The Like/Don’t Like List

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Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

Grant: Josh and I have been collaboratively designing Hocus Poker since February 2014 and our process has evolved constantly throughout.

Josh: It’s been the fastest evolving game I’ve ever been involved with. It hasn’t been the fastest from from prototype to production – that honor goes to Ascension at Firepeak, which I developed – but it’s been fun watching the game change.

Grant: One new process has jumped out at me recently and seemed worth discussing. It’s something Josh introduced and it’s worked very well. But first, we should probably provide some insight as to where Hocus Poker IS and has been recently.

Josh: All over the place!

Grant: Mostly notably, a few months ago we put the brakes on the version we distributed at Origin. It wasn’t as good as we wanted it to be and never would be. At a high level, we decided the game needed to use cards only, needed to be a more original title (less a poker modification), and work better with five players.

We recently put the brakes on Hocus 3.0, as we called it, to move towards Hocus 4.0. Each one of these isn’t a nuclear shift. We’re always keeping some, if not much, of the previous version. But, the changes are significant enough that we branch the rules and start fresh.

Josh: It has been occasionally dispiriting, honestly. It’s been Grant who has made the tough call each time to try and rethink things, and my reaction each time has been more onomatopoeic than anything: bleeeeaurrrrrgh. Because each time this happens, it’s time to come up with more content, re-think balance, just put everything back on the table. We may not be going nuclear here, but we have to really think about everything.

It’s been the right decision each time, I think. And each time, we accrete more things into the game that I’m proud of. And when (if?) this thing ever finishes, I’ll be happy that we went back into the salt mines each time. But, it can be hard to strap on your boots.

Grant: It’s really painful. There’s the saying that you have to stop tweaking at some point, but I don’t think that’s what we’re doing. I think we have a pretty clear idea for what this game can and should be. Not hitting that is disappointing, especially when all of our solutions keep getting us closer. I think we’ll hit the right iteration soon. I think we’re there now (which I totally haven’t said before). And, I fully expect Josh to finally pull the veto chute when we’re at the right spot and I don’t shut up.

For each of these significant changes, we did a really simple pro and con list. What do we like? And what do we not like?

Josh: The reason I like this approach is that we weren’t starting from scratch for these. We’ve put a lot of effort into this game – hundreds and hundreds of emails, chat conversations, document revisions, and all that. I have a dozen or so built prototypes around this house. Even when we wanted to examine every part of the game for a possible overhaul, we still had this base of acquired knowledge and ideas to draw from.

Grant: To really put this in perspective, we’ve tested and designed probably 100 different Spell cards at this point. We’ve tested several variations on the deck, including suit numbers, strength, and card powers. We’ve done about 4 major structural revisions. Each of these are similar and borrow from one another. It’s just a vast pool of knowledge from which to ponder our next moves.

I think we’re well over 100 tests between our local tests and blind tests. We tested HP3.0 over 20 times!

Josh: So how to decide what to re-consider? Why not list what we like and don’t like? If anything shows up on both of our dislike lists, that seems like an obvious place to start tinkering. No matter where I am with a design, there are always things that I’m more excited about than others. So, when we last hauled Hocus up on blocks to see what we could do, we decided to just put out what we liked and didn’t like.

Grant: The lists were pretty simple and short, but quite telling. The likes really help anchor our sacred cows. And by now, we have some sacred stuff. I don’t think this is a bad thing. These are battle tested goodies.

LIKE

  • Spellbooks: Variety, asymmetry, simple.
  • Building Multiple Hands: Long term planning. Is a nice twist on poker.
  • Gems: I love everything about them. Really simple wager. Giving someone a negative is fun without being too destructive.
  • Short turns: They work once people get it. I do think our turn structure is weird to explain. Maybe.
  • I like the idea of wolves and I want to solve the problem glyphs were trying to solve.
  • I like controlling when showdowns occur.
  • I like how our game scales. It does so decently right now.

Josh: The nice thing about this list is that I can point to when we figured that stuff out. And, for the most part, the stuff on Grant’s like list were things that we had figured out in what we call 3.0. That’s great sign, really. These were hard won lessons over a ton of iteration, and now Grant has a list of things that he really likes that we’ve hammered out recently. My like list looked like this:

LIKE

  • I like the spellbooks.
  • I like building multiple hands.
  • I like the Gems being the rewards.
  • I like short, sharp turns.
  • I like, conceptually, the wolves.

There’s a lot of overlap between these lists. We’re both pretty pleased with the innovations that were introduced in 3.0, as a result of all the learning from the first whacks at it. The like side of things, particularly the overlapping items, tells us what we don’t really have to worry about too much.

Grant: Dislikes are also important. Really, after we discuss the likes to smooth over any disagreement, we need to chart our course for the next steps. The dislikes are a big foam finger that says “I suck.”

DISLIKE

  • Endgame doesn’t quite work.
  • I don’t like our hand distribution. I’m frustrated trying to solve the balance of the range of hands. It just doesn’t seem to work with what we’re doing.
  • I don’t like the 2 hidden cards in the community. I like the IDEA of it.

When we start these discussions, I have a habit of just writing for days about everything that does and doesn’t work. I start thinking grandly, then minutely, and it gets rather scattered. This process does a really good job of forcing both of us to think constructively and focus. We don’t need to discuss everything. We really just need to know where we stand.

