The 54 Card Guild: #10


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!


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.


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


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, 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.


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.


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.


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, 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?

After the War is Over

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m fascinated by the business and publishing side of things lately, and feel it’s an area where I can provide new commentary. Perhaps not new to the greater world of business, but new for this blog. I try to only write about topics that feel fresh, which is why I’m writing less about design at this moment. Not an expert there either, but I have been writing about that for 3 years.

There’s an obsession with Kickstarter. How to prepare for it, how to communicate, really, every detail of it. I think this is well and good, but it’s also well and covered. I’m not particularly interested in innovating within the KS sphere, and I feel there is a crystal clear notion of “what good looks like” at this point. I’m not saying I’m a master of it, but there’s years of open, free data to be obtained by perusing the site.

Plus, I don’t have a Kickstarter on the horizon. I do have to run a business. So, what happens after the war? The war being the big, explosive blitzkrieg that is Kickstarter and fulfillment. What’s the daily life of a publisher like then? I’ve only been “on that job” a few weeks now. I figure if you’re in the same boat I am — new publisher — there might be useful information here I can share. We can start a conversation. Really, it’s good to know what to expect when you’re expecting.

Naturally, all of this can be ignored if you don’t plan to sell your games beyond Kickstarter, or don’t plan to regularly develop new games. But, if you do plan that, well, hopefully this is of some use.

I’ve fallen into a daily routine. After I wake up, I do a quick loop through things I need to check, which include:

  • Check BGG to see if we’ve received more ratings for Hocus.
  • Check BGG to see if there are any rules questions.
  • Check email to see if I have any direct orders.
  • Check BGG, Geekmail, Kickstarter, and Email for any customer service issues.

Let’s dive into these a little more deeply.

Regarding ratings, I don’t really read comments. They’ll generally lead me to focus too much on negative critique, which isn’t healthy. Therefore, I look to see if we’re receiving more ratings and fans (we are) and to see if the general trend is upward (it is).  I also like to check logged plays and the number of users owning. For the plays, do we have multiple plays, or one and done? All good information for checking the health of the product.

Rules questions are inevitable. You should subscribe to your game via BGG so that you are notified whenever a question is posted in a forum, or your game is linked on the site by a blog, video, or otherwise. Obviously, real life gets in the way (day job, relationships, power outage), but you should respond to these queries within hours ideally, same day, at worst. This is the simplest form of customer service. It shows you are a dedicated publisher that supports the product. Ideally, most of your answers will be a reiteration of the existing rules.

Direct orders are a blessing, as the revenue earned from them is much greater than that of distribution. Distribution and retail is the backbone of the business, but getting a handful of orders each week is a nice way to generate cash flow and earn higher margins. Another thing I like about direct orders is that it gives me an opportunity to personalize things. For every order, like with Kickstarter, I send a quick email thanking the customer, providing a tracking number, and linking them to our how to play tutorial video. It’s a small thing, but it’s nice. We try to ship products the same day they are ordered, which means adjusting my typical commute. Sadly, no mailing solutions are open before 9.

Customer service issues are my highest priority and need to be resolved immediately. In my opinion, you should respond to these within hours at the latest. Even if you do not yet have a solution, acknowledgement of the problem is a must. My general belief with customer service, largely based on the Golden Rule, is to give folks the benefit of the doubt and help them out.

Common customer service issues include:

  • “Where is my order? It hasn’t arrived yet.” Typically, this merely requires checking the tracking number and comforting the consumer.
  • “Where is my order? It says it arrived, but I don’t have it.” Sigh. Sometimes, the USPS messes up, or people steal packages. The solution here is to mail a replacement, no questions asked.
  • “My order arrived, but it was smashed.” Sigh. Again, sometimes the logistics network messes up. The solution here is to mail a replacement.
  • “You didn’t mail my complete order.” For us, we botched the wooden boxes on our KS. For some international backers, this cost us $10 (or so) we weren’t expecting. The solution is to mail what was promised. Focusing on the short term at the expense of the long term will bite you.
  • “I’m missing a component.” There is a 1-2% margin of error for components. Thankfully, the factory mails extras specifically for this. These are easy to fix, as cards fit in a normal envelope. Just remember to buy some nice hard plastic sleeves to protect them.

