Basic PNP Advice

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

There are things that you take for granted in your processes and don’t think to improve upon. But, when a solution emerges that makes your life better, one that’s so simple and so obvious, you can’t help but ask “why didn’t we do that a year ago?”

I have an obvious solution to share, one that is Josh’s idea for Hocus Poker.

Hocus Poker is and has always been a large Print and Play file. We have been pushing it aggressively because it’s honestly the best way to get new testers. Even if we get only one new tester every week, it’s huge. The print and play for Hocus involves 60 cards, which are the play deck, 18 cards for spells that players just read like references, 5 reference cards, and 10 cards to track the score.

Here is Josh’s insight: our print and play does not need to mimic the final version in components. We, locally, have already verified and tested the components as for how they will work in the end. Others don’t need to do that, especially if there’s no feedback to be gained. Where possible, we can, and should, make the PNP best as a PNP.

The 60 cards you use in the play deck? You’ll always need to cut these out as cards. There’s nothing we can do there. However, we can make everything else simpler.

Players don’t need to print and cut our 10 scoring cards. Instead, they can gather pennies, cubes, Netrunner tokens, anything from their home to keep score. You don’t need many of them, just a pile of things.

Our spells and reference cards are just references. You don’t play, shuffle, or deal them. They can just be on a single sheet, like this:

Chaos

What you see above is normally 4 cards. Now it’s half a piece of paper. In a future version of Hocus, assuming this original one is successful and there is demand for such a product, it’d be cool to have a larger version in a box with big spell cards for every player and tokens to keep score. But, that isn’t the pocket change version we think is best for our current audience.

In summary, when making a PNP, your goal is to get people to download, cut, and assemble that PNP. Make it as easy as possible. Find places where you can merge, eliminate, or modify components to ease this task. The end result? More testers.

Hope this helps! We’ll be uploading the new Hocus PNP as soon as the files are ready.

Great Tension

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Tension is one of, if not the, most important ingredients in a great design.

Recently I played a new game for the first time. I was very excited to play this game based on the initial read of the rules. I actually enjoy reading and writing rules and I find them the first point of excitement for me. This game had 2 really neat mechanics, one of which is called Tension.

As we played the game, it became clear that the Tension mechanic was a lie and that tension had been removed almost entirely from the game. It completely removed the fun, the excitement, and the thrill of the game.

Josh and I can relate to this from earlier versions of Hocus Poker. As we wandered through the iterative wilderness trying to find our game’s soul, our game lacked tension. We realized this about the same time we hit our eureka moment, but now it’s a notion that’s so stuck in my craw I daresay I shant forget it soon. In these versions of Hocus, players had no pressures on their decisions. They had few risks to take. The game rewarded conservative play and waiting until you could win it all.

There was no tension and as a result, our game suffered. When we added limited turns before the end of the round, which can be determined by your opponents’ play and schemes, and limited the amount of things you could accomplish? Hocus became a game.

Let’s talk about tension and why your game desperately needs it.

Tension has a few definitions. I know this is a cliche way to begin a discussion, but it’s relevant here.

As a noun:

  1. the state of being stretched tight
  2. mental or emotional strain

As a verb:

  1. apply a force to (something) that tends to stretch it

Let’s keep these in mind as we identify the key elements of tension.

Constrain

The definitions sound negative, and there are times when we fear we’re pushing players too hard, but that’s not the case here. You can’t always get what you want, in life or good games, and you’ll find that if you force a difficult choice upon your players, there will be great satisfaction when they discover what it is they really need

The state of being stretched tight is beautifully demonstrated in games like Ra, 7 Wonders, or Race for the Galaxy. Yes, you can try to dominate every category, but really, working on 2-3 is sufficient. Monuments and pharaohs? Perhaps! Science and military? Also valid.

Worker placement is also excellent in this regard. You have 3 workers. What resources do you most wish to collect? What is the chain of events you most need to see occur?

Eclipse does this simply with an economic limitation. Sure, you may wish to research a new laser, and conquer a new system, and assault your opponent, but all of those tax your limited and fragile economy.

Netrunner deckbuilding does this with a limit on non-faction influence. With a Chaos Identity, you can use all the Chaos cards you want. But you’re strictly limited on Shaper and Criminal cards. I think one of the most important deckbuilding decisions is not what cards you take from the limitless pool, but which you take from the finite one. These cards show your wit and innovation in play.

Constrain your players. Put a box around them! Do not force them through a narrow shoot, which is limiting and boring. But, fence them in and let them decorate their personal diorama as they choose with their actions.

Obfuscate

Obvious choices are poor ones and grow old after some time. Or, rather quickly. If everyone can easily ascertain the value of something in an auction game, it deflates the balloon of joy with all the pomp of a slobbery fart sound. If you are locked into a strategy, either due to the shallowness of the design or your choices, you may check out as the game meanders to a close.

Obfuscation leads to mental and emotional strain. The good kind! You want the situation where player A takes their turn, player B says “Damn you!” and player C groans and puts their head in their hands. Uncertainty and a lack of clear direction is so delightful.

Modern Art does a great job of obfuscation as you don’t know how much money (i.e. points) your opponents have and some of the auctions are blind. But, it’s not too opaque as you know the approximate value of what things are worth.

X-Wing has great obfuscation as you don’t know precisely where an opponent’s ship will maneuver. You know where they could go. You know where they should go. You know where you’d like them to go. But you don’t know where they will go.

Netrunner does a great job giving the Corporate player a wall of fog to put up before the Runner. Is that an Agenda that they can score? If so, how soon can they score it? Is it a trap that can kill me? Is that an Upgrade that’ll make my life more difficult? Is that an Asset that’ll give them a fat payout?

City Hall, if you pay attention, seems clear. You can see that Bob is trying to build more housing. You know he needs two actions. You also see he has quite a few cards in his hand, but you’re not sure how many are Influence, how badly the others want the action, and how much they’ll drive the cost.

Obfuscation is about eliminating perfect information, but also about curtailing the number of possibilities such that the strain is fun, not overwhelming. People are bored by indecision, both their own and that of other players. Games with too many possibilities feel directionless.

Tax

These elements are ingredients and optional ones. To have great tension you probably need a few of them, but not all of them. I say that as this one will be highly contentious. You need to tax your players. Things should come with a cost.

There are many ways to do this, ranging from simple to cruel.

  • Hand limits — you can only keep so many!
  • Discard to play (ex: discard 1 card to play this other card)
  • End of round upkeep (ex: feed your family)
  • Spend finite or recurring currency to pay for actions (ex: Netrunner credits or Magic Mana)

Taxation is similar to constraint, but in addition to having limited actions and choices, you also need to pay for it. You need to lose something to gain something. This additional trade off beautifully complements constraint.

You only have so many silver bullets. When, and at whom, do you fire them?

End It

I couldn’t think of a clever verb heading for this one, but the idea is that you must always be advancing the game’s end state. Like death and taxes in our real lives, players need to know that the game will end, whether they want it to or not, and they need to make the most of their finite time on this Earth. I mean game.

In Farmageddon, players draw from the deck every turn and when that deck is empty, the game ends.

Many games simply have a limited number of rounds.

Many games lately literally have a time limit. We call this “real time” (as opposed to false time?).

Constantly advance the game state and force it to conclude. This creates wonderful tension and makes the final decisions all the more agonizing. Force your players to create a strategic bucket list.

This is getting a bit long for a Friday blog. Your game must have tension to succeed. You must challenge your players to work within constraints, and force them to accomplish twice as many things as it seems they are able to do.

What are your favorite ingredients for crafting tension? What are some great examples of tension in games?

Twist of the Orb

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

It has been a while since I’ve written about Orb, mostly because it hasn’t moved much. I did an extensive amount of content design, but couldn’t quite shape a rule set around it. I found myself making far too many compromises and moving far too close to other games. It felt too derivative and I slammed on the brakes to just think for a while.

