One Week ‘Til Magic

Cover

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

We believe this entails…

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

Where you come in?

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

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

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

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

Thanks, and we’ll see you next week.

5th Street Bankruptcy and You

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What will happen to Farmageddon? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, that’s all very premature.

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

The Thumb Commotion

Cover

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

Image

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

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

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

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

Hotness

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

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

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

Updated 6/13/2015: Still climbing!

Updated: Still climbing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revising Your Design Process

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wrote my goal, first. 

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s something new.

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

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

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

MapMock

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

PlayerBoardMock

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

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

ShipMock

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

Tokens

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

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

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

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

Planning to Plan

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Effect Proofraeding

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Firstly, the typos in the title are jokes. Dear all that is holy. Jokes.

The task to make the text in a game clean, consistent, and clear, is arduous and requires a great deal of time. It should come as no surprise that in the writing world there are people whose only job it is to tighten the text, ensure consistency, and improve upon the final result. I use the modifier “only” not to minimize the impact of their efforts, but to highlight the laser focus and expertise required to achieve this result.

I consider text writing and editing a part of development from the start. It’s something I take very seriously from the beginning, mostly because I often design games with text on cards and I know all too well how a misinterpreted card and lead to terrible tests and disastrous results.

But, how does one go about editing and writing text to ensure it meets all your goals and leads to an excellent and clear game experience? We spent the holiday weekend going through a massive text scrub of Hocus after two pieces of feedback. These two tiny pieces made a huge positive impact and I think there’s a lesson here.

Examine oft overlooked core rules and see if they can better fit on the cards. If the global rule is “discard the card after use,” well, players need to remember that. Do not fill your cards with such text. But, in the case of Hocus, the global rule was “You can never modify another player’s Pocket” and a quarter of our Spells said “Do something to a Pocket.” It was easy for people who hadn’t read the rules (and were taught the game) to interpret that text as “Do something to any pocket, mine or yours.” Therefore, we added the word “your” to every card and deleted the core rule. So, now it will say “Do something to your Pocket.”

Huge clarification, simple change.

Write an FAQ for every card and create examples for the ways one can conceivably use the card. Do all of these match your expectations? We have cards called Owl Wizards that can be used in a particular situation as a bonus Spell. Every turn you must do one Spell, but before or after it, you may discard an Owl Wizard to use its ability. We had two Spells that granted you additional Spells. One specifically said “Cast two Spells this turn.” The intent was that you would do your normal Spell, than one additional. But, due to the global rule of discarding an Owl Wizard, one could conceivably interpret this as “Use my Spell, then discard the Owl to use two more Spells.” Therefore, we revised the text to complement the core rule more smoothly.

When you write an FAQ, your brain enters a mindset of reverse engineering. You’re trying to over explain things and thing of alternate paths to clarify. That’s why you have an FAQ. Doing this ahead of time, not after the fact, will illustrate discrepancies and issues in your text.

When a tester is confused by a single card, ask her same question against every card. Chances are, if you thought a line of text was valid beforehand, you probably used a similar method elsewhere. In Hocus, we have 24 unique Spells and 15 Owl Wizards, all of which manipulate the same simple framework and core rules. This means when we found 1 error, we really had 5 or 6 errors.

Use terms consistently and try to align them with terms used by other games. Hand, discard, draw — these are standards you should not change. Once you identify your key terms, examine every card to see if it effectively and consistently uses them. Find cases where you accidentally introduce a new term and see if you can remove the exception. Remember that some words are common terms, and some have the feeling of weight. They seem like they are a game term. Try to avoid these!

For example in Hocus, we said “owned” to indicate Spells controlled by a player. This felt scary to us because “own” had weight behind it. What does it mean to own a Spell? Well, nothing. It’s really just the spell in front of you. We had to consider this and play thesaurus a bit to find something with less heft.

Use fewer words where possible, but when the one perfect word has too much heft behind it, instead of implying a new term, instead, use three or four words to elaborate instead.

Print your content, go away from a computer, and read it all aloud. This sounds ridiculous, but it was a tip given to me in college and I’ve always found it to be an intensely useful exercise. Firstly, get away from your computer. Twitter, Facebook, Board Game Arena, whatever you’re playing, get away from it. You need to be focused during edits. When you’re looking at something you’ve seen thousands of times, it’s very easy for your mind to just sprint through it. Give it your entire focus and unplug.

Secondly, read it aloud. By reading aloud, you’ll force your mind to actually read it and you’ll find typo-like word omissions and poor spelling errors. The combination of focus and reading aloud will catch everything that the other processes missed.