We agree on A and B. Good! C is contentious. Let’s focus on that really quickly.

Josh: It was primarily the end game that brought you to bringing up changing to 4.0. At least, it was a major concern. I, too, had things I wasn’t totally sold on, so my dislike list looked like this:

DISLIKE

  • I don’t like the numbers in the deck
  • I’m not thrilled with the endgame

To expand it a bit, I was discontent with the composition of the deck. I didn’t like that it was relatively close to a poker deck, still. I didn’t think there was enough differentiation here, enough use of a custom deck of cards. Our attempt to fix that in 3.0, adding some minor effects to some cards, just wasn’t hacking it. And, we see the endgame pop up here again. Clearly, that’s a sore point.

We’ve actually been struggling with endgame for the whole development of the game.

Grant: The Like and Dislike lists gave us incredibly clear discussion points. We knew what was working. We discussed the few differences in opinion there. We knew what wasn’t working, and again, were able to quickly discuss differences in opinions. Now, we have a short action item list of things to tackle, which we were able to do remarkably quickly. I think the time between the initial email and 4.0 was about 30 emails in 2 days. That’s super quick!

Josh: We have a new endgame structure, which may or may not work. We have a new structure for the main deck, which I think we’re both really excited about. And we have a new reward structure to change the way hands are valued, which may or may not work. But, at any rate, we cooked up possible solutions to the things that were bothering us, thanks to having some focus.

Grant: Even if you aren’t designing cooperatively, I’d argue this process has value for you. I know in the past, especially with York, I’d exit a rough test and attack it through the lens of “the game is wrong,” instead of “the defenders have insufficient options.” A like/dislike list would have curtailed that.

Josh: Knowing where you actually are with a design is probably the hardest thing to really understand. Fixing a specific problem is both easier and more fun, but identifying where that specific problem actually is can be tricky. “That test went poorly” is insufficient, and you have to start somewhere to make progress.

What do you guys think? Share your thoughts below.

Self Doubt is my first Tester

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

I have several games in the works right now, which on one hand diffuses my focus and may not be entirely healthy. But, on the other, all of them are in weird places: long term development, early testing, late testing, rules tweaking, pitching, and so forth. All of that stuff consumes one portion of my brain and the other side, the creative portion, has little ideas with which I like to experiment. Some emerge, some don’t.

There is a really good argument to get a game to its playable state as quickly as possible. Come up with an idea, yank out some cards to build it, and test. I don’t think that’s a bad approach, and for some peers that’s the only way they CAN do it, as their mind requires the tangible pieces to move about and consider.

I, however, especially this past year, have found myself moving through a long marination phase of consideration and introspection before I build the prototype or even build the rules. And lately, I find myself building a prototype, then taking another week or so to think on it further.

Self doubt is my first tester and I want to make an argument for such marination to occur. Not to say it’s the ONLY way to do something, or even that it’s the right way, but merely to suggest that you may find gems by doing such a thing.

Firstly, your testers are precious, or more accurately, their patience. If you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by a group of designers, it’s possible to bring garbage to the fore and they’ll be fine with that. However, few have such a benefit. You should take the time to consider your prototype privately before exposing it to your test group, if only to make a stronger first impression. If your prototype is so mechanically broken that little promise can be seen, you’ve done yourself and your game a disservice.

Secondly, without a little marination, you, like myself, may find yourself relying on “old favorites” or “old habits.” I have a crutch upon which I constantly lean, which is action cards. I love them, but it’s stifling my creativity and unique approaches to problems. My first response “this needs spice” is to design 30 action cards. Nein! If you’re rushing to prototype, you’re only allowing your creative brain to conceive so much. You will fall back on comfortable trends, which again, is a disservice to your design.

My suggestion, is to take your core theme and core mechanic, then quickly build around it. If this includes your crutches, fine. Do it with abandon. Then, instead of taking the game to Billy’s, circle back and circle your less inspired concepts with red ink. Quickly list out alternative solutions to solve the same problem. And if something is in your design, you should know why, even at this stage. Challenge yourself from the viewpoint of using a simpler mechanic, or fewer components, or using a specific component to jumpstart the creative process. If you rely on cards too often, use hex tokens instead. If your favorite game in the genre uses a rondel for action selection, experiment with dice instead.

However you go about it, give yourself the time and put forth the effort to do things differently. Let your inner demon speak up and say, “Hey <your name>, can I be honest? You can do better.”

My final element to this simple treatise is that you need to be your game’s greatest champion. I was listening to Alex Bloomberg’s Start Up podcast this morning — hugely recommended, go grab it. In his first episode he’s pitching to a billionaire investor, who notes the most important quality to a company pitching him is their emphatic and devout belief that what they’re doing is important and will be successful. They aren’t saying “this can be cool” or “we think this is an idea.” They say, with conviction, this idea will change the world. This business will make money.

You need to allow self doubt to seep in to challenge your conviction. You need to battle it and emerge victorious. You’re going to receive input, especially early on, that your game isn’t fun, that it’s unoriginal, that it’s fiddly, overly complex, or isn’t as fun as a recent game from <insert hugely successful designer>. They’ll be completely right now, but in the face of that, you need to know why they’ll eventually be wrong.

Allow the early criticism into your design from day one. Take the time to address the concerns, enrich the core, and become your greatest fan.

Eureka Moments

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Post by: The Design Community!

