The Evolution of Gaia

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A few months ago I mailed copies of Project Gaia to four groups for testing. The game was only about 6 months old, but it had gone through several iterations, felt “okay,” and good enough to send to folks without my presence. The goal was to attain validation for the concept. Not to hear “this game is good, box it up!” but to gauge the pulse of folks and get a general thumbs up or down on the concept.

The tests have gone well, but the game had a lot of problems. Most glaringly were the issues with complexity. The game had a lot going on, and it took me a while to find out what was needed, why, and how to do it simpler. Thankfully, one test group in particular, Ruth and Jeff Ashton, stuck with me over 3 or 4 iterations now.

An in game photo taken by the Ashtons

An in game photo taken by the Ashtons

I received a very positive test report from the Ashtons Friday, which was a really nice affirmation of the work that’s gone into the game. It feels like the project is really turning a page, so it seems like a good moment for reflection.

I want to write about many of the changes that have been made. I’ll try to cover it at a high level so it’s both interesting and useful to folks who aren’t intimately familiar with Project Gaia. Another way to see some of these changes are to watch two developer vlogs I recorded, showing the game at two points in time.

Here are the rules for the game. The Print and Play is linked at the top.

A quick explanation of the game: Project Gaia (name TBD) is a combination of my love of CCGs, like Netrunner, and tile games, like Carcassonne. I wanted to make a game where building a deck was core to the experience, but I knew I couldn’t make a full CCG. I just don’t have the testing resources, the financial resources, or the audience.

Therefore, in Gaia, players build or draft decks of 9 cards from a limited pool of 55 cards. There are 3 card types: powers (action cards you play then discard), creatures, which hold territory and attack, and monuments, which act as tiles that grant bonus actions. The cards that aren’t used have Terrain on the back and they are placed as tiles to build a planet.

Players alternate taking actions on their turns to play cards, manipulate the planet, and battle. The result is a 30 minute card game with a nice amount of depth and interaction.

Card Costing: A key to games of this nature is cost. In Magic, Netrunner, and X-Wing Miniatures, cards have a mana cost, click and credit cost, and squad cost, respectively. You even see this in Star Realms and Dominion. If a card costs too little, it’ll become overly dominant and can ruin the game. If it costs too much, players will avoid it in favor of something that’s easier to get out.

In card games of this nature, tempo and pacing are crucial to manage.

I love multi-use cards. Borrowing the Magic mechanism from Summoner Wars, cards originally required you discard other cards to play them. The cost ranged from 1-3.

Going back to the very beginning of the game, this has caused all sorts of problems. Initially, the game was laboriously slow — you were constantly left with no cards. To counter this, I gave you a free draw every turn, and you could spend your entire turn to draw back your discard pile (somewhat like the discard and draw action in Combat Commander).

But, the problem was that people would spend all their cheap cards to play the good cards. You actually saw this a bit in the Summoner Wars meta where players would completely forego commons to play only Champions. The game ground to a halt, as it would take multiple turns to fully draw up, get your big creature, then maybe lose him, forcing you to refresh.

I also noticed creatures didn’t have a lot of purpose. I’ll dive deeper into the iteration of creatures below, but I added a mechanism where every creature you had in play reduced your discard cost by 1. So, if I have 2 Creatures out, a 3 Discard card would cost 1. While this idea is simple, it was very complicated. Players constantly forgot it. They were overwhelmed by the math, as well. Think about it — if you’re evaluating 5 cards in your hand, and all of them have a simple math problem, that requires you work much harder to decide what card to play.

DiscardReminder

The reminder card

Shortly after I added reference cards to help you remember that you had a creature discount, I took a step back, and admitted I was devoting a ton of mechanisms to making this single mechanism work. Basically, I was putting a lot of good money after bad.

I removed the discard cost entirely. It was immediately more fun. Players started with all 9 cards in their hand and they could just play them. One action, one card. Suddenly, the game was simpler, faster, and players were able to enjoy the full range of cards. I removed the free card draw at the beginning of the turn.

However, this too had a few problems. For one, nobody ever spent 1 Action to draw 1. Players would spend their full turn to draw their entire discard around turn 3 or 4, and would never need it again. This felt like there wasn’t really an interesting economy of decisions related to card draw. I removed the 2 Action – Draw your entire discard option. Now, you spend 1 Action to get 2 cards (at random). Therefore, fewer actions, and one that’s more consistently used throughout the game.

But, finally, there was one more issue — some cards were clearly better, but all had no cost, except the single action. My option here is to make all cards consistently powerful, which is both difficult and, in my opinion, boring, or implement a cost. I learned my lessons from the previous iteration, so I returned to the discard, but a much simpler version. Now, cards either cost 1 Action, or they cost 1 Action plus 1 Discard. The 1-3 is gone.

GaiaReference

In summary, there is now a nice way to balance better cards that isn’t complicated and doesn’t require supplemental mechanisms to make it work. There is a nice hand management layer to the game. Turns are simple. Take two actions, which basically means playing two cards, using two cards in play, drawing 4 cards, or some mixture of these.

Creature Evolution: Creatures needed a lot of love. When I decided to have a strong spatial element, I felt like it only made sense, thematically and mechanically, to have creatures on the worlds you’re building. Summoner Wars is my primary inspiration for Creatures. I wanted them to move simply in a grid system and attack to protect your other creatures, protect monuments, and foil an opponent’s plans.

All Creatures have either permanent passive bonuses, conditional bonuses (do this to get a thing), or Actions (like many Monuments). For a while, creatures were in the game just to be there. You didn’t need them for anything and often, players wouldn’t play them. Therefore, to help combat the card discard problem, I made it so that creatures reduced the cost by 1. If you had all 3 creatures out, your cards were free to play!

This is mechanically simple on paper, but as I noted above, was too complex and didn’t work. Then, I made it such that Monuments could be used by players to complete objectives. I also made it such that Creatures could block regions from use. However, as combat began heating up, players noticed a few problems:

  • If someone just flooded their deck with Creatures, it made them all free to play, and an opponent would be unable to knock them off or score.
  • Creatures were so flimsy. They all died in one hit, which meant they were impossible to keep on the board.
  • Creatures could be played anywhere, which made it even easier to just hot drop a creature next to an opponent’s and kill it. Whack a mole!

I added three fixes to address these. I added a Deck creature limit of three, I did a tuning pass of health and attack, and I made it so that creatures had to be played to a specific land type. This really improved things!

After listening to a fantastic Mark Rosewater Drive to Work podcast about worldbuilding, I decided to put his teaching to work and really think about how the creatures belong to the world. It was a really fun exercise! I thought about each terrain and what it meant for the creatures in that ecosystem. I tried to design key principles for each one. Then, I listed common and fantastic creatures one might find in such a region. Finally, I put the names to paper and tried to find a marriage of theme and mechanism. I think it was a really fruitful exercise. As the game tightens up, I plan to dig into the theme more strongly to find how I can add more of those touches to the experience.

You should read the scoring section for further details. Creatures went hand in hand with those changes. Mostly, creatures became simpler – no card discard cost, no range – but also became more integral to scoring. Players had to have at least one Creature or Monument involved in an Experiment to Score it. Then, only cards covered by your Creatures could be added to your Biosphere. This made Creatures integral and simple. You can take the ground you cover, essentially.

Finally, for now, I recently did a tuning pass on Creatures to further diversify their values per feedback. Now that I had the discard cost back (though only a single discard), I could make some creatures more powerful. I also began using the knobs more fully by experimenting with Movement speed, defense, and the bonuses provided by the creatures. The hope is that a player will choose 3 Creatures that have synergy with their other cards. Somewhat like how Ice or Programs will really dictate how your deck plays in Netrunner, Creatures will be the primary movers and shakers in Gaia.

Here are some creatures.

Creature_BoltMoth

Creature_Serpent

Card Design Evolution: I’m very proud of the work done here. I’ve put a great deal of thought into it and have seen great results come from investing time into the quality of the layout. Now, it’s all placeholder. Obviously, a professional will do the work if/when it gets published. But, for now, I’m super proud of the results.

Initially, the cards had far more components, so more needed to be displayed. A creature, for example, had:

  • Name
  • Creature Symbol
  • Tile Affinity: Basically, play this to a Grassland
  • Discard Cost
  • Card Text
  • Creature Stats: Defense, Movement, Range, Attack
  • Creature Discard Reminder

Yowza! Naturally, some of these things were lopped off as the game simplified. Range was eliminated as a creature component. The discard reminder died with complex discard cost and was replaced with a simple discard symbol.

However, the Creature symbol needed some thought. It seems obvious now, but it took a minute. I wanted to have symbols on the cards to represent the type. The idea being, players would see that symbol, think “this is a creature,” then remember from the rules, “Creatures are played like this.”

The problem was that with 4 card types (it’s now 3), all of which played a little differently, the symbols didn’t help. Players basically had to remember 4 rules that weren’t reinforced on the cards. Lame! It was frustrating, because the rules were really simple.

  • Powers: Resolve the card, then discard it.
  • Creatures: Play to the tile type indicated.
  • Monuments: Play to a Desert.