Then, do everything above four more times. Then two more times.

What are your favorite tactics for proofreading and finalizing text balance?

The Humblest of Pies

Post by: Grant Rodiek and Joshua Buergel

Last week we announced that we wouldn’t have Stretch Goals for Hocus. The Kickstarter will go live June 25 and everything that will come in the box will be there from the start. You can read about this decision here. This led to a response and many questions, which we answered in a follow up post here.

Today, Josh and I are going to eat humble pie and announce something that has come about as a result of this process: Hocus will feature a two piece box. It turns out that upon re-examination it fit our cost structure. Though we like how cards don’t slosh around with a tuck box, there were many concerns about the durability and quality of a tuck box. If we don’t have the cost leg to stand on, then it seems like we need to do our best for our fans and customers.

One of our core values is to have a great relationship with our customers. You can read about that here. Here, we’re putting a small amount of money where our mouth is. It’s not insignificant, but I don’t want to stomp around and claim it’s thousands of dollars either. But, we hope you see how seriously we take this.

This means, for your pledge, with no Stretch Goals, Hocus will feature the following things, all of which are frequently withheld at the base level by many campaigns.

  • Linen cards
  • Two-Piece Box
  • 5 Player Support
  • Rule sheet versus rules on cards
  • 3 Extra Spell Books, for a total of 9 new Spell cards

We could have easily made 7 Stretch Goals out of that list above. All of these things cost more money, reduce our margins, but most importantly, make the game better.

Here is our request to you, a call to action. If Hocus is interesting to you at the end of June, and you think the price and offering is fair, please back our project, and please back it early. Early support has a huge impact on a project’s momentum.

When we fund, and we’re confident we can do this, please give us your support when folks ask for Stretch Goals and get angry that we do not have them. Tell your friends about the project because it’s a great price and a great game, not because we’re going to give you more stuff if we hit a Stretch Goal.

Help us deliver a great game in the most honest and fair method we can imagine.

We are going to lose customers because of our no Stretch Goal position. This is a principled stance we’re taking and we have no illusions about the consequences. But, we don’t need to make gobs of money. If we could make even $15,000, which is $9,000 over our funding goal, we’ll consider this campaign an immense success.

If you have any questions, please ask. We appreciate your comments now, just as we appreciated them last week. To hell with you guys, you’re getting your box!

Thanks for your support.

Funny Games

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I find myself greatly drawn to the notion of humorous games lately. More specifically, designing games that are legitimately funny for those playing them. I don’t mean games like Apples to Apples, or Bad Medicine, or Cards Against Humanity that are intended to be funny party games. In a slightly finicky twist that makes this a blog post, I’m talking about games whose mechanisms and experience facilitate a lot of laughs.

I don’t think humor comes from flavor text, or funny images, but from the mechanisms themselves. Like true thematic integration, humor must come from the actions of the players and the overall experience, not the window dressing.

Some of the games that cause us to laugh the most are Coloretto, Carcassonne, Speicherstadt, Libertalia, and Witness. Why is that?

What then, makes for a funny game? There are a few elements, which I’ll detail briefly.

Simple content that allows players to focus more on their actions and opponents than the intricate details of their hand. See Coloretto versus Netrunner. Basically, player spent reading and learning cards is time not spent enjoying the table. Time spent deciphering icons and keywords is time not spent talking trash, discussing strategy, and staring your friends in the eyes to read their intentions. Funny games give players room to breathe, laugh, and crack jokes. Brainpower is required to be funny and overly verbose cards don’t allow for it.

Player interaction. We can debate this example I’m about to toss out, but one of the reasons Dominion will never be funny is that it’s not very interactive. Yes, there are some cards that allow you to swindle and torture your friends, but fundamentally, it’s not a terribly interactive game. It’s not a bad game, it’s just not a very funny one. Humor is all about surprise that isn’t upsetting, timing, and in some cases, tragedy. Good player interacting in competitive games is often all of those things. If you’re doing something to help yourself, it’s often at the expense of opponents. Now, I think the interaction needs to not be mean. Take that games are often mean. Good, funny interaction can be swindling someone with a low ball auction, taking the card they desperately wanted, or leaving someone with the bill when they thought they were driving up the price. Interaction is funny. That back and forth tension will just build great jokes. Feature it in your game if you want to be funny.