Naturally, this has been an easy delay to accept. Hocus and Landfall have occupied much of my time.

I have some ideas and theories swirling. I’m writing this blog to force myself to put them down on paper and gather some early impressions. Before I talk about the ideas, I need to reset everyone to properly explain what Orb is.

Orb is a 2 player game of infantry combat set in the future when elite special forces are dropped in orbit to assault positions on a variety of planets. I love special forces and the notion of orbital drop troopers. I think it’s an exciting tapestry. The idea is for the game to be deeply asymmetrical between two points:

  • Orbital player relies on a few incredible soldiers who are specialists. They rely on stealth, surprise, great toys, and discipline to get things done. This player’s perspective is that of the commander on the drop ship. NOT a soldier in the field. That is a very important distinction for my design.
  • Planetary player relies on a quantity of more regular soldiers and entrenched defensive positions. They enjoy intimate knowledge of the terrain and a volume of bullets to greet their guests. They also have reinforcements, which are an unexpected problem for the Orbital player. This player’s perspective is that of the base commander responding to a threat.

The first idea had some solid mechanics I want to preserve. These include:

  • When dispatching troopers from the dropship, the Orbital player chooses a role (ex: Sniper) and adds the Sniper cards to his action deck. The player can only use cards from his deck. I like the idea of prepping a team as you go. However, this will be something done at the start of the game while the other player is creating the map.
  • As the perspective of the Orbital player is that of a commander, he doesn’t have to track which character is the sniper, for example. Just that a sniper is in the field. This is a key abstraction of which I’m proud. You’re managing your teams!
  • The game will use a scenario generation mechanic. After Sol Rising, I don’t want to be responsible for hand crafted scenarios. They are so difficult! Instead, I want a randomizing mechanism that defines a location, reinforcements, objectives, and so forth.

This idea had some problems I want to solve.

  • All of the cool mechanisms were with the Orbital player. As my friend Chevee noted, one player gets to be cool, the other is a doof. Both need to feel cool.
  • I was having a very difficult time preserving a stealth mechanism with the setup I was pursuing. The more I lost the stealth, the more the game felt like every other tactical game ever.
  • I want a novel dice mechanic for combat resolution. What I had was basically putting lipstick on a pig. It angered the pig and wasn’t cool.

My solution for the stealth and making the planetary defense player more unique were solved together. I say solved, but really, it’s just an idea. I was inspired by three things:

  1. Tile laying in Carcassonne. I recently played this for the first time and love it.
  2. Map formation in Eclipse. The hex tiles fill in the spaces as players explore.
  3. I played a mock game with pen and paper, just saying the decisions of the orbital player aloud and drawing how the map changed.

Those things lead to this idea: The planetary player will be building the map as the game commences. His or her role will be that of tile laying. This lets them establish their base, build tough spots for the orbital team, create ambushes, and more. Like Carcassonne and Eclipse, there will be connections that matter. For example, line of site, such as a break in the jungle. You can deny cover in the approach to your base, while also exposing your guard towers to snipers.

If you put a machine gun nest way out here, it might be easily surrounded or circumvented. I also thought of a nifty mechanic to connect patrols. Think of it like Carcassonne’s road. Along that line, patrols can and will find you (the orbital troopers). The planetary player might make other concessions to connect those patrols, but having an active patrol line essentially provides a constant living fence.

The tiles should have a small set of symbols on them. Instead of saying “this is always a guard tower,” I would leverage something I used in Sol Rising, which I took from Robinson Crusoe, which is that “this symbol in this scenario can mean A, B, or C.” This gives you flexibility within limits.

Many games do things like this. You know, the conniving game master leaving a trail of sadness for the other player. Claustrophobia, Descent/Imperial Assault, and Dungeon Heroes come to mind. I think the content within this system for Orb can be unique and I believe more twists will emerge through development. They always do if you seek them!

The other neat twist with this is that there will be a few different ways tiles will be added:

  • Initial setup. A varied set of structures and areas will be placed based on the scenario generator. However, the scenario won’t define where the objects are placed, just what is placed.
  • Planetary Placement: During the game, the planetary player will place tiles as one of his or her options to build the board. But, they’ll have to choose this among other options, so they need to choose when something needs to be placed just so.
  • Random Placement: Sometimes, the orbital player will zig instead of zag. Things are outside one’s control in battle. I don’t want a chess-like game. There will be times when the Orbital player will pull a tile at random that the other player must then place in that spot.

I hope there is some tension between ideal placement, but also needing to manage troops and other items. I believe the planetary player will have a face down stack of tiles. He or she will pull tiles and place them behind a screen to evaluate, as well as troops to manage and other special tricks, like reinforcements (tanks!?) and surprises.

TF-Panoramic-Overwatch

The orbital player will have 1-4 markers on the board which indicate possible teams. As the orbital player uses cards to attack and use special abilities, he or she will indicate the marker used. This essentially will note that someone is for sure at that position. Therefore, the orbital player is managing a hand of cards and their position on the board, which is ambiguous. Remember, stealth!

In addition to these mechanics, I’m taking great pains to simplify things like line of sight, movement, and range. I want combat resolution to be simple. I want complexity in the form of results and the terrain, units, weapons, and tactics shining through. I want the decisions to be interesting, not the framework underneath them. I think this is a huge opportunity for improvement and I want to grab it.

I haven’t spoken about the dice mechanic yet because I simply don’t have one. Which means it’s time to stop writing and craft one.

(My) Start Up

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Last night I finished Season 1 of StartUp from Gimlet Media. It’s a wonderful podcast that focuses on the beginnings of Gimlet Media, founded by Alex Blumberg, who is known for his work on This American Life and Planet Money. I think it’s wonderful and very inspirational. Every time I listen to it I think “you gotta go do something, Grant!” I realized that I am.

Josh and I are very deep into the business side of Hocus Poker. We’re still finalizing spell balance and nitpicking some of our rules, but we find ourselves entrenched in PR plans, launch plans, finalizing contracts with artists and manufacturers, discussing alternate revenue sources, post-launch support, and the beautiful nitty gritty of project management. I’m very excited and nervous about the next few months, but the cool thing is, with every tough debate and decision, Josh and I emerge a stronger partnership and our product improves.

I look to heroes and great studios as inspiration for what we’re doing. In video games, it’s difficult not to think about the polish of a Blizzard Game (or the sales that come with it), or the democratically run genius of Valve. I think of my day job studio, Maxis, which stands out to me as a weird studio with soulful games.

In tabletop, I’m deeply drawn to design driven companies. I’m a massive fan boy of Plaid Hat and Portal Games. I look to Academy Games and am still so thankful of Uwe and Gunter Eickert for testing and critiquing two of my designs. I also look up to Stronghold Games. It’s amazing to me how Buonocore has grown that company and put in so much effort and time while still holding a day job.

Every good company should have a secret power, something they do better than anyone else. Every good company should also have a code, or set of values that define their mission. This answers the question of why they deserve to stand out in the market.

I wanted to think on that for Hyperbole Games.

My situation is somewhat interesting. It’s not unique, or even peculiar, but it’s interesting. I have a super good day job that pays well and keeps me happy. I don’t want, or need, board games to pay the bills. Nor do I want that pressure as I move towards having children in the next few years. This means my needs for my studio are far less about money and far more about the output for output’s sake. I think that’s a cool place to be. My biggest frustration working for a large company is that I always have to work within someone else’s terms or framework. That’s corporate life. With Hyperbole, I always wanted to do things the right way. I’m not a control freak. It doesn’t have to be my way. But, I want it to be right.

Plaid Hat Games clearly proclaims their ingredients for a great game on their site. You can read them here. But, I’ll type them below:

  1. A great game is fun.
  2. A great game creates an opportunity for you to make interesting, engaging, and challenging decisions that affect the outcome of the game in your favor.
  3. A great game allows you to directly engage the other players at the table.
  4. A great game is thematic.
  5. A great game is unique.
  6. A great game is pretty.

