The Humblest of Pies

Post by: Grant Rodiek and Joshua Buergel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for your support.

Funny Games

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Stuff is Hard

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll stop talking now

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

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

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

No Stretching for Hocus

OwlCover_Sketch

Post by: Grant Rodiek and Joshua Buergel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Interview on Salvation Road

Marauders

Editor’s Note: I recently watched both Mad Max and the sequel, The Road Warrior, for a few reasons. For one, my favorite comedian, Patton Oswalt, references it all the time. Secondly, I saw the trailer for Fury Road. And thirdly, my good friend AJ was publishing a game about surviving in the post apocalyptic wasteland — Salvation Road. I’m so excited for this game and the timing couldn’t be more perfect on AJ’s part. I knew I had to interview these guys.

Welcome AJ Porfirio (Publisher) and the co-designers Peter Gousis and Michael D. Kelley! My questions are prefaced with HG.

HG: Before we go too far, can all of you introduce yourselves? Tell us a little about who you are and any important details.

AJ: I’m the guy behind Van Ryder Games. Or the guy on top of the Van, however you want to look at it. It is such a great time for VRG with Salvation Road launching on Kickstarter and Hostage Negotiator on the verge of release.

HG: There is some really nice buzz for Hostage Negotiator. I’ll need to buy a copy from you soon.

Mike: I’m Michael Kelley, the lead designer of the game. I’m a high school English teacher by day, and I used to be a professional actor. Peter and I formed MVP Boardgames several years ago while working on another design, and it’s been only good feelings and good times since then.

Peter: I’m Peter Gousis (pronounced Gooses). I am in pharmaceutical sales for my day job, father of a 7 and 4 year old as my second job, and when everyone in the house is asleep I get to design with Mike. This is such a thrill for me (and Mike too). We have worked very hard on this design the last few years and I am excited for everyone else to get to try it.

HG: Give me the high level pitch for Salvation Road. I’m walking past your booth at a convention…what do I need to know?

AJ: Well surely you’ll notice the gorgeous artwork from artist Venessa Kelley. Then we’ll tell you about how you are just trying to survive in a world where fuel is priceless, and food, medical supplies, and ammunition are scarce. And there is constant danger from not only the elements, but also vicious marauders who kill for what they want. The unique wound/inventory system will be new and exciting for gamers and the tension leading up to  beginning the final journey to Salvation will leave them wanting more.

HG:This looks to me like a very good fit for Van Ryder Games: highly thematic, a little dark, and it’s a cooperative game with a solo component. AJ — what most appealed to you about Salvation Road? Why did you need to sign it?

AJ: I look for two things when scouting for games… a great thematic game and great people. With Salvation Road I found both. Michael and Peter are so passionate about the design. Grant, you hit on a lot of the things in your question, these all excited me. I love the theme, I love the pressure that the game puts on you (a great sign of a quality co-op/solo), and I love the variety of the experience you get from game to game.

HG: If I recall correctly, this game was signed a bit over a year ago. What have you been doing to finish the game? What were some key issues you solved, or key enhancements?

Mike: We streamlined set-up, balanced the game better for different player counts, came up with more characters and locations, made the Apocalypse Cards more varied, added a toll at the end of the game, gave a few more action options.

None of these were major “issues” per se. The game worked great. But now it’s faster, better balanced, and more varied. Definitely a big upgrade!

AJ: We went through a lot of variations and changes as Mike mentioned. It was quite a lot actually. I think because Mike has a natural talent of quickly testing and sifting through ideas it might not seem like as much. But we made some really key changes that have taken it from good to great!

HG: In my experience, quick issues like faster setup can make a big difference. Variety is definitely a huge deal in a cooperative experience.

Good co-operative games need a compelling and tough to solve back pressure. Something that’s always staring back at you, even when you succeed. What is making life difficult for me in Salvation Road?

Mike: Oh man, what isn’t making life difficult! I’ll tell you the truth, it is not an easy game to win. We didn’t want it to be. You can always take some handicaps or play the game on easy mode if you really need to win consistently. But that’s not how I approach co-ops. I want you to truly cheer when you finally succeed.

So the dangers include:

  • Marauders surrounding your compound, threatening at any moment to break in and torch the place.
  • Marauders roaming the locations around your compound, shooting at you on most turns, in ever-increasing numbers.
  • A reactor inside of the compound (represented by a limited deck of Apocalypse Cards) that will blow you all up if you take too long to leave.
  • Wounds being dealt by marauders, starvation, radiation, untreated wounds from previous attacks, all threatening to finish off your already beleaguered characters.
  • The road itself. Once you make the choice to travel, there’s no turning back. Only marauders wait behind you. If you don’t have the food, the bullets, the medicine, and of course the fuel you need, that’s all she wrote!

It’s a harsh world out there. Isn’t that how the end of the world is supposed to be?

Peter: And don’t forget the Survivors. These are characters you use that help you win the game, but they have annoying traits that always seem to crop up at the wrong time. You may be sneaking around with Rashid Amir (AKA: the screamer) trying to gather a little more fuel then the Marauders attack, he yells causing the marauders to hit you for some extra wounds.

HG: I’m not sure I’m a fan of this Rashid dude. You guys clearly love Mad Max. What else inspired the gameplay and the art for this?

Mike: Yeah, the overall concepts of the game, attacking marauders, the big ending with the truck racing through all kinds of danger, are highly inspired by The Road Warrior.

The other main inspirations for the theme and the gameplay are The Walking Dead season 1 (the game series from Telltale Games, not the comics/show), and The Road by Cormac McCarthy. My one criticism of Mad Max’s world is that it seems far too easy for everyone to be well-fed, surviving easily unless they are attacked. But in both of these other sources, the constant need to find food and shelter brings that true post-apocalyptic survival feel to life.

As for the art, Venessa was inspired by Mad Max, but also by costumes at Burning Man, and also by the Fallout series of video games.

HG: Burning man is fascinating to me, and it totally makes sense. I moved to San Francisco 10 years ago fresh out of college in Oklahoma. I lived in a house with 7 rather weird people, and I remember the first week I moved in watching them build this elaborate cocoon thing for their Burning Man art piece. It’s a crazy thing I’m glad exists, though I’m not sure it’s for me.

I’m a little surprised you haven’t mentioned Fallout more. Is that game just a miss for you, or does it not quite have what you’re looking for?

Mike: Fallout is one of my absolute favorite game series. I’ve played all of them, including Fallout: Tactics. Like I said above, it certainly inspired some of the artwork.

But I wanted this game to align much more with Mad Max and The Road. And that means no widespread mutation, no random wandering around completing quests, no secret conspiracies by the President of the United States, no Chinese invasions… you get the idea.

