Designing for The Deep Dive

Cult of the New Cultist

Cult of the New Cultist

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When considering true variability, ask yourself:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Scenario Framework

Andor

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

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

I sense a blog post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andor2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Combat Commander: War is erratic hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what did we learn, kids?

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

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

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

10 Games I want to Play more

WarGames Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

This list reflects that shift in desire.

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#10: Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy

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

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#9: Memoir ’44

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

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#8: Horus Heresy

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

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#7: Dropzone Commander

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

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

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

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#6: Last Will + Getting Sacked Expansion

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

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#5: Race to the Rhine

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

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

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#4: Combat Commander

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

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#3: Netrunner

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

Rex

#2: Rex: Final Days of an Empire 

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

Twilight

#1: Twilight Struggle

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

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

Asymmetric Beginnings

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Maybe it’s the simple fact that I managed to write a post at all, but I was so excited about my asymmetry post from Monday that I decided to make it asymmetry week here at Hyperbole Games! Woohoo!

Now that we’ve discuss asymmetry at a very high level in terms of symmetrical, light asymmetry, content-based asymmetry, rules-based asymmetry, and 2 games in 1, we now have a foundation upon which to craft a design. At least, a theoretical one. For this post, the goal is to discuss how to go about beginning an asymmetrical design.

Therefore, where does one start?

Step 1: Identify Purpose

I think the key to a solid asymmetrical design is thinking about what every role means. What makes it special and unique? Where does it excel? Where does it fall flat? This was fairly simple to answer in York, at least at the outset, due to the clear thematic inspirations from the time period I was sampling.

  • High mobility army: Moves quickly and can reach distant battlefields quickly. Inspired by the Wehrmacht’s Blitzkrieg, Israel during the 6 Day War, or the American army today (carriers that give long reach to distant lands).
  • Highly disciplined, defensive army: Can hold ground better with fewer men. Tough to dislodge, but also, less mobile. Inspired by the British army of the 18th and 19th century or the Japanese in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
  • Guerrilla Army: Can appear and disappear and hit their foes anywhere. No ground is safe. Their mobility is exchanged for difficulty in holding ground. Inspired by the Vietcong or Spanish Guerrillas of the Napoleonic Wars (the origin of the name).
  • Irregular army of peasants. A people’s uprising. The idea is that they would avoid direct conflict, and instead work behind the scenes (assassination, spycraft), or have sudden popular uprisings to disrupt the status quo. This idea was inspired by French and Polish partisans during World War II, the French Revolution, the American Revolution.

If you’ve read my blog, you’ve probably heard me promote the notion of goals early in the design process to preserve focus and move things along. Asymmetry is no different. Now that I had 4 high level ideas, it was far simpler to design content that fit with each of them.

Really, every asymmetrical component should have a very clear purpose or theme. If it doesn’t need to exist, if it doesn’t have a purpose? Cut it and move on. In fact, if you can’t justify the exception at an early phase, and asymmetry is just that — exceptions — you should focus on a symmetrical design.

Step 2: Recognize the Knobs

Remember in the previous article when I discussed the various nobs available to the designer in Summoner Wars for content-based faction? At a very early level, you need to think about the important factors that can be modified through tuning for your game.

If you’re making an economic game, your knobs might be:

  • Selling cost
  • Buying cost
  • Taxation and Upkeep values

If you’re making a game that involves hand management, your knobs might be:

  • Rate of drawing cards
  • Discard rate
  • Modifiers on drawing (ex: draw 2, keep 1)
  • Hand limit
  • Limiting or de-limiting the number of cards that can be played

If you’re making a military game, like Risk, with spatial elements, your knobs might be:

  • Movement properties
  • Army size limitations
  • Number of dice that can be rolled in combat
  • Rate of recruitment

You’ll notice for each of these that I only list a few nobs and if you’re using Content or Rule based asymmetry, you only need a few! Keep it simple! One of the key challenges — and thrills — of asymmetrical design is squeezing blood from the turnip. Seek to fully exploit your systems as they stand without adding too many exceptions and one-offs. Remember that asymmetrical games are fundamentally more difficult to learn for your players than symmetrical games. Keep that in mind as you design.

Therefore, try to identify the parameters you need from the outset. Think about all the different things you can do with them through the lens of your roles.

Step 3: Test the Base First

If asymmetry is a fundamental element of your design, you should test it sooner than later. However, while trying to test your asymmetrical elements you may overlook the fundamental flaws with your core mechanics. Before you test ANY asymmetry, create a single generic faction or force and test your mechanics in a symmetrical environment. At most, your players should deal with Light Asymmetry, which provides them with variable starting positions, differing initial cards, and so forth.

Sol Rising, a game that features light asymmetry and scenario-based asymmetry, was tested 30+ times before I created a single scenario. I had to validate the core knobs of movement, dice for combat, formations, and ship abilities.

Likewise, York was tested 30+ times before a single faction was introduced. Now, earlier in York’s life I didn’t even know it was going to be a faction game. But, once that became apparent, I still had to ensure my systems of Tactics, Reinforcements, Movement, and Scoring were relatively solid.

Asymmetry is a fundamental pillar for your game, but it’s not the foundation. Design the foundation with asymmetry in mind, but don’t chase the variation too soon. It’s like redecorating your house while it’s on fire.

Step 4: Test 2 sides first

I’m fairly certain Colby Dauch knew he wanted multiple factions for Summoner Wars relatively early. But, he built and tested the game with just two factions to begin with (Shadow Elves and…one other?). In the same way you don’t want to test the core game with asymmetry before you know the core game works, you don’t want to spend design cycles on most assuredly bad content before you have a few examples of “what good looks like.”

As you design and test a few factions, you’ll get a feel for a few key things. How many variations and twists should the faction have? What kinds of things, at a high level, should every faction have? Much of this design work is organic and will be discovered through development and experience.

For example, while testing York, I began to recognize a framework for every faction.

  • A strong, passive quality/ability.
  • At least 1 Offensive Tactic.
  • At least 1 Defensive Tactic.
  • At least 1 Support Tactic.
  • 4 Factions total.

I began to work within these constraints. Initially, I didn’t even have Defensive tactics. But, I realized they were not only essential for the experience, but another knob. Out of this, my defensive/disciplined faction was born. Support tactics emerged due to the need to change things outside of battles. Had I attempted to design all the factions to begin with, I would have spent an extensive amount of time, much of which would have been wasted. Furthermore, updating all of those factions per testing input would have been laborious and would have only slowed improvement in a game when rapid iteration was needed.