I asked a handful of designers about eureka moments they’ve experienced in designing a game. Something that really opened their eyes to how things could work in their designs, or a way to solve their current problem in a magnificent fashion. Some of the examples seem specific to an individual game, but if you read into them, you’ll see broader themes that can apply to you. And in case you miss it, I break out some of these at the very end.

Note: To avoid a resume-like list, I simply introduced each participant with a single item. If you want me to mention another of your projects, just email me!

Ignacy Trzewiczek: Publisher at Portal Games and designer of Imperial Settlers

Let’s face it – I don’t believe in Eureka moments. I don’t believe that I will ever have this brilliant idea, that moment of enlightenment that will let me invent something that awesome like Worker Placement mechanism (William Attia in Caylus), Deckbuilding mechanism (Donald X. Vaccarino in Dominion) or Pay With Cards mechanism (Tom Lehman in San Juan). It won’t happen. I just sit on my ass and work hard trying to use already invented tools and mechanism to build something fun and entertaining. I have not had many Eureka moments in my life, and yet, I managed to design couple of fun games. So my advice for you is – don’t wait for Eureka moment. Just sit on your ass and work as hard as you can. That’s all you need.

Corey Young: Designer of Gravwell: Escape from the 9th Dimension

Santorini resulted from a chain of eureka moments. The first came while I was playing around with some 1-inch lasercut hexagons I’d picked up at a game convention. It occurred to me that when I split one into 3 sections that each became an isometric block.

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I started fiddling around with these, playing with M.C. Escher-like artwork. While I liked the mind-twisting aspect, it didn’t feel grounded in reality. My primary concern was that each tile had 6 possible orientations. I considered marking the top or bottom corner to indicate “up,” but all the markings were ugly.

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Then, while doodling in my design notebook, I drew an elongated hexagon. BAM! That solved it. The hexes still interlocked, but now there were only 2 possible orientations. With minor visual cues, “up” would be obvious. In some cases, the tiles work in either orientation. The wider format also made the overall image feel less vertically stretched.

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The last eureka moment came when I was trying to come up with a way of getting the tiles to stay together in the right orientation. My original prototypes were simply tiles situated on a tabletop. The inspiration for the inclined board came from a music stand.

Geoff Engelstein: Co-Host of Ludology and designer of Space Cadets

Notable Eureka moment: Making losing fun in Space Cadets. That was by far the last big feature to be added. We had played for years where to win you had this climactic ‘Jump’ attempt, with much yelling and screaming. But you lost just by taking too much damage, which usually simply came down to a die roll. Yeah, it could be a tense die roll, but it just wasn’t the same.

One time I ran back-to-back playtests with different groups. The first won, with much cheering as they jumped successfully. The second lost the game, and it just was like air going out of a balloon.  And the thought just popped up in my brain – “Losing needs to be just as exciting. There needs to be a minigame about losing.”  Very quickly we sketched out the criteria:

  • Needed to involve the whole team
  • Needed to be thematic
  • Needed to help save you from losing.

So you always had one last shot for redemption, and you had to pull together as a team to do it.

It took lots of tries to get something that worked, but ultimately the ‘Core Breach’ mechanic became my absolutely favorite part of the game. I think we really did make losing just as dramatic as winning, and it perhaps creates more stories than anything else in the game.

Joshua Buergel: Designer of Foresight (Coming Soon)

One of my favorite eureka moments came on Foresight. I’m a huge fan of Uwe Rosenberg, especially his early card games. One of the things I enjoyed about them was the unexpected ways he used them. Things like not being able to sort your hand in Bohnanza, or the rotating hands in Space Beans. At the same time, I read an article by James Ernest about creating games that break implicit rules, the things everybody knows about games and game components. I think it was written about the extra turn mechanic in Spree, but I thought it was interesting. Since I’ve been a lover of traditional card games all my life, I decided to see if I could apply those principles, unexpected use of cards and breaking implicit rules, to a traditional pack of cards. It hit me in the shower one day, finally. The implicit rule I should break would be that all cards in a poker deck have the same back. If I broke that rule, what could I do? From there, the idea of putting suit information on the back of the cards came about very quickly, and I had my deck of cards in essentially its finished form.

Gil Hova: Designer of Battle Merchants

My journey so far has been a bunch of smaller eureka moments. I’ll highlight two that stand out, though.

The first came relatively early. My first few designs were simple bluffing games. At some point, I realized that I hated playing bluffing games! I was still new to board games in general, and it was a big shock when I realized that the games I liked the most were not always the games that everyone else liked.

We all play games, but the kinds of games we enjoy are all so different. They offer experiences ranging from contemplative thought to cutthroat bitterness. Not every game is going to appeal to every player. Once I realized my favorite games were deep economic Euros, I was able to focus my designs to what I liked best in games: making interesting plans and executing them around other player’s plans.

The second came much later. I was chatting with another designer over Twitter a few weeks ago, and we discussed the traps our early designs fell into. His fell into the “this card forces you to discard your hand, the next card forces you to lose your next turn” trap. Mine fell into the “roll dice to see how many dice you roll” trap.

Both traps use gaudy mechanisms to obscure player interaction. They seem like they add interesting and meaningful gameplay at first, but in practice, they actually obscure it. It took me a long time to learn how opacity and transparency affect game design. They’re both useful tools, but as a new designer, I tended to toss opaque mechanisms in just because they sounded cool, without realizing how much they pulled players out of the game.