This isn’t an adventure game with character advancement. This is a no-holds battle for survival. Fallout is a great series, but you can basically wander the wastes forever with your power armor and sniper rifle and have nothing to fear. None of that safety here!

HG: Nice. Very interesting distinction. What makes Salvation Road unique? What’s your favorite part of the game?

Mike: In terms of uniqueness, we have a lot of mechanics that I don’t think have been done before.

  • Each player controls two characters, and one of them has a negative ability, which is unique.
  • The wound tokens and resource tokens both fill the same circles on character cards, so we get a nice inventory system that also models the increasing injuries of the characters.
  • And the way the wounds are revealed at times, with different effects, used to be unique. Eldritch Horror came out with a similar mechanic after our game was mostly developed. Ah well, nothing stays new for long!
  • The endgame is also unique, with the players trying to last as long as possible, and gather as many resources as they can, but never quite enough to be sure they’ll survive the road to Salvation.
  • And then there are the multiple uses of resources, the four types of Apocalypse Cards leading to some predictability in events.

Really, the game has a ton of stuff I think is being done for the first time.

AJ: Mike did a good job covering a lot of the unique elements. For me it is the use of Survivor characters… the ones with hindering abilities. You need their actions, they are helpful in that sense, but the abilities you have to deal with sometimes have you rolling your eyes at them as they bring pain and death to your group. So cool.

HG: I noticed the game has a solo component. Tell me about this. What, if anything, did you do to make this a true solo experience?

AJ: We tried several things before ultimately landing on having the solo player control 2 (or more) sets of characters. I know there are some solo players that don’t like having to control and manage so many characters, so I challenged the guys to come up with a way to play with just 2 characters. Ultimately it didn’t work out, it just wasn’t compelling or functionally sound (or fun) to have so few characters to work with. So with a few minor differences, the solo game is very similar to the multi-player experience.

HG: I’ll take it the other direction now. How does the game change with scale? What are some of the things you did, if any, to make it compelling with 2 players versus 4?

AJ: Mike you want to take this one?

Mike: First of all, it was very important to us to have the game scale well at all player counts. We all know how inconsistent most co-ops are with this. You play Eldritch with 2 characters, and it feels completely different in balance to playing it with 4. Some games become extremely easy, or impossible, based on player count.

We also wanted the game to play quickly regardless. Even with 8 players, the game can still be completed in about an hour. Compare that to something like Arkham Horror, where playing with 8 players makes the game take at least an entire evening!

But in terms of actual gameplay changes for scale, with more players several things change. There are more locations to visit, but enough to always make you feel cramped. There are more marauders brought out each turn, but more of you to fight them. You have to travel a lot farther on the road, and pay a higher toll.

But most of the mechanics are self-balancing. Apocalypse Cards generally affect every character who hasn’t fulfilled some requirement, regardless of player count. Dice that cause wounds from threat rolls are based on the number of characters at a location, so the more characters, the more wounds.

Peter: Another thing that makes the game sing with higher player counts are the quick player turns. Each character only gets 2 Actions, so a single character turn only takes about 20 seconds. You have 2 characters so you always have lots of choices to make, but you only activate one at a time so the downtime is very low.

HG: I really like how you have good characters, then baggage characters. For example, a guy that screams and draws more attention to the area.  Tell me about some of your favorite experiences involving this concept?

Mike: Ah, those poor survivors. They always get the raw end of the stick in this game. For example, I’ll leave Susannah (she’s in a wheelchair) in one spot, and she’ll wave to the marauders as a stream of other characters run back and forth ferrying her goods to the truck.

And Rashid, who screams and attracts more marauder attacks, often spends a lot of his time at the compound. Nobody wants that guy along.

Heck, sometimes you just need to leave the survivors to die. Of course, this is a terrible early-game strategy. Despite their flaws, they are people too… meaning they have two actions each round, just like the heroes, and you need to use those actions if you want a chance of surviving.

HG: What were some of the games that inspired Salvation Road? Where did you borrow mechanical or experience ideas?

Mike: This is a bit hard to remember! Of course I love games co-ops and team-based games like Battlestar Galactica, Robinson Crusoe, Pandemic, Forbidden Island… the list goes on.

But most of the mechanics came as adjustments on other games. I wanted to make event cards or “evil cards” that are drawn at the end of each turn a bit more predictable, which led to the four types of apocalypse cards.

I guess the wound tokens might have been partially inspired by Winds of War. The endgame is a bit similar to the jumps in Battlestar, I guess, but that’s something I can see in retrospect, not something I thought of at the time. The marauders came mostly from the catapults in Shadows Over Camelot.

I liked a lot of the ideas in Mall of Horror, including the screamers who would draw zombies every turn. I’m sure that informed the idea for half the characters having negative abilities.

HG: Let’s talk publishing for a second. I’m about to publish my first title and it’s very challenging. This looks like your biggest and most ambitious publication to date, AJ. What were some of the things that stood out to you as particularly challenging in bringing this to market?

AJ: Scope and cost are the biggest thing with doing a big box game. I wonder if the $35k goal will scare people – it scares me! But that truly is what we need to get it made and in the hands of people. Doing a full size board is new for me, so working through the design and art direction for that has been interesting and fun.

HG: Who would love Salvation Road? Who is it for?

Mike: The game has been a hit with game groups both on the very casual side and the very geeky side. Our most passionate playtest group was made up of three high school students who have never seen a Mad Max movie, and who hadn’t played anything tougher than Forbidden Island.

The game is quick enough and straightforward enough that I think almost anyone could enjoy it. Chris Kirkman from Dice Hate Me Games is not typically a big fan of co-op games, and he absolutely loved his first play of Salvation Road!

Editor’s Note: This comment is Kirkman approved.

HG: Anything else you want to add about Salvation Road?

AJ: Just that we hope to see everyone over at the Kickstarter page! We hope you find the game interesting and at least worth looking into in more detail on the Kickstarter.

Salvation Road is currently funding on Kickstarter. The cost to obtain a copy of this big, thematic co-op is $49.

Interview with Tiffany Turrill

1st Leshii Sketch

The 1st Leshy Sketch

Tiffany Turrill is the illustrator for Hocus. We’ve only worked with her for a few months, but she is so essential to the quality of the game, the experience, and our happiness that we wanted to sit down to talk to her about her process, her work, and Texan fast food chains.

Interviewers are Grant Rodiek (GR) and Joshua Buergel (JB). Tiffany Turrill (TT), the illustrator for Hocus, answers our questions.

GR: Welcome Tiffany! Tell us about yourself. What are the critical bio moments we need to know?

TT: Hi hi hi! I’m Tiffany, and I’m an ex-Texan who lives in Oakland, CA and works as an illustrator and concept artist. I’m interested in fantasy, sci-fi, and natural history. I drink obscene amounts of tea and have a really loud laugh.