I try to resolve customer service issues promptly, with clarity, a resolution, and a little humor. Essentially, I often note:

  1. This is lame. I’m sorry.
  2. We’ll resolve this immediately.
  3. This is how it’ll be resolved.
  4. On the upside, you sorta won a lottery? Only 1-2%!

Really, people just want to be heard, be treated fairly, and get the product they paid for. While some folks begin with hostility, if you respond with kindness and resolve, they’ll make a complete 180.

Remember to keep tabs on your Kickstarter, if you used that channel. Some folks will keep using comments and the messages. Assuming you don’t turn off notifications, this is a very easy channel to monitor.

Let’s review, then, a typical week. For me, currently, it includes:

  • 3-5 Geekmail, email, or KS messages.
  • 1-3 BGG forum posts.
  • Approximately 5 orders.
  • Posting a reasonable volume of social media content about the product.

When you examine the monthly level, a few more tasks are added. Generally speaking, over the course of the month I have a few more duties:

  • Write the monthly Newsletter.
  • Interact with the distributor. This might include answering questions, providing media, providing schedule information, or shipping new product.
  • Contact potential reviewers.
  • Share incoming reviews via social media.
  • Convention planning and sign ups.
  • Keeping tabs with testers for upcoming products. Updating the PNPs. Updating rules.
  • Accounting! This thrilling task includes storing receipts, monitoring expenses, and monitoring revenue.
  • Taxes! This thrilling task includes yearly fees and returns.

Some of these require a few emails here and there. Others, require a bit more.

Finally, there is a long term planning layer which primarily pertains to supporting existing products and developing new ones.

For example, we have approximately 1750 copies of Hocus left. Through Kickstarter, pre-orders, and direct orders, we’ve sold about half our print run. As this is our first product, we have no clue how long it’ll take the rest of the copies to sell…if at all *gulp*. To make matters slightly more complicated, the turnaround time to obtain new product is a few months. We don’t need to repeat the proofing process, but they do need to be printed, packed, and shipped from China. We have two conventions in May and we’d really like to not show up without product! Of course, in May, I may be remembering this comment and rolling my eyes as we have only sold 300 and are nowhere close to a reprint.

There’s also quite a bit of lead time in hiring artists and graphic designers. I recently spoke to 3 graphic designers for various projects and they were booked for the next 3 months, 3 months, and 6 months. Illustrators of quality also have a similar lead time. We had to book Tiffany Turrill about 3-4 months in advance for Hocus. This means we need to put out feelers now for things we’ll likely do later.

The above task also complements nicely the process of obtaining quotes and identifying components for future products. There is a multiple week turnaround, typically, with manufacturing quotes. Furthermore, as the component list may require several revisions, you don’t want to start this process a week before you wish to begin art development.

Conclusion. Was this of any use to you? Did this align with your typical week (publishers) or your expectations? Any questions? My hope is that this is useful to you, so please provide feedback as it occurs to you. Have a good week!

Et tu, Barbarus?

Post by: Grant Rodiek

It’s Christmas Eve, my house is freezing, it’s raining outside, so I’m going to blog! I’ve been testing a new game that is very exciting to me, as it’s simple and somewhat of a departure from some of my other text-heavy card games. It’s called Barbarus, and in a nutshell, it’s about bribing barbarians and backstabbing. BBB!

I’ve been listening to The History of Rome podcast lately. It’s fantastic and well worth your time if you’re at all interested in Roman history. In the episodes about the Second Punic War, the host mentioned the Battle of the Upper Baetis. What you need to know about this is that the Carthaginian general, Hannibal’s brother, observed that the mercenaries would fight for the highest bidder. He bribed the Roman mercenaries out from under them and at the start of the battle, they left. The Romans lost the battle. Badly.

That seemed like a fantastic premise for a game.

  1. Barbarians of uncertain loyalty
  2. Hidden bribes
  3. Shaky alliances

I like to try to dabble in different mechanisms and genres and often when I start a design, it’s because I haven’t done something in that space. I was thinking about how I haven’t made an auction game, then thought immediately to the brilliant High Society and Modern Art, two of my favorite games which happen to be from Reiner Knizia. I started from there.

In Barbarus, 3-6 players act as Consuls in command of rival City-States. I’m using the Roman setting, but this is all playing fast and loose with history. Every player has an identical set of 14 tokens, each with two variables:

  • Gold
  • Legions

The Gold distribution is: 0 (2x), 1000 (3x), 3000 (2x), 5000 (2x), 10000, 12000, 15000, 20000, 25000. The Legion distribution follows from lowest to highest from 0-3.


