Ignoring Kind Feedback

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

In Friday’s post, I noted that the folks at Cardboard Edison had asked me two questions. The result of the first question was Friday’s post. The second question is answered, or so I hope, in today’s post. Thanks again for two great prompts!

Today’s Question: What do you do when a tester says “You removed my favorite feature?” Or, more broadly, what do you do when your iterations conflict with testers’ opinions?

If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you’ll notice a few recurring themes. The first thing that comes to mind to answer this is one of my most predominant recurring themes: what is your goal for the game? If you can answer that question succinctly, and I think you need to be able to before you do ANYTHING with your design, the choice is clear.

Before you respond to your tester in regards to any feedback, positive or otherwise, you must be able to answer these questions for yourself:

  1. What type of game do you want this to be? What are your high level goals for the experience?
  2. For whom are you developing this game? Who is your audience?
  3. What is the most important part of your design? To which part of your design will you allot the most complexity? Where do you want your players’ attention? What is their key decision point?

If you can answer those two questions, you can begin to answer these:

  1. Why did you make the change in the first place? Ideally, it was to bring the game more in line with the answers outlined above.
  2. Why do you think the change will do a better job of satisfying your goals?
  3. What were the alternates that you considered before deciding upon this change?

To be explicit in my expectations, you need to know why you’re making the change in the first place. Never make changes to your game just to change stuff. Understand fully what the problem is that you’re trying to solve and why you think the change will address it. Otherwise, you will meander for months or years with no forward progress.

Let’s circle back for a moment. You know the game you want to make and your target audience. Ideally, your target publisher as well (assuming you’re solely the designer). You know what makes your game special. You also know 2 or 3 areas where your game is falling short. You know what you want to fix in order to bring it closer to the goal. You act decisively and remove a feature that a tester enjoys. They speak up about it.

Quickly, I want to note what’s important here: You’re coming to the table as an expert. You’re bringing as much data, logic, and science as you can to this vile hobby of ours. You’ll need that.

Before you ask questions, I find it useful to come to an agreement on terms. Or, in absence of agreement (which really you don’t need, this isn’t a democracy), you can at least state your personal goals. Provide a lens: This is the game I want to make. This is what I think is important.

Your first question to the tester is, “Why is it your favorite feature? What did you love about it?” There are a thousand ways to boil and egg (are there?), and once you know what their end goal is, you can deliver that in a way that suits your goals.

Your second question is whether they agree that the problem you intend to solve is indeed a problem. This is a really good way to take their temperature on the end result. If, ideally, you can both reach agreement that you have a problem, then you can move forward. You can then brainstorm and discuss potential solutions that better preserve their favorite feature and still address your problem. This is why question 2 immediately follows question 1.

Really, this is about having a directed discussion. It’s your design, your project. Enter as the moderator and drive the conversation.

Many of us want to placate our testers. For the longest time, maybe years, they are our only fans. They are the only people who have played our game. They’re the only ones who know what we’re trying to accomplish. The difficult truth is, they may be our only testers ever if we don’t sign the game. But, and this is difficult, in the same way one must learn to listen to feedback and leverage testing advice, one must also learn to ignore it or leverage it accordingly.

Just as bad as changing a design haphazardly for years under your own direction is doing so at the behest of your testers. Never forget that it’s your design. You’re striving for your name on the box. It’s your vision.

In conclusion, know what you want. Know what you’re trying to achieve. Know what is sacred in your design and why it’s sacred. Then, work to know what your players like and why they like it. Or, on the opposite side, what they don’t like and why this is so. Enter every discussion knowing what works with your game and what isn’t currently working. Design is an art, but development can be more scientific. Identify issues and eliminate dead ends. Do this by understanding your design and your goals.

Feedback, positive or negative, is only valuable if you know how to use it. A tester who likes your game is fine, but remember that you’re seeking an audience of thousands, unless they’re buying the entire print run.

Researching Theme

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

A few days ago I asked the excellent Cardboard Edison for blog ideas. They quickly came up with two, one of which is the topic of this post. It was a great idea, but also especially exciting as it’s something they are apparently working on right now. I love a captive client!

How does one go about researching for a thematic game? More importantly, what is important in such an effort?

I have several steps, in priority order, that I’ll walk you through now! For this post, I’m going to use Sol Rising as my primary example. I believe it’s my most thematic design, is a mature design, so I feel my points have merit, and its creation closely mimicked the process I’ll propose.

Step 1: Pick a Good Theme

I’ve written about theme in the past here. But, for the sake of brevity and a fresh outlook, I think a good theme needs to pass a few tests.

  1. Is it a topic that excites players who are driven by theme? Selling beans is out.
  2. Is it a topic that most people can reasonably intuit based on common cultural norms and expectations? For example, for Sol Rising, the required viewing to enjoy the game is at least one Star Wars battle scene, a single game of Homeworld, the Dominion War (name?) in Deep Space Nine, or some Battlestar Galactica. It’s difficult to make a thematic game about Dolphin breeding in the Pacific. Most people probably don’t know enough about it.
  3. Is it a topic that excites YOU? A thematic game is greatly about passion for the subject matter. Nobody is going to feel like an admiral of the fleet if you wade in tepidly.
  4. Thematic games are often great because they are a solid platform for fun, delightful components. I want to be cautious here and warn folks that good theme does not mean a fun coat of paint. It drives me batty when people fawn over a game that is “so thematic” just because it has custom shaped meeples.

Step 2: Define the Player’s Perspective

Who are your players? What is their role? What is their point of view? In Sol Rising, players are admirals of fleets. They are in charge of multiple capital ship squadrons, fighter squadrons, and need to accomplish multiple objectives that will affect the fate of entire star systems and thousands of lives.

Alternatively, I could have made players planetary governors. Or ship captains. Or squadron commanders. Or fighter jocks. But, I didn’t. I made them fleet admirals.

Why is this important? Well, it defines very clearly what you need to research and what decisions you put before your player. A ship captain, for example, needs to worry about his engine room. Or his position in relation to a specific ship. See: Captain Kirk fighting Khan. A fleet admiral? He doesn’t care about your engines. He cares about your squadron and whether it’s completing its defined task.

A common, and fair, criticism of thematic games is that they are over complicated. It often feels that when you’re playing a very thematic game that the designer couldn’t stop him or herself from saying “it would be cool if.” It’s like an improv session that never ends, as the “yes, and” never subsides.

Use the player’s perspective to focus your efforts. Yes, your fleet admiral could care about crew morale. He could care about the engines on ship 2. He could care about researching lasers. He could care about the planetary atmosphere. OR, he can care about the things an admiral would care about.

Not only does this make your game simpler, more focused, and easier to research and design, but it’ll make it more thematic!

Step 3: Research Broadly

I think it’s possible to know too much about a topic and to dive too deeply into presenting it. Now, we can go back and forth on whether games can have more simulation properties, but for the sake of your perspective, I’m discussing 1-2 hour thematic experiences that are games first, simulations second.

I remember a designer at work, a professional musician, designed our music design for the game. And it was SO deep and complex. In a way, it missed the point of what people wanted, which was the high level experience of being a musician. Therefore, research broadly. As you identify opportunities for your design, dive more deeply into those elements.

Here are some of the things I researched for Sol Rising:

  • The Expanse Trilogy for narrative inspiration and designing a plausible solar system filled with political entities and intrigue.
  • Star Wars, specifically the Battle of Endor, for combined arms combat. By combined arms, I mean a mix of capital ships and fighters. Star Wars Armada takes this away a tinge from Sol Rising, but previously, you either (often) played a game about fighters, or a game about capital ships. Sol Rising is about both.
  • Homeworld, for mechanics about formations and commanding groups of units. One of the neat things about Sol Rising is that you don’t control 20 ships individually, but 3-5 squadrons of ships.
  • Summoner Wars for card ability design.
  • Memoir ’44 for incorporation of environmental elements.
  • Robinson Crusoe for Event system design.
  • Mice and Mystics for narrative game design.
  • Starcraft II for unique mission design. Every single player mission in Starcraft II presents a unique challenge to the player within the system framework.
  • History on Napoleonic Warfare, specifically for information on how cavalry affected the battlefield. I had the idea early on to treat my fighter squadrons as cavalry. I read both biographies of Napoleon, as well as historical fiction series.

As you can see, I sampled a broad assortment of other print games, digital games, fiction, and historical elements. The benefits of this include gaining a wide variety of ideas, not having a single heavy influence that might skew my game into a too derivative direction, and I largely keep things at a high level. This last one is important because I want to present a game where people who generally know what Admiral Ackbar does can make decent hunches about Sol Rising BEFORE knowing the ins and outs of the design.