GR: Our mutual inability to pronounce What-a-Burger confirms our native Texan-ness. Josh has no clue what we’re talking about.

TT: Oh man. What-a-Burger (pronounced Water-Burger) is one of the few things that I miss about Texas. Thanks for bringing it up because I’m craving it SO BAD right now! Is there a Seattle burger chain that attracts culty adoration? I don’t think Josh could ever understand our love.

JB: I grew up in Spokane, WA. My unreserved fast food love will always be for Zip’s.

GR: Zip’s is so easy to say. I think that’s why Texans get in trouble. We make up words and talk funny. Where else might we have seen your work before, Tiffany?

TT: For most of my grownup life I’ve worked as a video game concept artist, working at various studios on-site, mostly on projects that were cancelled, hah. My most high profile project was a MOBA (Massive Online Battle Arena) game in the vein of League of Legends called Dawngate, which I worked on for a few months last year. Three of my characters were released before the game was cancelled – I call that a win!

Apart from studio jobs, and because I hate sleep, I’ve recently started branching into work with a few tabletop RPG companies. I have a bunch of upcoming stuff for Fantasy Flight in the pipeline, and some pieces in the core book and subsequent expansions of Monte Cook Games’ “The Strange.”

JB: The art in RPG books is so very important for getting the setting and getting into the right space. I’ve always envisioned an RPG that is something like 90% illustrations. You should let me know when your stuff makes it out. Have I mentioned that I’m an RPG junky as well?

2nd Sketch of the Leshy

2nd Leshii Sketch

GR: Fantasy Flight Games is really best in class for so much of their art. Their work on Netrunner, Lord of the Rings, so much really is a big inspiration.

TT: They’re such great people! I’ve had really good experiences with them, and look forward to finally sharing all the work I’ve done so far with them. Waiting to reveal my NDA work can be a real struggle.

GR: We asked Brett Bean for a recommendation and you were one of the two. We loved your portfolio, but in your own words, what do you think is your specialty?

Editor’s Note: Brett Bean is the original artist for Farmageddon.

TT: Brett is amazing! I owe him a life-debt for recommending me for Hocus! We worked together at my first game job. It was a challenging environment, but he managed to be so prolific and focused on enjoying the process of creating his own work despite whatever was going on at the studio. That always stuck with me. I can’t point to many people whose careers have inspired me on a personal level, but his is definitely one.

As for my own stuff, offhand I can say that my comfort zone is creature work. My earliest interests as a child were animals in the sea and animals that were extinct, and this is essentially true today. Creature design and paleontological art aren’t really career paths that I’ve touched in a professional capacity. Nearly all of the stuff I’ve done in those veins have been personal pieces done in my free time. I love designing creatures from myth and folklore from an evolutionary biology perspective. I’ll reconstruct the occasional dinosaur for funsies – it’s usually somewhat speculative and meant to counter the stiff illustrations that accompany popsci articles. Sometimes I stay up until 2 am looking at pictures of rare deepwater sharks.

JB: My shark anecdote: I was scuba diving in Hawaii with my sister, father-in-law, and wife. My sister starts waving around to get the guide’s attention, and when he sees what she’s pointing at, he get’s the group’s attention. Swimming right past us was a 14-foot tiger shark. Sightings of tiger sharks are relatively rare, and that was a big one. I, of course, managed to not see the thing.

I feel like the comic relief in this interview.

TT: You’re doing it to yourself, really.

Recently, in the last five years or so I’ve become more interested in incorporating human (or humanoid) figures and a sense of mythic fantasy into my work. The video games I’ve worked on have uniformly had little, if any, creature design – and that certainly factored in – but somehow over time my monster and creature design specialization had begun to feel somewhat shallow and unfulfilling. It’s still fun and intuitive, but a drawing of a headless, eyeless (but totally plausible alien) probably won’t strike you on an emotional level. Working to create the Thing You’ve Never Seen before can ironically leave audiences cold and unengaged, so it’s taken a while for me to realize that some (some!!!) fantasy game tropes exist for a reason. Warriors, elf mages and halfling rogues – they act as a visual shorthand that harkens back not just to Dungeons and Dragons, but the broader scope of human storytelling. It’s a tough balance to strike, attempting something otherworldly yet immediately identifiable, but Hocus was a perfect opportunity to explore.

GR: Fascinating. Your work on our Leshii is very indicative of what you’re talking about — a strange, humanoid character. We should make a dinosaur game next…

Who are some of your favorite artists or inspirations?

TT: I would literally lose my mind with glee if you made a dinosaur game.

JB: I kind of feel like between Phil Eklund’s Bios Megafauna and American Megafauna, Chad Jensen’s Dominant Species, North Star’s Evolution, and Philippe Keyaerts’s Evo, we’ve actually got a plethora of fun dinosaur (-ish) games. Oh, and Karl-Heinz Schmiel’s Tyrrano Ex.

TT: I have literally heard of none of those. I guess I should bone up on my dino tabletop lore.

Inspirations, though! The REALLY hard question! My college go-tos were Terryl Whitlatch and Iain McCaig. Apart from that: Wayne Barlowe, NC Wyeth, James Gurney, Claire Wendling, Charles Vess, Allen Williams, Stephanie Pui-Mun Law, Jesper Ejsing, Kai Carpenter. I could keep going. Nearly all of my friends are working artists in some capacity, and the stuff they make blows me away. There’s a million ways to be an artist, and it endlessly inspires me to see how people make it work for them.

GR: I LOVE NC Wyeth. LOVE him.

Painting by NC Wyeth

Painting by NC Wyeth

TT: I’m garbage at oil painting, but his compositions are endlessly inspiring.

As for media inspiration, I can’t really pick a common thread out of my varying literary interests, but I read a lot of folklore, magical realism, and speculative far-future science fiction. I’m proud to announce that over the past few years, I’ve become a comic reader! Belying my snobby hipster tendencies regarding “cinema,” I watch a lot of garbage horror movies – especially while I work. I don’t know if that qualifies as an “inspiration” exactly. Maybe I do my best work to the soundtrack of bloodcurdling screams?

GR: You really surprised us when you developed so much backstory for the characters. Not only were we wowed by your first sketches, but also the story you created. Tell us a little about how and why you did that? What was going through your head?

Leshy Color Studies

Leshii Color Studies

TT: Dude! I should scan all the notes and sketches to show you just how off the rails the Hocus art development went … in a good way!

GR: We really only saw the things that became the final art. I would love to see your crazy path.

Editor’s Note: We’ve included 8 of Tiffany’s exploratory sketches for Hocus in a gallery at the bottom.

TT: I was initially really intimidated by the openness of the art pitch, and basically worked to tie in things that I was interested in to suggest an overall narrative. The initial pitch was Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore – which I adore. But I didn’t want to simply draw Odin or Loki or Yggdrasil. The sagas are full of great imagery, but I was interested in the world that lived behind the drama of Aesir and Niflheim.