I love these goals and I love how strictly Plaid Hat has adhered to them. If you listen to their podcast, you know how important brand and identity is to Colby. I know, as a consumer, he will only publish games that he loves and that fit these core tenets. That is so powerful to me as a consumer. I’m not the only one! Look at how successful his pre-orders have been, particularly with Mice and Mystics and Dead of Winter.

Portal Games stands firmly behind “Board Games that Tell Stories.” That is a simple statement with so much weight behind it. When Ignacy signed York last year, he said: “This is not yet a game. It needs more heart.” That is what they are doing. If you play Robinson, or their euro Legacy, or even an abstract like Theseus, you will see stories that emerge as a result of the rich settings and great player decisions.

What will be the code of Hyperbole Games? What will I stand behind? I’m going to take a shot at this.

  1. Hyperbole Games is a designer driven studio. We will publish games that exist because we had to make them. We will design games that we want to create and play because they will be a blast.
  2. Our games are distinctly beautiful. We will work with our favorite artists to craft distinctive components and bring our games alive.
  3. We publish games that we can do best ourselves. We will still seek publishing partners for designs that need them. If it has our label, though, it’s because it is a game we needed to do in house. This means our games will probably be a little weird, more niche, and more at home with small print runs.
  4. Our games are developed extensively. This is important, especially we live in an age where barriers to entry are being removed and it’s sometimes far too easy to put a game out prematurely. I did this with Farmageddon in 2011 on The Game Crafter. I won’t do it again.
  5. We strive to have a wonderful relationship with our customers. Manufacturing glitches happen – we want to replace your parts, no questions asked. If you have a rules question, we’ll be there. We want to end every interaction with a happier customer.
  6. We will always make things more metal. 

Josh put it this way: In the end, we want to release the best games we possibly can, with the best value for the customer, and not chasing trends or easy sales. That is a tough standard, but one we think is best.

What do you think? What are your core tenets? Which companies inspire you?

Thanks for reading!

Board Game Collections and Potential

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m an awful human being. Andrew Brooks, the fine writer over at I Slay the Dragon, had an idea for a community based editorial session. I completely missed the deadline and didn’t participate. Well, better late than never. Happy President’s Day!

Andrew sent out two sets of questions: one for gamers and one for designers. I consider myself equally both, so I’ll tackle both of them. I’m posting Andrew’s questions below, like an interview. I’ll answer following.

Question For Gamers:

Andrew: Do you have any games collecting dust that don’t seem to hit the table often but you just can’t get rid of? Why are you holding on to them? Would you sell your favorite game if you knew you would never get to play it again? Would you rather sell/trade an unplayed game and acquire it at a later point if you find a group to play it with or simply hold on to it and wait for that possibility?

Grant: I’m not a hoarder at all. I’m fairly militant about keeping my collection around 100 to 150 games, not including expansions, which thankfully fit in the base game box. With few exceptions, if a game isn’t getting played, it is getting sold. Let’s discuss the exceptions!

  • I have a copy of Jump Gate, signed, from friend Matt Worden. I don’t play this, but I do play Space Mission, the fancy German version. It’s sentimental.
  • I have a copy of Dune, the legendary out of print game. I also own Rex, which is the revised version that plays more quickly and is more forgiving. Dune holds immense sentimental value for me as a favorite book.
  • I’ve had Horus Heresy for about 3 years now. I bought it for a mere $25 on the FFG Christmas Sale. I think I’ll like it, but it’s tough to get to the table. This goes for Fortress America as well, but for about 2 years.

Generally, the more difficult a game is to get to the table, the more shelf life I give it. Also, certain games I really enjoy and I’m okay reserving a slot for them. The other note by which I gauge a game is whether I have something else like it that I enjoy more.

I recently traded Conflict of Heroes, which I liked, but wasn’t getting to the table often. I recognized that I also owned a lot of Memoir ’44, which I liked more and was easier to get to the table, and a lot of Combat Commander, which I enjoy the most, but takes a little longer. No need to have all 3.

I keep games that I love, that I play, or that hold sentimental value. That’s essentially my razor.

Andrew: Consider your favorite games. How old are those games and how often do they get played? Are they your favorites because you play them a lot, have previously played them a lot, or they have some unique qualities that set them apart?

Grant: I really work to get favorites to the table often. For Netrunner I’m at 43 plays plus hours of deckbuilding. 7 Wonders is at 34 plays and is one of the 5 oldest games in my collection. Combat Commander I’ve only played 5 games, but it’s a 2-3 hour game and rather complex. It only works with certain friends, so I take that as a win.

My favorites aren’t favorites because I play them a lot. Often, I know a game is a favorite within my first 3 plays. It’s like love at first site. My favorites have a unique quality, like Combat Commander’s dynamic story mechanics. Or the perfect mix of theme and clever play, like Netrunner. Or beautiful asymmetry and epic moments, like Rex. My favorite games are special, so I work to put them on the table as much as possible.

Andrew: How do your friends’ collections affect yours? Do you share games with your group or do you like having your own copy? Do you have a lot of overlap with your friends’ collections? Are you less likely to acquire a game if you know someone that owns it? Would you be willing to have a shared library if it was practical?

Grant: I have two groups I consider when I’m buying games. My lunch group at work. These are good friends with whom I play practically daily. Top candidates are games that play with at least 5 and in an hour or less.

The second group is my game night group, which is basically comprised of the lunch friends (though some live outside SF so coming up for game night isn’t easy) and a few other rotating pals. Top candidates are games that play with 4-5 in 1-3 hours.

Two of us, Matt and I, are the primary buyers. We buy the new games and learn the rules. Antonio buys everything with Star Wars on it, so if it’s X-Wing, we know he’ll join in, and if it’s Imperial Assault, we know he’ll buy it. If a friend has a game, I hesitate before buying it. The question I ask is, will I ever play this game without them? I really want to buy Dead of Winter as I think it’s good and I want to support Plaid Hat. But, I will never play it without Matt. Imperial Assault is pretty cool, but it will never be played without Antonio.

The exception, is often cost and quality of the game. If the game is cheap, or doesn’t take up much space, I often buy a copy because I should have it. Right now, it’s very likely I buy Roll for the Galaxy, which Matt owns, because I think it’s a very smart game and isn’t too expensive and should be on my shelf.

I wouldn’t have an official shared library, because it just complicates things. But, any of my friends can borrow a game at any time.

Questions For Designers:

Andrew: Would you rather design a game that gets played more frequently or is more highly regarded but played less? Would you be proud to know that someone is keeping your game in their collection despite not playing it often? Is how someone feels about your game regardless of how much they play it important?

Grant: By my own rules as a player, I want a design of mine to be played as much as is reasonable. My 4 player war game that has been signed by Portal is more of a long-lunch/game night game. But, I would hope people who like it will take it to game days and get it in every few weeks.

Hocus, on the other hand, is very quick to play. We’ve seen testers play it 8 times in a week, 13 times in a weekend. I don’t expect everyone to do that, but I really hope it becomes someone’s backpack game, the one they bust out whenever there’s a few people and a half hour to kill.

One of the things Josh and I are doing with Hocus is to have killer art and tons of variety in the experience. We want there to be killer value. We’re also a very small first time publisher and we’re not really at this like a traditional business. There may only be one printing, ever, of this game. Therefore, I’d really hope that people who enjoy it keep it around.

Getting plays is the ultimate sign of affection in many ways, but there are many gamers who play a game 3 times, tops, then put it away for whatever is new. It happens. I want my games to be loved and played for years. That’s the ideal. But, if cult of the new is too strong, I’ll accept loved.