But, people kept mixing things up. I took inspiration from Ashes from Plaid Hat Games. On their cards, they tell you exactly where cards are played. They use simple phrases like:

  • Play to your Spellboard
  • Play to your Battlefield
  • Play then Discard

I thought about it. Why can’t I do the same thing? I removed the useless icon and at the bottom in tiny text, I just told players how to play the card. Here’s an example:

Creature_GrandBeaver

Monument_Beacon

For each card, Creature and Monument respectively, the bottom tells you how to play them. Just a nice reminder that is driven home. I did a few other simple things to convey differences. Notice there is a bullet shaped frame on the Creature. The idea is to convey, you play it to this type of card. But, on the Monument, it’s in a box. Now, a real designer will improve on this, but one conveys an action, they other conveys a permanent state.

There are other cues I can provide eventually using color and shapes. In fact, I found some art on the internet, just as an experiment, and put together some card mocks. Now, I did them. They look bad. But, it’s fun to see what they could look like with more than white backgrounds.

Mock_BeaconoftheSteppe

Again, ignore my terrible choices. But, you can see a generic grasslands shape on the bottom, so players always know “this is a grasslands.” That lets me remove the icon in the top left. I made a specific icon – the fence – so you can also know that it’s an icon. Finally, more fun art!

I did a similar exercise with a creature.

BearMock

Here, you have a generic forest silhouette on the bottom to remind you where to play it. But, it isn’t filled in, so that it doesn’t state that it IS a forest. You then have the pertinent character stats in the top left corner, all chosen to represent a creature.

Gaia is a complex game with 55 unique cards. I’ve had to put a great deal of work into the layout of the cards sooner than typical to help facilitate that learning. But, every step has paid dividends. Tiny, subtle tweaks have noticeably improved the enjoyment and comprehension of my testers.

Planet Construction: Originally, the players built the planet at the start of the game. After building or drafting decks, they’d turn the cards over, shuffle them, and deal 3 to each player. Players would take turns placing these on the Planet, then drawing a new one.

There were two early problems. One, the planet was too big. It had a little too much of everything and there was no conflict or tension. Players would just build what they needed in their own corners. Secondly, the rules were too restrictive. I said you had to attach a card to one of its type. This meant you’d effectively have a Neopolitan planet of Grasslands, ocean, and forests, cleanly separated.

I shrunk the planet from 15 to 11 cards and added an initial seed – 3 random cards played diagonally. But, if one of each type wasn’t played, this meant you could play a card anywhere. So, now it looked like a slightly melted Neopolitan. I removed the restriction entirely. Play a card wherever you want, as long as one of its sides matches the side of the same length of an existing card.

Fundamentally, though, this section wasn’t interesting. It added another 3-5 minutes to setup, depending on the AP of the players. It also felt like a choice that I didn’t want to be a choice. Players would try to build the planet “correctly.” My fear in providing a pre-arranged layout was that the game would become static. But, I ripped off the band-aid to implement the following solution:

Players chose 1 of 3 pre-defined layouts shown in the rules. Cards would be shuffled and randomly dealt, so you’d have a different layout with a different assortment of cards every time. This was simple, and worked pretty well. Then, when I added the special tiles (Mountains, Fjord, Fissure), I had the final twist. After the layout is complete, players alternate placing the special tiles. They can place them in deserts (blank spaces), or displace another tile, shifting the row or column to make room.

Now, the planet is setup quickly, with randomization in the tiles, and a slight, quick player twist to really get it going. The key summary here is that I simplified it and focused on what the game really needed. Building a deck is the cool part. Not tediously building a planet!

Tile Evolution: Project Gaia was in my mind for months before I figured out how to make it and begin testing. I knew I wanted to make a tile game. In fact, the original original idea was to make a game where players would create tile sets, like decks, that they would then use. But, this had some weird product complications, and tiles were too small to give me the flexibility to make a broad, robust game. When I realized I could use the cards as tiles, and save cards by using the cards that weren’t selected, it was a real eureka moment.

Tiles were originally varied and complex.

P_FLeft

O_F

O_DMid

Those are ugly, but you can basically see there are forests (green), oceans (blue), grasslands (brown), and deserts (tan). The problem with this much variety was that it was impossible to line anything up. It also made the game very complex in a weird way that wasn’t intended.

Immediately, I shifted to simple, solid tiles, and cut it down to 3: grasslands, ocean, and forest. One neat idea to deal with blank spaces that would inevitably emerge due to shifting and removing cards was that blank spaces were deserts. This meant fewer cards, but I still had 4 states.

At this point, the Tiles felt rather dry. It seemed like the game needed some punch. Therefore, I introduced Landmarks. On some tiles, there would be bonuses granted to the player on top of them. Due to the random nature of what was in the game, this would add some variety to what powers were out.

ForestGlyph_2

The landmarks would do things like:

  • Increase card draw
  • Destroy planet tiles
  • Add planet tiles
  • Let you move creatures
  • Let you add creatures at no discard cost

The problem with Landmarks was two-fold –

  1. It added more complexity. There were just too many variables to track. And, you had to discern the icons on them, which was lousy.
  2. They were tough to use. The benefit of them was often outweighed by the cost of not using creatures to complete scoring objectives.

The landmarks also exposed a more fundamental flaw with the game — the Creatures weren’t interesting enough (discussed above), and the Monuments weren’t interesting enough. Instead of adding more stuff, I removed the landmarks, simplified my rule set again, and strengthened my core content.

I reverted back to plain, simple tiles. But, the itch scratched again. First, I added Mountains. These two special tiles were added after you setup the original map. Players couldn’t shift Mountains, which meant they locked territory, but also provided a defensive bonus to creatures. Temporary safe havens.

The mountains worked. They were a nice spice. Therefore, I added two more. The Fjord and the Fissure. The Fjord was trying to solve the problem of players just adding Tiles anywhere on the map and immediately completing scoring objectives. Now, you could only add tiles next to the Fjord. The Fissure was the Omega to this Alpha. Any cards, creatures or tiles, that moved onto the Fissure were destroyed. Basically, a caution zone.

The Ashtons reacted negatively to the Fjord initially. It felt overly restrictive and annoyed them. This is one of those cases where you need to take the feedback, but really think on it. I knew the game needed a constraint on adding cards. But, perhaps a single card was too much of a limitation? I made the following change, and asked them to try again.

Mountains now could not be shifted, and took on the Fjord’s power. They no longer provided a defensive bonus. Effectively, there were two Fjords. No change to the Fissure. The change was received well! It gave players some flexibility, while also establishing basic limitations. With these special tiles, the planet was overall very simple, with just enough spice, and the Monuments acted as the primary points of differentiation.

Mountain

Mountain

Fissure

Fissure

Now, players can focus on creating and shaping the planet, and choosing whether to let an opponent keep their Monument in play to focus on scoring, or take it out, in the hopes of gaining momentum.

Scoring Evolution: This section of the game has probably seen the most iteration, aside from changing every single card for wording, balance, or functionality probably 30 times each. No exaggeration!

When I started the game, I didn’t want this to be a war game. I didn’t want it to be about dealing X damage (like Magic) or killing an enemy base (like Summoner Wars). I wanted to have an open path so you could use the cards in a variety of ways and hopefully have tons of variety. Therefore, I was leaning more towards the Netrunner system of scoring points, which can be done in a variety of ways.

I wanted the spatial element to be front and center. You’re creating and shaping the planet, so that should be how you score. Initially, I had scoring cards with very precise goals on them. There were 7 in play. Once somebody scored 3, the game won. There was also a fourth card type that were basically powers, but if you met their condition, you’d score the point, removing the card from your deck. It was like having a secret objective.

Score3b

Above, someone would score if they had 4 Forests in precisely that orientation on their turn. This had quite a few problems. Firstly, there is the complexity of the shape itself. If the board starts with 11 tiles, plus player Monuments and cards, plus this can be mirrored…wowza! It’s tough to watch all that. If you recall, this system is similar to Tash-Kalar which also has that, and it’s tough there too. But, the surrounding framework of Tash-Kalar is MUCH simpler. Vlaada is a genius, after all.

Also, initially, you just got this if it was in the world. There was this agonizing problem of wanting to set yourself up to score, but not get close to it, then your opponent would score. Players would play chicken and have a staring contest. It would grind the game to a halt as players tried to setup the multi-turn setup to create the pattern and keep an opponent from getting it.

It was also tough to focus on all seven goals at once. Therefore, I put in 3 at a time. But, sometimes they were difficult to execute, or painfully simple to execute, based on the random start of the board. I created more to create more variety, but the problem still remained. Sometimes the game didn’t jive well and it was tough to get the precise shapes.

I was worried about players just auto-completing them. I started putting in back pressures. To score,  you had to discard cards. Or, take an action. I tried several things, but the fundamental problem still remained, and adding yet another reason to discard cards exacerbated the discard card cost I discussed at the top. Plus, people were really struggling with the shapes.

I shifted to a much simpler system. Simply have a defined number of tiles of a type touching each other. No patterns, just assortments. Now, players merely had to create a pocket of 3 Grasslands, for example. This is round the time I started involving Creatures more into the scoring framework. An opponent couldn’t use a tile covered by your creature to complete one of these goals. Players could use their Monuments to complete these goals, but not their opponents. Now, there’s a layer of board control which started to create a more cohesive whole.

Here are two of the Experiments. One is a simple Planet one, the other a simple combat one.