Similarly, to create scenarios for Sol, I designed a single one first. I tested it about 15 times before I designed other scenarios. By focusing on one, I learned about troop distribution setup, approximately balance of forces, how to create objectives and persistent effects, how to design dynamic events, and how to write the story.

Identify what good looks like, then spread it to other pieces of content.

Here’s my attempt at creating an early road map for asymmetric design. What do you think? Useful? Where would you start? Leave your comments below!

The Common Thread

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Oh look! A blog post. That’s correct, I’m not dead. Just busy. We’re damn near finished with The Sims 4 at work, which should return some free time to me, and my personal life will hopefully settle down. This past week has been a flurry of births, deaths, and sick pets, which makes it difficult to concentrate on silly things like games.

I had a personal revelation, which is the topic of this post, but before we get to it, we need to go a few years back to my origins as a board game designer.

When I started, I looked up to designers like Vlaada Chvátil due to the absurd breadth of their catalog. Though I’ve ironically only played one of Vlaada’s titles (Tash-Kalar, excellent), I sought to emulate him. Other designers that fit this profile (for me) include Ignacy Trzewiczek and Antoine Bauza. I’ve played their games far more, so it’s very easy to appreciate them as a designer and customer.

I’m also impressed by designers like Stefan Feld, who sticks to euros, but does something quite unique with each of them. Or even Richard Borg. On the surface, yes, many of the Command and Colors games seem quite similar, but once you’ve played a few you’ll be quite impressed (I am) with how distinct each feels with just a few thoughtful changes. It’s very inspirational to me.

After a while, I began to realize that even the most unique designers often have a common thread between their designs. I know a Bauza game or an Ignacy game when I play them. I would have used Ignacy’s last name for consistency’s sake, there, but I’m too lazy to spell it out. That common thread is important for this post. You can see a designer’s finger prints on their work. The special thing they bring to the table because it’s something they love.

At the outset of my print game career I wanted to design wildly different things. Euros, co-ops, solo games, RPGs, war games, social games, party games. I’ve tried to design many of these. I’ve taken good cracks at a Euro and a Co-op to no avail. They were just missing something or in some cases, couldn’t come together at all.

I’m quite stubborn, though, and I kept trying. But, my mind always veered towards other things. Conflict things. Military things. After York I dove head first into Sol Rising. Yeah, Sol is another war game, but it had dice and fleets and was quite different. The two projects I’m researching now? Military. The prototype I’m building now? Military. The prototype I’m testing but don’t talk about much? A heavy dose of conflict.

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It isn’t just my design habits, but my purchase habits. In the last 6 months I’ve been selling my euros and similar titles because frankly, they don’t grab my attention. I just don’t want to play them. Instead, I’ve double and tripled down on Combat Commander, Memoir ’44, both Dune AND Rex, Race to the Rhine (not a War Game, but as close to one as a Euro gets), and I have to block GMT’s P500 page in my browser because I want to buy everything sold.

I even invested in a new tabletop miniatures game, Dropzone Commander. Something that requires glue, and paint, and thick rule books with rulers, and effort. I can’t even feel my finger tips any more, yet here I sit painting with my tongue out as I try to add just the right dab of glue.

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I’m sick.

It all started me to thinking that perhaps I don’t need to fight it anymore. To thy own self be true, right? I think for the longest time I felt like I needed to design co-op and euro to be a real designer. It’s what so many of my peers enjoy to discuss and design. Nobody wants to be the weirdo off in the corner storming their own beaches. (Editor’s Note: Not a euphemism.)

But, I think war games are what I’m good at. They’re most definitely what I think about, want to design, develop, and play. The reality is that I don’t think I’m going to be Vlaada, at least not in terms of breadth. But, I can tackle the issue of variety and seek to craft fresh experiences within the far more narrow lens of conflict.

This is a very crowded genre, but also room with a great deal of space to still grow. I definitely think it’s a realm where my particular obsessions with shorter play sessions can make a difference. I think my common thread will be a great way to fight and just accepting that is very comforting to me. Moving forward, at least until I change my mind again, my large designs will be war games and my small games will be silly card games, like Farmageddon or Hocus Poker. It’s a good mix.

Or, put another way, it’s the right mix for me.

Do you have a common thread? Do you have a philosophy for the course of your personal works? Share it here. Who are some of your early design idols?

Raising My Bar

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

This is a long, very personal, and in parts, difficult post that’s taken me a few days to write and edit. Bear with me!

I noted the other morning on Twitter that one of the more difficult skills I’ve learned as a designer is when to recognize good isn’t good enough. Throughout your design career, you have to recognize when something isn’t working. That’s one of the first lessons. But, knowing when a good thing isn’t a great thing? And it SHOULD be? That’s a bit more difficult and it requires a large scraping of honesty and inward reflection.

Honestly, it doesn’t take much experience to recognize something broken, and if you’re like 99% of us, that’s the majority of every game’s life span. We joke at work (making games) that games suck until they don’t. I stand by this wholeheartedly. When your game is broken, it’s obvious because the tuning is ridiculous, or mechanics just don’t make sense, or people aren’t having fun. This is a skill to develop, of course, but really it requires paying attention.

But, recognizing that good isn’t good enough? That takes a different skill set. That takes a level of honesty, an understanding of your market, both in terms of competition and consumer, and in terms of your own personal goals.

This will be an honest and personal post about my design and entrepreneurial ambitions. I realize these posts are useless if they are solely about me and cannot be applied generally, so I’ll do my best to write it in a way that it’s meaningful for others.

Let’s get to answering that question. How do you know when good is good enough?

One element that has really driven this change in my perspective is working with publishing partners on my games. Publishers have great stakes in your product once they have signed it. They need to publish 2500-5000 (or more) copies, which requires significant capital investment. For that, they need to spend thousands of dollars on art and graphic design. Above all, they need to earn a profit and make enough to fund additional copies or other projects. It needs to sell and it needs to represent their brand favorably. Your publisher not only has a desire for your game to be great, but a fundamental need.

In a few cases I’ve had publishers say “this, this, and this are nice. We need to throw the rest of this away and make it way better.” The good news is, they were right! The important part was that they recognized what worked and what was special. They saw the foundation and knew where to start building. The wheels start spinning and I begin to ask myself if I can begin to apply these critiques myself.