Andrew: Is it disappointing when some trades or sells your game? Should it be a goal for your game to stick in people’s collections (assuming it’s a good fit for that person)? Should designers try to create games that will “stand the test of time” or are simply enjoyable experiences?

Grant: No, not really. I track everything that happens to Farmageddon on BGG. I think a copy is sold at least every month, if not more often. Amusingly enough, 90% of the versions being traded are “unopened, unplayed” or “opened, played once.” Farmageddon is a light take-that game with a hint of strategy. It’s meant to be a quick game that isn’t as ridiculous as Fluxx, but doesn’t make you work too hard. You’re either okay with Farmageddon, or you’ll HATE IT.

So, when I see people who have never played the game, or played it once, getting rid of it? They don’t want a game like Farmageddon. I want them to trade it! They’ll be happier and my game gets another shot at life. I’ve played a great deal of Farmageddon, as you can imagine. I really enjoy it, actually. It scratches a weird itch and allows for a laugh. But it’s not for everyone.

Standing the test of time is really difficult to do. It often requires you come up with something highly original and good, or just flat really good. Over time tastes evolve. Dune probably won’t be a favorite game of mine. But Rex, revised, is. I have to be honest and note that I just do not like Catan. At all. I’m miserable almost every second I play it. I just don’t think it has aged very well.

I’m going to look at my body of work.

  • Farmageddon: Not timeless. It isn’t original enough, appeals to a particular taste, and doesn’t have a brand (like Fluxx, Munchkin, Gubs) to make it evergreen.
  • York/Dawn Sector: Maybe! It isn’t out yet. I think this game can really have legs. It takes elements that are great about war games, distills it down, and it’s having Portal’s best folks develop it.
  • Sol Rising: Probably not. It’s a very story driven game. I think it’ll be memorable and very good, but somewhat like Risk Legacy, the first playthrough is always the best.
  • Hocus: Maybe! Our starting point is one of the most famous and beloved games ever – Poker. We’ve spent a year developing and testing a game that is smooth, easy to learn, but is original. But, we’re a tiny publisher, so the 18 people that get it might not be enough to make it timeless.

I really want my games to be great and loved by most of the people who play them when they play them. I think that’s the best I can tackle.

Thanks for the questions again, Andrew. I’m sorry I’m so late!

I’m Gonna Lose

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

“How many cards do you have in your hand?”

This is a common question. I’m used to it. The man sitting across from me is trying to kill me. He intends to do this by reducing the cards in my hand to negative numbers. I have only three, which is low, but when you have two brain damage, it’s the best you can do.

My right hand is firmly connected to my forehead with my elbow on the table for support. I’m not a regular and I don’t have a fancy mat yet, so it’s just elbow on table. Need to get a mat. I shift my left thumb to fan my measly three cards to answer my opponent.

I’m so close to victory and death simultaneously that I’m shaking from nerves and adrenaline. I’m not sweating, but I’m clammy, and shaking. I keep joking aloud that I need a cigarette, which was funny the first time, but certainly not the third. I don’t smoke, never have, but by god I’m going to beat this cliche into the ground.

It also kills me that my opponent is incredibly slow to make decisions. I just want this game to be over. Win or lose. The anticipation is killing me.

“I need a cigarette.”

Goddammit. There’s a lot of apprehension from never having done this before.

I consider myself a competitive person. I want to win, or at least try real hard to do so. If the person on the treadmill next to me at the gym is running at a 6.5 setting, I’m going to run at a 7 setting. I’m absolutely not a jerk about it, though, which I think is the right mixture. An ‘E’ for Effort, but not a ‘J’ for Jerk. I’ve generally excluded games from this, which is arguably strange as games have been a top factor of my life for about 14 years now.

I think the reason for this is that I don’t want to ruin my favorite thing with unsavory competition. Yes, I once played in a 5 versus 5 infantry only Battlefield 2 tournament at Quake Con 2005, and it was so amazing that typing this still gives me an adrenaline high. But, I’ve also been screamed at by “friends” regarding my World of Warcraft character’s inefficiency. I cancelled my subscription the next hour.

Friends of mine who have competed before generally speak very highly of the experience. Some with longing and regret for no longer being involved. Sure, I’ve stumbled into a few former Magic guys that clearly need a cigarette, even now, far away from any competitive table, but they aren’t the norm.

I love Android: Netrunner, the best selling Living Card Game from enormous hobby publisher Fantasy Flight Games. I bought it relatively soon after its release, but never played it. I bought Data Packs, inexplicably, and still never played. Then, I picked up someone’s entire collection for about $100. At that point, I realized it was time to get off the metaphorical pot and play the game. I did, and my affection was immediate. But, it wasn’t until I organized what I thought was then a substantial collection of cards to build my first deck while watching It’s a Wonderful Life in December of 2013 that everything really sunk in.

In 2014 I made it a priority to play with friends, and play we did. But, I’m talking 30 plays, which is a great deal for me, at about 45 minutes apiece, but insignificant for folks who play weekly at their local store and in tournaments. I spoke often about entering local, casual tournaments, but with about as much truth as “I have a girlfriend, but she lives in Canada.” Plus, I’m not really tapped into my local game store scene. It’s easy to miss the tournaments if you’re not paying attention. Then, I can’t be disappointed.

Disappointed in what exactly is a topic of myth and stereotype at this point. Was I worried that I’d enter a room full of weird, butt crack sharing people? Perhaps the notion of a 14 year old foul-mouthed Spike scared me off? I’ve played a lot of XBox Live. I’ve heard some chilling stuff. Even South Park has commentary on this sliver of American culture.

In truth, it’s probably a little bit of all of those things. I find that hosting friends, having a beer, and playing a friendly game with our inside jokes is intensely comforting. None of that would be at any tournament. But, my fears go farther down a path of paranoia. I don’t play Poker or Black Jack or Roulette in Las Vegas because I don’t know the rules and I’m terrified of looking like a jackass in front of a pile of strangers. Or worse yet, the dealer throwing me off the table for a serious faux pas and security dragging me out.

I never said I was reasonable. I didn’t want to have to endure an opponent’s eyes rolling when I riffle shuffled my un-sleeved cards, or forgot a rule, or played a deck that only morons play. I don’t think that’s too unreasonable a human expectation.

Fantasy Flight Games promoted my local game store’s tournament on Twitter last week. I don’t follow my store, but I do follow Fantasy Flight. I clicked it for details:

  • Saturday afternoon
  • Show up to sign in
  • $5 entry fee
  • Promo card for participation
  • Boxes and mats for the winners

That all sounded really casual. I told my friends and social media at large that I was attending. As I couldn’t sign in ahead of time, I cemented this decision with the Sword of Damocles of social shame.

As soon as I made the decision, it felt amazing. I was so excited! I spent every spare moment during the week furiously designing decks, tweaking those decks, and testing those decks. The new expansion arrived Friday afternoon. I tore it open, reviewed the cards, and figured out which ones to swap into my decks. After dinner Friday night, around 10 pm, I had a killer idea for a deck. I made it, slept on it, tweaked it, then agonized whether to take an untested deck to my first tournament. I did.

Now, that deck was in the hot seat. I had three cards, clammy hands, and a professed false need for a cigarette. Aside from my cliches, I played very well. I mean, I lost, everything, and no, not from losing all of my cards. I lost control of my economy towards the end, and the threat of traps forced me to take costly measures to not die. It was a death by a thousand bureaucratic cuts. In the end, my opponent squeaked over the finish line and beat me by a single point.

I lost another game as well, but again, was proud of my tactics and deckbuilding. I played aggressively against a very difficult deck and made my opponent earn his win. I think. I lost another due to time. Our first game took so long that we only had about 5 turns each in our second game. He had a lucky early score, 2 points, and that gave him the win from the time victory.