Step 4: Abstract early, abstract often

This might seem counter to the premise of thematic design, but in fact, it isn’t. Some of the most crucial thematic decisions you can mark are about where to input abstraction and where to get more specific. Again, thematic designers often make the error of making every mechanic a super deeply, broad element of their design.

The problem this causes is that your players will be overwhelmed. They’ll spend so much time trying to make basic decisions that they’ll never feel like they are in the game. Thematic design is about players making intuitive decisions that appropriately mimic their thematic equivalent. In Terra Mystica, there is this complex mana pool mechanic. It’s very complicated, especially on an initial play. It’s not thematic, at all, because no wizard in fiction ever has had to use such an abacus of mana. Being a wizard is about casting a spell. To be fair, I don’t think Terra Mystica was trying to be thematic.

One example of abstraction in a design of mine are the defensive abilities in Sol Rising. In previous iterations, you might Overcharge Shields. You’d place a Shield token on your ship. The problem was that the opponent had to ask, and remember, what that token meant. There could be multiple defensive tokens in play. Both players had to remember when that shield would go away, as there were rules to account for that. At the recommendation of a tester, I made the defensive abilities one-shot abilities. Now, Overcharge Shields let you remove 2 damage. At first, this seems strange. Shields prevent damage, they don’t remove it! But, if the end result is the same, in that I have less damage? And it’s simpler to do? Well, it works.

In York, one of my most thematic tactics is Dig In. It simply causes more casualties for the attacker. You don’t have to place fortifications, or spend time digging. You abstract that decision.

For Orb, a design I’m prototyping now, the player’s perspective is that of a squad commander of elite infantry. You’re not controlling individual units, but the squad. Therefore, when you deploy a sniper and a demolitions expert, you don’t have a specific token that says “Sniper” with rules on it. No, instead, you draw cards related to those roles and you add 2 generic unit markers to the board. It’s one of the abstractions of which I’m most proud because it beautifully preserves and supports the player’s perspective and keeps them focused on the thematic decisions. I need a sniper. Instead of managing that sniper’s footsteps, I’m instead managing a sniper’s contributions to my arsenal.

Step 5: Stop and ask, how can we use this?

As you’re conducting your research, as soon as you come across a nifty idea or fact, put down the book, or the game, and ask: How can we use this?

Begin prototyping, mentally, with your suggestions. The idea for formations in Sol Rising came very early. I was reading and realized that most games focus on controlling one ship at a time. I thought, a ha! Multiple ships. I then got out some blocks and began messing around with manipulating them for the sake of combat effectiveness. Eventually, with that seed planted, I went back to my research.

Your design should begin to take shape and grow as you research. What’s less useful is 50 pages of notes and information with context or relationships to one another. What’s more useful is:

  1. We want the player to be this guy.
  2. Being this guy means you do this thing.
  3. Sometimes this thing can be affected by another thing.
  4. And so forth.

Essentially, you should start building your core elements and applying layers as you research. Begin to channel and focus your research to channel and focus your design. Once you identify that you want Element A in your design, it’ll help you evaluate all future ideas.

How can you use this? Answer that question as you go and being laying the foundation during research. This is much better than returning to months of notes only to find you’re more or less at step 1.

Was this useful? Do you feel you’re better equipped to research a thematic game? Share your thoughts and your personal ideas in the comments below.

Using Reviews to Improve Games

online-reviews

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I don’t like reviews. I’ve been a professional video game developer for 9 years now and I’ve released quite a few titles. Loading up Metacritic.com or a review site is always nerve wracking, to the point where I have just stopped looking at them. BGG’s community is no different. If you’ve published a game, you know that scrolling past that first page is just asking for pain.

But, reviews are quite valuable. They provide a quick aggregate view of your customers’ feedback. Not only that, but reviews are often coming from your most vocal and enthusiastic (for better or worse) customers. You know, those who care enough to go onto a website to review your game. This sub-group is very important as they will be your evangelists and detractors.

For perspective, just a bit over 10% of the people who own Farmageddon have noted that they own it on BGG. A tiny fraction have commented.

Today, I want to discuss simple ways to take advantage of your reviews to make better games and have a better relationship with your customers. As Farmageddon is my only released title, I’ll use it as my primary example. It’s not quite appropriate for me to use The Sims from work for this forum.

The Extremes Serve Nobody: I believe fairly strongly, with no data to back this up, that the extreme reviews aren’t terribly useful. By this, I mean the 10s, 1s, 2s, and 3s.

A 10 should mean the game is perfect and could be played for years and is just outstanding. Also, it means you, the reviewer, just love it. A 10 holds great personal appeal. Some of us try to relegate our 10s sparingly, others do not. And while those games DO exist, it’s difficult to really take advantage of such feedback. A 10 is a deeply personal reflection of something the reviewer loves. Understanding it requires you be them.

A 1-3 should mean the game is utterly broken, does not work, and is just a shameful creation. While these games exist, most of the time, a game isn’t that bad. I find 1-3s are often a backlash against a particular mechanic, play style, creator, or pet peeve.

For Farmageddon reviews below about 4, you’ll see the same complaints over and over: Purely random. Purely luck. No strategy. Take that. Waste of time. The 1-3s aren’t people who love take that filler card games. It’s not that Farmageddon is the worst of its kind (for them) and they love Gubs or other such games. They don’t like this type of game.

A 1-3 is a deeply personal reflection of something the reviewer hates. Understanding it requires you be them.

You’ll notice I repeated myself. You cannot rely on those who just get it to represent most or even many of your customers. Nor should you try to chase people who just fundamentally don’t appreciate your offering. Farmageddon will never be the game that a reviewer who gave it a 2 will appreciate.

The extremes serve nobody.

Pluck Low Hanging Fruit: Ignore all numbers, not just the extremes, and instead catalog the qualitative complaints against your game. You cannot action against whether your game is a 5.7 or an 8. That’s just not quality input.

Instead, scroll through the comments for reviews between the 4 and 8 range. Create a spreadsheet and group the comments by type. You’ll often find a few consistent notes.

For Farmageddon, the game’s recurring thorns are:

  • Can Mirror Bean be destroyed with a Flame Fruit?
  • Can I steal a Crop using Genetic Super Worm?
  • Can I Foul Manure a Foul Manure?
  • And a few others…

These are clear and easy opportunities to improve your relationship with your customers in a few ways:

  • Create and update an FAQ.
  • Respond to forum threads with clarification.
  • Write blog posts and designer diaries explaining your decisions.
  • Create How to Play videos that maximize focus on these key areas.

All of these demonstrate your commitment to the product, are easy methods of customer support, and will increase the enjoyment of the play experience for your customers. After all, if someone is playing incorrectly, 9 times out of 10 that means the game is less fun. Unless, of course, you didn’t test your game sufficiently to determine that. But, we don’t do that, right?

Also, if you’re lucky, you can include these tweaks in future editions and printings. For Farmageddon’s second printing, we made 3 tiny rule tweaks, one of which was a change in one word. It makes a big difference. Being responsive to your consumers shows humility, dedication, and is such an easy win for all parties.

Find the Holes: In addition to the easy, low-hanging concerns for people learning the game, you’ll also find holes or criticisms of the design itself. You’ll find opportunities for expansions to address concerns, or you’ll learn for the sake of future games. For example, with Farmageddon, I found a few issues that I wanted to address with the expansion, Livestocked and Loaded:

  • People wanted a little more strategy amid the volatility. Farmageddon will never be Agricola, but adding in Livestock as a long-term strategy really broadens the game in a great way.
  • There needed to be more uses and decisions around low-level crops. Now, you can discard planted Sassy Wheats to Feed animals.
  • Some people felt frustrated by lack of control of Action cards. Some of that comes with the game, but the Farmer’s Market Action, as well as the Livestock Actions, give players more choice over their path.
  • With Livestock and Loaded, the 2 player experience is far richer and more compelling. It becomes less a slug fest and a little more cat and mouse.

I’ve been very fortunate that Farmageddon has sold well enough to allow me to improve the overall game and address the critiques of my fans. Now, let’s say it hadn’t sold well and therefore no expansion would be forthcoming. It’s still useful to know the critiques so I can address them with future games. Some ways to see this in my current designs include:

  • Putting more thought into iconography and graphic design sooner to facilitate learning.
  • Creating a glossary up front for a game so that cards use fewer words that are more consistent.
  • A better understanding of balance sooner.
  • A better understanding of broader strategies.
  • A better understanding of luck, interaction, and variance.

Your critiques are a gift, especially those in the middle range. I believe, again, without data, that those in the middle range have played your game, understand it, and are providing a more rational critique. Those at the extreme ends of the spectrum are on a tilt, either an extreme high or low, and are less likely to provide you actionable and honest input.