Really, I think knowing when something is good enough is about recognizing missed opportunities. If those opportunities exist, and they haven’t been explored, you may not know it’s good enough. If you find yourself thinking about them, then there may be something lacking in your core experience.

I find this happens not when my game is busted or falling apart, but when it reaches long periods of stability. You need to fundamentally understand your game, both over the span of its life, but in its current iteration. If you’re changing your game every test, this is difficult to observe. It isn’t that you notice imbalance, or even dominant strategies (which you shouldn’t have), but your mind starts wandering. This is difficult to nail down, but walk with me. In a way, it’s a static romantic relationship. You aren’t fighting. You like each other. But, where’s the spark?

To look at some of my personal examples, York had a good card mechanic, solid pacing, a nice action system, a good point structure for 4 players, a nice battle system, and good tactics content. It also had a neat idea involving a fort structure. But, it lacked breadth, theme, variance (for replays), and enough strategic depth. These were missed opportunities that needed to be explored. Its individual elements were almost a bit too trimmed and smoothed. It wasn’t the most elegant game — that’s not what I’m saying. But every part was meticulously tested and refined and before too long, I had this little, lock-step Prussian experience. It needed some spark to it.

Sol Rising (then Blockade) had a solid movement and combined arms mechanic, did neat things combining several ships as a single control group (i.e. squadron), and used a fun circular board. But, it entirely lacked scenarios and breadth, the dice needed to be simplified, it lacked opportunities for player customization, and made expansions difficult due to its costly components. Without changing it to its card based format, it would never have a chance at being a great game.

Here are some quick signs you may have missed opportunities in your design:

  1. You find yourself constantly designing expansions or variants. You’re restless.
  2. You find that you don’t have GOOD answers to questions posed by testers. You’re uncertain.
  3. You find that you have too many darlings you’re willing to kill. You’re reckless. Every design needs a thing or two that’s worth fighting for. You need an Alamo.
  4. You find yourself holding frequent what-if thought experiments. You’re introspective.

The soul of a designer when a game is pitched, self-published, or on a shelf, should be at peace. Rejection should come from customers who don’t enjoy this type of game, or publishers for whom the game isn’t the right fit. But, you should not be restless, uncertain, reckless, or overly introspective.

AND NOW, a detour to provide more context for this post. I’m going to talk about my goals as an entrepreneur and publisher.

While steadily testing Hocus Poker the last few months, I also finally took the plunge to form my LLC. The purpose of the LLC is to self-publish smaller card games as a means for me to learn and grow as an entrepreneur. I won’t divert all of my designs to this, merely smaller ones that fit my brand and can be produced without using my home as collateral.

Hocus Poker is meant to be the first game to be released in 2015. I previously used phrases like “I’m doing this [business] just for fun” and “I just need to break even,” but I’ve stricken those from my vocabulary. Those can’t be my goals or operating motives, because I’ll then act according to them. When the goal becomes self-sufficiency driven by profits, it really ups the stakes. My goal had to change to success by the standard definition, not a lame one. There’s no room for cowards.

Some of the things I’m expecting of my LLC and its titles include:

  • I need to sell 2500 copies in 2 years. That’s over 100 copies per month.
  • I need to get the games into distribution. Without the FLGS, I’m sunk.
  • I need to attend minor, cost-effective cons initially to build an audience from face to face interaction. This means hustle and logistics.
  • I need to pay off the cost of doing business in CA every year. This isn’t cheap. I now know why people form in Delaware.
  • I need to make games with potential to be picked up by foreign partners.
  • I need to make games with expansion possibilities. I intend to support successful titles both to support fans, but also drive revenue.
  • I need to release 1 game per year. Assuming the occasional one is successful, there need to be enough products in the pipe to keep the lights on.

Not all of these have equal weight. By that, I mean these are all part of a multi-year plan and some are more important than others.

I recently heard a Ludology episode in which North Star Games owner Dominic Crapuchettes was interviewed. Something he said really struck me for its boldness and clarity of vision. Dominic noted that they designed Evolution such that it could win the Spiel des Jahres. As Tiger Woods was groomed for golf, Evolution was groomed for the Spiel des Jahres.

Think about that! He publicly stated, with utter confidence, “we seek to win the Spiel des Jahres with our strategy games.”

Obviously, that isn’t my goal. Goals are useful if they are achievable and jokes if otherwise. I probably already have people snickering with some of the notes above. But, I need to target goals within reach that are similarly ambitious. I need to find my relative Spiel des Jahres.

Let’s swing this back around to product development. I’ve returned to my previous hyper price-conscious state. I’ve always been obsessed with price and am convinced it’s a massive component to Farmageddon’s success. Therefore, a $20 MSRP for Hocus Poker won’t cut it. It needs to be $15, tops. Why? It’s an easier purchase for people on the fence, which is pretty much everyone as I’m an unknown entity. It’s also a great value for the game we’re delivering, which is fundamental to drive word of mouth.

Amusingly enough, the COO of Steve Jackson Games also thinks this is a good idea, so maybe I’m onto something! Stop and read his post here. It’s really excellent, not just for publishers, but designers seeking to be published.

If I’m examining Good Enough through the lens of price, I can easily see missed opportunities for Hocus. As we noted in a previous post, we’re essentially paying for 108 cards, but are only using 80 currently. We’re also using punch board components, which make the game a bit more fiddly (components always do!), more costly, less portable (ex: it is more difficult to play at a picnic table in the park), and I would argue that they don’t add enough fun to justify their existence. Plus, if I’m being honest, they’re going to increase the cost to the consumer in two ways: more expensive box and more expensive components, not to mention initial setup costs in molds for the tokens!

That, then, is another way by which to judge Good Enough. Does the cost, product-wise or cost-wise, of a feature or component, justify its existence with positive, fun driving benefits? After some thoughts, I can say with some certainty that the tokens in Hocus Poker do not.

Cost is a big factor and something I’m painfully aware of even as a designer (i.e. when I’m not wearing my publisher pantalones). In addition to the cost per unit, I have to consider the cost per run. The investment in making the game exist at all.

I was always struck by Jamey Stegmaier putting a guarantee on his games. You can return them within the first month, full refund, no questions asked. Am I willing to put a guarantee on the game? I should be. And, whether I use crowdfunding or not, would I be willing to put the full value behind the game to publish it myself? Again, I should be.

A few more notches on the bar, it seems.