I almost skipped home I was so excited. It took me about an hour to calm down, but in a good way, unlike the earth quake this summer that sent my nerves spiraling for hours. It was honestly the most fun I’ve had playing a game in a really long time. Maybe since that Battlefield tournament at Quake Con 2005?

The reality is that any community will have some dead weight, some jerks, and negative stereotypes. One built around competition that requires a meaningful investment in time and money is most assuredly going to recruit such types. But, you cannot, and should not ignore such a rich gaming experience. The guys (and gal!) I played with yesterday were jovial, familiar, bearded, sportsmanlike, and sincere. My first opponent even riffle shuffled his cards! I mean, yes, they were sleeved, and he had a mat, but we shared the thhhhffft sound as we prepared our decks.

I know that if Spike shows up, he’ll be the exception, and that I’m only one game away from playing against someone more kind.

You should attend a tournament. Pick a game. Any game. You need to get the shakes for yourself and be overcome with anticipation. You need to wrestle with the pixie in your head that’s screaming “we can win we can win oh my god oh my god we can win.” Plus, that camaraderie about which I spoke? It just might appear at even the tournament scene. I just have to be a regular.

You’re going to have a great time, I promise.

Helpful Links

  • You can find the game on Board Game Geek here.
  • There is a great free tool with which to build decks or learn about the game here.
  • The Gamescape SF Event Calendar is here. Next tournament in March!
  • You can buy the game via Amazon here.

I appreciate the editing notes from Todd Edwards, Matt Worden, Joshua Buergel, and Chevee Dodd.

A Production Leaflet

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

I started in the video game industry in 2005 just a month after I graduated college, left Oklahoma, and arrived in San Francisco with a Civic packed with stuff. I’ve worked at Maxis for all but one of those years, almost entirely as a producer, though sometimes as a designer, and occasionally a producer moonlighting as a designer.

In 2014, Joshua Buergel and I decided we would publish Hocus Poker and later, Landfall. This is a big decision and one I’ve personally been hovering around for years. I’ve never had the courage, the right game, or the right level of risk. I’ve always felt my professional experience has been immensely helpful to me in my table top work. Obvious examples include my diligence in crafting early rules, ability to work well with artists, experience with testing techniques, and years of experience with giving and receiving frank feedback.

But, now that I also want to be a publisher, I’ve really noticed this set of skills coming into play. I thought about how important it has been for me, but also, how useful it is. As I look around the hobby there are a TON of people who are starting out as publishers. There are obviously those who have their start in Kickstarter in just the past few years, but also POD producers, but also, young companies like Plaid Hat Games (Summoner Wars released in 2009) and Stronghold Games (Survive and Code 777 released in 2010).

As many publishers will tell you, when you are a publisher, your focus shifts from design to producer. If you listen to the Plaid Hat Podcast, it’s pretty clear Colby is more Executive Producer now than designer. It seems that’s always been Buonocore’s role (and he can correct me if I’m wrong!).

Now, I don’t dare profess to any of these people that I know better. Certainly not. But, some who only have one game under their belts, or seek to start a discussion, might find use in some of the key lessons I want to share. Or, perhaps, you’ll just find it interesting to hear about the perspectives of a video game industry veteran? This was a fun and personal entry to write, so I hope you enjoy it.

Here are the key things I think you need to be a good producer of games.

You don’t need to be right, nor do you personally need to provide the answer. Your job as a producer is to ensure the delivery of a great product. You need to check your ego, and check it often. Instead of fighting for your solution to be the one chosen, fight for the problem to be heard and addressed. Do not let issues plaguing the game be ignored due to other issues or swept aside from budget concerns.

Find and champion the person who has the right answer. Producers are managers and team leaders. Don’t abuse your management role to get your way. This means you give voice to those without power and silence the nonconstructive naysayers. You’re the moderator in the great debate that is game development. Identify the problem, listen to your team, and find out who has the right answer.

Always fight for the best team. It is so painfully easy to settle for good enough. The first barrier is money. I cannot afford the right person. The second barrier is time. The right person is busy, or we need to have this finished RIGHT NOW. People are the brunt of the cost in game development and you can rest assured you’ll get what you pay for.

Costs roll down hill in the form of wasted time, re-work, and customer dissatisfaction. Consider that a poor rules editor will lead to time you spend on the forums answering questions. That also affects your prestige negatively. Art, a potential competitive advantage and a huge way to stand out on a crowded shelf, is so easily compromised. Yet, time and time again, beautiful and distinctive games have a leg up on their uglier cousins. Invest in good testers to find the core issues with your game. Or, don’t pay to spend decks out and listen to your best buds.

Always fight for the best team. Surround yourself with brilliant people. Game development is a series of conversations solving problems. Who do you want on that problem?

Focus on the customer. A designer’s primary concern is the game. Their focus should be on the philosophy, the goals, the vision of the game itself. This is their sliver of the pie. A producer’s primary concern is the customer. These are 2 sides of the same coin, but from a different perspective. Let’s consider a few situations:

  • Designer: Here is a cool mechanism. Producer: How will it be explained in the rules?
  • Designer: This component is ideal. Producer: Is it $5 better for the end consumer?
  • Designer: Battle resolution requires these 3 steps. Producer: Re-work it to be faster and more intuitive.

I’ve written about this extensively lately, but with Sol Rising, my experience was:

  • Grant: This is a story driven game. Publisher (producer): If that is the premise, you need to infuse the actual game with more story.
  • Grant: This is how the game is setup. Producer: That feels intimidating. Find a way to expedite and simplify.

It isn’t that the producer doesn’t care about mechanisms, or the novelty of ideas. It’s that they want these ideas framed in a way that they only excite the customer, bring a smile to their face, and lead to positive sentiment. It’s a different perspective, arguably the development side of things, but terribly useful.

Focus on the experience. Designers can often have a bad habit of the method by which an experience will be delivered. The steps of the mechanism, the journey from input tou output. The producer’s job is to focus on the end result. A good producer is always asking these questions:

  • What is the result you desire?
  • Is there a better, simpler, more fun way to deliver this result?

A key tactic is to offer solutions to achieve this. Often, designers will be entrenched in their thoughts. They don’t want to kill their babies, which is one of the jobs of a producer. A way to start the process and to generate good brainstorming is to offer solutions and alternatives. I suggested this recently with a friend’s prototype.

He had a dice-based combat resolution mechanic. He also had numerous status effects, like you often see in RPGs. Slow, stunned, poison, webbed, and so forth. I found it very cumbersome to juggle between remembering the effects of the tokens littering my board and what dice to roll. I suggested: what if when I get the effect, I get a die that represents it? For example, if I’m stunned, I roll a d4, with lower numbers, to generate a worse result. Or, if using custom die, I get a new die with different faces. The end result was the same, but the journey was arguably simpler.

Remember point number one — you do not need to have the answer. You need to find the person that does. Think of yourself as an editor reading a great story. You love the characters, you love the ending, but the in between is a bit muddy and lacks punch. Offer ways to tighten that up, get the writer/designer thinking, and watch them surprise you with a superior solution.

Communicate. I find this to be one of my greatest annoyances with tabletop publishers. The industry is plagued by months without contact, obtuse responses, and talking to a wall. I think this is unacceptable and, if you care about it, relatively easy to fix. But, I digress.

Good communication is simple and follows a few clear rules.

  • Be clear with expectations. There must be precision in what you expect. If you want creative solutions, be clear that that is also allowed. When you waste other people’s time, such as artists, be prepared to compensate them.
  • Be clear with due dates. I want X, with these specifications, by this date.
  • Share with everyone what these are. If possible always use face to face communication to discuss these items. Then, follow up in writing so everyone has a thing to reference.
  • Be concise. Stop wasting everyone’s time. The more you write, the less it’ll be read. Furthermore, the more opportunities you present to be confused or misconstrued.

At the end of the day, talk to your team. Be honest, be precise, be concise, and don’t let issues fester.