I was lucky enough to fall into the NYC-Playtest group, who repeatedly urged me to cut useless mechanisms and to not be afraid to make radical changes. Prolix, my first published game, had an awful, clunky letter movement mechanism that didn’t actually add any value to the gameplay. Once I followed my playtesters’ advice and cut it out, the game started to really sing.

AJ Porfirio: Publisher at Van Ryder Games and designer of Hostage Negotiator

It was realizing that my game could not be all things for all people. There will always be someone who doesn’t like your game. When I started out, it was painful to hear the tough criticism and sometimes very harsh remarks. Over time, I’ve come to realize that it is ok that everyone does not like a design or publication of mine. What is important is that the target audience DOES enjoy it. So in a nutshell, know who your audience is and make design decisions with them in mind!

Todd Edwards: Writer of the Nerni children’s books and designer of Streets and Sidewalks

There I was, working on a solo combat game to take with me when I traveled. That meant the enemy AI needed enough attack variety so that I wouldn’t be able to predict what was coming, you know, to make it more like playing against a person. So I added cards and added cards until I had 120 or more. The game got too big to fit in the small travel box, which defeated the original purpose. Then I remembered my brief brush with combinatorial chemistry back in grad school. What if each card had two bits of info, and you drew two cards for each attack? Then you can have a much bigger variety with a small amount of cards. Then each enemy got five cards. Not only did that make the game portable again, but it let the AI build combos with the attack from one unit and the modifier from another. The AI felt more like a human opponent and the game turned out better than I’d hoped!

Daniel Solis: Publisher at Smart Play Games and designer of Light Rail

I was testing a bluffing/deduction game inspired by Liar’s Dice, where if you lost a wager you’d lose one card from your hand limit. If you ran out, you were eliminated. The last player standing was the winner.

Unfortunately, this led to runaway losers because a smaller hand size made it that much more difficult to make educated guesses about the overall game state. The game was too long and un-fun.

The Eureka moment came when a playtester suggested flipping the win/lose condition on its head. Instead, running out of cards is a good thing that you’re trying to achieve. This makes a natural catch-up mechanism as the player furthest in the lead has the least information to work with.

Since then, I’ve always kept an open mind about victory conditions when I hit designer’s block. Instead of wanting the most X, maybe you want the fewest? Instead of the tallest building at the end of the game, you want it tallest in the middle and then tear it down as quickly as possible? Sometimes there is a juicy design space in “shoot the moon” mechanisms, too.

Ed Marriott: Co-Publisher at Moon Yeti Games and designer of Scoville

My eureka moments are few and far between. But one moment of note was when I realized you could buy 1000 assorted cubes from EAI Education for around $20. That made my prototyping so much faster. I use the cubes all the time. It’s funny to me that sourcing components is my eureka moment so I’ll give another eureka moment.

When designing Scoville, I fumbled over the grid design for a while with how best to have it operate. When I stopped thinking about it and just chose the simplest method everything in the game fell into place. Sometimes it’s easier to just go with something and test it rather than toil over numerous design iterations in your head. Get your games on the table! You might be amazed at the results.

Kyle Hendricks: Co-Designer of Bountytown

When design started on Bountytown, it was originally supposed to be a Touch of Evil re-theme. My eureka moment was sitting in a meeting room at my day job, thinking about the core conceits of the game, and it hit me hard. The “spaghetti west” is always misrepresented as super white and male. Bountytown then took a MAJOR shift as the main goal was to provide a voice for often under represented folk. Because of that, we took huge changes with mechanics and breaking from our other “formulas” which made it what it is today!

Jay Treat: Designer of Legacy of the Slayer

For Cahoots!, the big eureka moment was realizing that instead of having one suit per player and fiddling with a formula for sharing points with opponents, I could have one suit per player pairing and the scoring would just work automatically. By challenging a core assumption about trick-taking games (that there are always four suits) and by considering my goal for the game rather than my current solution for it, I was able to simplify and innovate at the same time.

Legacy of the Slayer’s genesis was in the eureka of combining two solutions to problems I had with existing story games: Cards to focus the narrative on characters and their development, and a system to ensure that loose ends get addressed before the game ends. It’s important as a game designer to find what bothers you in the games people are playing and imagine solutions; That’s vital practice in developing the problem-solving skills you need, but also one of the better sources of inspiration. When a solution is so compelling you want to build a game around it—even better, when you realize you have multiple solutions that would fit the same game—the end result is likely to be a product that innovates in a way people enjoy (as opposed to innovation for its own sake which is often a dead-end).

Ben Rosset: Designer of Brew Crafters

I was taking a brewery tour at Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton Delaware and the owner, Sam, was so passionately describing how he grew the brewery into a thriving business in such a short amount of time, and talking about all the new equipment they were installing that year and about the new recipes they were researching, and then suddenly it hit me: this would make an amazing game! I went home and immediately got to work on what would become “Brew Crafters”.

Chevee DoddDesigner of Pull!

I’ve always wanted to design a trick taking game. I love games with a “problem solving” aspect, and trying to deduce players’ hands to figure out the perfect play really excites me. So, I designed a trick taking game PULL! and that’s exactly what it was. A game where playing perfectly was a requirement.