I started by writing down objects and items that a character could possess. Bells, candles, pitchforks, iron shoes, bones, runes, keys, a cage with a wren inside. Things endemic to medieval-esque life in Northern Europe. I also compiled a list of myth archetypes or specific story notes that I’d like to visit – none of these particularly made it into the final card illustrations, though. I wanted each suit to evoke an element with corresponding color cues, but I needed the element be more of a dwelling place. Eventually I hashed out the elements and items and assigned them to fantasy tropes, and then built little stories around each combination of words. Tarot symbolism really helped me round the pieces out – each Hocus suit corresponds to a tarot suit, with its affiliated color, zodiac signs, gender, direction, season, and meaning. I reached a certain point, and everything fell into place. This was particularly satisfying when I pitched my concepts, because Josh admitted that he’d been trying to blend tarot into the game! I had no idea! It was a great moment.

JB: Way back in development, we originally got the idea of a special suit of cards, with a direct inspiration from Tarot. We even called it the Arcana suit. I’ve always been kind of fascinated by tarot, not because of any belief in the spiritual properties or anything, but just due to the power of the symbols themselves. Tarot inspired such beliefs in people, and you could really sense that weight behind what the tarot arcana developed into. I mean, just look at Crowley’s Thoth tarot deck. It’s incredible to look at. And the names of the traditional tarot cards are so evocative, yet still abstract. There’s cards named Judgment, Justice, The Tower…the Hanged Man. That’s heavy stuff.

It’s also the case that I’m fascinated by traditional card games, and the types of things people did with tarot from a game perspective are also pretty interesting. A tarot deck is an asymmetric thing, with an extra suit that’s longer than the others, and that asymmetry has to bleed into the systems that make the game go. That asymmetry informed the extra, special suit that we have in the game, and I think it’s just a very cool concept to play around with.

TT: There’s a real mystery (in the classical sense of the word) about tarot that I really enjoy whenever I see a really well done deck. There’s so much bandwidth for interpretation. It’s insanely intimidating to attempt a whole set, though. Maybe someday!

That classical sense of mystery is a tough goal to try for. Odin and his bros are cool, but I’m more interested in trying to boil away the glossy coating and named gods and get to the core of the myth that a people who live in a dark, scrabbly wood, or on a bleak rugged hillside would be immersed in. In this realm, the Underworld is a real place that can be walked to, like another town. The sky and the constellations and the sea are their own geography, and their people have distinct cultures. You can capture someone’s soul in a crystal orb, or trap a passing angel. There are a pure people on some mythic isle that’s equivalent to Numenor. There’s a bird boy trapped in a tower, being puzzled over by physicians. He doesn’t speak their language. The children of gods live out human-like lives, completely unaware. An alchemist opens a mirror to another world.

So! In the event that you decide to make the Hocus even MORE complex, I can offer the Airy Spirit with lightning hair and a storm of swans, the Harvest Automaton with scythe and birdcage, the Underworld Hag with souls at her throat and rabbit familiars, or the Fox Merchant.

GR: If we are remotely successful, we would love to make expansions or even more card games built around the deck. We’ll naturally hire you again so that you can continue to buy your comics.

I’ve always been a huge fan of hags. We had a cat once called Lilly the Hag…

I’m sorry our initial pitch was so vague. But I’m really glad you found such an inspired end result. Your thought process really shows and Josh and I would have never imagined what you did on our own. We couldn’t have said “here, do this.” I’m curious if it’s the better for it, or that’s just what I want to convince myself of so I don’t feel bad for being a lousy client.

Where did you get the idea for the owl wizard? He wasn’t one of our original suggestions, but we love him (her?) and it’s become our signature character. Ol’ owly is on the cover and is the most important suit in the game.

TT: Dude! The pitch was actually perfect – informed and full of evocative things, but with enough wiggle room for me to build a weird little world. You guys had established the broad thematic strokes that you wanted to hit going in, but allowed me to play. It let me get super excited about the project, and really pour myself into the work.

JB: There’s just a such a rich vein of mythology and stories to draw upon in our past, that it seems a shame not to draw at least some inspiration from it. You have to be careful not to become cartoonish, not to seem like a heavy metal album cover (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but as inspiration, it can be heady stuff.

TT: That’s exactly why I wanted to steer clear of the traditional Saga mythology. My goal was to evoke kind of an alternate north European mythology, one that’s somewhat laid on top of normal life in quasi-medieval culture. Odin and co. might be around, but they’re far removed. They might even be an inconvenience. A death goddess takes a stroll down the road and blights all your crops. ….None of this winds up in the cards, of course, but I like knowing that it’s there! it makes the art making experience more satisfying for me, rounds out the edges.

Owly is a boy, by the way. I’d actually never drawn an owl before this project – but they’re so evocative of magic. Owls fit into any fantasy incarnation. We’d talked about ravens – which I incorporated with the Leshii – and I really latched onto the initial frog-man sketch from a prior Hocus incarnation. To have all of the suits be essentially human in a loose narrative based on myth didn’t add up. It felt too.. serious somehow. So the obvious solution was a squatty owl man who was also a wizard. It lends a sense of whimsy in a world that could easily slide into bleakness. You go, Owly. Shine on, you crazy diamond.

GR: Josh and I discussed it, and we believe Owls are the most metal of all birds. Which is in line with our corporate philosophy.

How do you work? Let’s focus on initial sketches first? What are your tools/medium?

Final Leshii Illustration

Final Leshii Illustration

TT: Pencils are my BFFs. I’m primarily a line artist – I do a ton of drawings that are really loose and too ugly for publishing. Gradually, forms emerge and all of the elements from my little lists are placed, and then it’s just a matter of posing the character themselves. I keep things loose, as they might change. For the sake of speed, I scan everything and mock up the values with a greyscale digital painting. This value study sketch usually only takes 20-30 minutes per piece and lets me evoke the final piece without drilling the fun out of it. That comes later once I go to final!

GR: Does anything change for your final work? I noticed for Hocus you did physical pencils and watercolor, then a digital transformation. That sounds so cool and surprised me. Can you walk us through and tell us why you do this?

TT: Wellllll, the joke answer is that I digitally rework the piece to fix all the things that I screwed up in the watercolor. But it’s more of a compromise of my skillsets.

The loose sketches and value studies inform the final drawing, which is usually ridiculously detailed and exacerbates my carpal tunnel. I work with tracing paper (ironically, like Photoshop layers) to place all of the elements, then transfer to watercolor paper. This is the scary part, because watercolor is notoriously unforgiving and I have a tendency to be overzealous with purples and ultramarines. Eventually (hopefully) a decent painting comes out, with nice value distribution. I scan that baby, and figure out what needs nudging. Scanning tends to blow an image out and reduce the color saturation. I work these back in to lend a bit more opacity, smooth over the paper grain where it over-complicates the piece, and clean up paint droplets and mistakes. Very often this digital rework phase lasts longer than the watercolor stage, and particularly if the watercolor was rushed.