These tokens are used for their gold value to bid for First Consul and Bribe Barbarians. They are used for the Legion value in war. As you use the tokens, they go to a discard pile. Once your bag runs out, you toss your discarded tokens back in, and begin drawing from it again. So, for those familiar with High Society, the tokens are not single-use.

Let’s go through the basic flow of the game. It is played in rounds, with a few phases in order.


In the first phase, every player draws until they have 6 tokens.


In the second phase, players use their tokens, or pass, to bid for First Consul. The bids continue going around until there is a single player remaining. Every bid has to exceed a prior bid. You cannot make change or exchange tokens previously bid. Players who pass get their tokens back, but the player who claims First Consul discards the tokens spent.


In the third phase, the Barbarians enter the picture. Some begin the game in the middle of the table, ready to be bribed, but the First Consul always draws the top Barbarian and adds it to their Army. You’ll notice the Barbarian above has a Legion value of 5. Whereas a player’s tokens only go from 0-3, the Barbarians range from 3-6. You need them to win!

You have some number of Barbarians out, now. If it’s the beginning of the game, you have one in front of the First Consul and a few in the middle of the table. If it’s late in the game, several players will have Barbarians in front of them. Now, beginning to the left of First Consul, each player may Bribe any number of Barbarians using any tokens in their hand. Bribes are stacked and played face down. Remember there are two blanks, which are wonderful for bluffs. Each player may bribe once or pass. First Consul gets the last go.

Now, it’s time for war! The First Consul must choose another Consul to attack, as well as a Province over which to fight. There are essentially two kinds of Provinces: ones that provide many points, and ones that provide fewer points, but a small bonus.

3 Points, but the player draws an extra token each round

3 Points, but the player draws an extra token each round

10 points, but no bonus

10 points, but no bonus

This distinction came about through testing — there needed to be a reason to not just take the highest value (though there were some other subtleties, that’s the summary). So, First Consul says “I’m going to attack Bob for the 5 Province.” There are 3 Provinces to choose from, so once one is selected, it is taken, and another is drawn from the deck.

First Consul and Bob can both try to recruit an ally. This player will give them one token of their choice, which can be used in the fight. Now, the ally can promise great things, then hand them a turd. But, the ally’s incentive is a Triumph, which is worth points at the end.


So, we have our war, with a province, and any allies are settled. Now, it’s time to fight. First, we need to see where the Barbarian loyalties lie. The Bids on any Barbarians that belong to either Consul in the fight are revealed. The Barbarians move to the highest bidder. Any Barbarians without bids from the warring Consuls? They stay in place. They’ll be resolved when it’s their time to fight.

With the Barbarians figured out, the First Consul can choose any of their Barbarians and 1 or 2 of their tokens for their Legion value. 1 of those 2 tokens may be an ally’s token. These tokens are played face down, so the attacked Consul doesn’t know exactly what’s coming their way. They may use any of their Barbarians and 1 or 2 tokens as well. Again, one of those two may be their ally’s token.

With everything decided, the tokens are revealed. The side with the highest Legion value (Barbarian + Consul + Ally) wins. The winner, even if they are the defender, claims the Province for their score pile. The Ally of the winner claims a Triumph card for their score pile. And for the loser? They must place one of their tokens used in the war on the Casualty card. At the end of the game, this subtracts 3 points from their score and they cannot use that token any more.


It’s key to note — you cannot put your ally’s tokens on the Casualty card. Any Barbarians used by the loser are removed from the game. They have no time for this mess.

That, in a nut shell, is the game. To summarize:

  1. Players replenish their hand of tokens
  2. Players bid for First Consul. First Consul gets a Barbarian, gets last Bribe, and chooses who to fight.
  3. Players Bribe Barbarians.
  4. First Consul declares war and chooses a province to fight over.
  5. The Bribes are revealed and the war is fought.

How the game has developed? The initial test was a bit of a mess. Though well-meaning, there were about 8 different places and reasons to draw tokens and it was super confusing. I simplified this by giving players up to 6 at the start of the round and this greatly fixed things.