Thanks for the Review: This is a parting note, and a suggestion from years of observation and experience. If you receive a negative review, and you will, you’re allowed to do one thing: Post, “Thanks for the review.” You may also try, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the game. Thanks for the review.” Not everyone will like your game, especially when you make a game with certain highly contentious elements. You have to recognize that opinion. Note, I didn’t say you need to respect that opinion.

By appearing to say “Thanks for the review” you do a few things:

  • Demonstrate that you read all reviews, not just the good ones.
  • Demonstrate that you’re an adult and can take the criticism. This is a VERY important skill for designers.
  • Gives you an opening for dialog. When they see points 1 and 2, they might engage with you further. Making a friend now will pay off in the future.

As a personal example, I sent Josh Edwards of Board Game Reviews by Josh an EARLY prototype copy of Farmageddon. This is back when it was on The Game Crafter. He really didn’t like it and he gave me a lot of input. I responded to it and used it to develop the game further. A year or so later when he reviewed the final game, he did so far more favorably. Yes, I made a better game. But, I also did the work to be a reasonable person.

Finally, upon reading the review, you may find the reviewer made some mistakes in reading your rules. This is an opportunity!

“Thanks for the review. I’m sorry you didn’t like the game. One thing I wanted to note was that you made one slight error in regards to a rule. I’ll make sure I update the FAQ so others don’t miss it! Thanks for pointing that out. Instead of doing X, you want to do Y. Hope that helps.”

It is unlikely, honestly, that you’ll win that person over. But, others will see this dialog, will learn from it, and will appreciate you being a reasonable person.

I hope this was useful for you. What advice do YOU have for taking advantage of reviews?

Pre-Baking with Dopamine

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m going to play FAST AND LOOSE with science for this past. I hope you’re ready for it. One of my favorite publishers, Uwe Eickert of Academy Games, frequently talks about the “Dopamine drip” in games. You can read about Dopamine exhaustively via Wikipedia here. One of the brain’s Dopmaine systems is related to reward driven behavior. Scientists believe it plays a part of our “seeking,” as in, we’ll do things in order to get the reward.

What makes a game rewarding? What are some rewarding things one can do in a game? What are things you the designer can insert into your design that’ll bring plays back for another go and deliver that satisfying brain tingle?

Using my own brain as a guide post, which I realize is questionable at best, I’m going to identify a few of the ways to get your Dopamine Drip installed. You’ll note that I don’t consider victory or scoring points to be good examples.

Surprise: Or, more specifically, the delivery of a surprise. You ever see someone give another person the perfect gift? Notice how the giver was almost, if not more, excited than the recipient? The same holds true for a game. If you’re in a battle and you execute the perfect unseen maneuver, you’ll get a surprise. The traitor mechanic in Dune/Rex is perfect.

One example of a simple recurring surprise is removing the box at the start of Cube Quest to see how your opponent setup his side of the board. Or, in a CCG, when an opponent plunks down an enormous card using a combo you never conceived. That’s one many of us have felt.

Drafting a card that affects many others is another great case. To continue on that last thought, drafting games and games with simultaneous play are outstanding for delivering constant and delightful surprise. Look at the popularity of Gravwell and Get Bit!, both of which are built around HIGHLY interactive simultaneous choices that lead to surprising outcomes for everyone at the table. That, potentially, is another key: everyone’s choice in those two games affects everyone else at the table. That’s a surprise in a big way.

You may not be making a drafting game, so let’s bubble this back up to a higher level. A great surprise must be something within the players’ control. It isn’t just a card flip off the top of a huge event deck. A great surprise effects most, if not everyone in the game. A great surprise should cause an audible reaction. Examples include “Nooooo!,” “Ah!,” and “You bastard!”

It’s a big impact “no vote,” a disastrous left turn, the ultimate betrayal, or the nuclear option on turn 2.

The Likely Outcome: This may seem counter to the previous statement, but I think the likely outcome can be a great additive for your game. One game that comes to mind is Summoner Wars. Your combatants hit on a 3+, which means each die has a 66% chance of delivering a wound to an opponent. However, you still frequently see a roll of five dice result in no hits, or 2 CRUCIAL dice landing both hits to seal the game. I’ve often said Summoner Wars has the perfect probability on its dice and I happily copied it for Sol Rising.

The British Regulars in Academy’s 1812 and 1775 games is another great example. They are the only faction without a Flee option on their die. They also have more Hit faces than the others. This means they won’t retreat and they will cause more casualties. But, sometimes they peter out (sorry readers named Peter) and don’t deliver the hot mortal broadside. Yet, they often do.

Star Realms, which is devilishly popular right now, is full of likely outcomes. The decks never get that big and the parameters of the cards are quite simple. Mid to late game you’re hoping to begin drawing a full hand of Blob ships to deliver that 20+ damage turn. You SHOULD get that. But, it might elude you. The small deck and quick pace of Star Realms make it a game where you’re constantly chasing that one perfect hand. It’s so close, it should turn up, and often, the player who receives it first will win.

Look to the cube tower in Shogun/Wallenstein. If you chuck a pile of cubes inside it, there’s a likely outcome. In fact, there’s a Ludology podcast on this somewhere in their catalog that I listened to recently where Geoff Engelstein studied the probability.

A final example are simply weighted dice rolls. Think about those tense moments playing D&D when your rogue steps forth to sneak past the guards. He has a big bonus to his stealth and should be able to knock it out. There’s satisfaction in that knowledge, and joy and surprise when it overwhelmingly succeeds (big surprise?) or dramatically fails. I think there’s joy in failure and I think the likely outcome is a great contribution. Never forget that Probability is a cruel mistress. Set her up to delight and disappoint you spectacularly.

Passive Interaction: My posts are often very example driven. I come up with a thesis and try to defend it. This one just came to me while looking at some of my games and thinking of moments that lead to sheer joy in the players at the table.

I think this is one of the reasons Euros are so popular. They are full of passive and often subtle interaction. Worker placement is essentially a series of passive aggressive prioritization of need and nitpicking. Oh, you took that from me last turn? Well, I’ll take this from you now. You can just see the JOY wash over their face.

In The Speicherstadt, one of my favorite games, you can just hear the smirk forming as someone places a worker down on a card you REALLY want to buy. Same with Spyrium. Or Modern Art in the open bid, or Rex/Dune on the bidding phase. I have a friend who ALWAYS bids something up just hoping we’ll eat the cost, which has led to some hilarious meta-play between us.

Fill your game with ways to let your players passively jab at their opponents. People want to compete and they want to best one another. They just don’t want to be mean, often. Fill your rules with all the ripostes of an aristocratic British social soiree and you’ll be in business.

Thoughts? Where am I off? Where am I close to the mark? What are some of your favorite examples of the Dopamine drip in games?

Designing for The Deep Dive

Cult of the New Cultist

Cult of the New Cultist

Post by: Grant Rodiek

The Cult of the New is given a lot of attention by our hobby. This cult refers to board game hobbyists who play a game once or twice then quickly move on like nomadic savages to the next shiny object. In the past few years I’ve been a frenzied buyer of board games. There’s so much I haven’t played or seen, so it’s difficult not to walk into the store, or boot up Amazon, and go “oooo” followed by “here’s my money.”

In 2014 I tried to slow my purchase of new titles to focus on expansions, playing my existing games more, and only branching into new titles if I really wanted them. This has been a GREAT experiment so far and very rewarding. The thing is, despite the noise created by countless Kickstarters, Gen Con releases, Essen Pre-Orders, most consumers behave just like me.

You see this in the video game space as well. Any hobby, really. The very small, intense, and vocal niche appear to be these rich kids who enter the FLGS and buy everything every visit. In reality, the overwhelming majority of users buy games a few times per year. They play their favorites and they dig deeply into the new titles they do receive. That is, unless those titles aren’t very good or they don’t have legs.

As a designer and publisher you can absolutely take on current trends and create games that are great for fewer than 5 plays. But, to truly grow the hobby, satisfy most of our consumers, and make a game for the ages, I think you need to craft a game that works for 20+ plays.

That sounds simple as a philosophy, but how does one go about that? Well, let’s try to answer the question. In this post I’m going to call out methods I believe will aid someone in crafting a game that is great on play 20. You don’t need all of these qualities, but incorporating multiple will help you on your long term favorite quest.

High Variability: This doesn’t necessarily mean randomness, though that can help. It also doesn’t necessarily mean luck, though that can also help. Many CCGs benefit heavily from those two qualities! What this means is that the game changes from play to play and the interlocking mechanics will vary your play. Now, the variability should be significant.

Risk, for example, has a high variability of luck and combat outcomes. It also has high variability of starting locations. But, after many games of Risk, I’d argue those two things don’t really change the game much. Risk tends to play out in a very similar manner every game.