I learned Photoshop at my first game job. Over time, working at studios, I grew a tad more comfortable with digital painting. During that time, my traditional painting skills atrophied a bit, and since having this realization I’ve endeavored to shore them up again. Being a line-oriented artist, I work much faster with a water media painting that I would with digital, so working out some balance between the two media saves me some time. Both have their own limitations, and I still have a lot further to go with fully mastering either, but I enjoy trying to strike a balance of keeping the physicality of a traditional painting with little notes of digital embellishment.

Leshii Card. Graphic Design by Adam McIver.

Leshii Card. Graphic Design by Adam McIver.

Note: In the image above, I quickly put a black outline around the card to help it stand out. Adam didn’t do that! In case it looks bad or something.

GR: What is the #1 most important thing you want from a client, as an artist, when being hired? What always drives you crazy that too many people do. And boy I hope we didn’t do this.

TT: Haha do not fret! You guys were great – definitely one of my best client experiences. But overall, my low hanging fruit answer is Love Your Artists! …And that rule goes for artists, as well. I constantly see clueless yet talented young artists offering up remarkable work for a fraction of what it’s worth. Perhaps it’s materialistic, but the more I’m being paid, the more I will care about a project, the more I will think about it, the more energy I will invest in its creation. All of these things come across imperceptibly in the final piece, and make all the more engaging images for promoting your game. It’s win-win. Everyone is more invested, everyone gets pumped, and a better product emerges.

And this might be something that comes with experience, but I also really appreciate when it’s clear that the client did their research, and picked me specifically for their project. Not to say that the client will let me draw whatever I please, but I enjoy knowing that I wasn’t shoehorned in, or hired and then told to imitate the style of some other guy. I’m all about researching, and so it’s pleasant for me to know that someone thought about it, and chose me like a beloved Pokemon like you guys did.

GR: A wild Tiffany appeared, we had a poke ball handy, and a pocket full of checks. When you begin work on a project, what’s the single most useful thing for you to know before beginning work?

TT: Time! The first question I always ask is “What is your time frame?” This lets me get an idea of how ambitious to be when tackling a project. Even if your timeline is super vague, let the artist know. I typically (hopefully) have 2-3 projects staggered at any given time, so the more vague ones tend to get put on the back-burner.

GR: This was awesome and super fascinating. Anything else you want to add? Are you seeking new clients? Where should people look and how should they contact you?

TT: It’s been super fun! It’s been a real honor to work on Hocus, and I’m thrilled to see it on the shelves of my local nerd store! I can’t tell you guys enough how much I enjoyed our working experience – it was literally the best of all the worlds. Our really stupid email joke threads were the best.

As for what’s next, but I’m always accepting new clients! My experiences in tabletop games with companies like Fantasy Flight, Monte Cook, and you guys have been really positive so far, so I’m lining up more work in that vein for this year. I’m excited to embark on new challenges and really hone my craft.

Thanks so much, again, for having me on board! It’s been a real treat!

JB: We’re both just thrilled beyond belief, and our cool little card game is going to look amazing. I can’t wait for it to be out in the world.

GR: Thank you Tiffany. We love the work, so much.

Look for more art reveals from Hocus in the very near future. Join our Mailing List for early reveals! The Kickstarter campaign for Hocus goes live June 25th. You’ll be able to get a copy of the game featuring art from Tiffany Turrill and Adam McIver for $13.

The Joy of Disappointment

M&M

The images in this post were taken by me using my copy of Merchants and Marauders and the Sails of Glory expansion.

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Last night we played Merchants and Marauders for the fourth time. We tossed in the new Sails of Glory expansion, or at least about half of the modules from this. I bought this game a month or so ago and it has been a regular at game night. We just love it and we find the more we play it, the better we get, the more exciting the stories, and the more we love the game.

I’ve seen a handful of people discard the game after one play because it’s too random, or too aggressive, or it doesn’t appropriately reward min/maxing. With each play, I find those arguments to be less and less compelling. The truth is that while the game does have a bit of randomness, the amount of decisions you can make to better control the environment are vast. The person who wins the game is the best captain. Yes, they might receive a windfall, but it’s important to observe how they leveraged that windfall.

I want to talk about last night’s game, because it was really profound in how it affected me.

I was doing very well in the game. Early on I sunk a friend to gain Glory and deny him a bounty of 30 gold. I sent it straight to the ocean floor as his leadership and crew were far superior to mine. I decided if I couldn’t have it, nobody could. I was the player that everyone kept saying was running away with it. The ocean was mine.

I bought a frigate early and had amazing Glory cards. I added a specialist who improved my guns, loaded my ship with heated shot, double shot abilities, had a few nice upgrades, and a captain that could sail directly into the rampant storms plaguing the Caribbean. I had a beautiful frigate and was the better match for anything on the board, NPC or otherwise.

I hit a point halfway where there were no obvious opportunities. I bought some bananas as they were in demand, though a smidge out of the way. I wasn’t pursuing a merchant’s path, but it was an easy point and there wasn’t anything else to do at the moment.

The winds turned against me, and I mean this in a literal sense. There is a wind mechanism in the new game that creates head winds and tail winds and moves the storm around. I needed to go due west and the wind was in my face. Three turns in a row the wind went due west, and three turns in a row I took a plodding, sub-optimal turn.

The game was telling me that my fate lay elsewhere. The game was screaming at me to go east. Due east, with the wind filling my sails, was my lead opponent. She had a decent ship, but was damaged and was no match for me. She had a ship laden with gold. I chose to continue west and sell my bananas. I was afraid of her. Unlike my pirate persona, I cowered, I balked at opportunity, and I took the easy path.

She sailed into port, stashed her gold, and won.

I cannot express to you how disappointed I was. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t going to flip the table. But, I was profoundly sad. I honestly wanted to walk to the corner and sulk. When my friends were setting up Pictomania, I almost asked to sit out for a game to think. Sit out. In my own house. At my own table. Like a petulant child.

M&M2

I’m still sad this morning. Lady luck did not give me the winds I wanted, but when she was whispering the truth clearly in my ear, I ignored her. I made the decisions that sunk my chances for glory and I am the reason I lost. The game presented me with a AAA, movie-esque story to tell and I opened the SkyMall catalog instead.

I thought about how this made me feel, and it just felt so powerful. Games rarely do this. They rarely sit with me, especially when I fail. But, Merchants and Marauders just broke my heart last night. Wait, that’s not correct. Merchants and Marauders gave me the platform on which to break my own heart.