Originally, your final score was provinces claimed and the tokens you still had, but this led to a few problems. One, if you lost one of your high value tokens, you were effectively out of the game. Two, it led to a tedious “tally up your score” at the end of the game. Nobody likes that in Ascension, so why do it here? I realized that losing a valuable token is punishment enough, then added a flat tax to losing units.

The Barbarians were originally not much better than your Legions, which meant that spending tokens on Barbarians that might betray you wasn’t a worthwhile risk. So, I greatly increased the Barbarian value. Now, you need to take that risk, which is good as that is the game.

Three player was testing very strongly at this point, so I brought in some folks for a 5 player game. Here, I found a few issues, namely king making and folks feeling like they couldn’t win in that last round. For starters, there used to be 5 fixed provinces, worth a LOT more, and you could steal them from a player. Due to the disparity in their value, it really boiled down to who had the biggest Province last. I did a few things to fix this.

  1. I reduced the value of provinces and tightened the range
  2. I made the Triumphs more valuable
  3. I made it so Provinces couldn’t be stolen
  4. I added a bonus to the lower value provinces to add that choice

But, in a 5-6 player game, I’m worried that there isn’t enough time for other players to get involved. Therefore, I added the Second Consul. This isn’t tested yet, but the idea is that you simply have two Consuls that drive things. You can only bid for First or Second Consul, but once you’re in that contest, you either pay more, or pass, as if there was only one Consul. The First Consul is the only one who gets a Barbarian, which makes their position slightly more valuable. First Consul is the first to declare war and gets first pick of the Province. But, Second Consul also declares war. This means that more Provinces are at stake, there are more ally positions available, and more Triumphs to be won.


One other thing I found out, which you might have noticed in some mistakes. Originally, the game featured cards for player’s to spend for Bribes and bids. But, they took up so much table space. A friend suggested I use tokens. Of course! There is so little information on them that tokens are perfect. They’ll be satisfying and tactile, you can stack them, and slam them down like coins.

I’m pretty excited by Barbarus at this point. I’m always trying to design games that my group will enjoy, as that leads to easier testing, and a game with bribing and backstabbing is, well, up their alley.

If you’re curious about Barbarus, you can read the rules (and comment on them) here. I’m not ready to share the PNP, in that it would be me saying “this game is worth your time!” but if you’re really curious, I do have a PNP. Email me at

Merry Christmas folks.

2015 Annual Report

Post by: Grant Rodiek (with help from Joshua Buergel)

I’ve always really enjoyed reading the Annual Reports from Steve Jackson Games. In a blatant copycat effort, I’m sharing a similar style report right here, right now for Hyperbole Games LLC to cover the efforts of 2015 and the plans for 2016.

Currently, Hyperbole Games LLC is solely owned by me, Grant Rodiek, though that might change at some point, which I’ll go into greater detail below.

This report will cover:

  • General Statement of Purpose
  • 2015 Operations, primarily focused on the development, Kickstarter, and fulfillment of Hocus
  • 2016 Business Opportunities
  • 2016 Products
  • Partners of Note
  • Partnership discussions

If you have any questions about these contents, or have questions about other topics, don’t hesitate to ask. You can always reach out to me at

General Statement of Purpose

Hyperbole Games LLC exists as a way for me to play at business owner in a hobby I love. I’ve spent a decade working on video games for a great company. However, Hyperbole exists so that I can create my own games, on my own terms, using my own methods.

I see Hyperbole Games evolving in a few phases. Phase 1, which is where we’re currently at, is about learning about manufacturing, learning about board game marketing, learning about convention support, learning about basic business practices (accounting, management, etc.), building a brand, and generally working towards a fiscally reasonable state.

On that last point, I don’t expect to be rolling in dough, but I would like to get better at managing budgets, develop a pattern of direct pre-order sales, and work towards making this hobby self-sustained.

Phase 2, which I see as 3 to 5 years out, is about Hyperbole Games growing up. Phase 2 is defined by having a catalog with 4 or more games, participating in more significant conventions (as in, it makes financial sense to do so), considering submissions from other designers, having at least one evergreen title, working with international partners for our titles for localized versions, and not using crowdfunding for titles.

In fact, I’d like to expedite this last item, crowdfunding, to Phase 1 if possible. There will be an experiment on this front for Farmageddon 2nd Edition in 2016. But, for now, Kickstarter is too good at building awareness and generating direct sales before entering distribution. I’ll talk more about Kickstarter specifically below.