Experiment_TheSeas

Experiment_Predators

There was still was the problem of the cost. Eventually, I kicked the framework and made it such that you would complete the goal at the end of your turn if the conditions were met. Three of these Experiments are in play at all times. At the end of your turn, you can score the three if you qualify for them. Then, any new ones are drawn. You would then get a reward instead of a single point.

These rewards led to the creation of the Biospheres.

Biosphere_DiverseA

Biosphere_StrictA

Above are the two possible Biosphere cards players would get at the beginning of the game. One flexible, one linear. When you met the condition, you’d get a reward. You could score a Tile on the planet to your Biosphere, completing that slot on the track, or you could do other things. This idea sorta worked, except it didn’t.

There were too many confusing rules on what you could take, and why, and when. Players were allowed to force their opponents to take cards for their Biosphere, which would cost them points if it was the wrong tile type. So, putting an Ocean where you need a Grassland would hurt. There were also just too many symbols.

I tried again with a new iteration.

Biosphere_Ocean

There were 3 Biospheres, each associated with a tile type. You had a great deal of flexibility going down the track, choosing one available card in each row. If you chose the highlighted tiles, you’d get a bonus. This was better, but still too rigid, and players hated shoving a card in their opponent’s Biosphere. It felt wrong for the game.

I tried to simplify it. To complete an Experiment, at least one of your Creatures or Monuments must be involved. This means you need to maneuver and have presence on the board. This is effectively “the cost.” Instead of discarding cards, which is lame, you have to effectively do fun stuff. You know, moving creatures, attacking your opponent, and setting up your Monuments. I used a strength of the game as a cost.

When you complete an Experiment, you get 1 or 2 Rewards, but never the same one twice. These include:

  • Adding one Tile covered by one of your Creatures to your Biosphere. This was a nice simple solution. If you have creatures, and they are in position, they allow you to score good tiles.
  • Add a tile to the Planet from the Supply
  • Remove a tile from the Planet
  • Add cards back to your hand (if you want to move a Monument, for example)

Adding Tiles to your Biosphere Scores points. Looking to Coloretto, I tried something dead simple. The deeper you can go in a single color, the more points you get. If you have 4 Forests, your forests are worth 7 Points total. If you have 2, they’re worth 2 Points.

This allows for flexibility and it’s very simple. As a final tweak, you also get an immediate bonus based on what Tile type you add to your Biosphere. These help move the game forward.

GaiaReference_Back

On the horribly designed card above, you can see the 3 simple bonuses, as well as the card to point distribution on the bottom.

In a nutshell, the scoring is about manipulating the planet and marshaling your forces to control a sector. Then, you add tiles to your Biosphere for one time bonuses, but also, hopefully, focusing on 1 or 2 tiles to maximize your points. The game ends when the 6th tile is added to a Biosphere.

Conclusion: I think at 4500 words this has gone on far too long! If you have any questions or thoughts, just ask. I’d love to talk about Gaia and where it’s going. Thanks for reading!

The 54 Card Guild: #11

54CardLogo

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. 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

At long last, we shall cover my favorite topic: writing rules. As an accessory to this post, we’ll also be discussing diagram creation. Rules are a pillar of game design, whether you like them or not, and being able to write them well is a key tool in every designer’s tool box.

In this post, you’ll find an Outline for you to use on how to create rules. I’ll also provide some key steps and insights. Then, I’ll do a breakdown on how to create functional diagrams, discuss when to diagram, and I’ll share the Tools for you to use. Before that, however, let’s discuss a high level philosophy of rules.

Quick Note: In Guide #3, we discussed a Rules Outline to help you enter a testing phase. 

The fact that customers have to read rules and learn a tabletop game is the single greatest thing inhibiting the growth of the hobby. Thankfully, quality rules are on the rise, and though rules are still oft maligned for lack of clarity, I’ve found that to less and less be the case. But, every designer must remember that they do not ship with every copy of the game. Every player must read the rules first before playing, or have the game explained by a friend (which is actually very common).

Another thing to consider is that everyone learns differently. Some people prefer text. Others need the visuals of diagrams. Others need examples to break down a rule. Some simply need an outline that walks them through how the game works. Finally, some need a video full of examples, like those in Watch it Played. What does this all mean? You need to account for everyone. You need to open your mind, think beyond how YOU process information and learn, and think on behalf of the wide audience.

Many designers put off writing rules until the very end, but in my opinion, this is a mistake. A neat mechanism or idea is only potent if you can explain it concisely, in writing, without you being there. By putting this off, you’re procrastinating from one of the most difficult challenges in your entire process. Answer these tough questions sooner, not later. Furthermore, remembering all of your ideas and nuances will be increasingly difficult. But, updating an existing set of rules takes minutes after a test. Basically, don’t tax your mind!

Finally, if leveraged correctly, your rules can act as a design document. They’ll provide a framework that helps you answer basic questions like how players start their turn, when scoring takes place, or how the game ends. Often, a game will begin with a single kernel that needs to be surrounded by supporting ideas. Your rules will bring those to the fore sooner so that they can be better considered.

Enough philosophy. Let’s start writing some rules.

Writing the Rules

I have a few things for you to look at during this section.

  • Find the Rules Writing Template Here.
  • Find the rules for Martian Empire* Here.
  • Companies like Fantasy Flight Games have applicants write the rules for Rock/Paper/Scissors. Try doing it! You’ll be shocked what you learn.

*I’ve been using Project Gaia as my example template, but it is no longer a 54 card design. Furthermore, it’s a fairly complex design with a very long rule set. Therefore, I’m using another design, which is only 44 cards, and has a smaller rule book.

There are some key things to remember at each step of writing the rules.

Try to explain things in order. That sounds obvious, but take a step back and think about the steps. Use your Rules Outline from the previous Guide so you know what’s important. Think about how Legos tells you to assemble something.

For example, don’t tell them early on that they’ll be discarding a card at the end of the round and placing it in their opponent’s deck. You’ll want to tell them about what they’ll do in the round first, provide clues on what card they might wish to discard and why, and then explain that next phase. Walk them through your ride.

Do not introduce a thing you are not ready to explain, at least somewhat. Be prepared to at least provide a summary explanation. Not every detail and exception needs to be explained immediately. For example, in a war game, you might have a leader unit. You might note that every player has at least one leader, and leaders are units that do not fight, but can be killed. You can then note that leaders generally exist to offset certain die rolls and aid their units in a support role. But, you don’t need to describe, yet, how leaders react to a melee charge versus an artillery blast. You don’t need to explain what happens when leaders are stuck in forests. Save those for when you explain combat, or terrain, respectively. Yes, if you’re curious, I more or less paraphrased leaders from Napoleonics, but in a way that serves my example better than explaining the game.

Be sure to bold or call out key rules that can be easily missed or overlooked. These include exceptions, important reminders, or just fundamental rules that people might gloss over. Telling people they have to take one specific action every turn might seem obvious…and then they forget because it’s just one of eight actions, so what makes it special?

If something isn’t dead simple, consider an example. Go ahead and lower your bar for what you consider dead simple. Lower it crazy far. People aren’t stupid, they’re just busy, eager to play, distracted, and their minds are full of all sorts of things.

If you cannot explain a thing, consider changing that thing. We had an impossible time explaining what the kicker was for Hocus. So, we got rid of it. Seriously. It was that simple.

After you write the rules explaining an element, consider the length of the explanation versus what the idea provides. I have changed or cut rules because there was a far simpler way to accomplish the same thing.

Be careful to use a word consistently. For example, at one point in Hocus, the word “hand” had 3 definitions. Be very careful here! Be careful with words like “play” and “place.” Do not treat them as synonyms. Pick one, and use it consistently.

Furthermore,  you find yourself using a term consistently, good! Stick to it. Create a Key Terms section to tell your players what it means.

One of the best ways to learn rules is to write rules. This sounds insane, but I think I’m decent to good at writing rules and this is due to me writing dozens of rules, reading hundreds of rules, and editing rules for others. It’s a skill you have to work at, just like design itself.

Look to the great rule books to really learn how the masters do it.

  • Pandemic is phenomenal. It has wonderful, clear examples.
  • Fantasy Flight Games has been doing a dual manual system. The first teaches you how to play, the second acts as a reference. Play X-Wing, Armada, Rebellion, or really, any of their new games to learn.
  • The Gallerist is a very big, heavy game with a very wonderfully laid out and explained manual.
  • The rule books of Czech Games Edition are consistently funny and good. Check out Space Alert or Dungeon Lords.
  • Combat Commander: Europe has an excellent reference based rule book for a game that has very few systems, but is basically exception driven.
  • I’m very proud of the rule book for Hocus. Yes, I’m going to reference it! It’s short and we’ve had very few questions about it.

Most if not all of these rule books are linked on BoardGameGeek.com. Go look them up, download the PDF, and learn from them if you don’t have them in your collection. Read other rule books, even ones that aren’t good, and find out where you’re confused, why you have to re-read certain sections, or what just makes sense. Find out how you learn, then study the alternate ways the book supports people who learn through different methods.

You may be scratching your head at the brevity of this post. Basically, 1000 words to teach one of the toughest concepts in game design? Yeah. The thing is, there are 1000s of examples of what good looks like. The template I shared is the one I more or less have been using for years, with tweaks here and there, depending on the game.

You learn to write rules by writing them. Then, stopping to read them aloud to yourself to find things that simply don’t make sense. Then, you have a friend read them and have them explain your game to you.