Therefore, what are some GOOD examples of true variability? Here’s a few:

  • Dominion: The 10 Kingdom cards you choose every game dramatically change the strategy one can/should pursue.
  • Race for the Galaxy: The cards you draw determine everything. If you want military, but get something else, you need to react, and do so quickly, to thrive. There are so many unique cards that no two games are exactly alike.
  • 7 Wonders: The wonder boards greatly alter your decisions.
  • Robinson Crusoe: The 5 Inventions, 2 Party items, main event deck, and Adventure events dramatically change every experience.

When considering true variability, ask yourself:

  1. Will this change my players’ decisions?
  2. Will outcomes for similar paths differ?
  3. Will this variability cause new strategies/tactics to emerge?

If you have more Yesses than Nos (are those words?) you’re on the right path.

More Players: Man is the greatest foe. As a species, we are wily, creative, full of personality, unpredictable, and stubborn. This makes human opponents far more compelling than besting a system of point scoring. Speaking generally, the more human opponents, and therefore extreme variation, you can support with your design, the longer its legs.

One killer example is the game Werewolf or the countless cousins in its well-furred family. I’m speaking of The Resistance, One Night Werewolf, und so weit. These games are painfully simple but offer immense variety based on who is playing, the moods, the roles, and whatever wild idea people have to act upon.

Think about an auction game as simple as say, Modern Art. Or, Princes of Florence. A 3 player game varies dramatically from a 5 player game as it’s more difficult to gauge the value, strategies, and machinations of so many opponents. Your play between the two extremes will differ, as will your enjoyment, and your ability to play longer.

I love two player games. It is probably my favorite player number for a game. However, I’d argue that in many cases, more players lead to a longer lifespan for a game.

Design an Expandable Core: This is both a business and a design note, but expansions are wonderful for extending the life of a game. Now, I don’t think this is true for all. I think expansions for games like Netrunner or Summoner Wars lend themselves better than expansions for 7 Wonders. Perhaps I’m picking on 7 Wonders specifically, but I feel that, other than the Wonders Pack, those expansions aren’t crucial. But, for Summoner Wars or Netrunner, playing only the base sets would leave me sad and shivering. Slowly rocking myself in my cave.

The best expansions truly shake up how the game is played while preserving the core. Factions are outstanding for this, as they can snap in and out of a core game without requiring the player to learn (too much) more. Scenario-based expansions are also excellent. Players need a slow, steady drip of content that may only suffice for a play or two. Great examples are Memoir ’44 and Combat Commander. You could play these games for years with the sheer breadth of content provided.

Design a game that can live for years based on additional design work. Give people a reason to return to the store and return to your world. Give them new sites and new stories.

Multiple Divergent Strategies: Put simply, give players multiple ways to seek victory. There should be several truly different strategies that, paired with variability, mean a player can seek to win and master the game in new ways.

For 7 Wonders, you can seek out points via Military, Science, Victory Buildings, with certain cards Economy, or via Guilds at the end. Each of these requires you build a different foundation that also must pair nicely with your Wonder to truly gain efficiency.

In Dune/Rex you can seek the solo victory, team victory, or use a faction-based objective to clinch the game at the end. Each of these require you act in different ways and maneuver your forces accordingly.

In Netrunner the Corp player might pass Agendas quickly, faster than the Runner can grab them. Or, build a fortress of bluffing (or legitimate defenses) and pass just a few expensive Agends for the slower win. Or, like my friend prefers, they can fill their servers with traps and tags to kill the runner. Agendas be damned!

Multiple divergent strategies are great as they provide a unique experience, a new path of mastery, but also, they suit the different personalities (or moods) of your players.

Discovering Layers and Complexity: I know there’s a push for elegance layered atop more elegance (though I believe that sentiment is inconsistent with the notion of elegance), but a little complexity goes a long way towards adding layers to an onion that takes years to grasp.

Now, I don’t think these layers should be in the form of decreasing accessibility. They shouldn’t hinder the ability to play or bring new players into the experience. However, these layers should increase the length of time it takes to master the game and perfect certain practices.

Let’s look at Princes of Florence, for example. There is a layer about auction/bidding skill. There’s a layer about building your efficiency to pull stuff off. There’s a layer in regards to timing and when to pursue certain objectives. This is further enhanced by skillful scoring and seeking bonuses.

Factions and asymmetry are another great way to provide layers. This is both in terms of how to play yourself, or how to play against other factions. You need to play Dune/Rex six times before experience every faction. That doesn’t include additional plays to be good at PLAYING those factions and additional plays to successfully hinder the others.

In Dice Duel you have layers about skillfully directing the ship to WHERE you want to go, not just moving it haphazardly. There are layers in Crystal use. The tractor beam can (and should) be completely ignored your first several games, but hoo boy does it change things once you know how to use it.

Layers and additional provide your players ways to experiment, new things to master, and new strategies to attempt. Every new layer encourages an additional play (or several).

Heart: This is difficult to quantify, but your game should have gobs of heart and soul. This comes down to the craftsmanship in the art and the components, for one. I love pulling out King of Tokyo based on its visuals and the fun pieces. Similarly, I know people get giddy busting out X-Wing (I love it), sorting through a new Netrunner Data Pack (yes!), or dumping Caverna on their kitchen table (not for me, but I get it).

It comes down to the sheer excitement of people getting it out. People know there will be clever play and great moments. They know the game is unique and loved by its creators. It wasn’t an overnight passing through, but a labor of love. These feelings somehow seep into the experience.

Mice and Mystics, to me, embodies this well. All the well crafted pieces. The gobs of art that must have cost a fortune in time and money and skill. The book full of scenarios, narrative, and little well-rounded characters. Heart goes a long way and I think Mice and Mystics has it in spades.

What are games that YOU think has a lot of heart?

Tells Stories: Some games are great because of the stories enjoyed afterwards. Last night, my friend and I played a few games of Netrunner and almost had as much fun after the game as we did during it. Games like Dune/Rex are full of legendary, decisive moments that are remembered weeks or years later. Same with Resistance. Remember that time I convinced the Spy that I was this guy and he did a thing?

Last week I charged a friend’s machine gun bunker with a lone, broken Russian squadron in Combat Commander. I played multiple ambush cards and won a lucky dice roll. The result would have surely won my bedraggled Russian the Order of Lenin (or whatever their highest honor was during the Great Patriotic War).

Stories are driven by things the players do, or decisions made by the players to resolve a situation of the game’s devising. It’s less interesting to hear about a card flip in Arkham Horror or Pandemic than to hear how the heroes did OR didn’t resolve it. Failure is a great teacher and an even better story.

Games that tell stories will bring people back again and again. Remember, though, that your game should merely provide the foundation for the players to be the authors. If a story begins with “I did” instead of “The game did,” well, it’s one for the books.

What do you think? What qualities did I get right? Which ones did I get incorrectly? Chat me up in the comments below.

Making Games with Girls

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

I snapped the above picture yesterday during the lunch portion of a marathon meeting to interact with our community to discuss issues, explain features, and generally be there to support our game. I’ve worked for Maxis for about 9 years now and we just launched The Sims 4. I don’t snap a ton of photos at work for fear of sharing something that’s going to leak and get me a stern talking to, but this one somewhat accomplishes what I need.

You’ll see two women in this photo and the shoes of another. The empty chair on the right belongs to another woman, and behind the back wall sits our executive producer, who is also a woman. We’ll get back to why this is important.

There’s a kerfuffle going on right now in the video game demographic that I believe is called “Gamer’s Gate” at this point, which is a hilariously hyperbolic comparison (as all “Gates”) to Water Gate. Under the pretenses of protecting the hobby from corruption and casual influence, an internet mob of men have begun harassing women in a blanket manor. It’s ignorant, disrespectful, and ridiculous.

I don’t have much to contribute to this topic that hasn’t already been said, except a brief mention of my personal experiences. I’ve worked at Maxis for about 9 years now and that means I’ve made a lot of games with women. I don’t have comparative stats, but I would wager we have one of the highest percentages of women on a development team in the industry. Obviously, an indie team of 6 with 3 women will beat our 20-30%, but as an organization with hundreds of people, I’m proud of that statistic, and proud of where it will continue to go.

We have women in all roles: Engineering, production, design, all art disciplines, UX, Audio. I have been excited and taken aback by the 50/50 split along gender lines in many meetings. I’ll be a dad one day and there’s a good chance I’ll have a girl. These sights are promising, especially if she wants to enter tech.

Our production team, and therefore our leadership team, has a very large female contingent. The producers who led our efforts in Build Mode and Create a Sim for The Sims 4 are both women. My boss, my dotted-line boss, my bosses’ boss, and my bosses’ bosses’ boss are all women. In fact, Lucy Bradshaw is the highest female in our corporate organization on our CEO’s advisory staff and she runs our studio. Pretty cool.