I see Phase 2 coming to a close 5 years after it begins, which means in 10 years, the company might enter Phase 3. What’s Phase 3? I don’t quite know yet, but it basically means Hyperbole Games LLC is a real thing, with a handful of well-respected titles, and maybe it’s a thing that may evolve into more than a hobby. But, that’s very far away.

So, in conclusion, Hyperbole Games LLC is a corporate entity built by a passion for my own creative outlet and a proving ground for my ability to run a business without a massive corporate infrastructure to protect me. Gulp.

2015 Operations

This year was split into two fairly distinct phases. The first half of the year was defined by final development on Hocus, primarily balance and tuning, as the core mechanisms were finalized in November 2014. We conducted a fairly extensive, for our current reach, blind testing program, and invested about $500 to mail copies to folks in the US, Canada, and a few in Europe. This paid off with a game that we feel is well refined and tested. When you’re designing a game with asymmetric cards, you need to invest the time to hammer out every stupid inconsistency and ill conceived power combination.

We also spent the early half of the year overseeing Hocus’s illustration development with the wonderful Tiffany Turill and graphic design with the fantastic Adam McIver. They were absolutely the right partners who completely nailed their tasks.

When not working on art, we were furiously preparing for our Kickstarter campaign. This effort included copy editing, creating and revising videos, debating pricing, triple-checking costs, and investigating various fulfillment solutions. We spent almost 6 months preparing for our Kickstarter, and the benefits were clear to us during the campaign. We see a lot of peers fretting their launches, sweating during the campaign, and feeling overwhelmed. Perhaps we’re fools, or our campaign isn’t big enough to warrant the fretting, but Josh and I felt quite relaxed during the entire campaign.

“Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.” We found that quote to be rather true for us.

It would be inaccurate to omit mention of “Tuckbox Gate,” before the campaign. We’ve always been big proponents of open, transparent development, and this is a case where we were really saved by doing so. We announced we weren’t doing Stretch Goals a few weeks before our campaign, but also that we would have a tuck box. Folks, uh, got angry. We reviewed the numbers and made the decision to re-work the graphic design and go with a two piece box. We admitted fault and folks seemed to appreciate it. Had we stumbled through this mid-campaign, it would have been much uglier. I always like supporting businesses who are open to feedback and responsive to customers. I’m glad we can say we did the same thing.

But, during the campaign, nothing weird popped up, we didn’t have a PR goof, and really, our audience was rather quiet. Folks showed up to back and seemed content with our lack of Stretch Goals and product offering. Phew!

  • You can see our Kickstarter page for Hocus here.
  • You can read our extensive Kickstarter post-mortem here.

About two weeks after the end of our campaign for Hocus, and what felt like a thousand re-reads of the Hocus rules and cards, we submitted our digital files to Panda GM. We quickly moved through the process of digital proofs, the first physical copy, and then the mass manufacturing copy. Thankfully, no hiccups were found! We love Hocus, which is first and foremost why it’s the first game, but, it’s also a dead simple product. Box, 101 cards, rules. Done. I highly recommend new publishers make their foray into games with a similarly simple product.

Last Thursday, December 10, 3663 copies of Hocus, packed into 75 boxes, and weighing about 2100 pounds, arrived at my doorstep. I had 6 friends arrive to help me unload and before long we filled our guest bedroom in the garage, aka the warehouse. I spent this past weekend and every free night so far packing copies of the game and custom wooden tokens into mailers. Meanwhile, Josh, up in Seattle, is using his expertise as a software engineer to code a solution for us to quickly print labels. With over 1600 backers, this is no small feat!

Josh prints the labels, ships them to me, then I apply them to eagerly awaiting packaging. I then take them to various places to drop them off. We’re fulfilling Hocus about 2 months early. At the time of this writing, we’re not yet finished, but we should be finished before the end of 2016. Sadly, due to holiday hours, and length of travel for some copies, we probably won’t have every copy in every backer’s hands before Christmas, but we’re doing our best.

I’m very pleased with our fulfillment solution. Yes, it requires labor from us, time we could arguably spend doing other things, but honestly, there is no other way of us to reduce our costs by so much. It is also a great way to learn how the nuts and bolts work. If we use a different solution in the future, we’ll do so from a better foundation of knowledge to make an informed solution of what it costs and the labor involved.