The Roles

An insight I’ve gained working in a highly structured, professional game development environment is that different management groups have different priorities and responsibilities. I’m going to toss out an observation that I think is apt in regards to the board game space. The designer’s primary responsibility is the game and the vision. The publisher’s primary responsibility is to the customer. Now, this doesn’t mean the designer doesn’t care about the customer. Nor does it mean the publisher doesn’t care about the game. But, they each have their role and highest priority.

In applied language, this mean’s the designer’s role is to make the game great and find a home for it. The publisher’s role is to find great games and in some ways, act as the gate keeper and make the game successful in the market. This isn’t good enough, we pass. This is going to be good enough, but it needs more work.

If you’re self-publishing, as I’m seeking to do with some of my titles, like Hocus Poker, I suddenly have to fill both roles. I must do so viciously and with clarity. With Sol Rising, I get to wait for my publisher to say “it’s good, let’s ship it.” With Hocus, I have to carry that entire burden myself. Do you see the difference?

I have to bounce between devout belief and idealism in my design, then flip entirely to the side of stern, nigh-villainous publisher. It reminds me of the standard parenting tip that you can’t be both a parent and best friend and also shines light on why so many publishers don’t double as designers. Sure, they design stuff occasionally, but many people who are serious in the hobby focus on one or the other.

Great. Now I need to have long, detailed conversations with myself about my strengths and failings.

Peer Pressure

As a final parting note, good enough is defined by one’s peers. Nobody joins the NBA and says they aspire to be that second string dude who never gets to breakaway his breakaway pants. Note: That’s a John Mulaney joke I’m stealing. No, you point out the biggest, baddest dude (or dudette) and set that as your goal.

My adult life has been spent in PC games, so I look to Valve and Blizzard as standard setters. Firaxis too. You know, the guys who made Half Life 2, Portal, World of Warcraft, and X-Com.

In board games, I look to those who fill my shelf with great games. Gamewright, Academy, Plaid Hat, Portal, and GMT. They set the bar in my eyes, which may be the most ridiculous  thing I’ve stated yet. Selling 2500 copies pales in comparison, right?

It’s a long term haul, but it’s worth it. Look at how Blizzard could sell 10 million copies of a ham sandwich to their legion of fans. Look at how Plaid Hat redefines what one should expect to sell in pre-orders. Look at how Imperial Settlers sits comfortably on top of the Hotness the last few days, even with the Kennerspiel announcement (I realize this isn’t scientific AT ALL). In this excellent story about how Sid Sackson developed Acquire, I took note of how the author devoted a paragraph to praise Hans im Glück for their push to develop greatness. An excerpt:

“There are a number of exceptions, however – and none greater than the German publisher Hans im Glück.  They _actively_ rework designs; more than any other publisher I’m familiar with they are willing to completely rework a game in order to get more out of the central design that was submitted.”

That’s the reputation I seek, potentially foolishly. I seek it with the knowledge it may be 10 years and a half dozen games out. I also realize my little LLC might not survive that long.

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve gone over quite a few of the tools I use to gauge whether something is good enough. These included:

  • Among other things, if my mind is restless with the design, it might not be good enough.
  • Does the price per copy provide enough fun for my customers?
  • Is the game good enough to sell through in a marketplace full of excellent games?
  • Can I proudly put the game next to those of my favorites on my shelf?
  • Would I give it a guarantee?
  • Would I self-finance it?
  • Can I sign off on it both as a designer AND a publisher?

Is this good enough may then be a very easy question to answer with so many tools and data points. The hard part might not be answering it, but instead recognizing the answer and using it to inform your next steps.

Thoughts?

Table Top for Four, Please

Sol

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Sol Rising is about to enter the development phase with my publisher, Victory Point Games. They had a few existing obligations, such as their recently concluded Kickstarter for I Say, Holmes, and other games already in development. But, I’m happy to wait and I am SO thrilled to have the additional help and professional eyes on the project.

One of the first elements we’ve begun discussing are the components. Where to use tokens versus cards? How to maximize the efficiency of our token sheets and allow for enough space on the board. One thing we’ve discussed to reduce crowding is to make environmental effects like asteroids flat card stock pieces and Units thicker punch board that goes on top of it. Basically, make these flat pieces extensions of the board. This gives us the visual effect without requiring a massive board filled with bulky pieces.

The other cool development is the challenge from the publisher to create a proper 3-4 player mode. This has come to light in a few ways, some simpler than others.

  • We have proper rules and components to support space brawls (i.e. free to play mode) for 3-4 players in either team or free for all modes.
  • We have added a variant to 11 of the 12 campaign missions to allow for team play. Have an extra friend over and want to still play Mission 7? Okay! Add a few destroyers, modify this one rule, and go!
  • We’re trying to design a mini-campaign (3-6 missions) designed from the start for up to 4 players.

Now, all, some, or none of this might make it into the final version of the game. I want to be clear that in development, things can change. The good news is, this is a priority for VPG and me and we’re taking it very seriously.

So, what does it mean to craft a campaign that works with 4 players instead of 2? My immediate thought was to simply add more units. Just make every fight bigger. But, that seemed really boring. Players already have big fights in the 2 player campaign. The last 3 Missions are already large fleet battles that don’t need modifications to support 4 players. Teams just divide up ownership, like they would in a big game of X-Wing, and go at it.

We return to the question. How do we make a campaign that is unique and interesting for 4 players? The answer was staring at me from the 2 player campaign. One of my goals for the campaign was to make it highly replayable and make every scenario unique for both players. In most missions, opposing players have divergent objectives. One might want to capture something, whereas the other is simultaneously trying to escort ships to safety. One is on a mission of destruction, whereas the other is trying to bide their time for reinforcements. Each player had a unique perspective and outlook on the mission.

Therefore, the task was simple, at least in thought: give each player in the mission, all 4, a unique perspective. Give every player something special. The hope, then, is that each player has a lot of replayability. “Ooo! I really want to be in command of the landing force next time.” Or, “Playing as the station commander looked interesting.”

There’s a rabbit hole of complexity I can chase, but I think if I frame it from the outset, give myself a box with limits, it’ll lead to faster development and stronger, simpler choices.

Neptune

Fictionally, this will be a separate story that takes place after the events of the campaign in the Jovian belts. At the end of that campaign, the Martian squadron in Neptune departs to reinforce the Jovian fleet, which has left Neptune exposed. Not so much to Terran forces, but to the pirate fleets that raid planets in the outer rim. Unlike Mars and Terra, Neptune doesn’t have an official navy per se, but a police force. I’m introduce Fleet Marshal Georgia Ark, who has been tasked to use her limited resources to track down the pirates and put a stop to them. In the absence of Martian fire power, and with the knowledge that they won’t return soon, the pirates have grown more aggressive, violent, and greedy.