Stop by to check in and see what’s going on. This is more applicable to a physical development team, but also applies to a remote team. This sounds nuts, but act in a way that you fear is annoying. At work, I frequently stop by the desk of an animator, modeler, other producers, whatever, just to say hi, ask what they’re up to, and see if I can help at all. These are anywhere from 15 seconds to 10 minutes. It builds rapport, gives me insight into their day to day, and sometimes, I find issues that I can help prevent before they spin out of control.

If you’re a board game publisher working with remote developers, such as a graphic designer, design partner, or illustrator, get their IM client and name. Every now and then, pop in. Ask them how things are going, if they need help, or ask if you can see what they’re working on. Be a curious fan of what they’re doing, not a tedious micro-manager.

Don’t be afraid to ask what you’re team’s up to. You’re paying them! You’re the customer! Go make friends and ask!

I asked Twitter for questions. Here is the answer to the one I received!

How different is video game design from board game design? @deadlyaccurate

The short answer is, more different (currently) than it should be. In my opinion, one of the top problems plaguing game design, and arguably one of the reasons you see such an influx of brilliant, simple indie games, and a flourishing mobile market, is that many digital games have become far too complex. Simply because one CAN affix a series of calculations to a digital game mechanism does not mean one should do so.

The result, most often, is that there is so much going on under the hood that a player cannot make an intelligent decision regarding their action. If the outcome isn’t fully understood, in many cases, it could be random. Oblivion, the predecessor to the brilliant Fallout 3 and Skyrim, had one of the most obtuse leveling systems I’ve ever seen in a game. It was so complex that me and many others had to make obscure decisions to ensure we could keep up with the game’s difficulty curve.

Board game designers, unless you’re a terrible one, constrain the amount of calculation and computation required. After all, players must do it themselves while also trying to have fun. As board games are largely component driven (cards versus dice versus miniatures), decisions about user interface are very core to the experience. I think mobile design has improved this, as mobile games are so driven by the quality of their interface, but it’s something all digital designers should keep in mind.

The biggest difference, which won’t change, is the scale of the operation and timing. A board game company can be quite successful with 1 or 2 full time employees and contractors for a variety of things, including illustration, graphic design, testing, and manufacturing. Yes, there are indie developers who do everything, but it’s rare to find someone who can do quality 3D animation, 3D modeling, illustration, coding, engine development, online coding, web coding, tuning, writing, and more.

It’s also much faster, typically, to iterate on a board game. Now, this differs wildly by platform. It might take weeks or months to implement a system in The Sims on PC. On mobile, we could implement changes in an hour. The biggest issue is 2D versus 3D (in many cases), as well as offline versus online. Those elements can exponentially change the workload per feature. With a board game, a 100 card deck is quick to modify. A 500 card deck with all unique cards? Or having a pile of tokens? It’ll take longer.

Networking 102

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I’ve known Todd for quite some time via the Internet, but more recently we’ve become closer friends and design peers because we both live in San Francisco and made it a priority to meet and work together. Todd approached me with a great idea about our process and how he’s used it elsewhere and I knew it would make a great Guest Column.

Guest Column by: Todd Edwards

A while back, Grant asked for designers to write in with their big accomplishments for the year. I realized that mine were not sales, but rather exciting things that have helped propel my designs to the next level. What’s more, both things are direct results of Networking. I know there are a bunch of other networking articles out there, so I’ll skip the 101 for the most part and trust the editor to insert an appropriate link.

He can put the link right here: (Editor’s Note: Uh…uh…I did a Google search and found this article in the Washington Post?)

Years ago, I began my side career as a creator by writing a novel. Then another, and another, and so on. My writing got incrementally better, but when I gathered some like-minded folks into a critique group, my writing really took off. Something about critiquing other people’s work really helps you learn the lessons that you are blind to when looking at your own work. Also, having people dig in and find the flaws in your work is really helpful too, especially if they are totally candid and don’t pull their punches. And finally, critique groups give you a chance to talk shop with other writers.

It turns out the same is true for game design. You probably have a test group. People who play games, and they’ve agreed to play your designs and give you feedback. That is awesome and critical to do, but you can’t inflict half-formed ideas on them. They don’t think like designers, so they can’t help turn the ideas into playable designs. Designers can help pick apart your game from a different perspective. Even more, designers LOVE to talk design, so they are usually up for hearing your half-baked ideas and offering feedback. It may not work for everyone, but I know that I work best in a team, bouncing ideas off others, taking suggestions and making them my own, etc. In fact, when I have a bunch of half-formed ideas floating around, the best way for me to crystalize them into something coherent is to explain them in an email to someone willing to read my sometimes stream of consciousness idea  deluge.

Enter our illustrious host, Grant. We’ve known each other a while over Twitter, and we’d gotten together to play and test each other’s games a few times at cons and around town (once we realized we lived near each other). However, we are both busy guys with careers, and it was pretty sporadic. Late last year, we decided to form a “design critique group” and get together every other week. Since then, my game designs have progressed more rapidly than ever. The combination of constant deadlines to keep me pushing ahead and a designer feedback is invaluable.

You see, I’m working on my first big game, by which I mean a 4-5ish player, 90 minute, co-op. There are a lot of different systems that I’ve been working on and pulling together, and being able to show early prototypes of the different systems helps keep me on track. Not to mention the brainstorming that has resulted in changes to my current prototype. I’ve also been able to play some “peer” games and get to see how similar ideas work in practice. Because he knows my design, my critique partner was able to point out things in other games that apply to my design.

Anyway, how do you form a critique group? It will vary, but like anything that involves meeting people you don’t know, exercise some caution. You can find local designers on Twitter, Facebook, Meet-up, etc. Go to local gaming events and talk about your designs. You’ll probably meet other designers. If you click with them, get together to play each other’s games. But start by meeting at a coffee shop, local game store, etc. you know, exercise caution. You’ll need to find people you are comfortable sharing with and giving/getting unfiltered feedback. You’ll also need to find a schedule that works for everyone.

When you give feedback, don’t be mean, but don’t pull your punches. If something isn’t working, they need to know. Try to always follow-up with a suggestion or two of how to fix it. When you get feedback, don’t take it personally. Creative people aren’t always the best at hearing criticism, but think of it as good practice for your eventual BoardGameGeek reviews. And when you get a critique, don’t argue about it, take it in, ask questions to make sure you understand the feedback, and then decide if and how you want to incorporate the feedback. And if someone doesn’t take your feedback, just remember, it is ultimately their game and they decide what goes in or not.

Todd Edwards is a robot engineer by day and writer/designer by night. He’s published 3 children’s books and one novel. Check them out here or learn more about him here. He also does freelance writing for games and is looking for more gigs. Contact information is on his website.

Interview with Michael Keller

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When you run a blog, you get to bug people with whom you want to have a conversation under the guise of an interview. Michael Keller’s City Hall has really sparked my brain lately and sent me on a research path that might, maybe, result in my own economic design. For now, let’s talk to Michael about his designs and economics. 

Hyperbole Grant: Welcome! Just to catch everyone up, tell us who you are and provide the high level pitch for your published games.

Michael Keller: Hello, my name is Michael R. Keller. I’m a software product manager by day and have just recently realized a decade-long effort to design a game and have it published. My first game, City Hall is a city-building game built on a mechanic that combines role-selection with semi-reciprocal bidding. I also have a second game that just came out called Captains of Industry. That game was a labor of love. I’m a lover of economics and Captains is the ultimate expression of marketplace dynamics.

HG: I want to start with City Hall. I played it with you at BGG, bought it shortly after, and have since played 3 times with my group. From this game, and from what I know about Captains of Industry, you really love player driven markets. Am I correct here? Why this mechanic?