The problem is, that’s not fun for most people. There’s a reason why Bridge isn’t heavily talked about with excitement among gamers… but Tichu is. So, during my weekly gaming sessions I started paying more attention to what makes Tichu “fun” for us. I found the answer during a particularly close game when one player was trying to go out first while setting up his partner. An opponent, who hadn’t done much the entire hand, suddenly throws out a bomb, which wrecked the brilliant play of the other. This happens a lot when playing Tichu, and it’s neat, but that wasn’t the moment.

Shortly after his bomb, the opponents threw out a bomb of their own. BAM! Eat that. Nope. Quiet guy calmly looks at his hand, and throws the rest down. He had an Ace high straight bomb! Just like that he went out, totally destroying his opponents and the table burst into laughter and mocking.

That’s what PULL! needed: an injection of coy little plays that could totally turn the game upside down. That’s when I went to work to make the game “fun.”

Grant Rodiek: Designer of Farmageddon

Early in Farmageddon’s life I was having difficulty solving the tuning of the Crop and Compost cards. You needed Crop cards to plant and Compost cards to harvest the Crop cards. I couldn’t get the distribution right! Players always had too many crops or too few compost, or vice versa. The thought occurred: why not let Crops be used as either? This solves the distribution entirely. In fact, it removes the problem. It also adds a nice little choice: how do I use this crop card?

Multi-use cards have since become a favorite tool of mine. They feature prominently in York, LF, and surely more to come. But, they are also a key element of my favorite games, including Race for the Galaxy, 7 Wonders, and Summoner Wars.

Secondly, and most importantly … I worked on York for years. The core mechanics didn’t change much, but I was constantly polishing barbs and imperfections. Smoothening and removing bumps. A friend noted I was going to strip the screw, so to speak. Over time, it became clear that I had sanded the game into a foundation. I had sought elegance at the expense of fun. Since then, I haven’t feared inelegance or “fat” as I think of it. As long as it makes sense, and increases the fun, I leave it. You can see these changes in Sol, which is full of fun items, Hocus, and LF.

Some highlights, in my opinion.

  • Don’t wait, but get busy on creating fun. The magic will happen as you work.
  • Losing should be fun too!
  • Don’t worry about making games for everyone. Make a great game for someone. Make the games YOU want to make.
  • New mechanisms can be found by breaking current rules and expectations. Break core assumptions to innovate.
  • Take inspiration from the world around you, be it flavors, sights, or key moments in your life.
  • The best doesn’t always have to be the biggest or most. You can win with the fewest or another less obvious fashion.

If you want to contribute your eureka moment, email me, or share in the comments below!

My Dream 2 Player Game Night

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Writer for the nefarious I Slay the Dragon review/news/preview site Andrew Brooks asked me about my two player game list. You see, I noted that Innovation, while excellent, wouldn’t fit in my two player list. Therefore, he wanted to know what was on my list.

Gulp.

I could take the Top 10 Two Player Games for Two approach, but I’m not sure that’s quite the right approach. You see, with 3-5 player games, I think we’ll often have games that exist on both of our lists. But, two player games are so personal and intimate. They really show a player’s tastes and I want to present my list a little differently.

Therefore, I present an Intimate Evening with Grant. Games for Two. That’s me, and you. Some notes about our evening together. The games listed will be games made explicitly for two. They will be games intended for folks who play games, not necessarily introductory games.

Oh hey! Thanks for coming over. Oh, nice, you brought beer. How kind of you. Shall we order some pizza? Thai food? Sounds good. Want to play something simple while we’re waiting for food and catch up on stuff?

Typically when a friend first arrives I like to play something light and stupid. Often, we both have stuff to talk about and it’s fun to just play something stupid. Plus, food will arrive soonish and it’s not fun to insert a large break into an important game.

At the very start of a two-player game night, I’d bring out a game like Revolver or Cube Quest. Revolver is simple, incredibly quick, and packs just enough decisions to stay interesting. It’s highly thematic and asymmetric, which is always a bonus.

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Cube Quest is hilariously quick and destructive. You’re flicking cubes at each other’s castles, which you assemble in secret behind the cover of the game’s cover. I recommend you play with all the cubes and ignore their silly limit rules, by the way.

You can easily get in 2 games of Revolver before Thai arrives, or 5 games of Cube Quest depending on how incompetent you are. Me? I lose fast.

Ding dong! Oh, it’s the delivery guy. Do you have some cash for the tip? Thanks. Come on Peaches.

After we gather the food, bust out the plates, and sit down, it’s time for something a bit heftier. Like a good mixed tape, you want to lead your two player game night in slowly but definitively. It’s at this point I’d bring out Summoner Wars, X-Wing Miniatures Game, or Netrunner. Now, the ultimate choice depends on your date, err, friend.

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Whether Netrunner is chosen or not depends entirely on whether your friend plays and has a deck (or decks) ready to go. It’s really that simple. If the answer is yes, I do have a deck, then Netrunner is an easy and brilliant choice. Like any good CCG, the game beautifully reflects the personality of your friend and lends itself to brilliant table talk.

The choice is similar for X-Wing Miniatures. I have some deceptive, untrustworthy friends that are ideal for Netrunner. I have others who love chucking dice and building squadrons. If your friend had time to tweak their latest squadron and their box packed with miniatures is in the trunk? Well, it’s time to dogfight.