Tools

I recommend you use Google Drive. Chances are you have a Gmail account which hooks directly into this. Then, you can write word documents that you can then access and share from your computer, laptop, or smartphone. Anonymous people can even comment if you let them. It’s really a great way to go.

Diagram Creation

A key part of good rules are good diagrams. Diagrams can be as simple as teaching you the anatomy of a card, to something more complex that demonstrates the flow of the game.

At the very least, your rules should have diagrams to explain card anatomy. This is a very simple diagram to execute that is shockingly simple to execute. Here’s an example from Martian Empire.

Example_Card

I used Photoshop to create this, but you can use Google Drawings (provided free in Google Drive) as well. Upload an image of your card. Create a red circle, then overlay a number on top of it. Assign a number + Circle to every element of your card. Then, simply explain them for your players. Here is my explanation from my rules.

  1. Initiative Number: The order cards will be resolved on Planets (lowest to highest number)
  2. The Type of card: This is a reminder of what type of card this is.
  3. The Great House Emblem: This indicates the Great House, and is summed to determine Domination (see below)
  4. Text: This determines what the card does when it is resolved, or the condition that must be met to score.
  5. Name and Color: A reminder of the Great House’s name and color

You want to include this diagram around the time you begin explaining how to use the card. Remember above when I said you shouldn’t introduce a thing until you’re ready to talk about it? This is why. Players will need diagrams and examples and you want to be sure they’re ready for the deluge of information.

That’s an obvious diagram. Below is an example of one used to demonstrate to players how cards are used. Often in a game, you’ll be describing things using common terms, like draft. However, other terms that describe a specific way of doing things can be overwhelming. Players might gloss over the details, or miss a key point. Therefore, you might want to dedicate some space to demonstrate how you do a basic interaction.

Example_CardPlay

Hopefully it’s obvious that these are placeholder. But, you can see here where I’ve taken a card and reduced its opacity to indicate a change in state. More transparent equals temporary in this example. The player follows the arrow to flip the card face down onto the planet. Ah ha! You play cards face down.

You might roll your eyes, but Pandemic has a diagram that shows the player holding 4 cards in their hand. Why? Because sometimes people miss things. Some people are visual learners. And, frankly, it’s good to reinforce details.

A final example I wish to share is of a diagram explaining the core moment of the game. Card resolution. This is a key moment to demonstrate because it shows how multiple cards are revealed, sorted, then resolved in a specific order. This is the HEART of the game, so it makes sense to dedicate more real estate to that, right? If we’re reminding players how to hold and play cards, then doubling down on what they will be doing is essential!

Example_Resolution1

Above is part one. It demonstrates how you take the face down cards, explained in a previous example, and flip them over. You then arrange them in Initiative order, the number in the top left corner, from lowest (2) to highest (7).

Example_Resolution2

Now, this final diagram above demonstrates how they are resolved. The cards are placed left to right and are resolved from lowest to highest. The 2 card, the Assassin, resolves. This causes green to score 3 Points and the Ruler, the 3 card, is removed. That is indicated by the red X. It is therefore skipped. The 7, the Heir, then resolves and scores 2 Points for the purple player.

All of this is described in text. When you consider the entire package, the rules do the following:

  • Introduce the structure of the round
  • Explain each phase of the round
  • Explain each phase again with practical examples and illustrated diagrams

Key elements of good diagrams are labels to highlight key elements (sorta like with rules!), arrows to demonstrate motion and how things are played, or even just a birds eye view of the table with the game shown setup fully. Just orient people, like the north start. You don’t need to be a graphics master!

Think about traffic signs and billboards, which use very common iconography, gestures, and symbols that everyone understands at a quick glance. Remember that diagrams are supplements. They aren’t teaching your game alone! Therefore, they don’t have to lift all the weight, just prop it up.

Use color to aid your diagrams – red is bad, green is good. But, colorblindness is a thing for a small percentage of the population and you should work to accommodate them. It’s a tool, not the only solution. Use transparency and opacity to demonstrate and highlight different game states. The letter “X” goes a long way to demonstrating something should be discarded, cancelled, or killed.

A place to obtain high quality icons to use for diagrams and cards is Game-Icons.net. I love it.

Your Assignments

Firstly, read three rule books for three different games. Be careful to study how they use examples, diagrams, key terms, and the order by which they introduce concepts. Notice how good books layer things gradually instead of overwhelming you.

Secondly write the rules for your game. Feel free to send them to me and I’ll happily give them a read and critique them.

Thirdly, have a friend read the rules and teach your game to you. Iterate on your rules and make them better.

Finally, experiment with diagrams based on your friend’s confusion. Where do they get lost? Where do they stumble? Experiment with diagrams! Feel free to draw them by hand and share those instead. Just give them a visual aid!

Thanks for reading.

Design Tenets

Post by: The Community

I sent out a Tweet stating my design tenet.

“Try to manage uncertainty with the tools you have.” – Grant Rodiek

Several other designers followed up with their own, and I thought I’d share them here. I’ll add more if others are sent my way!

“Clarity, with, and surprise. To paraphrase: speak clearly, say something interesting, and smile.” – Brett Gilbert

“Find the fun. Fun = engagement.” – Sen-Foong Lim

“Incentivize interesting decisions.” – Gil Hova

“It’s fun to tame chaos.” – Daniel Solis

As a side note for Solis’, I think it’s interesting because it’s very similar to mine. But, the subtle tweak is that, in my opinion, Solis’ prioritizes the journey, whereas mine the end result.

“Guess what the other players are thinking.” – Phantom Knight Games

“Does every rule serve the game?” – Brian Engelstein

“Managing 10 pounds of crap with a 5 pound bag.” – Joshua Buergel

Josh cheated and sent me a second one.

“Design what you know.” – Joshua Buergel

“The players make the game.” – Jay Treat

“Why play this game? Game design is all about a hook or creating a unique experience for me.” – Matthew Gravelyn

The 54 Card Guild: #10

54CardLogo

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. 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

Today we must discuss dark, terrifying things. We must discuss a thing that veteran designers know too well. We must discuss The Reboot. Back in Guide #4 we talked about killing a failed idea and being okay with failure. Today, we’re going to twist this topic to discuss resurrection.

It is good to do away with bad designs and move to something else. But, it’s great to salvage something, take the best elements, and start anew a half step ahead of square 1.

One thing about The Reboot is that you often won’t reboot terrible games, or failed games. A bad idea is often a bad idea no matter how you re-skin it. The Reboot is crucial when you have a game that is fine, solid, but not great. This is the path you take when you have an idea that won’t be good enough to fully match the goals and ideals defined in your outline. This is why the Reboot deserves its own Guide, but also, why it’s one of the latter ones. Knowing that something is good, but not good enough, is a really tough skill to obtain.

When trying to figure out whether a game will be good enough, I ask myself a handful of questions, including:

  1. Would I buy this game? That seems like a simple question, but if your name wasn’t on the box, would you pay for it and be happy?
  2. Is this game unique? Every game should bring something special to the table. If you’re too derivative, others will know. Why should people buy your game versus another? Side Note: This is a deeper blog post Josh and I are writing now.
  3. Could you play this 100 times? Is there enough depth and replayability in the current design? Could people play this game for years?
  4. How often are your testers hitting the sweet spot? Generally, I like to think of the 3-5 moments my game should evoke. When those moments hit, do people love it? And, does your design hit those moments often enough?
  5. Can this game become awesome? Obviously, your game isn’t finished yet. It doesn’t have a publisher. It’s not done. But, is the framework you’ve laid good enough to support an amazing experience?

These are tough questions, and if you’ve noticed, it’s really 5 ways of asking the same question: if this wasn’t your baby, would you love this game? People often say they cannot choose between two good things as it’s like naming a favorite child. What if you have to give a thumbs up or down to your only child?

I recently went through this experience with a game called Barbarus. Barbarus was a game for 3-5 players that took about 45 minutes to play. It prominently feature blind bidding as its core mechanism and was seeking to emulate the vibe of a Knizia auction game. Specifically, elements of High Society or Modern Art.

I’ll spare you the full run down of the game — that’s not important. But, for the purpose of instruction, I’ll answer the 5 questions above. When I decided to Reboot the game, it was solid, fun, and simple.

Would I buy this game? The game would probably be $20-25. I don’t think I would have bought it. There wasn’t quite enough to it to justify the cost. Also, I have a few games already that do what it does.

Is the game unique? I sorta just answered this, but no, not really. Bidding is done exhaustively, and blind bidding already exists in several areas. Tying it well to a war theme was neat, but ultimately, it didn’t bring much new to the table. Bidding is well-worn and it needed a twist.

Could you play this 100 times? I don’t think so. The game lacked breadth, because there was one way to succeed, one objective, and not enough information to change your decisions. In my opinion, this game was sufficient for a cult of the new gamer, but not someone that was going to play this repeatedly at lunch.

How often were testers hitting the sweet spot? Semi-often, which is why I worked on the game for so long. When people lost a bid, folks went “aww crap!” and others would laugh. That was great. But, there were several moments where it was clear somebody was going to win, or frustration at not knowing how to win or change your fate. Basically, the sweet was being overcome by the sour.

Can the game become awesome? I don’t know, honestly. After a few months of development on Barbarus, I don’t have more great ideas and I’m not terribly inspired. I feel I’ve run the gamut, which is why I decided to set it aside. I didn’t clearly see the path to the promised land, so it felt like I needed a new path.