Schadenfreude. This continues the previous note some, but it can manifest itself in other ways. It can be the case that you are dealt some horrid luck. That’s funny for everyone else. Perhaps you think you have the upper hand, then your friend reveals a card in hand just as you’re pulling the chips towards yourself. That’s funny for the rest of us. By designing mechanisms that allow for schadenfreude, you’re giving everyone a reason to laugh. And, as long as your game is balanced such that someone can bounce back, it won’t be all of us laughing at you, but all of us laughing with you. That distinction is key.

Public information. This one might seem strange, but it’s important. If there’s some level of public information, players can begin talking about it, boasting, criticizing (or swearing) at each other, and having some great table talk. I love games like Carcassonne and Coloretto where you can watch everything evolve. Everyone sorta knows what everyone else wants. You know that Bob really wants to sneak into this castle. And when they draw the piece they need, everyone starts to laugh when Joe shouts “you bastard!”

Hidden Information. But but but I just said public information! Secrets are fun as they lead to bluffing and two words that dominate my games of Netrunner with my friends: hot treats. If you want to see a nasty smirk emerge on the face of me or one of my friends, watch us play the Corp in Netrunner. We’ll install a card, smile, tap it, and say “some hot treats for you.” Coup is inherently funny because everyone is lying. Everyone knows everyone is lying. It’s really just a matter of knowing when to call them on their lies. Secrets are hilarious, especially when they lead to unexpected consequences.

I don’t know why exactly I’m drawn to having humor in my games. I think that humor, as a side effect, improves my early testers’ perception of a game. I’ve found with my latest prototype that they’re less resistant to early, garbage tests because they are having a good time. Imagine what happens when the game is fun?

I think to games of poker or dominoes with my parents, or playing Hocus at Thanksgiving. The number of groans I hear around the table as someone blocks another player, or steals someone’s points, or scores big, just make for a very enjoyable experience.

I think that’s a key to why board games are special and worth pursuing. Video games are only funny in a singular sense. Yes, occasionally something incredible will happen online, but this is usually more a case of online virality and less a moment of humor between friends. The secret sauce of board games is social interaction. Being in the presence of other people. Sharing a table with friends while interacting among a set of rules. Humor is so intoxicating. It’s such a delicious human experience. It seems foolish of me to ignore such an ingredient for my games.

What games make you laugh? How do you craft humor in your games?

This Stuff is Hard

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Yesterday I posted about Stretch Goals and why we won’t be using them for Hocus. The result was somewhat predictable and somewhat surprising.

Jamey Stegmaier, the guy who is publishing a book on Kickstarter, thinks we’re making the wrong decision. Check his comments on the blog. He’s not wrong! We will have a less successful Kickstarter. We will raise less money.

Some people don’t like linen cards. Huh. I have people angry about tuck boxes. Not surprising. Some are quite angry there. That is surprising. I have suggestions to make art books or wooden boxes. All valid! Some we’ve looked into, some we’ll research further.

I felt really good writing the post, and I felt good defending it, but I honestly feel pretty crummy right now at this moment. I don’t know if it’s work or life or publishing frustrations. Maybe all three?

The reality is that these are our first negative reviews. Every game will have its share of negative reviews. We have no brand loyalty, nobody with Hyperbole bicep tattoos, so we’re going to have more negative reviews than an established company. We’re going to get some 1s and some angry folks. This is just the first wave. It doesn’t feel good, but we’re entering a tough arena and it happens.

Everyone has an opinion. Some are right, some are wrong, but all will be offered. At some point you have to make a decision and deal with those consequences. But, we’re stubborn, not (that) stupid. We’re double checking the numbers. Making sure everything still aligns. We’ve been working on this for close to 15 months now — decisions were made in different eras practically!

The reality is that we have to make decisions, with the information we have. Right now, that information is a scan of the competitive landscape, knowledge of our costs, a sobering appraisal of our status (it’s low, we’re first timers), and what we’re willing to pay and lose out of our own pockets.

A part of our business plan is based around getting into distribution. That is very tough. Talk to a bunch of first time publishers and they’ll tell you about a chicken and egg issue. You can only get in if you’ve sold enough, but how do you sell enough if you aren’t in? How do we convince folks that our game is a quality game and no, no! We’re not some idiots! If we don’t enter distribution, quite frankly, Josh and I will lose a lot of money.

A few questions have come up, for which we have answers.

If your campaign fails, or is failing due to the tuck box, what will you do? We’ll consider changing. Josh and I sincerely think it is the right move for us. But, if we utterly fall on our face because of a box, well, we’ll need to think about it. We aren’t inflexible. As I noted above, we’re re-checking the numbers.