So, we’re still mostly a dude fest, which takes time and cultural shifts to correct, but we have a lot of women and we have them in positions of authority. As you might expect, working with women instead of men has its differences, so I thought I’d outline them.

  • For starters, I’ve seen my female co-workers take maternity leave. Oh…wait. I actually have 2 male co-workers on multi-month long paternity leaves right now. Okay. Scratch that difference.
  • Well, I definitely work with some women who aren’t very good at their job. Hmmm. Never mind. I work with some duds who share the opposite chromosome.
  • Oh! I know for a FACT that the women’s bathroom is far cleaner than ours. Boom! Difference.

Jesting aside, there really aren’t any differences. I have just as many female co-workers who wear Dr. Who graphic tees as the guys. Both groups are annoying and have terrible taste in television. I have female co-workers from whom I learn daily and try to emulate. I have male co-workers with whom I do the same. Women, like men, offer a unique perspective on various aspects of life. The views of a mothers differ from those of a father at times. The perspective of a woman in a romantic relationship might vary. The things a girl raised in the 80s versus a boy raised in the 80s bring to a design discussion are also different shades at times.

All of these perspectives are good, especially for a game like The Sims. Traditionally, our audience is split very close along the gender line of 50/50. Yes, that’s right. It’s not a game for girls, but a game for people. I, for one, know nothing about pregnancy. My tuning suggestions are based on stereotypes and pop culture. My boss, however, has had a child. I’m going to trust her instincts on such a feature, much like I would trust the foodie’s input on our cooking system. I know by referencing pregnancy I’m perhaps lending my argument to that of girls only know girl stuff. So, if it helps, my boss and I argue about UI, gardening, Emotions, the tutorial, videos, and more.

I’m most definitely preaching to the choir, but that’s generally how these discussions go. I’m thankful to work with so many women as I’m confident otherwise I would be a different, less interesting, and less whole man otherwise. There are numerous cases of dude focused offices acting horribly to their different co-workers, be they women or people of color, and I’m blessed to be surrounded by a culture that doesn’t do that.

The key thing to take away is this: we all make or play games because it’s what we like to do. And for the former, it beats a real job. Remember that one person’s involvement in a thing does not preclude or affect your involvement in any way. Be fair, be kind, be accepting.

Game on, regardless of your private parts.

A Smidge of Orb

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

The majority of my development brain is focused on Hocus Poker right now. The revision is testing very strongly and we (me and Josh) think we’ll be able to bring a very pretty version to Board Game Geek Con in November. I spent the past week or so revising the graphics files for Sol Rising and it’s being printed now by Print Play Games. I hope to have a really nice version to show to potential publishers at BGG as well. Other than 2 scenarios, I consider that game largely pitch ready.

That leaves me some free time to work on the next game, which I’ve been doing for some time. My process for a while now has revolved around a long period of contemplation and thought, followed by early rules and design documentation, then prototyping. It’s slow, but it tends to lead to higher quality output sooner.

I want to talk about my new game at a high level. Few details, as those can be distracting. I’ve spent a month or two thinking about its mechanics and the overall experience. I’m deep into the rules and I’ve begun designing content for a first prototype. I’d like to think I’ll have a lightly tested version for BGG Con.

For now, I’m calling it Orb. Purely a placeholder name. Try to figure out what Orb stands for before the end of the post. Your prize is, of course, nothing.

I’ve noted before that my new games are often driven by things I’ve learned, things I’m sick of, and things I’m excited about from my immediate predecessor. After York, I wanted to make a game thematic game that involved dice and scenarios. In this case, moving on from Sol Rising, I’m still interested in science fiction, but I want to leave the confines of a starship and get back to the dirt. I’ve never made a game focused on infantry, so that’s appealing. I want to avoid scenario design and, though I’m not removing dice, I want to bring in richer card play that was absent from Sol.

I knew I wanted to focus on a smaller, more tactical experience. Sol Rising is about fleet command and York is about running a war at the operational level. I wanted to focus on the exploits of a small number of soldiers.

My starting point: Science fiction. Infantry. Tactics.

I started to think about the things in this sector that really excite me and the fictional inspiration was just overwhelming. I LOVE the ODSTs (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers) from the Halo universe (picture at the top). They are the best humanity has to offer, up to the Spartans, that is.

They launch from these small pod capsules and explode onto the ground, directly into the thick of battle. It looks awesome and I plan to have a drop pod mechanic in the game.

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ODST Drop Pod View

There are also the Jump Troops of Charlie Company from one of my favorite cartoons, Exo Squad. These guys would also get into confined pods strapped to exo-suits (like the one Matt Damon wore in Elysium) and would drop into hostile zones on asteriods.

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Jump-troop

I love drop ships. Futuristic versions of the Chinook or Black Hawk, heavily laden with elite troopers, exiting the belly of a carrier or troop transport in orbit. You see cool ones in Aliens, Halo, Starship Troopers, and other great fiction.

SciFi-Dropship

Sci Fi. Infantry. Tactics. Drop ships. 

I’m also deeply enamored of Special Forces, both in our current time and in the science fiction I read. There’s something very exciting about highly trained, highly disciplined soldiers who execute their jobs against great odds successfully. I realized this also gave me a great opportunity for a deeply asymmetrical game. A few elite soldiers, no wait, drop troopers, who would need to complete a difficult task against a larger, but less elite force.

Drop Troopers versus Regulars. Assault versus defense. Roles. Already in the design I’m accomplishing this with new tuning variables on how combat is resolved, actions unique to different parties (in general, the drop troopers tend to be more flexible), and objective differences. There’s also a heavy stealth angle for the drop troopers. They need to setup their assault, be patient, then hit with a massive hammer. Once the space poo hits the fan, they need to get out and get home.

This won’t just be two factions, but two different ways to play. This will be an asymmetrical game.

Sci Fi. Infantry. Tactics. Drop ships. Asymmetrical.

War games naturally lend themselves to scenarios. However, after 15 (and counting) Sol Rising scenarios, I’m tired of creating this content. It’s exhausting and requires a unique skill set and energy. Therefore, the need occurred to me to create a dynamic scenario system. By this, I mean I design the framework and content by which the scenarios are created when you play as a part of the experience.

Keep in mind, I will be testing a single framework and content set for the foreseeable future, much like I did with Sol Rising, to verify all of the other mechanics. But, phase 2 will dive more deeply into dynamic scenarios. My current high level thinking is that players will grab cards from a small set for things like terrain (planet type), position (forward operating base, random patrol, heavy base), objectives (rescue hostage, destroy artillery), and any variations (weather, rules of engagement restrictions).

The map and resources available to players will be derived from this setup.

Sci Fi. Infantry. Tactics. Drop ships. Asymmetrical. Dynamic scenarios. 

Those are the top items, but there are a few more things I’m working on. I recognize that asymmetrical games have a high degree of a learning curve and one way in which I’d live to curb that is by making the game VERY card driven. I’m planning on a tight, small set of core rules, with few exceptions, and putting almost all of the content onto the cards. Yes, this will make the cards more complex, but I’d rather the rules be IN their hands instead of in their head.

One example relates to the various roles of the special forces units. You don’t need to remember what a sniper can do versus and explosives expert. You’ll have a card to do so. Similarly, if the scenario generator tells you to place a machine gun nest, you don’t need to know what that entails. You just add the cards it tells you and they’ll contain the rules.

That’s all for now. I’ll potentially talk about more specifics as I vet them and feel comfortable doing so. For now, I wanted to talk about the theme, experience, and high level goals in the hopes that some of you are interested. Enjoy your day!

The Scenario Framework

Andor

This blog post sponsored by Farmageddon, which is on sale for $11 right now!

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I recently acquired Legends of Andor and after four plays it’s really making me happy. The game is scenario driven and does some very intelligent things to add replay value, but also present a specific story in each scenario. It’s a great mix of focus and unpredictability. In many ways, it’s similar to Robinson Crusoe. I broadened my thinking and began pondering the scenario design of Memoir ’44 and Combat Commander: Europe. Finally, I’m considering Mice and Mystics.

I sense a blog post.

Each of these games holds a high place in my heart, but also do things slightly, or dramatically differently to accomplish their goals. On the recommendation of Todd Edwards, and the seconding of Josh Buergel, I’m going to write about the various tools used by these designers in each game to present unique, dynamic scenarios. Three of these games are cooperative, two of them are competitive. They also scale nicely in terms of complexity.

We’ll begin with Memoir ’44, as it’s the simplest, and progress upwards in terms of complexity.

Memoir ’44: I gotta get a Luger for my kid brother

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Memoir ’44 is a 2 player (more, with an expansion) tactical war game during World War II. Players command infantry, special forces, tanks, artillery, aircraft, and a slew of special weaponry (ex: machine guns, mortars) to win the battle.