What a magical game. What a profound gift!

I went to Board Game Geek this morning and moved my rating from a 9 to a 10. Something that affects me so is surely perfect, at least in my eyes. I shall sail again and by kraken I’ll take that chance next time. I’d rather sink on my burning ship than sell a bunch of moldy bananas.

Yo ho yo ho a pirate’s life for me.

Balancing the Balance

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Balancing a game is arguably the most difficult and time consuming phase of design. When refining the mechanisms and trying to reach an Alpha and Beta state, you can grab new testers, test once, and gather the data you need to progress. However, with final balancing, not only do you need your mechanisms to not move at all, but you need to attempt to create controls in a realm full of variables to isolate and identify what’s out of whack.

We are in the balance stages of Hocus. We haven’t changed our mechanisms for about 6 months now, which means we’re in the fine print of balancing. Our testing matrix is quite complex, even for a simple game, due to a few factors:

  • 2-5 players can play. The game has a different texture if you’re playing with 2 players versus 5.
  • There are 9 different Spell Books, which means there are tons of permutations
  • Our game has a luck factor, due to the cards you’re dealt and draw
  • Our game has a skill factor, due to the decisions you make in an ever adjusting situation

We’ve progressed through a few levels of balance. I’m going to discuss some of our efforts for Hocus, then for each case immediately broaden it to a higher level so that it’s useful for other. Essentially, I want this to be useful for all!

The Killer Hand: As we’ve written about prior, throughout the course of Hocus, we’ve found that by altering the probabilities of the game ever so slightly, and giving players further means by which to alter their chances, certain hands become far more probable. This is dangerous when those hands are things like a Full House, which is supposed to be one of the best hands in the game.

There are a few ways in which we ultimately balanced the killer hand for Hocus, including:

  • Limiting hands to 6 possible cards. With so much player agency, 7 cards is too many.
  • Adding a timing element to the game. A good strategy is to expedite the round such that those with a solid hand cannot profit too much.
  • Forcing players to pay for their own points. If multiple players think they’re in contention, a Pot can get quite big quite quickly. However, if everyone knows Bob has the killer hand, or is likely to, they’ll leave Bob to it. See bullet #2 on why this is problematic.
  • Letting players dynamically define what good is. If you give someone full reign over a community, they’ll build a Straight Flush, Full House, or powerful Flush or Straight. However, if you muddy their plans, suddenly a high Pair can be viable. It’s really about playing the board and not following along with someone else’s plans.

Your game may not have concerns with a killer hand, but there may be incredibly powerful cards about which people are worried, or certain strategies that seem very potent. The solution might not always be to fix every number so that things are perfectly balanced, but give players agency to balance things themselves.

I’ve heard, for example, that Old Friend in Last Will is too powerful. Old Friend gives you a bonus action every turn. However, if you observe, the person who goes absolutely first to get Old Friend will rarely get other worthwhile benefits. And, if you obtain cards such to deny them hefty combos, you’ll find Old Friend isn’t quite the deal breaker  you think at first glance.

One downside of a player agency driven solution is that in an age where people might not play your game a second time, they may not see that it is in fact balanced. If people just play once and don’t begin to dig into the game, they’ll leave with a bad first impression. You’ll have to evaluate if it’s worth the risk.

The Dominant Spell: Hocus has 9 Spell Books. All but one of them have 3 unique Spells that complement each other, and the 9th has 2 Spells used to manipulate a small deck of bizarre and wondrous cards. While it isn’t a CCG by any means, there’s a lot of content and many permutations here.

Throughout development, we’ve seen several cases where certain Spells would be used repeatedly by players. The idea is that sometimes it should appear to be the best option, but not always the best option. So, how do you preserve a card’s potency and intent without removing all of its teeth?

We utilized a few tactics.

Cost: Cards and time are the economic resource of Hocus. If you make someone discard cards, or draw, but do not allow them to advance the game state, they must choose to forego other opportunities and risk losing a window to use their cards by taking a Spell.

Synergy: Every Spell stands on its own, but some are clearly and obviously tied to a partner. If you do Spell A repeatedly, that’s fine, but until you utilize Spell B, you won’t see the full power of your battle station.

Time: I mentioned this before and I’m going to mention it again. If you allow players infinite time to experiment, dig, sample things, and pry, eventually, they will find the thing they want and win. However, if you give players a ticking clock, and provide incentives for others to push it, you’ll find that time waits for no player. Limited and unclear number of actions is a beautiful way to curtail a potent option.

Opposing Spells: We’ve deliberately seeded Hocus with abilities that can dominate a particular aspect of the game, but little else. Sure, you put a lot of big stuff in the Community, but the Illusion Wizard did as well…face down. Sure, you have three Pockets to choose from, but the Alchemist manipulated your Pot such that it’s of little value. The game is deeply interactive and everyone is intertwined. If you let someone do whatever they want in a vacuum, they’ll misbehave. If you force them to deal with their neighbors, interesting things happen.

It’s a mistake to remove powerful, big abilities from your game. It’s incredible fun when players feel like they are cheating, but doing so well within the bounds of your expectations. Being powerful is fun. However, you need to think about all the methods your game provides you to limit things.

Do you have a timer in the game? A way to force people to make choices?

Do you have any resources? A cost? These can be official resources, like food in Imperial Settlers, or subtle resources, like cards in hand, Victory Points, or, well, TIME.

Do you have interaction? Man is the greatest foe. Though every number may be mathematically sound, many games like Magic and Netrunner and Innovation show that interaction and cunning opponents are far more interesting solutions.

Intermission: The cluttered and plodding content

One of our best testers, Marguerite Cottrell, sent us a fantastic video a few months ago that provided some really wonderful insights we ourselves had missed. Essentially, she noted that Spell Books that did X tended to be better than Spell Books without. She also noted that every Spell Book tended to do a major and minor thing, but a few Spell Books didn’t really have a major thing.

Wonderful, insightful, and very good. The lesson is to find someone who can examine your game from a high level. Or, you yourself need to break out the spreadsheet and find ways to categorize and quantify your content.

However, as we rushed to balance leveraging these insights, my friend and tester Matt Yang noticed how much slower the game had become. In order to give everyone the identified X, we had doubled the content of almost every single turn in the game. Players now had to make 2 decisions that were deeply involved.

Oh dear.

We recognized that we needed to maintain nice, quick pacing for our game and balance. We thought way back to the original intent of the X and remembered that it was intended as a catch up in very very specific situations, namely, when spells had a very niche use that might not seem immediately valuable. We had then crept out from that to add this catch up to things that didn’t really need it, then to everything.

The lesson is to have a purpose for every decision you make. Remember why you did a thing and what problem you’re trying to solve. Keep that in mind as you apply that tool to other situations. Often, you’ll find that a fix for one problem is inappropriate for another and the consequences can lead to a major revision.