HAE_6

Within this fiction, I see some opportunities:

  • The pirates should behave differently.What this means right now, I don’t know. But, thinking in the spirit of organizations not strictly hierarchical, I see pirates as being more independent, more nimble. I see them having less firepower, but also more tricks. Component wise, my challenge is to do this without adding new cards. I can probably add some cards to help clarify rules, but I’ll need to re-use existing ships.
  • The police should behave differently than the fleet. They won’t have the same resources as the military. They won’t have as much firepower. I want to make Fleet Marshal Ark a crafty character. She knows she has her hands tied. She knows her task is difficult. Thinking like an FBI agent on a stakeout, what can she do to bring down the pirates?
  • Every player should have one Objective. This will be geared towards the Units assigned to them. The Objectives of players on the same team might not always complement each other. This means teams will need to decide where to focus. Or, perhaps really crafty (and lucky) teams can pull off both.
  • If the campaign is shorter, I can experiment with more pronounced persistent effects. It was important in the longer, 12 mission campaign to not completely hose one-side after a single misstep. If the campaign is 12 sessions, and half of them are a foregone conclusion, that’s not fun. But if there are only 3-6?
  • Continuing that previous bullet, I can try to really work within a few settings. Perhaps Neptune orbit, a nearby asteroid, and one of Neptune’s moons. If I know these are my 3 stages, there could also be a very limited choice structure. Perhaps the cops can say “we’re deploying these guys to investigate a lead on the moon.” Again, with greater constraints in the setting, I have more flexibility.

Pirate_flag_ship_bridge

The initial process here will be lengthy. It will take time to get the first one right, then the second one as I incorporate new persistent elements and mechanics. But, I imagine like with the first campaign, once I pin down the formula and the system, it’s just a matter of work. Write it, script it, test it.

What about this setting excites you? What would you like to see? Your ability to evolve Sol Rising is quite high at this point! We’d love to know what you think.

As you were, Fleet Marshal.

The Love of the Craft

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Just some musings tonight.

I had a really rough day at work, and frankly, it’s been a rough few weeks. We’re in the final stages of The Sims 4, a team I’ve been on a few years. It’s a big deal and it’s a game that means a lot to my studio, my company, our shareholders, our fans, and all that. Long hours and tough decisions.

I lean on my comforts in these times. The things that just bring basic joy and don’t task me. Taking an extra lap at the park with the corgi and Beth. Getting Chinese food on a Wednesday night when we should cook the groceries in the fridge. Also, tinkering with my games.

It’s maybe silly to say, but it’s almost like medicinal design. There’s a rhythm to reading my rules documents. Creating new card mocks for ideas dancing around my head. Laying out the ships for Sol Rising for the millionth time in piles according to ship type and rethinking each one for its relative balance and cost. Evaluating the wording.

There’s a flow to it all. I’m constantly learning, as if I’m in a class in which I’m both the student and syllabus creator.  I get to learn about creative and technical writing. I study economics, “realistic” space combat, and often overlooked historical periods. I experiment in graphic design in order to better learn the visual language that fuels our medium and so much of our lives.

I don’t fully understand how people function without such a hobby. If I didn’t have this second career to drive me, teach me, and entice me with creative freedom I would just spin into madness. There is a joy to this toil that supersedes the end goal. I’m legitimately delighted to watch my game played, watch it work, watch it provide enjoyment, then see a way to improve it.

It wasn’t always this way. It took years, really. I remember when I first started I kept asking how many times I had to type, print, cut, and glue the damn cards together. Would it be after every test? Would the game ever get better? No. It wouldn’t. But, the next one did. The next a little more. There’s an awkward discomfort initially, even in the privacy of your own study, that is the result of your incompetence. Others may not yet know you’re terrible, but if you’re honest with yourself, you do.

You develop a thicker skin, but with time, confidence and comfort in what you do at least know. I’ve always found beauty in routines, which is why I shave most days, exercise, walk my dog, all without a misstep. I like the feeling of it and game design is no different. As I sit down every day with a notebook to doodle, or a rule set from a respected designer, or an in-progress mess from a respected peer, or the tattered desk chair I’ve hauled around since college, I find solace in the work.

Therefore, on this day of disappointment and frustration, I think about the craft fondly as it’s a perpetual bright spot in my life. It’s my thing. Not uniquely, but still entirely and unquestionably mine. I’m fueled by the work, the sparks, and those euphoric moments when contracts arrive and fans tell you they had a good time with your creation.

With design, I get to craft worlds and be a little tiny Willy Wonka. I think that’s so very cool, and it’s a thought I cherish. Today was rough, but I re-balanced my Bomber squadrons and I feel so much better.

The Evolution of Dune to Rex

Dune

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Frank Herbert’s Dune released in 1979. Based on the novel of the same name, the game was, and still is, considered to be one of the best games of all time. On BoardGameGeek the game is currently ranked 109 overall, 21 for thematic games, and 75 for strategy games. This is an incredible legacy for a game that is now about 35 years old if my math serves me correctly.

In 2012, Fantasy Flight Games released Rex: Final Days of an Empire. They licensed the mechanics, developed them, but were unfortunately unable to attain the license, hence their use of their wholly owned Twilight Imperium universe.

Before I go further, I want to provide context. Dune is one of my favorite books of all time, easily top 3. I’ve read it multiple times and am currently in the middle of re-reading the series. I love this universe. One of my side projects for the past few weeks has been to chase down an original copy of the board game, almost purely due to my love of the franchise, cost be damned. As luck would have it, my friend Josh had a spare copy (what?) and I had some games in which he was interested. The trade hath commenced.

This past Sunday I played Rex for the first time and just loved it. I should have played it years ago, but I must admit I was turned off by its reputation. I expected a 35 year old game to be a clunky mess, and, paired with FFG’s reputation for very complex games, I think that’s fair. But, the game was anything but. It was actually simple, incredibly thematic, and very deep. Yes, I’m a very experienced board gamer now, so simple is a relative mark.

The thematic intuitiveness of the actions and characters was so strong I could identify Dune’s fingerprints throughout without having read about the original game. I could practically taste the spice. I didn’t see Rex’s characters, but those of Dune. I just loved the game and found myself on BGG reading the rules for Dune the following morning to see the differences.