How to Win: Point Driven. Points are earned by eliminating enemy Units and holding key positions.

Setup: No variation between plays. Units of a defined type and quantity are placed in specified places on the map. Terrain (forests, hedgerows, bridges, towns, etc.) are also placed in specified locations. Mission 1 is always the same at the start.

The slight exception is that in the campaign mode, your performance in previous missions can affect which reinforcements you bring to subsequent missions.

Variance: Variance comes about in a few ways. For one, the Allied and Axis force allotments and positions are different and not always equal. Players may have differing objectives. For example, the Allies may gain a Point for taking a specified point, whereas the Axis gains no point for doing so.

The game actually recommends, especially in competitive play, that players play twice, switching sides after the first game, and tallying their combined scores. As an example, I may play the Germans better than you, but tie you on the Allies, for a net positive performance.

Once the game begins, variance comes about primarily through player actions and combat resolution. For the former, players are both given a large hand of cards, often 5-7, drawn from a shared deck. Although there are a few very powerful cards that let a player move every Unit, or counter-attack, most are simple variations on a simple premise: move X Units in the defined sectors.

If you haven’t played Memoir, the game is divided into 3 sectors. Cards tell you how many Units in what sector can be activated. When activated, Units can Move, then Attack. For example, a card may say: you may active 2 Units on the left sector.

Though a player may get lucky on occasion with incredibly good draws, by and large, and over the course of many games, the draws are relatively equal between players. The skill comes from timing and knowing what card to use, on what Units, and when.

The final form of variance is through combat resolution. The attacker rolls dice to see if they can get a hit. The probabilities are identical for Units of the same type. Therefore, an Axis Infantry will have the same chance of shooting an Allied Infantry Unit, and vice versa. There are some variations in special units, but the rules are deliberately clean to avoid too many exceptions.

Naturally, probability being the beast it is, one player may have very favorable dice for the duration of a single game, but over the course of ten games, they should even out.

Conclusion: The game uses relatively standard variance mechanics via card draws and dice resolution to add spice to historically driven scenario setups. Playing a scenario multiple times, without adding in your own variables, or introducing expansions like Breakthrough or the Airpack, won’t be as compelling as playing a new one.

I believe Days of Wonder and Richard Borg know this as they’ve produced an astonishing amount of content. I own 98% of it and I’m telling you now, I can play Memoir until I die.

Legends of Andor: Let’s save the kingdom through story

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Legends of Andor is a 2-4 player fantasy cooperative game set in the fictional kingdom of Andor. The game features 5 unique scenarios, the first of which actually teaches you the game as you play. It’s very novel, but not the topic of this post.

Side Note: Legends of Andor has quite a bit of expansion content, including a large expansion releasing this Essen. Unfortunately, save for the base game, none of it has been translated and brought over. Quite a shame! There’s a free, official 6th scenario on BGG if you’re looking for more content.

How to Win: The goals for every mission of Andor are unique. From what I can tell from the first two Missions, one common goal will always be to protect the castle. The game has a tower-defense like core mechanic where monsters are constantly rushing towards the castle. It’s really smart, because it gives you a common, shared back pressure.

I found designing Sol Rising that you always want to give your players an amount of grounding so they aren’t shocked when you reveal something else. A new scenario shouldn’t feel like 2.0. More like 1.5, or even 1.3.

In addition, every scenario features a number (2 each, so far) of additional objectives that must be accomplished. In the first mission, a letter had to be picked up and carried safely to the other side of the board. The players had to avoid contact with the enemy while doing so. In the second scenario, I had to find the witch, obtain the herb, bring the herb to the king, and destroy an enemy castle. Again, all of this while protecting the castle from the hordes.

Setup: There is a handy standard setup card where you place the fog, wells, Event deck, and various tokens. The specific scenario will then define where the heroes begin, what enemies are placed, any unique elements (like runes, or destroyed bridges, for example), and any starting items, stats, or gold.

There is a tracker on the right side with letters (A through N). Every scenario comes with a set of big cards with story and scenario details. Tokens are places on defined letters that pair with the cards so that when the marker moves to space C, for example, the C card is read and resolved.

There are 4 heroes, but if you play with fewer than 4, the ones you choose will alter the group. Furthermore, the number of heroes in the game determine how many monsters can reach the castle before you fail, and in my experience, alters the strategy you must employ quite significantly.

Variance: While there are quite a few elements locked in, such as the hugely important story cards, there’s also quite a bit of variance to evolve the game between plays. I’ve played scenario 2 three times now and it’s been quite different each time, not just in the skills employed by my group as we improve, but how the elements panned out during the scenario.

  • The Event deck is rather large, shuffled, and only a (small) portion is experienced each scenario. Some of these significantly alter the scenario by decreasing your stats, granting bonuses, or modifying the terrain.
  • There are 15 Fog tokens spread across the map. In the second scenario you need to find the Witch in one of those 15 fogs, so where she appears can really change things. Twice we found her near the castle, but the third time she appeared on the other side of the map. In addition, the fog might reveal additional Event cards, bonus Gold, stat bonuses, or even more enemies. What spawns, and where, really changes things.
  • Various entities spawn in variable places. Every space is labeled with a number (1-80). For example, the enemy fortress spawned on a space that was 50+1d6. The Crystals spawned at the number of the first die + the number of the second die. The Herb spawned based on 1d6 and a chart reference. The designer used 3 different dice mechanics to add things to the map! He knew he wanted the castle to generally spawn in the second place, hence the light variance of 50+1d6. However, the crystals and herb emerge in dramatically different locations.
  • Although the story cards always resolve when the letter space is reached, the timing of that moment being reached can be sometimes controlled by the player. For example, the Prince leaves at Space G on the tracker. Therefore, you might alter your plans to take advantage of his presence before he left. The pawn that moves along the lettered spaces moves every time you defeat an enemy or end the day.

You also have light variance in the form of combat resolution (dice roll), mini-objectives accomplished (not required, but optional to gain bonuses), and things you buy from the merchant, for example.

Conclusion: I find the system incredibly interesting as it combines a fairly rigid structure in the objectives and order of the story cards, but still adds a great deal of spice in the form of Event cards and scattered map elements. I’m very intrigued to see how the system evolves as I’m only on mission 2 and I know it’s probably still lighter on the puzzle nature of things.

So far, this is a really interesting mixture of story-based scenario design with replay variance still in mind.

Mice and Mystics: Hey, let’s play Rat Zelda. 

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Mice and Mystics is a story driven cooperative game for 1-4 players. The game revolves around short-tactical combat with some strategy in regards to how you build out your party and whether to solve bonus objectives.

How to Win: Most scenarios involve getting from point A to point B, which usually entails 4-5 large square tiles, all of which are double sided. You must defeat all enemies along the way, making this primarily a game about team-based tactical combat. There is often a boss fight, or tough situation waiting for you at the very end (the final tile).

More and more, especially in the expansion, players face more side objectives, like rescuing a friendly peddler from the drain, finding a particular item, or bringing supplies from one place to another.

Setup: The game defines which tiles to use and in what orientation, as in, how they are placed in relation to one another. Typically you’re allowed to pick any four heroes, but sometimes you have heroes that you MUST use, or heroes that you cannot use, plus a few of your choice.

The game will often have you shuffle a set of Event cards that define which enemies emerge, though sometimes the game will tell you to set a specific type and number of enemies on a defined tile.

The game also defines how much time you have to complete the scenario. Some scenarios specify certain weapons to be used by specified characters

Variance: Mice and Mystics is somewhere around Legends of Andor in terms of variance. I find that I don’t often replay missions, as the game is so story driven, except when I fail. In this sense, I think Legends of Andor has a leg up in replay value as it is a bit more system driven.

While individual scenarios don’t have an extensive amount of variance, the variety between scenarios is significant. The designer clearly strove to create a slew of fresh experiences. You can see variance in Mice and Mystics in the form of:

  • What enemies spawn as you enter the room. The card will specify which enemies spawn based on what Chapter you’re on. If it’s Chapter 4, something different will spawn than Chapter 2. As your luck and choices change this between missions, it can be significant.
  • Combat resolution (roll custom d6). In Legends of Andor, your combat success (for me so far), largely dictates how much time it takes to defeat an enemy, or whether you can defeat them in the current day. For Mice and Mystics, combat goes both ways. An aggressive enemy can deal a lot of damage and convey powerful effects, like webbing, poison, or fire, that will greatly alter things. The mice can have a really bad day sometimes and it’ll alter the game.
  • The rate at which the cheese wheel fills up. If the enemies are rolling well, things will escalate quite quickly. Filling the cheese wheel causes a surge, which spawns more, badder enemies, but also decreases the amount of time you have left in the scenario.
  • Your success with the Search Action (you need to roll a certain symbol), as well as the quality of items drawn from a rather large deck. Some of the cards, Treachery, will do bad things that have a big impact.
  • Which characters you choose can have a dramatic impact. With the base game you have Collin (leader, warrior, balanced), Nez (warrior, heavy offense, bad defense), Lily (archer, ranged, support), Maginos (mage, range, offense), Filch (rogue, heavy offense, good defense, support), and Tilda (healer, decent offense and defense, support). With the first expansion you get another character and the new expansion adds two more. It really changes things and is probably the best reason to replay — can you beat it with x, y, z, and w?
  • Choosing a side objective can not only influence the difficulty of the current scenario, but will also dictate choices in later scenarios. Had we not rescued the King in a prior scenario, it would have made a latter scenario much more difficult.