Depending on how you answer these five questions, your game may or may not be due for a Reboot. How do you Reboot productively? You don’t want all that work to go to waste. That’s just foolish. No, a good Reboot takes into account what you’ve learned and builds upon the premise. What you need to do, is consider your Goals — yes, I’m bringing Goals up again — and you need to create a quick list of the things your game does well, and the things it does not do well.

Try to think of 3-5 things for each category.

Things I Liked about Barbarus

  • The moment of the reveal. It was surprising, fun, and often evoked a reaction from players.
  • Having a similar set of tools from which to draw. Players all had identical decks, but when they drew their cards, and how they used them, really changed things.
  • Very simple cards. For once, I didn’t go crazy with really complex mechanisms or card text.
  • Very simple resolution. Once things were revealed, a simple comparison often resolved conflicts.
  • Overall pacing and speed. Players were constantly involved and the game moved at a good clip.
  • I liked the simplicity of the scoring. Players compete over cards that state what they are worth.

Things I Didn’t Like about Barbarus

  • Too derivative. I basically just took established auction mechanisms.
  • Too many phases. Every round had too many steps that weren’t always intuitive or easy to remember.
  • Not enough skill. I’m not sure the game allowed for enough skillful play. I couldn’t discern whether you could be “good” at Barbarus.
  • Not enough information. It was tough for players to make informed decisions about the hidden bids.

When you begin the Reboot, you can start by trying to solve some of the initial problems. Take Bullet number 4 from Things I Didn’t Like. When crafting Martian Republic, I used two mechanisms to give players more information about played face down cards.

  1. I introduced a drafting phase. Though you only take 1 card, you have ideas about what other cards are in play.
  2. I introduced an announcement. Players must reveal some information about the cards they play, based on where they play them.

I simplified the new game to a few key phases, namely a Draft, Playing, then a Resolution and Round Setup phase. Players only really make decisions in two of them. This cleans things up and moves them along.

When working on the Reboot, be sure to not lose things that worked well. Instead of creating several different cards, I gave every player 7 identical cards. This greatly simplifies the learning and makes it easier to draft. You know there are only 7 types of cards, not 30! However, to add some spice and introduce some of the variance the previous game had, different cards are worth different amounts of points for different players. This adds a slight twist that really makes drafting more compelling.

When trying to solve the overly derivative nature of Barbarus, I examined my mechanisms, and thought about interesting twists. For Martian Empire, you can draft and play any player’s cards. However, players only score for THEIR cards. This means you can use your information to put someone else in a bad position, but you want to balance how much control you cede to other players. At some point, you need to stop sewing chaos and score points!

Conclusion

I can drone on forever, but the purpose of this post is not to tell you everything about my new game, but to share the tools and key pivot points that I leveraged to create a new, superior game from the framework of the old design.

Assignment

Take the game you’ve been working on and ask yourself the five questions. See how your current game stacks up and really, really be honest with yourself.

Then, regardless of whether your game overwhelmingly succeeds with your answers, or bombs, try to list 3-5 things you really like about your current game, and 3-5 things you really don’t like. Again, be honest! Good designers can often think of 3-5 things they don’t like about excellent games that are published and considered to be good. No game is perfect, but you should use this opportunity to evaluate your games strengths and flaws to see how you can improve the former category and decrease the latter.

Thanks for reading! Look forward to a new 54 Card Guild very soon! It’s already in the works.

Inspiration for Inspiration’s Sake

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve had a very interesting experience lately designing a new game and I thought it was worth sharing, as it may be a tool I use in the future, and may be something that could aid you in your efforts.

Barbarus is a design I’ve been working on for months and it’s a solid, fine design. It isn’t great, and I have doubts on whether it can be great and unique, so I took a step back. Like we did on Hocus, I evaluated the moments I really enjoyed about the design.

  • Playing cards face down.
  • The moment of the reveal of the cards.
  • Interactive, but not mean.
  • Playing cards towards a specific goal that others share.

As we did with Hocus, I set Barbarus completely aside, pulled out a deck of cards and a notebook, and begin working from those principals. I removed the Ace, King, Queen, Jack, 10, and 2 from every suit, and set the rest of the cards aside. I thought, what if each player represented a suit, and the cards all had a specific use.

I thought about the key elements of a feudal kingdom. Many of the cards leaned right into it.

  • Ace = Assassin
  • King = Ruler
  • Queen = Ambassador
  • Jack = Commander
  • 10 = Heir
  • 2 = Peasant

I then created 5 parts of the Kingdom and set the game in the midst of a civil war. Four lords, or houses, capturing parts of the Kingdom to ascend to the throne.

While iterating on the game after a few tests, I realized something: I effectively created Dune. Yes, Dune, the phenomenal, groundbreaking science fiction novel based on the desert world Arrakis and the Great Houses subservient to the Padishah Emperor Shaddam the IV. Dune is my favorite book, one that I’ve read 3 or more times, and one of my favorite fictions. It’s probably not too surprising that I subconsciously stumbled into a design that abstracts it.

I’m not the only one who takes such inspiration. Just last year, San Francisco artist Tom Kraky drew extensively within the universe. You can see his Part 1 and Part 2. If you Google “Dune Illustrations,” and variations on that search, you will see hundreds of pieces from so many artists. Some just illustrate the Fremen, or the sandworms, or the Baron Harkonnen. Others draw Stilgar and Count Fenring and the Sardaukar.

The key, is that unlike Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or Star Trek there has never been a definitive representation of the book in a visual medium. The world is so strange, so unique, and so alien, that it’s open to literally infinite interpretations.

It’s a wonderful garden for creativity.

It’s also more or less an impossible license. Not that I have the capital to obtain any famous IP, I certainly cannot obtain one that Fantasy Flight Games was unable to get. Therefore, obviously, this isn’t really a Dune game.

But, there is so much killer inspiration for mechanisms.

  • The galaxy is a feudal one, with Great Houses owning their planets, at the behest of the Emperor, who oversees it all.
  • The Emperor’s power stems from his command of the Sardaukar — the greatest soldiers in the galaxy.
  • All the Great Houses are reigned in by the Guild — the only faction with control to interplanetary travel. Even the Emperor cannot land his army if the Guild doesn’t allow it.
  • None of the Great Houses have technology like thinking computers, so they have humans trained and conditioned to be computers. Mentats.
  • The Bene Gesserit work from the shadows forming alliances to work towards their plans generations in the making.
  • Open warfare is difficult, so the great houses use assassins, forbidden technology, and other subtle methods to exact revenge and negotiate the hard way.
  • Everyone requires the Spice Melange, a substance that allows every faction their powers, but only comes from a single planet.

Effectively, every faction is balanced by another faction. There is open warfare, diplomacy, betrayal, and assassinations. It’s a brilliant universe.

I’ve been using this universe to inspire my thinking, to create new mechanisms, introduce subtle asymmetric balance to represent the Harkonnen preference for Assassination or the Atreides focus on loyalty.

Had I sought to replicate “fantasy” or “science fiction,” I might have found some of these ideas, but not others. By referencing Dune, and using a fiction I know incredibly well and love even more, I was able to quickly come up with good, compelling ideas that were exciting to me.

For your next design, or even your current one, consider choosing a favorite book, movie, or comic to inspire you. Peg your design to that world and see where it leads you. The goal isn’t to obtain the license, but to use your familiarity and passion for an exciting new idea. In the end, I won’t be selling or pitching a Dune game. I’ll be pitching one about intrigue and secret moves and deduction. But, the first few chapters are definitely steeped in a brilliant world imagined by one of the greats.

Perhaps you might benefit similarly?

The Importance of Play

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I called my brother on a walk this weekend and he told me two stories that I thought really illustrated how important play is to humans.

The first, is that on Friday night, my brother was getting home from work around 12:30 am. My brother is a high school coach, so he drove the kids to their track meet, spent all night there, had to drive the bus home, and so forth. He was starving and went to a local Taco Bell drive thru. The parking lot is huge because it’s the site of a grocery store. There, after midnight, a few dozen Indian men had gathered to play cricket.

I thought this was fantastically cool. Cricket is enormously popular outside the United States, but here, nobody plays it and it takes up a ton of space. But, playing is so important that a group of adults, after work, on a Friday, were willing to stay up late to play a game they love. I think it’s a great example of the importance of play, and also a really nice melting pot/immigrant story.

The second story is also related to the track meet. My brother sent me a video of the Hot Dog Relay, which is an unofficial event at the end of the meet. All of the throwers form four man teams to run a 400 meter relay. Throwers are typically big strong dudes not known for speed. They are Gimli, not Legolas. In the Hot Dog Relay, each team carries a hot dog wrapped in foil as their baton. On the last leg, the runner must consume the entire hot dog before they cross the finish line.

This is hilariously stupid, but it’s a big deal for everyone participating and watching. Humans love silliness and teens especially love sanctioned silliness. In fact, silliness is a key ingredient of creative output, at least according to John Cleese.

Play is so important, and the general feeling of playfulness is a key ingredient to my designs. The review site I most often watch, Shut Up & Sit Down, is not only focused on comedy in how they present their material, but they tend to gravitate towards games that make them laugh. Silly games. Games that are fundamentally playful.

I don’t want to belabor the point, and I’m not sure this notion is unique enough to develop into a full post, but I think there are a few key factors that’ll lead to your design being more playful.