MK: You’ve hit the nail on the head. One of the pitfalls of many economic games is that after a few plays, you begin to “know” what everything is worth. In the real world, there is no locked, established value to things. Value is subjective and dependent entirely on what the market participants think. Take black pearls. When black pearls were first introduced to the European market, they were considered vastly inferior to white and yellow ones. However, when a French empress began wearing them, they became fashionable and skyrocketed in value. I find that arbitrary market valuation fascinating.

Bitcoin is another example. I’ve been aware of it for years and watched as it went from ridiculous nerd fantasy to skyrocket in “value” to the point where governments had to monitor it. It was wonderful seeing the bandwagon effect as investor celebrities hopping on board caused domino after domino of price jumps. And it was just as wonderful watching the whole house of cards collapse this year when people decided there was a hype bubble holding it up.

As an aside, I think I’ve just violated a regulation on mixing too many metaphors.

HG: Here at Hyperbole Games we don’t believe in restricting the markets or metaphors.

MK: Closer to home, my first job out of college was working for Citi. This was in the summer of 2007. As you can imagine, the front-row seat I had to the economic implosion caused by reckless, bonus-seeking bankers, which relied on everyone keeping the illusion going, had quite the effect on me.

In my games, I want to reward players who can either spot market opportunities or are clever enough to create them from whole cloth.

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HG: Players in City Hall exchange Influence (a currency), which fuels much of the economy in the game, particularly player actions. Captains of Industry looks like a big player driven economy on steroids. Can you detail for us the points of player connection and interaction in this economy?

MK: I don’t want players to turtle up and just do their own thing.

HG: If I can interrupt, that statement alone promises many benefits to a deeply strategic game. It’s more difficult to conceive a dominant strategy if other players are involved in every step. It makes it impossible to solve the game, or be stuck with your last 5 turns on auto-pilot because of your initial choices. I find that very compelling. Sorry, continue.

MK: Both of my games force you to interact directly with other players to get what you need. But you don’t get it by force. You get it by showing that you value it more than them. But in doing so, the player you beat out receives the resources you spent. This creates what in economics is called a Pareto Efficiency in which both the winner and the loser are better off than if they had never clashed. This is because the loser receives resources which he or she considers more valuable than the goal they lost to the winner (otherwise the loser would have bid even more).

HG: One of the seemingly Quixotic ideals for many designers always seems to be the semi-cooperative game. They often end up being awkward. With a drafting game, for example, there’s the notion of counter drafting, but often times that both hurts you and your neighbor. You didn’t really want the card. What I like about your system is that everyone benefits. You wouldn’t put this term on the back of the box, but in a very real way it’s a semi-cooperative experience. Everyone benefits.

MK: Which is, at least in theory, what an economy is supposed to be. A set of mutually-beneficial exchanges of goods and services. All it takes to put this experience in game form is application of those economic principles to an arbitrary goal.

HG: One of the things about the invisible hand is that it balances things for you. Or does it? Can you share insights on balancing a game where the economy is so player driven? In City Hall players receive a free Influence at the end of each round, and there are incentives to take less used roles. What else?

MK: The danger in a player-driven economy is that it is very easy for an inexperienced player to drive themselves into the ground with a bad early play. Sure, they learn their mistake quickly, but there’s no way to correct for it, as doing so would require resources which they just lost to their mistake. In City Hall, I start the players off with only three influence each. Through the two methods you listed, I slowly inject influence into the player economy over the course of the game. This adds a nice, dramatic curve to the bidding, as bids escalate from 1 or 2 at the start to 10 or 15 by the end. It also means that the worst mistake you can make in the early game is bidding three more than you “should” have. And you’re guaranteed to get at least one back next round.

HG: In my most recent game (which I won!), I identified the few things I had to do in order to win and took actions to maximize my Influence. In the final round, I spent 12 and 10 Influence for two actions. It was deeply satisfying to have engineered my success by securing the capital.

MK: That’s the core of the game. The city-building is the arbitrary goal that surrounds the framework of managing your political capital.

HG: Are there any other games that you enjoy that create a player driven economy?

PowerGrid

MK: Power Grid is one of my favorites. It’s not fully player-driven, but there is one aspect of it that really gets me. When a plant is up for auction, the value of that plant is not based solely on its inputs and outputs and the alternative plants you can try to buy. It is also based on what plants other players have already bought and how likely they are to keep those plants running and what plants they would replace them with.

This is because Power Grid exhibits a principle called derived demand. The plant’s value is derived from the value of its production, which is the money you get from selling the power minus what you will have to spend on resources each round to generate the power. The cost of those resources is a product of what plants are already being run, which resources they use, and whether those plants are likely to be retired.

This creates several positive and negative feedback loops, all of them jostling against each other to push the “value” of the plant around. The best part of this is that the plant can have actual different values to each player.

If I have three coal plants already and you have two oil and one eco (which you want to replace), the coal plant will be worth more to me than it is to you. This is because you know that if you get this new coal plant, there will be four plants devouring coal each round, causing the price to skyrocket. If I get this new coal plant, it’ll retire one of my existing ones, so coal prices won’t rise so quickly. Therefore, this plant is more valuable to me than it is to you. Especially if you suspect that I will go for an oil plant if I don’t get this one. That would make the two oil plants you already own drop in value as I’ll suddenly be buying the oil you were getting cheaply. All of which only takes two players into account! There’s so much going on in that simple plant auction.

HG: What are some of the biggest differences between the initial City Hall and the final product? I’m curious about the game’s evolution.

MK: The superstructure of the game has been there since the first playtest. The changes since then have been characterized mostly by the quote from Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “It seems that perfection is attained, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.”

The city simulation in the game was previously far more robust. I’ve been a fan of a certain trademarked city simulation game since I played it on the SNES as a child. The initial inspiration for the game was thinking how to turn that single-player video game into a multiplayer board game. The first prototype of City Hall contained some mechanics from that series which did I eventually cut out of the final design.

The most impactful of these was roads. As you know, all zones are affected by their neighbors. However, the permit cards previously had roads on them which would be used to connect to each other and create transportation networks. Permits would be affected in different ways by both what they were adjacent to and what they were connected to.

Another big change was that instead of parks, there was a set of different, one-of-a-kind special buildings. These buildings represented police departments, fire departments, schools, and parks. Each of these had a different effect on their surroundings.

Both of these were removed because, while they were interesting, they weren’t core to the game. Early playtests showed that the interesting part of the game was the trading of influence between players. The roads and special buildings were just complications that got in the way of that core mechanic. While there are city-building games that are built around the interplay of dozens of different buildings, this game isn’t. Hopefully removing these parts brought the game closer to perfection.

HG: What’s your favorite game of late?

MK: I picked up Tragedy Looper at BGG Con. I’m a fan of both asymmetry and deduction games, so this probably qualifies as the game I’m most excited about that doesn’t have my name on the box.

HG: What are you working on now?

MK: Honestly, I’m kind of burned out right now. I’m still playing games for fun, but the past three years have been cognitively, emotionally, and physically taxing. I’m just to enjoy having my two games out for a while and focus on things other than games for a year or so.

I had been working on a real-time financial game, but couldn’t break through a complexity wall without sacrificing my goals for the design. Maybe I’ll come back to it someday.

HG: I hope so. City Hall is wonderful, I expect to pick up Captains of Industry sometime this year, and I’d love to see more from you. Thank you so much for your time, Michael!

Captains

City Hall can be purchased directly from the publisher, Tasty Minstrel Games, or obtained wherever fine games are sold. Same with Captains of Industry!

Mechanisms that Perturb

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Designers often discuss favorite mechanisms, games that inspire, and things they like, but we often skirt the issue of things we don’t like. There’s good reasons for this, in that you don’t necessarily want to criticize one’s peers, or be a Negative Niles. However, I think, if positioned properly, this might lead to an interesting discussion. Or, at least an interesting statement of perspectives.