Conclusion: Legends of Andor and Mice and Mystics are both heavily story driven fantasy experiences. There are many comparisons to be drawn. Whereas Legends of Andor’s variance is largely meta, in that it affects the overall scope of the session, Mice and Mystics’ seems to come about in the moment to moment gameplay. Your trip through scenario 2 might feel, overall, the same, but tile 3 might have a dramatically different feel to it between plays.

The combat resolution has a significant effect on Mice and Mystics, which makes sense as that’s the meat of the game. As I’ve said, Mice and Mystics is largely a game about tactical combat. Therefore, the combat effects, attack, defense, health management, and diverse breadth of enemies really shines. I believe strongly that you need to put the majority of your complexity on your game’s primary element. For Mice and Mystics, that’s combat. Therefore, the moment to moment variance is much stronger than its meta-variance.

Robinson Crusoe: This island looks nic — DEAR GOD SAVAGES!

Robinson

Robinson Crusoe is a cooperative game for 1-4 players that throws them on a deadly island, forces them to find shelter, gather food, invent helpful items, and solve whatever devious problem the game throws at them. I consider it a master worker of scenario design and referenced it (and Mice and Mystics) heavily to design Sol Rising.

The game uses a central worker placement mechanic, heaps of event cards, and a neat dice resolution mechanic to determine precisely how you’ll fail in this notoriously difficult game.

How to Win: I’ve played two of the scenarios and examined a third. Each of them has a completely unique victory condition. In the first, you must gather and set enough wood to create a large signal fire. In the second, you must extinguish the cults throughout the island. In the third, you need to build a boat, find treasure, and, oh, avoid the volcano.

The back pressures for each scenario are identical, plus the occasional twist. For example, you need to eat every night. If you spend the night without shelter, you suffer penalties. There’s always a twist.

Setup: There are a few standards for each scenario, including:

  • Shuffle each individual Event deck for gathering food, exploring, etc.
  • Choose 1-4 characters, plus Friday and the Dog if you are playing with fewer than four or want to ease the difficulty.
  • Place a number of standard inventions (9?).

Then, things change. You create a central Event deck where you draw a very small number of cards from two very large decks. There are approximately 80 cards and you may use 12 or so in a scenario. These have a massive impact on the scenario.

You may be instructed to add specific tiles and items on those tiles on the map. You draw about 6 inventions from a deck to flesh out your total number of about 15 Inventions. The inventions can dramatically alter the strategy you pursue. You draw 2 items that the group shares from a large set.

As I noted above, the victory condition changes with every scenario. Furthermore, there are new rules introduced and the game’s generic tokens (icons) mean different things. The game is a huge sandbox on which the designer (and the community) can create new stories.

There’s quite a bit of variance during setup and with the goals, but most of it comes during the game.

Variance: Dice resolution is by far the most significant contributor to variance in the game. Whenever you take an action without devoting a full day to the work, you must roll 3 resolution dice to see how it went. If you’re building a structure, you roll 3 brown dice. If you’re gathering food, you roll 3 gray dice. There are different probabilities between the different colors. Each die represents something different:

  1. Whether you Succeed or Fail and gain 2 Morale
  2. Whether you are Wounded or Not Wounded
  3. Whether you go on an Adventure

There are quite a few combinations already! In building that structure, you may succeed, take a wound, and go on an adventure. If you go on an adventure, you draw the top card of the specific Event deck. For example, there’s an Event deck for building and a different one for Exploring. This card forces you to make a choice or has an immediate effect. Sometimes they are discarded, but other times they are shuffled BACK into the primary deck to affect you in the future.

Success has huge implications. You may not gather food, which will have consequences at night. You may not invent the Map, which has consequences on your next day’s plans. You may not build shelter, which has consequences at night. Most challenging is that you must choose what to do before you know what will succeed. If you’re confident, you might only have one person gather food. If you’re worried, you may have a guarantee on the food, but then will skip out on doing another action.

In addition to this, an Event card is drawn at the start of every day. These are almost always significant. Furthermore, the deck may contain cards added from the specific Event decks. The game is an ever-shifting mess of quicksand. It’s about risk, careful planning, and a little luck. There’s no Wilson on Ignacy’s deserted island.

Conclusion: There is a relatively simple structure the designer created that allows for nearly infinite possibilities. There is SO much variance in the Event cards, thanks to the combinations of the 3 resolution dice, but also, the sheer variety of the cards.

However, the foundation is where the true variation comes into play. The tokens which contain simple icons allows the designer to affix unlimited new properties to them. The game contains no points or other trappings, but has the same back pressures. This means, like the monsters rushing the castle in Legends of Andor, players have their feet rooted firmly, but the walls can change all around them.

I find the slew of compelling Event content really impressive. There’s so much. I particularly like how the central Event deck grows based on your adventures on the island. But, the framework of unique victory conditions, consistent back pressures, and malleable tokens is where each scenario becomes truly distinct.

Combat Commander: War is erratic hell.

CCCombat Commander is a tactical war game for 2 players that tends to take 2-3 hours. It is brilliant for its simple, card-driven play, but also how stories and moments evolve dynamically over the course of the game. This is why the game tends to take a while — things take time to evolve. Small moments need room to grow and breath into epic stories.

As you read the rule book, you’ll find there are only a few paragraphs devoted to telling you how to play. That’s because the game is play a card, do what it says. But, the sheer amount of stuff? Whew. Get ready!

How to Win: The game will sometimes have a victory condition, such as taking an objective before time runs out (or holding that objective). Many include simply having the most points (earned by defeating the enemy and taking valuable ground) when the timer runs out.

Setup: The scenario dictates which Units to use and which map to use (the game comes with 12). You’ll sometimes have pre-defined objectives, other times you’ll draw others that snap into the game quite simply, or may even be private for each player (which is fun). Each player has an action deck of 72 cards, which they shuffle. These action decks are designed for a particular army, so the Italian deck varies from the German deck.

The scenario dictates initial point values, often tied to an objective. For example, the Germans may begin in control of a house that’s worth 15 Points, giving them 15 starting points. It also defines when the scenario ends.

Sometimes the scenario dictates where Units begin on the map, but often, players decide where to place their units within a defined region. This can have an enormous impact on the course of the game.

Variance: Variance for Combat Commander comes as a result of the cards, which dictate everything. On a turn, the active player may only take an action using a card from his hand OR discard cards in his hand to cycle through his deck. This is a key decision and is used often, especially when you have a hand full of Command Confusion cards (dead cards).

The cards have Orders. Each Unit may only take one Order per turn, but you can otherwise play them until you run out of cards. Cards then have Actions, which can be played on your turn OR an opponent’s turn to modify an Order, like firing or movement. An order may be to Move, whereas an Action may be to throw a smoke grenade (to cover that movement) or Opportunity Fire (as the inactive player) to shoot on that Move.

Finally, cards have an Event, which is only triggered when drawn for specific moments, a 2d6 dice roll (which might have an Event), and a hex.

Let’s say you play an Order to attack. To shoot, you tally your attacking Unit’s firepower, then you each “roll” a card by drawing the top card of your deck. You use the dice roll drawn. The dice for either or both of you might have an Event. Let’s say the Event is Sniper! You draw the top card and reference the hex. Any unit on or adjacent to that hex is broken (i.e. wounded). Let’s say the dice just say Event. You draw the top card of your deck, which might say a blaze forms. Where? Yep, draw the next card and reference the hex.

Over the course of the game, a fire may force defenders to evacuate a crucial position. A hero might emerge to charge a machine gun nest. You may stumble across a minefield, or rally broken troops back into the game. Unexpected reinforcements might arrive, or your artillery might break.

The game isn’t about making plans that won’t change. It’s about determining a strategy and dealing with everything that happens along the way. Combat Commander’s victory conditions are dead simple, much like Memoir ’44s, and the rules rarely change. However, the cards create an incredibly broad swathe of possibilities with a gillion different combinations.