The Advanced Inclusion: Because we’re foolish, or wanted to have a ton of content in the game, we opened up our final 3 Spell Books to be a bit wonky. Whereas the first 6 Spell Books more or less just manipulate the various elements of the game in different ways, our final 3 Spell Books introduce new mechanisms and complexity.

Here, we have to balance a few things! Firstly, once someone learns how to navigate the complexity, are these Spell Books viable in competition? Secondly, how do we allow the game changing mechanisms but still keep them within balance? Often, abilities like this are very controversial. If you look at the Japanese faction for Imperial Settlers, you’ll see many players say “How the hell do I win with them!” That’s me. You’ll also see players say “Oh the Japanese are so powerful.”

Some of the divide here is simply due to the fact that the faction is so different from the others. Remember that perception is a big part of balance. If players are convinced it isn’t, no matter what you can prove otherwise, well, it isn’t. When introducing new mechanisms in cards, factions, and so forth, be sure to keep them simple enough that the learning curve does not adversely affect this perception.

The core backpressure of exception based design is accessibility. In this case, you’re almost less worried about balance at the outset and more concerned with: can my players get this and utilize it in a way that is compelling and competitive. When you introduce new mechanisms, keep that learning curve in check first.

The Control Experiment: Try to find ways to create control experiments. Give your best playtester (there’s always someone who is a super good player) the weaker abilities and see how they do with it. See if they can craft strategies and come out ahead. Give your weaker players some of the stronger, more apparent abilities and see if they can come out ahead. Keep track of what wins, and how often, and whether they win with the same strategy or there are different options.

You can also give your best player the most difficult content to leverage. For us, those are the exception based Spells. You can observe the difficulty ramp as it passes from your best to worst players.

Be sure to test with the same group over and over and to test the abilities about which you’re concerned against new ones. Think back to your high school science class. Pursue the testing methodically and take notes. Easy things to track include:

  • Final scores
  • Ways in which points are earned (and using what tactic)
  • Abilities used and how often
  • Reactions when certain abilities are used: Do people feel like it was fair? Unfair? Excitement? Frustration?

Hopefully some of this is useful as you enter the balance phase for your own game. It is difficult every time I encounter it, so I always learn with every try.

A Low Chance of Success

Sol3

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Earlier this week, I played Columbia Games’ Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign, 1815. This is an old, classic war game design, with blocks to allow for fog of war, rather elegant mechanisms with a few key exceptions, and lots of dice rolling. We played our first game with the strategic and tactical ineptness you’d expect from first time generals (at least with this system), which meant the battles took longer, more dice were rolled, and we were overall less decisive.

At first blush, it’s easy to say: well, the probability of hitting on the dice was too low and that lead to the game dragging on. You can also say this about Combat Commander: Europe, an utterly phenomenal design that uses dice on cards to represent a dice rolling mechanism. There, too, firefights can drag on. Or, for those who aren’t war gamers, Eclipse. In this game, a 6 is a hit, a 1 is a miss, and everything else doesn’t work. That is, by default. Sometimes battles seem to require far too many rounds to see a resolution.

At a first glance, for all of these, it’s easy to say “the probability needs to be increased to prevent the game from dragging on.” However, after multiple plays of Combat Commander and Eclipse, something else became clear. Low probability of dice (and other randomness mechanisms) exist in order to give the designer, and therefore players, a greater decision space in which to manipulate the game state.

Let’s walk through the options for just these three games to quickly demonstrate my point.

Napoleon

  • By default, most units hit on a 6. The healthier the unit, the more dice rolled.
  • Cavalry hit on a 4-6 when rolled for their first attack. Otherwise, a 5-6.
  • Artillery, when engaged, hit on a 5-6 on their first attack. Otherwise, a 6.
  • Infantry hit on a 6, unless attacking infantry in Square formation.
  • Infantry in Square formation are only hit on a 6 by cavalry, but take more damage from artillery and infantry.

Napoleon doesn’t have cards or ways to modify your units. However, within the battles, you can choose to disengage and re-engage your cavalry unit to gain that huge bonus once again. You can disengage artillery to move them elsewhere to snipe from afar. Because everything hits on a 6, typically, you have breathing room as a player to forego a turn of low efficiency firing in order to maneuver for high efficiency punches. Only players who fail to grasp the depth of the system will pass it all off as pure random.

Combat Commander

You can fire in two ways, essentially: using a single unit, or combining units. If you do the latter, you take the best unit’s default firing score, then add +1 for every additional attacking unit in the group. For both of these, you can play cards to modify your dice roll and add additional bonuses. Finally, in both cases, you draw a card to add a random number to your base stats.

Your initial thought is to attack every turn, as soon as possible. Suffering a single hit can be devastating, and each unit can only sustain one before dying. However, the strategy of the game is to use cards to reduce risk in maneuver, pin down an enemy, and gather cards to unless a devastating hail of fire and grenades from which your opponent does not recover.

Here, again, it’s easy on your first play to ignore these bonuses and grow frustrated by the slow, ineffective plink of combat. But, this is where skill comes in. The game is giving you room to improve your chances. Or, you can rely solely on luck and fail against a superior player.

Eclipse

Last example! Your ships by default hit on a 6 and miss on a 1. However, you can customize your ships with new equipment and upgrades, which is my favorite part of the game. Here, you can increase defense to require a natural 6 be rolled, or improve offensive capabilities so that you hit on a 3 or a 4.

The game lasts about 3 hours, which gives players time to customize, upgrade, and see their fleet grow from a batch of gnats to a mighty, devastating combat fleet.

Mice and Mystics modifies probabilities with equipment, Abilities, and character abilities. Merchants and Marauders lets players outfit their ships with equipment or purchase special ammunition to mitigate the dice and modify things.

There are examples everywhere.

What this means for you.

Naturally, the needs of your games and designs will differ. You may not have a nuanced tactical maneuvering system, like in Napoleon. You may not want to encourage positioning and prep for a big attack or play. You might not care about long-term progression in your ships, civilization, or character.

However, keep in mind that if your dice always have a high probability, the laws of probability indicate one thing will happen. Averages will do what they do: average things. You will have far less room to maneuver as a designer and your players won’t need to think as much because the optimum strategy will be to roll the dice and take the hand fate has dealt them.

In a way, lowering your probability on dice rolls, chit pulls, or card flips is very similar to planning out a proper cost curve for a CCG design. If every card costs only 1-3 resources to play, you’ll quickly find yourself severely limited on options for your power curve. However, if you expand that to 1-6, and introduce even a second resource, you suddenly have a huge amount of room in which to maneuver.