I began taking notes to email my friends about the differences between the two versions and it was a very fascinating exercise. It provided a glimpse as to Fantasy Flight’s thinking as they developed the 1979 game for 2012. It seemed like an interesting, though admittedly niche post, to analyze these things.

This post will be more interesting if you’ve played either Dune or Rex, or have at least read either of their rule books. Familiarity with the fiction will also help.

Final Note: This is NOT meant as a gameplay or strategy analysis. Absolutely not after a single play of one of the games. Also, I might get a few notes wrong. If this is the case, please leave a comment and I’ll correct it!

Rex

A quick overview to Dune and Rex. This is meant to give you a general idea to how the games play. It is meant as a summary for the purpose of this article, not a conclusive run down.

The board is divided into territories, some of which are strongholds. The game is won if a player controls a certain number of strongholds. Players may ally and they win together if they control a number of strongholds together, which is in excess of those needed for a solo victory. Alliances can be broken and changed at specific times in the game.

Every player has a unique, asymmetric ability that outright breaks the game. This is from the team that brought you Cosmic Encounters. It made me giggle even before playing the game.

Every round follows these steps (orders vary between versions):

  1. Influence Phase. Determine where currency is located on the board. This is the best way to get income and forces players to move around the board. It’s a balance between claiming income and taking over strongholds. One player gets to see where it’ll be placed the previous round, which gives her a way to plan ahead.
  2. Bidding Phase. Players bid openly on very powerful cards that nobody can see. The cards are all face down. Oh wait. One of the players has a power that she examines them! And one player receives all the income that’s paid to buy them, essentially making them the bank and the richest player in the game.
  3. Recruitment Phase. Players have a limited reserve of Units. When they die, they go to the recruitment space on the board. In this phase, players pay to remove them from this space and add them back to their reserves to be deployed back to the board. This can be a huge drain on your economy. Players may recruit some units for free based on their faction. This lets some players play fast and loose with their casualties.
  4. Maneuver Phase. Players add units to the board and move units.
  5. Battle Phase. If multiple players occupy a space, they fight. This is a brilliant design. Players simultaneously and secretly choose how many units they are willing to lose. They will lose these regardless and may spend up to the number in the space. They then must select a leader, who has a value (1-6, typically). They may also play 1 defense and 1 attack special card (the ones bid upon earlier). They then reveal. Players compare their Leader’s Value + Sacrificed Units value + card modifiers. Highest number wins. Loser loses all units. There is a twist in that players start with 1 traitor card (one player gets more). This matches a specific leader. For example, I may have the Traitor for your 3 value Leader. I can play it in the battle after you reveal your leader. This kills your leader and immediately cots you the battle.
  6. Collection Phase. Remember the currency placed earlier? For every unit you have in a space with currency, you gain 2 of the currency.
  7. Bombardment Phase. This is a fleet of ships in Rex and the storm in Dune. Every round it moves 1-6 spaces in order around the board. All currency and units it passes over or stops on are removed, except in specific cases. This is brilliant in that it forces you to move, prevents passive, overly defensive play, and can create opportunities on the board. Oh, one player knows about the storm’s movement.

The game is a fairly straightforward game of managing your income and units to hold territory on the board and maximizing your character advantages. It is, however, full of deception, unexpected moments when people cash in their secrets, and treachery.

A List of Changes from Rex to Dune.

  • The storm phase is at the beginning of the round in Dune, not the end. I’m curious  why they would change this. Perhaps it’s easier for the player to think “end of round equals destruction” instead of beginning of the next, which can be overlooked?
  • The storm and first player rotates counter-clockwise in Dune. This is one of those counter-intuitive things that doesn’t seem to have a good reason. Generally, clockwise is the correct decision unless you have a very good reason.
  • Players arrange their pawns around the board, almost like positions on the clock. The first player for the round is the player whose pawn will be next passed by the storm. This is a slightly more complicated way than just passing a first player token, as in Rex. However, this mechanic DOES mean that first player might not shift every round, which is interesting. Complexity and variance versus simplicity and more predictable rounds?
  • Dune ends after 15 rounds (if nobody has met the victory condition), instead of 8. However, an official variant recommends 10 rounds for a more reasonable length game. I felt 8 for Rex was a smidge short in terms of need to progress the game, though with 4 new players, 8 rounds took us 2.5 hours.
  • In Rex, verbal deals are non-binding, but you cannot exchange Influence (currency) at any time . In Dune, verbal agreements are binding. Furthermore, you can exchange Spice (the currency), but it can only be claimed at the end of the round. Here, I prefer Dune’s way of doing things. I’m curious why the change was made. My power was that I could give my ally money during the bidding phase. This is even more powerful if money passed in deals can only be claimed at the beginning. I, however, can give it to my friend when he needs it – now.
  • In Rex, everyone gets 2 free influence from the bank in addition to any they claim. In Dune, you only get 2 spice only if you have nothing. Pay attention here as this is one piece of the core differences — the economy.
  • In Dune, currency is only added to a single territory each round. In Rex, it’s added to two territories.
  • In Rex, once you pass in a bid for a single card, you cannot obtain that card. In Dune, if you pass, but the bid increases past what you passed on, you can re-enter the bidding. I think this is a subtle element that is probably fine to smooth out, though it does allow for a hint more in the way of bidding tactics.
  • In Rex, you may recruit up to 5 killed Units each round. In Dune, it’s only 3.
  • Dune has a fairly complex rule that states if a Leader is killed and revived, if they are killed again, they cannot be revived until all other killed leaders are revived and killed again. I think. I found this rule very confusing. I believe the intent here is to prevent you from just spamming your best leader repeatedly with abandon. It makes the Traitor mechanic more potent, in my estimation. I’m not sure the rule is worth the complexity though.
  • In Rex, you must move units first, then you may add new units. In Dune, you add units first, then you move them. This is a curious change. The cost to add units to enemy-occupied territory is more expensive, so I assume this forces you to move Units into the territory first, then add additional reserves at the higher price. Rex is generally looser with money than Dune, so I can see the reasoning for the change. With Rex, you have more money, so they need to put in new costs, which this change seems to supply.
  • In Dune, adding Units to a stronghold costs 1 per, or 2 per anywhere else. In Rex, it’s 1 per to an empty or friendly space, or 2 per to an enemy occupied space. This puts a greater emphasis on the strongholds in Dune and slows the game down slightly. It puts greater emphasis on managing your supply lines and planning ahead it seems.