Therefore, I seek to discuss mechanisms that perturb. These are mechanisms or activities in game that tend to grate against my enjoyment and appeal to me less as a designer. Note that every single one of these has an exception, a champion of doing it properly. The point of this article is not to say “this is always bad,” but more for me to note things I care for less.

You’ll find I ask questions throughout. Feel free to respond in the comments!

Interrupt Cards, and/or Out of Turn Play: This is a mechanism I find is almost always done poorly and it drives me insane. Introducing decisions outside of a player’s turn almost always increases complexity and requires additional explanations for a variety of conditions. Note that I’m discussing turn-based games. If a game isn’t turn based, then out of turn play is fine.

The most notorious offender is the legendary “stack” of Magic, where one must gauge the priority of interrupts and instants and monster attacks. But, many light games, especially take-thats, introduce this and I feel it adds unnecessary complexity.

Netrunner, a favorite, introduces out of turn play/decisions in the form of runs on the server. Players need to decide what servers to rez (i.e. activate) and such. But, by and large, you know that when you’re taking actions, it’s your turn.

Interrupts are generally just awful, for the simple reason they invalidate a turn. It feels lousy to the recipient and often cheap. In my head, it always feels like:

“I want to do this.”

“Nope.”

“…Okay.”

I think it’s very important that players get to make a decision or do something interesting on every turn. Passing, without strategy, having interrupts, or having to weave through layers of what can/can’t happen due to interrupts really hinder this.

What’s your favorite game with out of turn play? What’s your favorite time to interrupt?

Worker Placement without Blocking: For me, the number one best part of worker placement is the tension of spaces being blocked and your opportunity being denied. There is the delicious choice of taking something before its time, or holding out to see if you can claim your first, second, AND third choice.

I feel that worker placement without blocking is like beer without alcohol. It’s lite sour cream. It’s a wolf without teeth. It’s another metaphor.

An exception that comes to mind is the Raider station in Alien Frontiers. It’s intuitive (have a higher straight), expensive (3 dice), contextual (you want something to steal), and not super common (requires a 3 dice straight). That, to me, is the right balance. But, making it a constant element? Not for me.

Another, is that some buildings in Lords of Waterdeep allow two placements. That, being less common and shared, also works.

Which game has done this mechanic well to refute my claims? What’s your favorite worker placement?

The Mimic: Choose any card to copy: This is a minor grievance, but it came to mind and I’ll list it. I don’t enjoy cards that put the burden on me, the player, to pick what it’s replacing. It’s a wild card that is far too broad. “This card can be anything, just name it.” Uhhhhhh? It puts too much on the player and should really be a smaller decision space.

Don’t put this on the player. Constrain their choices or remove the card.

Complex Line of Sight and Range: This is an area that I think every new war game can innovate, simplify, and improve upon their forefathers’ contributions. We were playing Level 7: Omega Protocol last year, which uses a square tile system. Its line of site rules were terrible! You could count towards a target vertically, or horizontally, or you could have diagonal, but never multiple diagonals in a row. They also added very confusing rules for cover. We put this game away in favor of Imperial Assault. Their line of site rules are far superior. One corner of the firing unit’s square must be able to reach two corners of the defending unit’s square. This is great, as it’s simple AND allows for players to fire around corners, yet be protected in return.

This airing of grievances also includes overly complex range solutions. Counting around squares constantly is so tedious! Think about it seriously for a moment. If you’re making a game about relatively modern weapons, range is often not an issue within the area of engagement. Accuracy, whether they hit or not, is. Where they hit is also interesting. You can do this with dice rolls to resolve hits that also abstract damage and chit pulls that identify where things are damaged.

Keep this simple and focus on the best part of the experience: maneuvering your units and bringing your firepower to bear. Not counting tile after tile.

What’s the best example of line of sight and range you’ve seen?

Trading, because sure? I’ve played a handful of games lately that involve trading and negotiation because it’s technically something you can do. But, it’s clear these elements were layered on, not core to the experience. I feel trading needs to be fully integrated by giving players a reason to trade. Trading often benefits both parties and helps balance issues of scarcity. Catan’s trading balances out the cruel nature of the dice. Bohnanza’s trading is forced by the queue of cards that must be played. China Town gives you random stuff that may be worthless to you, but incredibly valuable to someone else.

Having resources alone isn’t sufficient to allow for trading. If you desire a trading floor and social engagement, be sure to institute limits on supply, scarcity, and incentives for players to do so.

What’s your favorite reason to trade in a game?

Variable Ending: This has been a pet peeve since I was introduced to Munchkin and Catan. I think Munchkin would be quite fine as a 30 minute game. But, it never seems to end. Similarly, I want to play about an hour’s worth of Catan. Unfortunately, that never seems to be the case.

I prefer games have a set time period, such as a deck running out, a finite number of rounds, or when a nigh guaranteed event will occur. I’m also quite fine with games where the precise ending isn’t guaranteed, but the mechanisms force an escalation along that all but guarantee this will happen. City Hall does this very well. When X buildings are built, or a player reaches the end of the Approval Track, the last round is triggered. This seems to happen about the same time every game, making its length reliable.

As a player and designer, I appreciate knowing the space within which I have to work. I enjoy knowing about how much time I have and where we are in the story. Games with a fuzzy ending often turn into games that, for me, overstay their welcome.

What are your preferred methods of a game ending?

If the game ends with no winner, Bob wins: This irks me because it feels like the Sword of Damocles is hanging over my head. It also feels like someone’s getting an easy win. Now, that’s perception — it may not be a fair balance concern. In Rex, one of my favorite games, the Fremen (I can’t remember their Rex name) win if someone doesn’t win by the end of the game. This, paired with their ability, basically allows them to hang back and camp. Discworld: Ankh-Morpork also has a role where if the game ends without a winner, he wins. This allows him to just trash things and run amok for an hour.

With my factions, I prefer clear benefits and clear downsides. I love flexibility to interpret those within the system to allow for variability in the experience. I feel like defining a de facto winner prescribes a path that is simply best for one of the factions. It boxes them in and I don’t think that’s nearly as fun. I don’t play the Fremen, because I don’t want my path locked into prophecy.

Do you know of a case where this mechanism works?

Losing earned points: This just feels nasty. A big part of design is identifying experiences that feel lousy to the player and removing them or replacing them with something that delivers a similar experience without the same vibe. If I’ve scored points, I hate losing them. It feels dirty. I especially dislike losing them and giving them to someone else. Many take-that games do this and I feel it’s one of the reasons they are so heavily despised.

A way to do this in a more kind way is to remove resources from a player to hinder their ability to score more points. You can also penalize a player for using certain actions, or making them cost-prohibitive. Again, you’re slowing them, which slows their rate of point gain.

This is mostly about perception and shifting a penalty from points, which are sacred, to things that are less special. Lords of Waterdeep’s mandatory quest cards are hated by some, but I think are a fairly clever solution. In City Hall, especially as the game progresses, players need to spend major Influence in order to take actions. This limits their ability to take other actions for a few turns.

What are some of the best examples of penalties you can think of?

The Passive Overflow: A few games have really fallen out of favor for me for inflicting too many passive effects upon the table to track. I wave a chubby, perhaps too hairy finger at designers who do not carefully consider these. Having passive effects that only affect the owning player are okay. Having passive effects that affect everyone really need to be considered sparingly.

Seasons was a game I enjoyed, in theory, but grew to enjoy much less due to the constant upkeep and accounting of its passive effects. Every round, or every action, could affect multiple players in different ways. It slowed the game and made it difficult to make decisions — there were just too many factors.  We also had some trouble with Shadowrun: Crossfire. Various Events and bad guys in play will inflict things at different times. We often forgot to check this, which then meant we were cheating or retroactively addressing things.

The core lesson is, remember that players can only track so many things. The more layers you add, the more difficult it is to keep track of everything and make decisions that properly consider the board state.

What are examples of games that use passive effects very well?

Comment below! Thanks for reading.