Now, this solution isn’t for everyone. For one, I benefit from the space in my garage to do this and a handful of personal relationships that make depositing a few hundred boxes off at a time “no big deal.” Hocus is a very tiny and simple game — we couldn’t fulfill Tail Feathers by hand! Finally, although we’re thrilled by our pre-order of about 1700 copies, that’s small potatoes for other folks. If Hocus hit 2500, or 3000, we might have needed to reconsider our fulfillment solution.

For now, I appreciate the savings, which can be put into a reprint (fingers crossed), new titles, and other expenses.

Hocus, so far, has far exceeded our expectations. We had over 1000 downloads of the print and play via BGG, over 1600 backers, and sold over 1700 copies to date. Today I shipped over 1000 copies to our distributor and they should be appearing in retail in early 2016. This next phase is the part about which we know the least — marketing. We need to continue building momentum and plan to promote the game with reviews and ads in early 2016. We’ll also be participating in conventions, which I’ll detail below. But, we still need to make Hocus a success and hit the button on a re-print…how to do that exactly is something we’ll need to figure out.

We may do a post-mortem for the second half of our Hocus Kickstarter journey, but some high level notes include:

Avoid add-ons. These were the main point of confusion for our campaign, though they didn’t cause too much confusion, but definitely the main point of headache. I had to email, re-email, and message folks who insisted they wanted a thing, yet never paid for it. It took a lot of time, led to a lot of weird sorting, and ultimately, didn’t add that much revenue to the project.

Bake add ons into pledge levels. Were we to do Hocus now, I’d have the following pledge levels:

  1. Buy one copy
  2. Buy one copy + box
  3. Buy 2 copies
  4. Buy 3 copies

Done. Or, some variation of that. Folks who have special requests, and they always exist, will contact me for variations and we’ll work things out.

The other side effect of our add-ons not baked into backer levels is that we had to run our surveys early to get a final tally for the volume of add ons. Put simply, backers can be shockingly terrible at entering their address and updating it as needed. The UX on Kickstarter is actually incredibly simple and well done for this, but many folks either don’t do it, get lost, or don’t care. Now, would it be better if we had a condensed time to gather addresses? I’m not sure. Every time I reminded folks over the course of months, dozens of people would change their address. Who knows!

Basically, we’ll modify our backer levels in the future to make it easier for ourselves and our backers.

2016 Business Opportunities

In 2016 we will have our hands full. Our primary responsibility is supporting Hocus customers on BGG and wherever they have questions or input, as well as keeping Hocus in stock with our distributor and for direct sales.

Secondly, we need to improve our web presence. The Hyperbole Games website is reaching a point where it’s no longer meeting the needs of the business and needs to be promoted in a few key ways.

  • It needs to be easier for folks to join the newsletter.
  • Key articles need to be surfaced better and made more attractive.
  • Key products need to be surfaced better and made more attractive.
  • It needs to be easier for customers to contact us for support.
  • Tools, like how to play videos and FAQs, need to be surfaced better.
  • It needs to be easier and more attractive for customers to buy games.

Over 3 years ago when I had built, I didn’t have products to sell, a newsletter to join, and it was mostly a blog. The needs of the site have evolved past its current capabilities and I need to fix this. If you are a web designer, or know someone who is, email me at I have work for you!

We’ll be trying out conventions for the first time. Yes, we attended TwitchCon in September of 2015, but we didn’t have product to offer. Now, it’s a different ball game. Currently, we are confirmed for KublaCon (Bay Area), Geekway to the West (Missouri), and are investigating a few others, such as the Alternate Press Expo (San Jose), various craft fairs, and perhaps Strategicon (Los Angeles). We’re trying to focus on conventions that don’t cost us too much, but allow us to build that 1 on 1 presence with customers. It’s so important!

Ultimately, I have a full time job and a wife who isn’t into board games, so I need to balance things. Josh has a full time job and THREE KIDS (dear god), as well as a wife who would like to see him occasionally. Conventions can eat up a lot of time, so we have to spend our bullets well.

I’m very intent to develop an international partnership for Hocus, but this is something I don’t know about. I’ll need to reach out to folks and learn the hard way. Hopefully, success domestically greases the wheels for us, but this is new territory.

Revenue for Hyperbole Games LLC will be coming in from a few sources next year, including Hocus, Farmageddon published by Trefl Krakow for European territories, and Cry Havoc published by Portal Games for worldwide release. My designer contracts for these two games are with Hyperbole LLC — they are NOT co-publications. Cash coming into the company will be nice, because as the company is still new, there are so many things to spend it on.