dune___board_game_map_by_ilya_b-d34h16b

  • Dune’s board (see above) is divided into slivers, like a clock, which are called territories. During movement, players can move between sectors in adjacent slivers, but their units are always in one sector. Sectors may span multiple slivers. A battle is triggered if multiple enemies exist in a territory (the sliver), even if they are in multiple sectors. They can, however, be blocked by a storm in the middle as the storm moves between the sectors. Rex’s board (see below) just creates numbered sectors. I’m very curious how the balance changed, if at all, but I can say with absolute frankness that Rex seems to have streamlined this very appropriately. Of all the sections in Dune’s rules, the territory versus sector confused me the most. Typically, players see sectors as a control point and a path for movement. Dune abstracts that strangely and I feel, without playing Dune, FFG made the right call.

rex-board-game-fantasy-flight

  • In Rex, you simultaneously select your Units to spend and your leader. However, after revealing these,  you may choose which cards to play (though you pre-determine whether you will play cards, and you must use them if you chose to do so). In Dune, you submit everything at once. I think I prefer the tension and simplicity of Dune’s method.
  • In Dune, the winner of a battle gains Spice (currency) equal to the strength of all leaders killed in the battle. This bounty is a great boost in income that I find very compelling. In Rex, only certain cards do such things.
  • In Dune, once you use a Traitor cards, it’s shuffled back into the deck. In Dune, you regain the Traitor card. I find this fascinating. Once a traitor, always a traitor, eh? It also means you have a permanent, but now know disadvantage against certain enemies. The first step in avoiding a trap is knowing it exists, right? By the way, this bullet is full of sweet Dune references.
  • Players in control of certain spaces in Dune gain the Spice Harvester card, which grants them additional spice. It’s purely a flat rate in Rex, typically.

In addition to the main game, Avalon Hill released an advanced set of rules to develop the game further. Some elements of it are considered essential to the experience, whereas others are quite controversial. I’ll only discuss the ones that pertain to Rex.

  • Originally, Dune’s economy was considered overly strict. The new edition added Carryall and Smuggler bonuses, which were granted for controlling specific sectors and granted additional income. Rex handles this by giving everyone a flat 2 Influence every round. I actually like both methods. Rex’s mechanic is simpler, but Dune’s carries some nice nuance.
  • Advanced added the concept of supporting Units in battle. You could support each Unit in the battle at the cost of 1 spice. Supported Units gave their full value, whereas unsupported units provided half. Therefore, it would take 2 unsupported units to equal 1 supported unit. This is a bit complex and added a layer of math. It seems to be generally disliked by the community. I agree with this group.
  • In the Advanced Dune, they modified the amount of spice added each round from 1 to 2 territories, which is precisely what Rex employs. This added quite a bit more to the economy, which is potentially why they introduced the notion of supporting units. FFG inflated the economy, but removed some of its costs, as well.
  • Finally, the addition of the supported rule put the Fremen faction at a strong disadvantage. To address this, Fremen were considered supported (for free) when fighting outside of strongholds. In Rex, the faction I believe to be a Fremen faction is able to add units for free to certain zones and gains Units in the recruitment phase at a higher rate. Essentially, they have an economic advantage when bringing forces to bear in certain situations.

My Analysis. It seems very clear that Dune, overall, is a slower game, based primarily on its economic tuning. Units cost more to add to the board, they take longer to bring back from the dead, there is less money in circulation, no default income except when you are broke, and leaders are more difficult to revive.

The game, in this sense, is probably played with greater attention towards long term planning. Units are sent to battle more cautiously. It also gives a very big incentive for gaining the treachery cards (battle modifiers) and killing leaders via traitors. In our game of Rex, the cost of the Treachery cards was generally relatively low, primarily to hinder the player gaining the income for their purchase. I think if Treachery cards hold more weight, this bidding phase will be more lively and compelling.

For my personal tastes, and I think modern tastes in general, cutting the game in half (from 15 to 8 rounds), making sure everyone has income, and increasing the rate of bringing back troops seems to have the advantage of speeding up the game with fewer negative consequences.

However, I believe the best version of the game is a bit of the advanced Dune with some notes from Rex. 10 Rounds, with the Carryalls and Smugglers, 2 Spice blows, and binding negotiation throughout seems to be a really strong way to play. Regaining Traitors and having a bounty for killed leaders looks fantastic and really puts a proper edge on conflict. Also, with the troop limitations, but a little more income, I think it leaves a little currency for bribery and increasing the bids on the treachery cards, which then increase in value.

But, economics aside, it’s difficult to ignore some of FFG’s improvements. The new board is far simpler and in the best way. Having a guaranteed first player rotation might remove a layer, but it’s not one I think most people would miss. Shifting counter-clockwise to clockwise is just an obvious choice.

Some of the tactical decision are, I think, streamlined in the right way. Instead of stronghold versus non-stronghold, FFG put the increased deployment tax on enemy-held regions, which means you can move into open spaces freely. This makes them quite valuable, but you can’t just hot-drop into an enemy space without paying. They also swapped the order of movement and deployment. Therefore, while speeding up the game’s flow, they still preserved some difficult decisions on where and when to allocate troops.

I can’t wait to receive my copy of Dune. I fully plan to play it with a hand-picked assortment of rules to find the right balance of theme and mechanics. What a great game!

Conclusion. If you were to bring a classic into the modern era, what would you change? What would be your game of choice? Would you prioritize pacing and overall game length, reduce complexity, or seek to improve balance?

This also forces one to ask what must be preserved for the fans of the original. What considerations must be paid to new players? In fact, when you’re revising a classic, do you give consideration to the existing fans as customers at all, or do you plan to sell to a new generation? Money dictates planning and this is a great case where that’ll come into play.

Fantasy Flight have quite a bit of experience with this, with the list including Rex/Dune, Nexus Ops, Fortress America, Horus Heresy, and surely others.

I hope you enjoyed this lengthy piece. It’s a little different than my standard fare. My hope is that it has provided context to you for thinking about not just classics to revise, which is unlikely to be something you deal with, but revising your current designs to be more appealing to the current market. The ability to develop, revise, and iterate upon your design never really goes away. You really just have to choose a direction and stick to it.

What’s your direction, young Atreides?