One important thing to consider is the length and pace of your game. If you’re crafting an experience that is 30 minutes or fewer, having a wide range for probability probably isn’t appropriate or necessary. However, once you enter that hour mark, and certainly advance to the 2 and 3 hour mark, you want to adjust your probabilities in order to introduce progression and a long term gameplay arc.

What I mean, is that players in round 4 should not be making identical decisions that they made in round 1. If your game has a strategic layer, then think about decisions players can make in the short term to improve themselves in the long term.

How I plan to use this.

Currently, Sol Rising uses aggressive probability tuning for combat paired with abilities to make it even more aggressive. While this keeps the pacing brisk, it also limits the tactical decision space.

Although this will introduce additional complexity, I want to think about a few systematic mechanisms to allow for greater breadth in the combat resolution probability. This will most likely come in the form of range and close combat bonuses. The core movement and ability mechanisms will remain crystal simple so that this doesn’t turn this medium weight tactics game into a heavy tactics game.

Conclusion

Give yourself room to allow for divergent strategies and excite your players with luck they can better guarantee and attribute more to their skillful play than fate. Allow progression to create a nice arc to the experience, and avoid ways that lead to predictable play.

What are some of your favorite examples of what I discussed? What do you think? What did I get wrong?

Sayest Thou Poker?

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I have some thoughts on branding, naming, and pitching your game to others that have been culminating for some time. Though this is a specific case study, I think what I’ve learned here will apply to your project as well, so give this a read and tell me what you think.

We’ve been struggling to choose a final name for Hocus Poker for a few months now. I think we have a final candidate, but we’ve really gone back and forth to arrive at that point. Really, much of it revolves around the inclusion of Poker in our name.

Despite it being a key component of our origin story, Poker has really become a liability for our little game. For those not aware, Hocus began its life one afternoon when I asked “would Poker be more fun with Spells?” I have immense respect for the game of poker, but I don’t often enjoy my experience playing it. There seemed to be fertile ground as a designer to manipulate. Plus, it seemed easy. You shouldn’t be surprised to find that I’m stupid.

I, and soon after we, sought to change a few things with Poker while adding in Spells:

  • In most hands, your best play is to Fold. That’s not fun.
  • Poker requires money. No entry fees here!
  • Poker requires a group of 4-6 players to be fun. We sought to support lower player numbers.
  • Poker takes a long time to play. We wanted to fit well within a lunch period.
  • Poker features elimination. Everyone’s in until the end for us.

One of the things I love about looking to peer designs is that it becomes easy to quickly create a base line. When you first begin a project the possibilities are overly vast. That list above pointed us in a healthy direction. However, we saw a few strengths with Poker to build the other half of our base line:

  • It’s built around the classic deck. This deck is a wondrous thing. I love a deck of cards. 4 suits, some ranks, go.
  • The classic hands have a really great statistical lineup. The distribution of rarity is quite excellent.
  • The classic hands are reasonably well known by many people. Not all, as we’ve discovered. And holy <divinity of your choice>, do not change them. In any way. Ever.

We saw a good framework here to tinker with. We had our base line. However, framework is one thing. In some ways, it became a big part of our presentation, which wasn’t ideal in hindsight.

Lesson: If you aren’t sure of a name, perhaps consider a super random code name. Don’t look first to your mechanisms.

Perhaps we should have just called Hocus “Project Wozzle” until we had a final name ready?

Poker has been a problem at almost every stage of the pitch for us. I’ve had doors closed in my face as soon as the “ckkkk” leaves me lips, but we’ve also seen wild, angry men rage when they discover what they’ve done to “their” game. The problem with an elevator pitch is that you only have a floor or two, then your listener is either holding the door open or escaping that rapidly ascending box car.

Here are some of my favorite responses:

  • “Oh, I don’t like Poker.” At this point I’ve lost them. They aren’t going to care to hear us discuss the fundamental differences.
  • “Uh, that’s not Poker.” They want Hold ‘Em. They’ll only accept Hold ‘Em. Unlike people who like worker placement, and therefore lots of worker placement poker players don’t want a twist.
  • “Ah, so it’s a variant.” Ouch! This one burns in the third degree. Nothing like spending over a year of your design life on a variant! The other challenge is convincing someone to spend money on something they perceive as a variant.

Lesson: People have very strong expectations for so many things.

You see this with many genres and themes. I hate zombies. I am so sick of deckbuilders. Ugh, abstracts aren’t for me. You aren’t lying to people by not using these labels. It’s somewhat like how you trick a 5 year old to take a bite of their dinner. They enjoy the food…until you tell them it’s <hated ingredient>. Same with players. Don’t trigger their Pavlovian response if you don’t have to.

Affixing Poker to our name was misleading, driving inaccurate expectations, and for some, giving our game an unfair reputation. I started thinking about how other games handle this. Agricola doesn’t call itself Farming Caylus. Diamonds isn’t called Diamond Trick Taker. And I’m not sure anyone loves Ra Bidding Set Collector as much as I love Ra. I’m leveraging some extreme examples here because it amuses me. But, hopefully you get my point.

Lesson: You can be influenced by a thing without needing to put it on the letter head.

Texas Hold ‘Em is what most people think about when they hear “Poker.” It’s on television, on your smart phone, and many of us have enjoyed a Poker night in our lives. Truth be told, we share very few things with that game, most notable of which is the classic Poker hands. But, the player decisions, structure of the game, and strategies are all unique to Hocus. Therefore, the game deserved a divorce.

So, we knew that the poker moniker had issues. We saw that it was not giving our game a chance to stand on its own. Then, I read this blog post on BGG. I really liked this post. It got me thinking. You can disagree with her examples and precise ordering recommendations, but overall, my key takeaway was that you need to present the experience of the game, what makes it unique, and not just append genre labels.

Lesson: Beyond your name, mechanisms, and easy labels, define your game such that it stands out uniquely and conveys its experience.

For Hocus, this is creating opportunities with your limited cards, choosing the right spell at the right moment, and deceiving and foiling your opponents where possible. That’s broad! What I just said doesn’t really make Hocus sound unique. That’s fine, we can fix that. But, you can also see that we didn’t restrict ourselves to pattern recognition, hand management, poker hands, and alternate player powers.

Keep all of these lessons and thoughts in your mind. I’m a big proponent of developing publicly, but I’m trying to be smarter about it. As much as I want discuss things in the most casual and lax of manners, first impressions matter. How you deliver and pitch things matter. Once you make a first impression, it’s tough to rescind.

Moving forward with my designs, I’ll be more careful to consider project names that are safe and don’t build assumptions. I’ll think about what I’m borrowing to form my baseline, but also more immediately what I’m pushing that’s unique. In the end, I hope it leads to more exciting and thrilling pitches from the start. That’s the hope! This is all one big lesson I keep consuming one spoonful at a time.

Hopefully, this spoon was useful. Tell me what you think in the credits!