But, if your friends aren’t deeply invested in the above financial drains, or simply didn’t prepare, then Summoner Wars is such an amazing choice. The game provides the fun of a CCG without the C (the first one). If you have all of the content, or even just the Master Set, you have a huge variety of decks to try out.

I love all three, but I often love playing a rematch. X-Wing often goes a bit longer, especially in a close game. Netrunner and Summoner Wars, however, are perfect for a rematch. Swap out your decks and have another go.

Belch. Ah, more wine? /pats full stomach I think it’s time to get down to business. No more of this childish garbage. Let’s play a real game. A big game. Something that we’ll talk about on Monday when we pass each other in the halls at work and glare, remembering the one key play that brought one of our plans to naught.

Every two player game night needs a main course and for me, right now, that means Combat Commander: Europe or Twilight Struggle. These are 2-3 hour games, not for the feint of heart, and, hoo, I need a heart burn pill.

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Twilight Struggle is the big daddy and the current number 1 title on the BGG game list. It’s a brilliant tug of war between the Soviets and Americans over the world. Every single card player matters, which makes it so delicious. It’s aggressive and interactive, but not mean-spirited or painful. It makes me smile just dipping into its machine.

Combat Commander is a personal favorite that just delights with every play. The game is a sandbox for stories and cool moments. Fires will rage where none previously burned. Smoke grenades will protect perilous charges across open fields, only for the soldiers to encounter mines or a hidden machine gun. It’s a masterpiece of clever card and scenario design. Best of all, I love that it reminds us that war and games aren’t fair. But, the best players come out on top regardless.

Well, look at the time. Shhh. My girlfriend came home. We need to whisper. Do you have time for one more? It’s quick, I promise.

I have a difficult time ending game night without a little dessert. A tiny treat that leaves everyone with a positive memory in mind as they trudge home overly full of delivered food and victory or defeat. For me, that game is Dragonheart.

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Dragonheart is the most played game in my collection, aside from my personal prototypes, but also the one from which I’ve taken the most value. I bought the game for $5 from Fantasy Flight’s Christmas sale and at 50 plays, I think that’s a great buy.

In Dragonheart, you must play at least one card to one of the, oh, let’s say 8 spaces on the board. You can play as many cards from your hand as you want to that one space, but you must play at least one. When the requirements are met, you take cards to your score pile. The player with the most points at the end wins. The game is simple, highly luck driven, and very swingy. I love it. Once you know how to play, you can finish the game in 10 minutes. The result is that you find yourself playing your 8th game of Dragonheart at 2:30 am on a weeknight.

I wouldn’t want it any other way.

So long, friend! When are you coming back for more games? Yes, I’m tired too. Well, we should think about what we’re going to play next time, yes? See you later. Be careful and drive safe.

Let’s go to the bathroom, Peaches. Then, bed.

10 Great Lunch Games

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

The majority of my gaming occurs at lunch, usually 4 days per week at work. Anywhere from 3-6 of us play games, which means we have a great regular group of known quantity, but also, we’re constantly diving deep into our favorite games AND looking for new games that play up to 5 (the most common quantity) in an hour or less.

I wanted to begin the week on a bright, cheery note. Discussing 10 great games seems like a fun way to do just that. Therefore, and in no order (because I find the debate on whether an item should be #9 versus #6 and so forth tedious), here are 10 great lunch games.

Oh, one more thing. Every game on this list plays with 4 or 5 players in an hour or less. That’s how it fits into this lunch group list. If your lunch is only 30 minutes long, I’m sorry. Some of these games will exceed that half hour.

Oh, one more thing one more thing. These are lunch games for people who play games. I don’t think most of these should be flopped down in front of co-workers who don’t game at least occasionally.

Let’s get 3 out of the way real quick. These first three games are layups. They should be so non-contentious that I just want to get them out of the way quickly. Each of them plays quickly and is packed with strategy. They are games that are 10s for many people.

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DominionFew games pack so much strategy and replayability into a single box. If you have a few of the expansions, as my co-workers do, you can play this game hundreds of times. Once you know what you’re doing, you can knock out a game in 20 minutes, making this one a 2-3 games per lunch kinda game. It’s also great in that it takes up very little table space. When it’s not your turn? The downtime lets you take a bite of your sandwich and ponder your next play.

Downsides? Doesn’t really work well with 5 or more. Might get a little samey for some without expansions. Definitely appeals to certain mindsets more than others.

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7 Wonders (for drafting, see also Fairy Tale): I love this game for the pacing, strategy, ability to eat while playing (at least for me, as a quick decider), and plenty of time to trash talk. We have 7 Wonders weeks where we just play it four of five times in a single week. Dave is super good, by the way, and a pain to beat when he’s “on.” Especially once every knows how to play, the speed of the game is near unrivaled. Toss in the Wonder Pack to really up the variety.

Downsides? A pain to teach to new players, especially in the lunch setting. The slow down to count at the end is a bummer, no matter the setting. Leaders expansion is good, but probably best saved for game night.

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Race for the Galaxy (plus Gathering Storm expansion for up to 5): Wow! This game. I just learned it last month and after a handful of plays I think it’s a favorite. There are so many decisions to be made and it’s slightly interactive in a way that’s particularly fun with a lunch group. Ugh! You DIDN’T pick the action we all needed? It’s a great light-hearted (yet deeply strategic) mid-day gas. Once you know what you’re doing, you can easily knock out two games in the hour.

