at this time. What happens if all the Oceans are drafted? What happens if there are empty spaces on the map?

I came up with some solutions by asking this question of myself. I then shuffled the cards and began laying them out as tiles. I quickly encountered a situation with a horseshoe shape. Ah ha! I needed a tile type with all 4 terrains on it.

When I worried about Scoring, I again looked at my tiles and the layout. I quickly arranged some hypothetical situations. The result was that I couldn’t 100% state that all Scoring possibilities would be valid. Therefore, I created other cards to address this. It was a little bit of a bandaid, but one that temporarily solved the issue to allow for testing.

As for card synergy, I began drafting 9 card decks to see how things panned out. I noticed I didn’t have enough forest cards, or creatures, or Powers, so I added more and improved my card distribution.

That’s really it. It’s a big and difficult question that requires honesty, but if you can answer that first question – what is broken – you can test.

The Solo Session

In the solo session, you are going to play versus yourself. You versus You. Setup the game, following your Rules Outline. Deal cards to every player, who is a fictional person. Ignoring strategy, really, as you will know everything, pick up the cards dealt to Player 1 and take your turn. Follow the turn steps, play the cards. Then, move physically to Player 2’s chair and take his turn. Play the cards. Try to react to Player 1.

Very quickly you might encounter something stupid. Something you either predicted in the Pre-Test Check, or something unexpected. Whoops! Fix it, then start over. Keep moving around the table until you feel it’s possible for everyone to play 2-3 turns before the game breaks down. You might not actually finish a game for your first several actual tests!

Bonus: If your game is working to this point, you can create a player AI and when moving around the table, act against that AI. You can create one that is aggressive, one that is passive, one that always hordes money, or one that has a personal beef against another player. You’re not testing strategy, or balance, but merely trying to create a more nuanced simulation of how a table of actual humans will play.

Assignment #3

Fill out the Rules Outline. Answer all the questions, or the ones you think are useful to you, and read over it a few times.

Fill out the Pre-Test Check, then run a solo session. Take notes on what happened and fix your game until you can play several turns without finding an obvious problem. Create an AI and begin incorporating those.

Bonus Assignment

Get a smart phone or web camera and in 60 seconds or fewer, record yourself pitching your game. Email me the link at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com and I’ll share it on the blog. Or, we can share it in the Slack channel. I’m going to post mine soon — I’m busy and in the interest of time I haven’t done this yet.