Surprise. Surprise can come in the form of random outcomes, like rolling the instant kill in Dead of Winter, or only certain cubes falling from the tower in Shogun, or a player drawing the 1 tile they need in Carcassonne, or simply having a private hand of cards. Surprise is a wonderful emotion.

Personal Expression. The ability to see yourself reflected in a game is a great way to make play more fun. This can come in the form of designing decks in Netrunner, choosing a fleet in Armada, playing aggressively to steal and block in Carcassonne, or improvising in a social game like One Night Ultimate Werewolf or Funemployed. Games that let players be themselves, or be someone else, are fun.

Minor Accomplishments. Typically games are played to a victory condition. In most cases, one player, or one team, will win. But,  something that makes every step of play more satisfying is filling your game with minor accomplishments. Blowing up an Imperial Star Destroyer may compensate for losing your entire fleet. Executing a beautiful combo that you devised is delicious. Having a round in Waterdeep where you perfectly guessed the order of your placement, or picking the right four cards in Broom Service. These accomplishments can be internally devised by players, but good designers bake these in.

Look for the silliness in your surroundings and try to strengthen the playfulness of your designs. Never forget the importance of play in our lives!

Proving the Concept

Post by: Grant Rodiek

There is a very important, and deeply satisfying milestone in a design, which is determining This Game is Worth Making. This step doesn’t mean the problems have been solved, that the game is fun, that it’s balanced, or unique. It means you have figured out the core gist, and now it’s time to drill down to ensure it is those things. It also means you think you’ve answered the early questions of your thesis and at least for me, it means all remaining problems are solvable.

All of us have different milestones in our designs. We have different processes, and even different methods of determining what good enough looks like. I recently reached this milestone with Project Gaia, so while it’s fresh in my mind, I want to illustrate, at a high level, what I was seeking to prove what I thought I proved, and where to go next. The idea behind this post isn’t to present a detailed looked at Gaia — you do or don’t care — but to discuss process at a high level, leveraging Gaia as a case study.

Firstly, you need to understand what your game is trying to accomplish. I think far too many designers are hyper focused erroneously on mechanism or theme. Noting you wish to make a worker placement game isn’t sufficient. This is a well-established formula. A far superior goal would be to focus on a unique worker placement experience, and to hypothesize how that will come about.

  • I want to make a worker placement game fueled by the variable properties of dice (Castles of Burgundy).
  • I want to fuse an auction with worker placement (The Speicherstadt).
  • I want to mix worker placement with area control.
  • I want a worker placement experience where every worker is single use, which means I need to balance placement and timing with an economic engine.

Now, coming up with a unique twist, or a new mechanism, is, as the French say, “Le Hard.” This part of the process is so integral to the final result and is due your diligence. If your design begins without ambition, or a mere Tweet you toss to the void, the end result will wear a similar layer of clothes.

I personally don’t operate well from a mechanism standpoint. It’s not how my mind works, and as a result, I don’t often begin a design in the manner I’ve proposed above. As a alternative way to emerge with something special, I focus on the experience and see which ingredients emerge to create a special whole.

Therefore, I suggest two origins:

  • Focus on unique means
  • Focus on unique ends

Regardless of your choice, be sure to give yourself sufficient time time to make something special. Don’t short change the final result by rushing the introduction.

For Gaia, I wanted to make a game about pre-constructed decks that felt satisfying in a limited card pool. I wanted a head to head experience that had a strong spatial component, particularly leaning towards tiles.

I knew what I was trying to accomplish.

Secondly, you need to understand how you’ll validate that you’re on the right path. As in, you’re doing what you said you’re going to do. This is why merely chasing an established mechanism, like worker placement, is a false confirmation of progress. You can quickly reach a point where players all have a limited resource, that when spent, grants a reward and denies that reward to opponents, at least temporary. Yes, I took a stab at defining worker placement for this example.

Many years ago, I was trying to make a deckbuilding game. That was my goal. Guess what? I accomplished precisely that, and relatively quickly, too! But, I also realized I had made a lousy version of Ascension.

I think it’s useful to leverage what you remember from your junior high science classes covering the scientific method. We aren’t moving drugs through the FDA, so we can gloss over the specifics. We just answered what we’re trying to prove. Now, we’re answering our verification points.

Let’s re-examine the Worker Placement ideas I tossed out.

“I want to make a worker placement game fueled by the variable properties of dice (Castles of Burgundy).”

Verification Points

  • The dice constrain my choices, but don’t force them or make the game play itself.
  • There is still tension. I want 4 things, I can do 2 of them, and the order I place matters.
  • The feedback of placing my dice is still clear. This is a beautiful element of worker placement — a direct feedback loop. I place a resource, I get a resource.
  • The dice mechanism is not too much more complex than placing a worker. If it is, it obfuscates the strategy.

“I want to fuse an auction with worker placement (The Speicherstadt).”

Verification Points

  • Placing workers has clear economic implications, like placing a bid
  • Like an auction, placing a worker forces you to ask where you’re really willing to spend your money
  • I know what I’m bidding on, and why I’m placing a worker. Like point 3 above, the feedback is clear.

“I want to mix worker placement with area control.”

I’m making this one up (though I’m sure it’s a thing. Everything is always a thing). Verification Points could be…

  • There is viable tension between leaving a worker to hold a space, permanently enjoying that space’s reward, and deciding when to move.
  • There should be trade offs between holding territory that is viable for scoring, and holding territory that provides rewards. Perhaps like Dominion, there is a point where you pivot away from your engine towards dismantling it to score.
  • Deploying workers is still smooth and has a good pace.

“I want a worker placement experience where every worker is single use, which means I need to balance placement and timing with an economic engine.”

Like the one above, I’m making this up again. Verification points could be…

  • There is an optimal path to gathering new workers.
  • Players can get out of a rough spot — you aren’t stuck when your workers die.
  • There can be a viable strategy to hindering the supply of workers. The economics of squeezing the worker supply, versus using the workers to gain things.

For Gaia, I needed to slowly verify the following elements:

  • A limited card pool can support a variety of play styles.
  • The spatial element is integral to the experience.
  • There is sufficient complexity to provide legs, but not so much that people cannot dig through the pieces.
  • The victory condition drives interaction.
  • As a player’s deck is limited (9 cards), how you play your cards is compelling.

These verification points in every case really come down to experience. Each of them is driving towards answering the question of “what good looks like?” Whether it’s a worker placement, or a game about deckbuilding, there are tons of examples for what good looks like. Lean on those! It’s wrong to ignore thousands of data points. If you know why people love Agricola, or Caylus, don’t ignore those facts.

However, if you’re doing something new, you cannot simply rely on the past. You’ll need to hypothesize what good looks like for you, leaning on context clues of your similar foregames. Imagine games with wigs. Naturally, you’ll need to evolve these verification points when you find your first efforts, like your design, are complete junk.

Thirdly, you need to put your hopes to the test. This is, I hope, absurdly obvious. You’ll need to watch and see others independently confirm these points. When you find that they don’t, you need to tweak the design or re-assess your goals. You find the spatial element is too confusing. Do you simplify it? Decide it should be more complex? Or lose it entirely?

You find having finite workers is too restrictive and punishing. People cannot figure out how to refresh them without hosing themselves. Do you making the strategy there more obvious? Do you give everyone some permanent workers, so that gaining more finite workers enhances your strategic reach?

As you move forward and evolve your verification points, you need to not cut your game short. Don’t take a single positive indicator as proof of it being solved. Your goals are about identifying moments that’ll make your players smile. Testing is about finding out when they actually smile. And development is about making those smiles occur regularly.

It took us a year to find something special in Hocus, and it’s been several months (4 or 5?) to reach a more stable plateau in Gaia.

  • A great deal of UX work has gone in to ensure players understand how to play cards.
  • A great deal of iteration has gone into the complexity involved in the tiles. Landmarks, no Landmarks, some deserts, some special tiles.
  • A great deal of iteration has gone into the keywords, particularly, how to manipulate the planet.
  • A great deal of iteration has gone into scoring. I’ve gone from chin scratchy planning to fast and loose “ooh shiny” to slightly less fast and loose achievement.
  • I’ve already edited every card probably 30 times.

My goals have changed during this. I had to figure out how to make creatures more potent. I overreached at first with a very complex engine mechanism, but have shifted to a more intuitive and thrilling combat focus. In a sense, it’s like Summoner Wars in a phone booth. So, combat is upped.

I tried to bake in back pressures and restrictions, because CCGs have resources and currencies. But, this game isn’t really about that. This slowed the game, added more complication, and actually reduced your choices on which cards to play. I’ve stripped this back and it now is a better expression of my goal that how you play your cards is a very compelling choice.

Testing alone wasn’t sufficient. I needed to build decks and experiment privately to see if it was fun to do that. I also mailed copies to testers to gauge their interest. You’d be surprised how informative it can be to read how folks write about your game. Remember previously when I talked about finding those smiles? They things people mention are the smiles, or the frowns. If you have multiple groups, and all of them tend to say the same things, that’s a trend you can take to the bank*.

*There are no banks in board gaming. This is a hobby bereft of profits.