Downsides? Requires an expansion to play with 5. Big learning curve with all the iconography and depth of experience. The game keeps you fully engaged with a lot of moving parts. It’s difficult to hold a side conversation or get too involved in a platter of food. This game pairs best with an easy-to-eat sandwich and container of grapes.

And now for the less-obvious selections. 

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One Night Ultimate WerewolfThis is not only one of the best games I’ve ever played, but a brilliant lunch selection. The game is basically a conversation with rules, which makes it perfect to sit back and chew when you’re the werewolf trying to stay under the radar. If you’re playing with the timer, you should finish in under 10 minutes, which means you’ll knock out a good 4-5 games in the lunch hour. There’s definitely some good thinking, but mostly, this game is about laughing and pondering things that are infinitely more fun than what’s awaiting you back at your desk. This game feels good to win OR lose and I think it’s such a good midday de-stresser.

Downsides? You should get a big enough room to let people sit comfortable around the table AND one that’s sound proof when everyone yells “WHAT?!”

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Chinatown: This is a pure, simple game of negotiation and trading that plays wonderfully with 3-5. It’s so simple. Each round, every player is dealt properties, of which they choose a subset, and a few business tiles. Business tiles will specify a number, say, 4, which means the number of adjacent spaces that must have that tile to be complete. For example, a Laundromat requires 4, so you need 4 adjacent spaces with a Laundromat. You’re trading the property spaces, the business tiles, and money to ultimately end with the most money after a set number of rounds. It’s great, social, and perfect for lunch.

Downsides? If you don’t like trading or interacting…don’t play this. I don’t really know many downsides. It’s such a simple, quick-playing game with nice depth.

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Lords of Waterdeep: I’m both surprised to find this game in the top 100 (around 50, I believe) of BGG, but also, in the ire list of so many gamers. While Lords of Waterdeep doesn’t bring much new to the world of mid-weight worker placement, it DOES do it incredibly well and smoothly. If you bypass the expansion and keep it to 4-5 players, it fits easily in a lunch hour, which means you can have some thinkin’ with your puddin’.

But Tzol’kin (or however you spell it) is better, you shout, as you shake your fist, dislodging lunch meats with every to and fro. Maybe, but it doesn’t fit over lunch.

Downsides? Your more AP co-workers might drag this one over the lunch hour. It might also not work for your lunch group, especially if you don’t work at a game company like me. It is a strategy game with many moving pieces.

Side note for Waterdeep: Can we stop calling this game thematic? It has great art and pieces. But, you’re collecting orange cubes to spend them because the card will give you points for spending the orange cubes you collected. This should not be our poster child for thematic euros, lads and laddesses!

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LibertaliaThis is a desert island game for me and it’s shameful I don’t own it yet. I need to rectify that. Like 7 Wonders, the game benefits from simultaneous action selection. There’s great fun in double and triple guessing what your opponents will play to go after cards as, initially, you all have the same cards. This is where it gets brilliant. By the third round, everyone will have a few nasty cards they’ve kept since the first round, leading to shouts of “why do you still have the monkey noooo!” followed by “shhhh!” and such. I love it.

Downsides? The pirate ship names are really awkward. The Slackey Jack? Eesh.

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RaThis is a brilliant design. It is just layers of bidding and point salad and interaction and timing. The key element are the suns, which have a numerical value of 1-16. You spend these to win auctions of tiles, worth points. The key, is that you trade the tile you spent to win for the one that was last used — often a lower value sun. Do you really want that tile set? Enough that you’ll cripple yourself in future auctions? But, are you really crippled?

Downsides? The game isn’t really thematic at all and has quite a few tiles. They are all simple, but it’ll take a few games before everyone stops asking “what are the Nile tiles worth?” I’m reaching here. It’s so good.

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GinkgopolisThis gorgeous and highly interactive euro combines area control, drafting, and resource management. You’re building a city, or stack of tiles, whatever. It has simultaneous drafting, but then turn-based execution, which gives you a moment to munch and explain “you jerk!” when someone builds on top of your building and cuts your points in half. It has a lot of pieces and a bit of setup time, but it still manages to fit within that hour, assuming everyone takes their turn and gets moving.

Downsides? Not great with 5, as the game reaches the end a smidge too quickly. But, boy does it sing with 3-4. The game can also be a tinge confusing at first for some mindsets as it has a bunch of numbers, letters, and isn’t terribly thematic.

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Last WillThis one just barely squeaks in under the time limit, but squeak it does. This is arguably the heaviest game on the list, yet it’s full quick, yet meaty decisions that let it fit within the lunch hour. The game will definitely scratch an itch for those who want to think at lunch, yet provide plenty of interaction in its worker placement phases to jab one at your co-worker who just sent that rather obnoxious email.

Downsides? You may want to play this one outside of lunch the first time for the learning game. The AP prone will definitely send this one into that 1 pm meeting, so keep folks deciding and moving. There are quite a few bits, so it may not work for the sticky fingered card fetishist.

The Appendix

Games that I desperately wish fit within the lunch hour but often fall just a smidge outside of it: Princes of Florence, Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy, Ascending Empires, 1775 or 1812.

Anything jump out at you on this list, for better or worse? What are some of your favorites I forgot? Chime in and turn this top 10 into a top “much larger number.”