So, what did we learn, kids?

Some conclusions one could draw from the previous 4000 words include:

  • In scenario design, additional complexity in the form of new knobs and mechanical layers lends itself to greater replayability. In Combat Commander there are dozens of things that can enter and affect the battlefield. In Mice and Mystics, there are tons of new enemies. In Robinson, there are gobs of Event cards and tokens.
  • A core rule set that is shared by all scenarios is essential to ground players and also rein in the designer. This goes for both cooperative and competitive, though it’s especially true for the former. In Andor, protect the castle. In Robinson, eat and have shelter.
  • Event cards are a fantastic way to add spice and variance to a scenario. However, to keep it thematically appropriate, look to Robinson and Andor, where they have unique scenario cards for each moment.
  • Don’t be afraid to add new rules. If you adhere to bullet #2, a few new rules can go a long way towards making something unique. This was a cornerstone of Sol Rising and in testing, it took an hour or less to setup, learn the new rules, and play. It’s possible, just be reasonable.
  • Introduce a method of variance for common actions. All of the scenario games listed use dice, or a dice like mechanic to resolve conflict and adventure. All of them give you a slew of cards, be them actions or events.
  • Finally, and I’ve said this before, strongly consider the framework of your scenarios. Time invested in the system will pay dividends when it comes time to create content. All of the games above introduce variation and unique moments easily because they have such strong frameworks. If you’re doing it right, you’ll just need to repaint the house and re-arrange the windows for each design. Not start over.

I hope this was interesting and useful. What did you find compelling? Where do you disagree? Was such a deep dive into a single topic fun? Tell all in the comments below!

Farmageddon: Sale and Shill!

2ndEd

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Howdy all! My publisher, 5th Street Games, just notified me that Farmageddon is ON SALE! It’s 25% off, which comes out to $11. The game is typically $15, so the savings here more or less cover your shipping fees.

You can get the game for $11 right here. In fact, all of his games are on sale. You can find the sale page here.

Many of you undoubtedly know about Farmageddon at this point. I’ve been quiet about it for some time, mostly because I’m waiting for the expansion, Livestocked and Loaded, before making a big marketing push. But, with the sale going live I wanted to give a quick overview on why Farmageddon may be a great small game for your collection.

Farmageddon is a great picnic or lunch game, fun for gamers looking for a light diversion or families looking for a laugh. The game takes 30-45 minutes to play for 2-4 players. The game is about hand management, action cards, and yes, take that.

I realize that last note is repulsive to some, so let me tell you why it’s fun in Farmageddon.

  1. Everyone has a relatively equal toolbox over the course of the game. Every turn you draw new Crop cards and new Action cards. You’ll never be stuck with nothing on your turn.
  2. Once you earn points, they’re yours. Nothing is more frustrating than spending the entire game earning something, only to have a single card reverse your fortunes. That doesn’t happen in Farmageddon.
  3. You can only play 2 Actions each turn. While every Action card is powerful, not all are aggressive, and with a limit of two, players really need to think about what they need to do most. This limitation increases the level of choice and reduces the chaos.
  4. The game is designed and tuned around constant interaction. You won’t have erratic spikes of screwage. What this means is that it’s a part of the game, fundamentally, and it should modify your tactics accordingly. You know your opponents can stop you, so where do you draw your attention? How do you get ahead with this knowledge. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

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For $11, I think you’ll have a good time and find a game that’s easy to pull out at Thanksgiving or social gatherings for people less experienced with modern board games. Farmageddon is a good replacement for games like Uno at the family picnic. I think one of the reasons Farmageddon has been successful is that it’s quick, relatively simple, and take that (which many non-gamers enjoy), but has enough choice and gamey elements to keep people coming back. Some of these choices come from:

  • Which two actions to play
  • What to use as Fertilizer and what to Plant (Crop cards are dual use!)
  • How many Planting Fields to take. Do you get aggressive (see also: greedy), or play it quiet?
  • Who do you mess with? And when?
  • What cards do you save for a big combo and what do you use RIGHT NOW?

The expansion, which will hopefully arrive this year, will really enrich the experience. It adds Weather, which presents new opportunities, Livestock, which enriches the Crop game and broadens the strategy, and new Action cards to fit into this. Now is a great time to get in on Farmageddon and support me and a small publisher who has been very kind and great to work with.

Thanks for obliging me! If you pick up a copy, be sure to tell me how it goes!

10 Games I want to Play more

WarGames Post by: Grant Rodiek

Josh of Board Game Reviews by Josh wrote a fun post this morning about the top 10 games he wants to play more. I really liked this idea, so I’m stealing it for myself. But first, go read his post!

What I find most interesting about this post is how my tastes and preferences have changed. When I shifted my gaming primarily to print games about 4-5 years ago, my one strict rule was that the game couldn’t take longer than an hour. I had a very realistic outlook on my play chances and games longer than 60 minutes were just never played.

As evidence, I owned Twilight Struggle for 3 years before I played it! However, about a year ago, we began a daily lunch game group. This means I play all the one hour (or shorter) games that I can stand. When game night comes around, which we try to do about 3-4 times per month, I want to play the big stuff.

This list reflects that shift in desire.

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#10: Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy

This game makes me really happy. It just makes sense to me and is the right mix of light strategy and tactics. It’s also my kind of euro – interactive, thematic, and not too many moving parts. I’ve played it 5 times and would love to see that number be 15 times.

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#9: Memoir ’44

I’ve played Memoir quite a bit, but not enough to justify the amount I’ve invested in the game. I own, more or less, everything for the game and I’ve barely scratched the surface of the expansions. I feel more like a hoarder than a player and I’d love to get this to the table. Ideally I’ll make it through more of the air campaign and get the breakthrough cards to the table. I’d also really love to play the new Normandy maps.

Horus

#8: Horus Heresy

I bought this beast one or two Christmases ago during Fantasy Flight’s excellent Christmas sale. It cost $25 and is normally at least $100. I’ve read the rules 2-3 times, ogled the minis and amazing components…and just haven’t gotten it to the table. It’s a big game, but it looks very good, and shares some similarities with York, which I find interesting. Naturally, I’m curious. York was designed without any influence from this, so I’m fascinated to see how two designers independently arrived at a similar solution.

Dropzone

#7: Dropzone Commander

I’ve been eyeballing this tabletop miniatures game for a year plus and finally took the plunge into their very reasonably priced start set. It comes with 2 beginner armies, a paper craft cityscape (YES), and everything you need to play.

I’ve assembled all of my human armies and done the basic painting on them. What’s left is some touch up detail on the humans, assembling the last few aliens, and painting the aliens.

The rules were very well put together, so I’m excited for this one. Its focus on mobility and using dropships to rapidly deploy troops around the city really grabbed me. It essentially looks like Halo/Aliens the table top game. I’m in!

LastWill

#6: Last Will + Getting Sacked Expansion

As with Legacy above, this game is the type of Euro that just makes sense to me. I love the theme and decisions throughout the game. We’ve played the base game quite a bit and I recently acquired the Getting Sacked expansion. Criminally so, I haven’t read the rules OR played it yet. That must be addressed.

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#5: Race to the Rhine

I played Lewis and Clark a few months ago. This game is a racing euro, where you’re trying to build an engine to reach the finish line first. I thought the game was good, though a bit dense for my tastes. When I read the designer diary for Race to the Rhine, I was fascinated. Here too is a thematic euro designed around the Allied push into Germany on the Western front. I love the theme, but was also drawn into their visual approach where they combined actual photographs with stylized touch up.

When Funagain had it on sale (only limited copies), I dove in. I’ve read the rules for this one a few times and I think I’m really going to love this. It’s relatively simple with some economics, some light asymmetry, the right kind of randomness for this game, and fun card play. Really eager to play this.

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#4: Combat Commander

The four games I’ve played of this have just been a delight.  I think this game is a masterwork of tactics, sandbox play, scenario design, and combat mechanics. It’s just a beautiful lesson every time I play and it tells such great stories.

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#3: Netrunner

Shame. On. Me. This is another game I’ve invested deeply in, but have played very few times. It’s utterly brilliant and I need to play it hundreds of times. Shameful.

Rex

#2: Rex: Final Days of an Empire 

When I first played this, there was a .08% chance I wouldn’t like it. Fundamentally asymmetric and based on Dune? Yes. Yes, please. I’ve since played the game twice and it’s just a wonderful, beautiful design. I want to play this game until I die.

Twilight

#1: Twilight Struggle

My #1 matches that of Board Game Geek. I’ve only played this game twice, but what experiences! This is an incredible design that beautifully merges history, conflict, card play, randomness, and some other things. Man, just a great game.

What did you think? Anything I’m missing? What’s in your top 10?