You reach a good point when folks independently confirm that your goals are good goals. You reach a good point when folks confirm that your game tends to present more good experiences than ones that seem deeply frustrating. You need a positive balance in smiles versus frowns. You need to solve the core, fundamental problems that keep people from enjoying the game. Not every problem. And certainly not things like balance, layout, art, and flavor. These things are important, but they are more critical in a later stage.

If you cannot get past these major stumbling blocks, you need to keep returning to the beginning of this flow. After enough iterations, you may need to move past the idea entirely.

It’s tough, but true.

  1. What is your design trying to accomplish?
    1. Is it unique?
    2. Why is it fun?
  2. How will you prove you’re on the path to accomplishing it?
  3. Test and tweak until other people confirm the things in step 2.

There’s no time frame on all of this, but generally, good things take time. At every step, give yourself time and space to think, process, analyze, and arrive at the right destination.

Once you know you have something valid, well, then you know it’s worth your time to really dig in and peel back every layer.

The 54 Card Guild: #9

54CardLogo

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

Thematic development for your game is one of the most confused elements of design. That elevated it to the top of my queue for things to talk about for the 54 Card Guild. To get to the point as rapidly as possible, there is a great deal of confusion between what is thematic, and what is flavorful.

Flavor is provided most often by the visual elements of the game, and include things like:

  • Miniatures (as opposed to cardboard tokens). So many war games are deeply thematic with simple, cardboard chits with numbers.
  • Illustrations — Essential to a game, but not thematic!
  • Flavor Text — Smart barbs about the story of the world on the card. This world building doesn’t make Magic: The Gathering thematic.
  • Shaped Tokens — Custom meeples or resource tokens, versus cardboard or generic tokens. Caverna is not more thematic because it has cow tokens versus brown cubes.
  • Stories — If the rules have a lengthy narrative introduction, it sets the stage, but this isn’t theme.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you. I’m probably in the minority with this analysis. I often see folks use the phrase “this game is so thematic” because it has resource tokens of a particular shape, or fantastic art. If you go to BoardGameGeek.com, you’ll find that the “most thematic games” tend to be “games with miniatures.”

Furthermore, I think it’s important to note that flavor absolutely enhances one’s enjoyment of a game. I love a game with miniatures. I just do. I love brilliant illustrations. I love fun, tactile components. Those are the things that make a product truly great. But, we’re discussing theme.

Therefore, if these things listed above are not theme, but are instead flavor, what is theme? I made a simple graphic to illustrate the two main pieces of the pie. You can replaced these sentiments with synonyms and such, but, effectively, these cover the gist.

ThemeDiagram

There it is. That’s it.

The left side is far more important to the overall equation, I believe, but having some smattering of both is what turns your game into one that is thematic. Let’s look at these items piece by piece.

Player actions indicative of the theme. You do things in character.

If you wish your game to be thematic, you must first answer: What is the player’s perspective? Who are they?

Secondly, what is their motivation?

Thirdly, what are the tools by which they’ll accomplish their ends?

If you can answer these questions, you can begin to leverage mechanisms and player actions that will support their character. This is the heart of a truly thematic game. The reason most Feld games are not thematic is that randomly choosing from a pool of dice and building collections has very little to do with building an estate. That doesn’t make Castles of Burgundy a bad game at all, but it does mean it’s not very thematic. The manner in which you purchase goods in The Speicherstadt is incredibly fun, but has little bearing on the purchase of goods at the docks. And frankly, if Feld just mimicked yet another auction, well, the game might not be very original.

In Magic: The Gathering, the theme is that you are powerful wizards. Every time you play a card, you, the wizard, are summoning creatures, and spells, and amassing an army to defeat your opponent.

In Modern Art, you are a gallery director trying to make the most money on art. You buy, sell, over charge, and swindle your opponents to manipulate the market.

In Last Will, you are a millionaire trying to become a zero-naire, so you spend your money and buy things every single turn.

In Android: Netrunner you’re building a program as a hacker to penetrate the defenses of a mega-corp. Across from you is a dedicated system administrator, slowly updating the hardware to stay one step ahead of you.

In Star Wars: Armada, you are a fleet Admiral moving your fleet around to position them for victory. You’re building a battle plan, and giving orders, and hoping they are executed well by their captains.

In Fief, you are the lords and ladies of the great houses of France. You are building alliances, marrying, and scheming to end up on the throne. When you cannot achieve your ends with words, you do so with arms, which require a war chest.

For some of these examples above, I specifically chose games that aren’t often thought to be thematic, but demonstrate the qualities I believe to be thematic. In all of these games, your actions resemble those of a character who, in a story, would be doing the same thing.

In Project Gaia, my 54 Card Guild project (Rules Here, PNP Here and Here), I don’t think the game is super thematic, but it does support it in a few ways.

  • Players are unique, immortal beings, represented by their deck. This is similar to wizards being different in Magic: The Gathering.
  • Players build, augment, and destroy the planet to shape it as desired. This is how they win the game.
  • Players create creatures and landmasses, which roam and dominate the planet surface.

Looking to games like Black & White on the PC, it seemed only natural that as a god you can change the landmass to your liking, create new beings in the blink of an eye, destroy chunks of the planet, and create natural disasters. All of the cards are built around this idea, and they come from your hand.

Experience has a narrative arc. 

A thematic experience tells a good story, ideally one of your creation. I think some games do a good job of telling you a story to experience, such as Mice and Mystics, whereas in others, you create your own story, like in X-Wing Miniatures. I tend to prefer the latter method, as I think it’s infinitely more replayable, and I think stories of one’s own design are more memorable.

My two favorite storytelling PC games are EVE Online and Battlefield, not because of their rich narrative or cutscenes, but because the games provide a foundation in which I could be creative, thrive, and become the hero. I have stories that feel unique to me, that I still remember, and that are worth telling.

Merchants and Marauders and Clash of Cultures are two of my favorite storytelling games. They both provide a vast sandbox and a wide array of choices to dictate the path you’ll take. You can be a merchant, a scoundrel, someone doing the dirty work of others, or a little of everything. You can create a peaceful civilization, one built on trade, or one that dominates its neighbors. You get to put your footprint on things and tell the story from beginning to end.

Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective also does this well. You choose who to visit and speak to. You and your friends craft theories, debate red herrings, and put forth answers to solve the case. You share in the triumphs and, most likely, the defeats.

Project Gaia is weak on this front, as the elements of the world are, by design, relatively generic tiles. If the players were allowed to design an ice planet, or a swamp, that might change things. The game’s goals are also very mechanical — you’re trying to score against various pre-defined goals that are abstracted from the planet. If players were able to define their own conditions, or have ones as a part of their deck, more stories might evolve. Or, perhaps if players attacked their opponents and had a war in the end?

Ultimately, this is not the strongest game for a narrative arc, and really, it’s tightly focused around its mechanisms and has a relatively short play time (about 45 minutes). There isn’t much room for narrative, and if you’re sticking to the 54 card limitation, I wager you’re in the same boat.

The Assignment

The assignment this week is optional for those who wish to create a more thematic game. First, answer these questions:

  1. What is my player’s perspective?
  2. What is their motivation?
  3. What are the tools and resources by which they’ll accomplish these?
  4. What mechanisms would support the 3 answers above?

Secondly, create 3 short stories, no more than 300 words apiece, that describe a single session of your game. Each should be a different story to demonstrate the variety and breadth of the game. Once you have the stories, return to the 4 questions above, as well as your content and mechanisms, and see what ideas emerge to help foster those stories.

Questions?

Rampaging Barbarians

Post by: Grant RodiekConsul_First

Rules here. Print and Play is here.

Today marks the 10th test of Barbarus, a game I’ve been testing for exactly a month. This is exciting, as I feel I can finally dig in. With this 10th test, I feel the structure I have is simple, the decisions compelling, and the core mechanism is front and center.

This means I need to challenge all of those assertions and begin kicking the snot out of the design. Far too many folks give in too early, and I think it’s a real disservice to your good ideas to not let them steep for a very long time.

The core premise of Barbarus is simple: every player is using a finite pool of coins to gain the powerful First Consul role, declare wars, and bribe barbarians to win those wars. It is a game of hand management and blind bidding, which makes it a well-tread premise, and a good explanation for why the game has reached a decent place after 10 tests.

The game has seen a few fairly significant iterations. On multiple occasions I’ve had to take a step back and slap my turn structure to be unified and simple, because on multiple occasions I’ve tested a game where each phase had a different turn order and discard rule, and it was confusing as all get out.

I also had a solution for limiting the number of conflicts, but then had to layer on multiple supplemental systems to keep everyone involved. This led to a really strange and arbitrary game where many people were playing, but everyone felt siloed. Had to fix that.

I sought to make the game work with 3-6 players, which is a really long range of people. I had to cap it at 5, which simplifies a great many things and I don’t think hurts the game’s appeal too much.

In many areas the game has struggled with a wide range of points and money. For example, the money used to go from 1, to 1000, then in increments up to 25,000. This made the 25,000 absurdly powerful and the 1,000 effectively meaningless. I had to condense the range, and increase the distribution of tokens along the way. This also helped with coin counting, which was nice.

There was a similar issue with points, which used to range from 5,000 to 35,000 points. Guess what? Only the 35,000 mattered, stupid. I reduced it to 3 to 10, then 3 to 7, and now 3 to 6. I also added some flavor by giving the lower point values powerful bonuses. Take a 3 now and get a potent award for multiple rounds.