If your campaign fails due to a lack of stretch goals, what will you do? We’ll figure out a different way to publish Hocus. We’ll spend more out of pocket money and obtain a small business loan perhaps, or try to find a publishing partner, or just be sad about the thousands spent already and call it quits.

Let me step back briefly to talk about Stretch Goals philosophically.

I’ve worked in the digital game industry for 10 years now. A huge and tumultuous change has been the introduction of freemium games. Basically, games that are free to download, but are often lousy experiences whether you spend money or not. Ultimately, they are attached to the same psychology of slot machines. The goal, regardless of what anyone will tell you in Gamasutra or GDC speech, is to make more money from a very small percentage of people. If 2 or 3% spend thousands, it all pans out. At least for the business folks.

As a game designer, briefly, on freemium mobile games, I found myself constantly hurting the value and quality of the experience in favor of making more money. It felt dirty as a developer and it is a lousy experience as a customer. I’ve vowed to myself that I would rather work in another industry than make freemium games.

I look to Valve and Blizzard, who have offered great, polished games with honest business models. They may be dinosaurs according to the freemium folks, but I’m sure they are okay with that. I always liked dinosaurs. Tiffany said she’d love to draw them too!

At one point we were designing Hocus content specifically for Stretch Goals. It forced the question: do we think this isn’t good enough to include for everyone? The answer was, no. It also felt strange to deliberately withhold something that made the game better in order to get more money from people. That’s what we would have been doing: making the game less good to get more money from people.

Yes, we understand the psychology of Stretch Goals. Yes, we understand the ecosystem of Kickstarter. But, we’d rather say plainly, this is our offering. This is what we’re selling and what we need help to create. It feels right and it feels honest. It’s what we’d prefer as customers.

If your campaign makes less money due to a lack of stretch goals, what will you do? Our current goal is $6000. This is set deliberately low so that we fund quickly. Joshua and I are willing to spend money out of pocket to pay the rest, and it’s not an insignificant rest.

If we hit this, it means about 400-500 people have backed us, which is also a decent indicator of demand. Based on other games on Kickstarter, I think we can raise $10,000 to $15,000 at the most. This is due to our reach as publishers and our lack of Stretch Goals. If we raise $15,000, I’ll be dancing in the streets. That’ll basically be a million dollars to me. If we raise $6000, I’ll be nervous and it could lead to my first and last publishing effort.

I’ll stop talking now

In the same way I’ve always tried to be transparent about my design efforts, I’m trying to do so with my publishing efforts. We’ve said many times that we’re going to screw up. We don’t know when, or where, but as this is our first time, I’m fairly certain it will happen. Maybe it’ll be the Stretch Goals, or the tuck box, or there’s a horrible strategy we’ve missed in our testing.

At the end of the day, we have to make decisions based around an approximately $15 product with the information we know. We’re doing our best to reduce risk and make people as happy as we can for $15.

We appreciate your input and all of you sticking with us. This stuff is difficult, we’re not sure we’re very good at it, but we’re doing our best.

No Stretching for Hocus

OwlCover_Sketch

Post by: Grant Rodiek and Joshua Buergel

A large part of our efforts the past year, beyond designing and developing Hocus, have been spent figuring out how we want to conduct business. For our first game, we’ve decided to use Kickstarter. The primary reason is that Kickstarter is a good platform by which to gauge demand and for many consumers it’s a known quantity. It’s worth the 10% cost and various efforts involved in a Kickstarter to use it versus building an online platform ourselves at this moment.

One of the most complicated elements of Kickstarter projects are Stretch Goals. As of now, when Hocus launches on Kickstarter in the latter half of June, we will feature no Stretch Goals. We have none planned at this time, and have no plans to add more.

This may be problematic for us, but we want to discuss the decision. We’ll surely be asked about it countless times during the campaign.

Fundamentally, the purpose of Stretch Goals is to increase revenue brought in via Kickstarter, ideally through additional backers. By that, I mean most backers don’t increase their pledges. Notice I said revenue! In many cases, it increases the money coming in, but most Stretch Goals also increase costs, so it isn’t free money for the publisher. One can argue that it lets backers steer the course of the product and such, but fundamentally, I believe it’s about additional revenue.

The presence of Stretch Goals means a few things to backers:

  • “This project has funded and will succeed. It is a thing.” People want to back a winner and be a part of the winning team.
  • “The project will be more exciting. I can’t wait to see what else we get!” It’s fun to be a part of “But wait, there’s more!”
  • “This is a good deal!” More stuff, at the same price, definitely feels like a good deal.