The Constitutionality of Rules

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Today’s post is me transcribing and odd thought process going through my head the last few days. The thesis is a tinge weak, but I find the notion fascinating and hopefully it leads to useful thoughts in your own mind.

I love the United States Supreme Court. I don’t always love their decisions, but I love the institution and think it is one of the more brilliant creations of the founders of the United States. The court exists to provide long-term, precedent setting interpretations of our almost 230 year old Constitution. The document, meant to be a living, breathing, evolving supreme law, must change to adapt to the modern world.

It’s fuzzy, intentionally so, and the few words of the Bill of Rights (for example) will be debated probably until the end of our republic (which I don’t foresee, but who knows). The Second Amendment is particularly prone to wildly varying interpretation. It reads:

“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

Does this mean only the militia should exist and be armed? Anyone can have arms? Is there a limit to the type and quality? Security of a free state implies their use being for defense against external forces, whereas guns are often advocated for self-protection, particularly in the case of criminal instances. I’m not trying to make commentary on this topic, merely prove the point that 27 words have a million interpretations.

Please don’t turn this into a gun debate. It’s not the point of this article.

In stark contrast, the rules of our games are intended to be taken literally with zero interpretation or wiggle room. Any fuzziness is derided and is seen as poor craftsmanship on the part of the designer/publisher. If there is a set rule structure that must be followed to enjoy the game, well, that makes sense. But, and this is where my thesis begins to lose its momentum, I’m curious if we can or should craft games with a more interpretive rule set?

In a sense, many RPGs already do this. Many are a sandbox of rules that you can pick and choose from in order to craft the adventure or session to your liking. Mods, to borrow a PC gaming term, are an accepted and encouraged standard of the medium. I wager few D&D designers are upset when people home rule a rogue’s ruling to maximize fun.

Home ruling exists to some degree in board games, for a few cases. One, to fix a broken element in an otherwise solid game. I imagine this is frustrating to a designer, as it means they botched it, or that people disagree with a decision that might otherwise work. In other cases, people just want to layer or tweak things to suit their personality or play style. I know Jerry Hawthorne is outspokenly in favor of folks home ruling Mice and Mystics.

But, I’m not sure in either of those cases the mods are intentional. The interpretation is a byproduct for some users, not necessarily the main course. The strength of the Constitution is that it can be reinterpreted, widely applied, and amended to re-address current wrongs.

I imagine a few scenarios.

Imagine a broad, operational game of war in which the rules of engagement and the rules of war are re-defined and enforced over time. Perhaps you have 6 independent countries, none allied for any cause. Country A employs chemical weapons, let’s say Mustard Gas, against Country B. Country B may be able to build a coalition about this, due to a moral mechanic baked into the game, or perhaps the strategic importance. Perhaps the other countries have a lack of their own chemical weapons to employ. Moral outrage, for them, is convenient. The court in this case would be a United Nations or Geneva Conventions like body.

This wouldn’t result in a rule that is taken from a table of options. We the players would define how it works. Perhaps Mustard Gas can only be used in a war that has stalemated. Perhaps an army is limited to 3 machine guns. These are weak ideas, but it’s a quick brainstorm.

The rules shift and can be reinterpreted such that Country A adjusts their behavior. Or, doesn’t, with consequences.

A second thought. Imagine an economic game at the turn of the 20th century. Children work in factories, labor unions have limited power, women can’t vote. I’m speaking of the United States, by the way. Obviously you would need to sacrifice economic game complexity to facilitate the other mechanics (or not, if you’re going for the uber game). But, let’s say Company A leverages child labor. Or, they pay their words a very poor wage. In this game, Company B could similarly compete, OR, as a strategy, they could bring suit and attempt to alter the rules of the game.

Here’s where it gets interesting — instead of me plopping a card down that defines HOW it’s changed, we, as players, decide the new laws. We, mid-game, define the rules we must follow.

Right now, I’m appending some fuzzy social elements to rather traditional game structures. I began this article by tying this all to the United States Constitution, so let’s get a bit weirder. What if the game were in two parts: the preamble (so to speak) and the game. Let’s say this is a 1-2 hour experience. Probably leaning towards the 2. Let’s call it 2.

The game would provide a broad swath of rules, ideas, and notions. It would provide the components to support these rules. Perhaps cards with symbols and various reference points for them. In one Constitution, blue square means one thing. In another, it’s different. Your group’s constitution could create an economic game. A game of Machiavellian politics. You could almost see the preamble phase as you defining the challenge of your country. After all, the issues of agrarian 19th century America are quite different than industrial, global super power 1970s America. Or, the country of your choice.

I love the idea of two groups meeting to discuss their interpretations. Or, two groups, or a community of online groups, sharing their interpretations and games. I think the key is making it simple to create legitimate and fun “constitutions” in the preamble. It’s all too easy to try to make everyone a game designer when really, most people don’t WANT to be game designers. They want to be players.

This is a weird thought exercise, and I’m not sure it delivered on its premise. I’m relatively certain it didn’t. But, perhaps it will generate a thought in your head to conceive a more perfect thesis.

Ignoring Kind Feedback

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Researching Theme

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

Step 1: Pick a Good Theme

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

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

Step 2: Define the Player’s Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 3: Research Broadly

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

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

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

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

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

Step 4: Abstract early, abstract often

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using Reviews to Improve Games

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The extremes serve nobody.

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

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

For Farmageddon, the game’s recurring thorns are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-Baking with Dopamine

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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