2016 Products

The first new product of 2016 will be an old product with a new spring in its step: Farmageddon 2nd Edition. This product will be for North America only, as Trefl Krakow has the European rights. The game will be manufactured out of pocket and will not go through crowdfunding for a few reasons.

Firstly, this feels like a good, safe bet to experiment with direct pre-orders. This means no 10% cut given to Kickstarter, nor do we have to invest significant amounts of time preparing for a Kickstarter campaign. Secondly, I don’t want to anger European backers to whom I cannot sell the game. It’s a legitimate reason, sure, but these things can be tough to explain. Thirdly, I don’t want to run afoul of folks who backed the game from 5th Street Games and still have bad blood. It’s not my fault, at all, but that can be a very tough and emotionally charged discussion to have that I’d rather sidestep.

Farmageddon 2nd Edition is deep into testing now. The game will feature the beloved illustrations of Brett Bean and Erin Fusco, but with a completely overhauled graphic design for the box, cards, and rules. Farmageddon will be more beautiful and functional than ever.

The game will feature re-written rules improved for clarity and with new diagrams to ease learning. The game will also have a how to play video for folks who don’t like reading rules. There are a few minor rules tweaks to improve the game, but the majority of the improvements will be seen in the Farmer cards and FrankenCrops. Overall, the cards have been tweaked for cleaner, more effective writing and keywords. But, all the cards that led to questions, were prone to edge cases, or were just trite, take-that cliches have been replaced, re-imagined,and improved. The result is a game that is more fun, easier to learn, deeper, and better at making you smile.

We’re investigating promo cards and custom wooden tokens for pre-order folks. We expect the pre-order to go live in late spring once the game is on the boat.

If you’re curious why Farmageddon, well, it’s because folks are asking for it. Fans, distributors…there seems to be demand for the game. Adding a second game to the catalog, and one that I love dearly, is too good of an opportunity to miss. We’ll see how it goes. If Farmageddon is successful, there is an expansion almost ready to go, which means we can support this product line relatively easily (compared to starting from scratch elsewhere).

Folks may be curious about Hocus expansions. Currently, no such expansions are in the works. We figure it’ll make sense to release a Hocus expansion if/when we have about 10,000 copies sold and in the market. If we’re lucky, 20% of folks will buy an expansion, which means a minimum printing of about 2,000 requires a larger audience. That could take a few years, which is fine by us. We’ve been grinding on Hocus for almost 2 years now and a little break will be good for our creativity. We have a lot of ideas for Hocus expansions, including delving into drafting or a focused 2 player experience, but it’s a ways away.

We have two completely new titles at the top of the heap for our 2016/2017 schedule. The first, and most important, is Project Cow Tools. This is a collaborative design between me and Josh. We began poking at this idea a few months ago while waiting for Hocus to arrive from China. The game is early — we haven’t even prototyped it yet! But, there are some neat ideas we’re trying to get on paper. The elevator pitch for the game is that it’s a “social war game,” in that it plays with many players, relatively quickly, and revolves around teamwork and poor communication. The code name “Cow Tools” is inspired by a famous Far Side strip that we think exemplifies the experience perfectly. This game will be bigger in that it’ll have probably 150 cards and some tokens. We’re trying to be very cautious of the price point of every game we make, as new publishers should be careful about asking uncertain customers for heaps of money. At least, that’s what I think. Naturally, we’ll watch how the game evolves. You shouldn’t design a product based on a price point either as you might strangle its potential. It’s a tiny needle to thread.

The next game is one designed by me. It’s a passion project that I’d love to succeed. Project Gaia is a 2 player, 54 card game with deck construction (or drafting) and some tile manipulation. By deck construction, I don’t mean deck building, like Dominion or Star Realms, but building a deck before the game like Magic or Netrunner. But, this isn’t a CCG — it just has that experience that I love packed in. Project Gaia is also interesting because it’s small and has a low footprint. Depending on its cost, this might be another game that Hyperbole can fund without using crowdfunding, though again, the marketing impact cannot be overlooked. 

There are other potential games, including a few by Josh. One in particular, I Expect you to Die, is also a 54 card game with a very compelling drafting element. This game and Gaia might pair well together. We’ll need to see how testing reports emerge and what interests us.