I’m not made of stone. I’ll tell you honestly I have jumped in on a handful of Kickstarters because, well, look at that deal! Fief came with 5 full expansions I’d have to otherwise pay for. It was tough resisting Space Cadets: Away Missions with so much content there.

But, Stretch Goals are not appropriate for Hocus. Our goals for the publication of Hocus are to learn about publishing a card game in a way that builds on our reputation, does not incur an undue amount of risk, and leads to a positive relationship with a small pool of customers. Oh, and we want to make a good game!

These goals must steer our execution. We need to keep our costs low, reduce delays as much as possible, and really nail what we think we can nail. The more complications we add, the higher our chances of failure or missteps. We’re new at this — it’s likely we’re going to botch something, so we need to keep it simple. The stupid is implied. That means remove anything else.

Before I go into some more philosophical points, I want to detail the things that will be included with a pledge for a copy of Hocus. Things that are often withheld as Stretch Goals will be included at the start for us.

  1. Linen Cards: We will have linen cards from the outset. We’ve paid a great deal of money for the art in Hocus and this will be a game that’s heavily shuffled. It’d be wrong to not go with linen.
  2. Fifth Player Support: Although the game was strictly 2-4 players for the longest time, we found a clever solution and five player is actually a phenomenal way to play. Five player does come at a cost – it requires 14 cards: 8 for the deck, 3 for the Spell Book, and 3 reference/tracking cards.
  3. 8 Spell Books: We could ship only the number of books to facilitate a game at our max player count, but we’ve included 3 extras. Many games add promo content, or micro-expansions. We’re including everything from the start.
  4. Rule Sheet: We have card budget to simply put the rules on cards and save a little money on the printing. But, we think the rule sheet is the best thing for the product.

Now, let’s discuss some of the specific reasons we think Stretch Goals are wrong for us and Hocus. Firstly, Hocus is a very small game with a very small price. The final game will be 99 cards, tuck box, rule sheet, and we believe it’ll have an MSRP of $15.99. The total cost for backers to receive a copy of the game will be, we believe, $13. We’re basically slashing the MSRP and backers will cover shipping. The margins are already low in a low margin business. Every dime we add in to the box hurts our ability to move towards a more fiscally responsible state. We aren’t going to get rich on Hocus, but we would like to cover our operating costs as soon as possible.

Secondly, we want to have no delays…that we can control. We want to begin printing as soon as possible, which means all art and graphic design needs to be finished soon. Let’s say our 3 additional Spell Books were Stretch Goals. Do we pay for the art now, and hold onto them hoping we fund? Or do we wait until we hit the goal, hoping we can still schedule our artist? Our artists have quite a bit of lead time. That second option seems dangerous for the project.

Thirdly, it did not make sense to balance test content we weren’t confident we would ship. We have spent months and hundreds of tests just spinning on a small subset of Spells. Why would we spend that time if we aren’t sure we’re going to use it? It’s difficult to test against possibilities. It’s a pain to gain manufacturing quotes against 85 cards, 88 cards, 89 cards, and so forth. Yes, our manufacturing partners can do that, but it seems like a waste of their time, no?

You can see a few cases above where I mention the thought of paying for/developing a thing that we then don’t use if the goal isn’t hit. There seems to be a game of chicken where you can say “we will do this if we meet this Stretch Goal.” But, if you’re below it at all, do you not do it? Even if it makes the game better, you’ve paid for it, and it doesn’t fundamentally alter your costs, do you withhold it? If you don’t, then were you lying all along about needing the money? It’s a strange choice we didn’t want to have to make. We thought the game needed linen cards, and 8 Spell Books, and 5 players, and we were willing to pay for that up front.

We think of this game as pre-Stretched for everybody, with everything we wanted for Stretch Goals already included at day one. It’s a more honest approach to this game.

If we’re wildly successful, I’m sure we’ll hear about areas we could add things to improve the game. Such as shifting from a tuck box to a 2 piece box. Adding tokens for everyone. Or, promising or developing an expansion. But, all of these have been considered and set aside due to costs, cost and complexity, and risk, respectfully.

We will undoubtedly lose some momentum from this. Stretch Goals are an expectation and part of the ecosystem. But, we’re curious if we can succeed without them. Thanks for reading. If you have any thoughts, email us or share them below. We’re quite interested to see how this pans out!