I fell into a common trap of a positive feedback loop, also known as the rich get richer. To punish losing players (which is often silly, as losing is sufficient punishment), I was also removing their Barbarians from the game. This kept the number of Barbarians at a reasonable population (are we hunting rabbits?). However, there are other ways to solve that problem. A friend suggested a token with a special power: the ability to eliminate a Barbarian. We fiddled with it some to prevent certain weird behaviors, and emerged with the Assassin. This went over really well, so I threw in two others: the Diplomat, which allows you to stall your turn, and the Apothecary, which allows you to beef up a Barbarian for the round. Basically, this lets you sneak in and obtain a 3 Barbarian cheaply, then turn him into a 6.

Finally, I really struggled making the First Consul valuable. The hope has been to make the First Consul, in some ways, the director of the game. But, they pay for that at the outset of the round, which means they have to spend precious coins for that privilege. Previously, the First Consul meant you went last…sometimes. Remember the inconsistent round behavior I mentioned above? Now, he always goes last, which is ideal in a bidding game. He had a few abilities I hoped were valuable, but they were effectively worthless. I had another issue, which is that there needed to be some certainty, sometimes, around the barbarians.

To solve both of these, I came up with a really simple solution: the First Consul draws and receives a single Barbarian which cannot be stolen for the round. That seems to have fixed it, and now, the bidding for First Consul is very contentious! However, it doesn’t seem to be a broken advantage.

Barbarus is on solid footing, so aside from today’s tuning changes, I want to start considering how I’m going to take it to the next level. I have some ideas!

For one, the game has been shortened from 6 to 5 rounds. I’m curious how it would feel if it were merely 3 rounds in duration? This would bring the game from about 45 to 25 minutes, which might make it a really tasty lunch experience.

I’m curious about introducing once per game bonuses at the player level. Perhaps every player is dealt a single card? This doesn’t serve a purpose beyond it being something fun I generally enjoy in games. But, I’m trying to resist the need for text anywhere in the game, so we’ll see.

I’d also really like to introduce a negotiation element, which is another reason to shorten the game. If the game is shortened, it won’t be a problem when 5 minutes of negotiation is tossed into every round. There are already hooks for this. Players discussing where to conquer, where to commit forces, where to assassinate. But, can I mechanize this further? Provide coins that you can actively use to assist others? Can there be shared victories? These are tires to kick. Social game play is always strong game play, and blind bidding is a natural platform for deception and betrayal.

I’m eager to see where the game goes. I think I have a foundation, which means now I can challenge it and find the best game possible.

The Farm Fresh Plan

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve posted many of the details contained in this article on different channels, but I want to condense everything to a single post for folks to read. I want to provide an update on Farmageddon: Farm Fresh Edition, including my publishing plans and schedule, the art team, pre-order campaign, and the current design.

Publishing

Ideally, I’ll have Farm Fresh in my hands late summer as I plan to send it to the manufacturer at the start of March, as soon as Chinese New Year ends. For those not aware, Chinese New Year takes place typically in February or March and all of China, and therefore the factories, shut down at that time. Progress on all things manufacturing halts. Therefore, if we get started around March 1st, that means we can hopefully receive the game around August or September. This puts us in a good position for the holiday rush.

The hope is to have the rough manufacturing proofs for my May conventions, but, we’ll see.

Farmageddon: Farm Fresh Edition will have an MSRP of $15. It’ll come in a high quality two-piece box, will have 106 linen finish cards, and a nice folded rule sheet. If you have a copy of Hocus, you have a really good idea of what I’m talking about. Hint: The components are almost identical.

I’m also printing 2 promo cards, which will largely act as a pre-order or direct sale (online, conventions) incentive. I imagine they’ll also be on the BGG Store, and I will happily mail them to fans for $1 (or something like that). I’m fairly anti-exclusives, so these are merely meant as a sweetener, much like the Needle Rapier for Mice and Mystics. The 2 promo cards will be two copies of a new FrankenCrop – the Selfish Starthistle. It’s a LOT of fun, so trust me, this is a promo you actually want to use!

One more thing I’m excited about in this edition — there will be a reference card. This is a really simple way to aid new players and remind them of their actions. By cutting Fields, I gained 3 cards back, one of which is a Reference card, the other two are Promo cards. Efficiency!

Why is it Farm Fresh instead of 2nd Edition? 

I want to have an updated entry in the BGG database. This is almost a new game and I want it to receive its proper due and attention. A LOT of work has been put into this new version, as well as investment in time and money. However, the 1st Edition is technically the one I released on The Game Crafter in 2011. This makes the version released by 5th Street the 2nd Edition. I don’t want to put 3rd Edition on the box, so taking a cue from Microsoft (said nobody ever), I’m choosing a more playful name instead.

Farmageddon: Farm Fresh Edition is a mouthful, but it’s more charming and plays into the personality of the experience.

Schedule and Art Team

We’re in the final leg of design balance right now. I feel firm about the core mechanisms — not much has changed, but we kicked the crap out of the tires to really double check everything. Most of the cards haven’t changed in a while, but we’re tweaking one or two and that has repercussions. We want to ensure all cards are compatible and have clean text that jives nicely. This morning, we revised one card, which forced me to add 3 new words to another card to make them fully compatible.

Art development will begin in February. I’m thrilled to announce Brett Bean will be returning to illustrate the new Starthistle. Brett illustrated the cover, basic Crops, and Farmer cards from the base game. Brett is truly a visionary, world class artist, and having him involved is just thrilling. Erin Fusco‘s beautiful FrankenCrops will also feature prominently in this version. If this version is successful, you will all be in for a huge treat when you see her work on Livestocked and Loaded. Overall, the illustrations you know and love from Farmageddon will not change.

Graphic design will be handled by the fantastic Adam P. McIver of Cre8tive Dept. Adam handled the graphic design for Hocus, which is why our box is so striking, our icons are perfect, and the card back is phenomenal. The brunt of the visual overhaul will be done by Adam. I have about 5 years of feedback I wish to incorporate! His work will include:

  • All new icons for Fertilizer, money, and the card icons.
  • New layouts for all the cards to better highlight the art, and provide subtle cues for Farmer cards versus Crop cards.
  • A professional rules layout. The 1st Edition rules were basically text on a white background. We can do better.
  • Overhauled and revised box layout. You saw what Adam did for Hocus…
  • New card backs for the Crops and Farmer cards.

Essentially, this will be the most beautiful and striking edition of Farmageddon ever. This is THE version to have.

Pre-Order Campaign

In order to get Farmageddon to market more quickly and experiment, I will not be using crowdfunding to cover its costs. Hyperbole Games LLC will pay for the printing entirely out of pocket. We’re currently planning a 2500 copy print run.

Once the game is on the boat, and therefore 1 to 2 months from customer hands, I’m going to setup a pre-order campaign for the game. I may use Big Cartel, which is our current online store, or I may experiment with Celery. I need to examine the payment options and interface of the latter to evaluate.

I may not use either! Why? Beginning at the end of January, HyperboleGames.com will be getting a makeover. I’m working with a web designer to overhaul the entire site, and by April or May, it’ll be a more fantastic, useful experience. I’m so thrilled!

So, we’ll see.

Taking a note from Plaid Hat Games and Stronghold Games, I’ll be offering a steep discount, probably 30%, promo cards, and early delivery for the game. The pre-order will only be available for North American customers, as the game is licensed for Europe by my partners there.

Long term, I do not want to use crowdfunding. I don’t think my long term company views are ideal for the platform. Namely, I don’t want to use Stretch Goals, I don’t want to pay 10%, and I don’t want to delay production by 30 days. I’m curious to see how this pre-order campaign will go, because if it goes well, and Hocus and it sell well in the market, I’ll be willing to take more risks with future games. But, even though I’m not using Kickstarter, I will be doing the legwork to support the campaign. This includes:

  • Ads on BGG
  • Previews from external sources
  • A how to play rules explanation video

Pre-ordering Farmageddon will be an amazing way to support my little company and get a great, beloved game in your hands.

Current Development

Progress on Farm Fresh has been made at a ridiculous pace for a few reasons, including:

  • I’ve been working on the changes since about 2012
  • Many of the changes have been tested by the European publishing partner
  • With my local QA team and myself, the game is getting 3-7 tests per week
  • We aren’t really changing the core, allowing us to focus on balance and tuning.

Unlike Hocus, which was a miserable balance exercise, Farmageddon is rather simple. In Hocus, every player has 3 guaranteed powers they can use repeatedly. In Farmageddon, players are dealt a pool of cards they choose to use. This means, instead of head to head balance, I more need to monitor trends to ensure the game adheres to my goals.

For example, by increasing or decreasing the amount of Protection in the Farmer deck, or adding one more Thresher, I can make the game significantly more, or less, aggressive. In Hocus, we had to balance a cage match between 8 super honed predators. In Farmageddon, I merely need to ensure the ecosystem feels fair, that good combos aren’t too common or easily executed, and the game has good flow.

Plus, you know, I’ve been working on the game in one form or another since 2011. Soon, I’ll be engaging various text experts to ensure the wording is perfect. Cannot wait for their scorn!

Print and Play

There has never been a better time to grab the Print and Play. This version features all 106 cards, including the new reference card, and the two Promo cards as well. The graphic design is entirely placeholder, but the version is stable and lots of fun.

Read the rules here

Download the file here

Any questions or comments?