Partners of Note

This business is built around a lot of very important partnerships, and I’d like to take a moment to provide a shout out for folks who have helped Hyperbole.

Tiffany Turrill is a phenomenal talent and a joy to work with. I’m so happy we hired her for the Hocus illustrations. I want to hire her again as soon as possible.

Adam McIver did a phenomenal job with our graphic design. He’s a rare character in that he has the heart of an illustrator but the craft of a graphic designer. It’s a strong combination.

We used Drive Thru Cards extensively to send out prototype and review copies. Their service was consistent, their cards are great, and they always worked hard to help us out as customers. We will continue using them for card prototyping.

Peter Wocken helped us in a pinch for some BGG ads that came out fantastically. This was my first time working with Peter and I really enjoyed it. I plan to bug him again.

Panda GM manufactured Hocus and, barring anything nutty, will be hired again to manufacture Farmageddon 2nd Edition. Working with Brent, Ben, and Darrell was fantastic. I was emailing Brent a year before we pulled the trigger on Hocus and he always took me seriously and was incredibly helpful. I’m so happy we chose them to manufacture Hocus.

We had some great support from members of the press and I want to thank them. Jonathan Cox of JonGetsGames made an absolutely wonderful video explaining Hocus before our Kickstarter campaign. I’ve been a longtime reader of ISlaytheDragon and peer of the folks involved for a few years now, so I was delighted when Jonathan Schindler took the time to preview our game. To continue this round of Jonathans, Jonathan Liu of Geek Dad, an excellent blog, also took time out of his schedule to preview Hocus. Without this, we might not have ever launched so well.

Tiffany Caires, previously Tiffany Ralph, went out of her way showing Hocus to people at conventions. This was a truly awesome piece of evangelism that really helped. Finally, Donald Dennis and Stephanie Straw had us on On Board Games to discuss the game. They have a packed schedule and I appreciate them making time for us. Oh, and Who, What, Why interviewed us much earlier in the year. That was a lot of fun.

We have a lot of projects planned for 2016, so I look forward to meeting new partners, getting the band back together with old ones, and continuing to build relationships with great folks in this industry. If I failed to mention you above, uh, remind me and forgive me. I’ve been packing boxes every night for a few days now.

Partnership Discussions

You may have noticed I failed to mention one pretty important partner above – Joshua Buergel. Josh is the co-designer of Hocus and really, co-publisher. I’m stuffing copies in the warehouse, he’s hunched over his keyboard figuring out code solutions for labels. I’m editing KS copy, he’s figuring out tariff arrangements for international solutions.

So, we were equal partners on Hocus, though I tossed in a veto once or twice, which still feels like a little bit of a failure on my part. Yes, decisions have to be made, but I’d prefer a compromise. But, where does that partnership go beyond Hocus? Project Cow Tools is an obvious arrangement. But, Farmageddon 2nd Edition? Project Gaia? Just day to day crap?

If you listen to the Start Up Podcast, and you should, one of the first episodes is about Alex Blumberg, the founder, trying to figure out what of his company he should share with his soon to be co-founder.  He goes back and forth, they have awkward conversations, he offers his potential co-founder a garbage, lowball offer, and ultimately, comes around to more or less share the company.

This is basically where we are right now. Put simply, Josh wants in. He’s gone through the interview process. He aced it. But, and I’m not saying this is rational, I’m having some trouble relinquishing everything. I’ve been blogging about games for about 5 years now and participating on Twitter building my brand and follower count. Next year, two of my other designs will be generating revenue for the company. Games I’ve spent years on. I founded it, been paying the taxes, and handling all the weird administrative problems.

Plus, I like my veto. Being the owner of a business means you are the dictator. It’s nice.

I’m married, which means I need to compromise and share. I’m employed by a large corporation, which means I need to complete my tasks and take instruction. But, at Hyperbole, if I want to charge forth and make a particular game…I want to be able to do that. Final say on an artist? I want that too. I’m willing to pay for it and take the heat. I started the company to create the things I want to create.

I need to make a decision though. This is an important decision, one that’s tough to dial back. I need to figure out exactly what it is I want and need so that I can better share the stakes and responsibility with Josh. Regardless, Josh is involved now and will be in 2016.

In Conclusion

At 4000 words I think we’ve gone too far. I hope this was an interesting insight for you and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to email me at