Analysis Paralysis

Just before deadline

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A few pals were fretting over game group peers with analysis paralysis this morning. I wanted to write about the behavior as well as how you as a designer can work to limit it in your designs.

I don’t tolerate much analysis paralysis in my game groups. Honestly, it just doesn’t match my personality at all. I’m not impatient, but I do consider myself very decisive in my play and life. I pick a direction and I go. As soon as I find out I’m wrong, I redirect. Furthermore, I want to win when I play games, but not so much that I’m going to send my friends racing for their phones. I also like to see what happens, because sometimes that’s more fun than winning.

What is analysis paralysis? I define analysis paralysis, or AP, as when a player spends an unnecessary amount of time to make a decision in a game to the hindrance of the enjoyment of others playing the game.

I once took Blockade (which is now Sol Rising) to a prototype event. At this point the game was painfully simple and a player’s turn mostly entailed:

  • Choose which squadron to move (which was limited, so it was only 1-3 choices)
  • Choose where to move them (also limited by engines)
  • Choose a target to fire at (usually quite obvious or simple)
  • Roll dice

Essentially, reasonable players often took their turn in a minute or less. One gentlemen at this prototype event spent 45 minutes taking his turn. 45 minutes was typically the length of the entire game. The result of him doing this was that the other 3 players were entirely disengaged, bored, on their phones. I finally just thanked everyone for their help, told them I had the data I needed, and swept the game into a box.

A second example may be useful. Once, in a casual work league of Magic: The Gathering, a co-worker spent 15 minutes deciding which land to play on his first turn. I don’t know if you’ve ever played Magic, but a first turn is often a matter of seconds. It is often:

  • Play Mountain
  • Maybe tap Mountain to play first creature
  • “Your turn.”

In this case, my opponent spent 15 minutes, played his mountain, though a moment longer, DIDN’T PLAY anything, then said “your turn.” I never played him again.

Why is analysis paralysis bad? Games are meant to be a fun, multi-person shared experience. Games should be social and full of moments of interesting decisions, surprise, and tension.

One of the biggest threats to a board game and the experience are disengaged players. Smart phones, side conversations that don’t involve others, or distracted, disinterested play. If someone is spending an inordinate amount of time making a decision that doesn’t involve anyone else, this leads to distracted play. This will kill the experience. It can be perceived as a pretty selfish and rude way to interact. In a way, it’s like dominating a social conversation and not letting anyone else talk.

The only time I think AP is acceptable is in the context of a tournament. If there are stakes on the line, it’s totally fine to take a moment to make your decision. However, I think the best players are able to play decisively and without a million cycles of thought. Put in a chess clock to limit permanent spinning. The Plaid Hat guys did this after they had a few tournaments end in draws due to time.

What causes analysis paralysis? I consider myself to be a pretty decent observer of human nature and behavior. I think this is a strength of mine that directly benefits my designs when testing and developing. In my experience, analysis paralysis is often a result of a few key symptoms:

  • A strong desire to win: One could argue this strong desire is also unhealthy. Some people want to win very badly and really only gain fun from the experience if they win. A person who is no longer a part of my game group once admitted he was “desperate to win,” which is why he took so long. This is difficult to fix. If someone is hyper-competitive, regardless of the reason, you need to bring it up and discuss it. A simple, “hey dude, this is a friendly game” might do the trick. It might not.
  • Fear of making a mistake: This is a bit of a symptom of the previous notion, but some people are petrified of playing poorly. They can’t stand the thought of making the sub-optimal choice. Or, simple, they are afraid of being seen as foolish and stupid. The key thing you can do here is gently nudge them to make a decision and don’t criticize or belittle their decisions. It’s key to be welcoming, supporting, and encouraging. Still, people should play!
  • Confusion: If someone is confused, they may not make a decision. This could be another instances of fear of making a mistake. Sometimes this is the fault of the game — it could be very difficult or overly cumbersome. Sometimes the player is at fault. If someone isn’t paying attention, won’t get off their cell phone, sure, they’ll be confused. The key here is that as a host you need to know the game and teach it well. You need to work with various players to teach the game in a way that makes sense for them. I have a friend who cannot learn with a rules explanation. We have to essentially play for him to learn, which means I’m constantly introducing new mechanics as they enter the experience. Sure, it takes time, but it’s worth it to ensure everyone has fun.
  • Indecisiveness: Some people just cannot decide. They have too many options, or are afraid, or are a little confused, and they just can’t pull the trigger. There are studies that show people spending hours in the cereal aisle. Indecision can also be a sign of a lack of engagement. If someone doesn’t really care, and the “right” choice isn’t immediately apparent, they may just spin. In that case, it may be simply a case of “Bob, hurry and decide!” to make it clear he’s hindering the group. If someone doesn’t care enough to decide? Then it won’t really matter what they choose.

How can you limit analysis paralysis in your designs? There are a few really great ways to limit opportunities for analysis paralysis in your game design.

  • Uncertain Outcomes: If a player knows that playing X card will always render Y result, and they have 7 of these cards, you’re giving them the opportunity to slowly consider every option. However, if the card says play X card and draw 3 Chits, that is no longer a guarantee. If you say play X card and roll this die, you’re reducing the ability to math it out. I think the best uncertain outcomes have math that is easily understood. Generally speaking, your players should know if they are very likely, somewhat likely, or unlikely to accomplish their goal. When you play Rise of Augustus, you know the general chance of drawing the token you need for an “Ave Caesar!” After one or two rolls in King of Tokyo, you have a pretty darn good look at what’s likely to occur.
  • Imperfect Information: If your game has perfect, fully public information, you’re giving players an opportunity to run mental cycles on everything in the game. However, if someone has a hand of cards, or their perfect actions are muddied with uncertain outcomes, you’re reducing the value of pulling out Excel to run formulas.
  • Real Time: This isn’t appropriate for most games, but if everyone has to play the game at the same time with no breaks, you simply can’t be indecisive. This may be why some people hate real time games.
  • Limited Interaction: If a game is full of interaction, which is something I like, you’re making it very difficult for a player to understand what their opponent can do. This gives players the opportunity to consider not only their move, but the moves their opponents might make in response. I think games like Libertalia and 7 Wonders do a very good job of limiting the interaction. In 7 Wonders, you can only trade or go to war with your neighbors. Therefore, you only have two people to watch, and to do so in very simple terms. In Libertalia, you can only use the sword against your neighbors. Furthermore, cards like the mutineer only affect the top card. By limiting interaction, your reducing the number of possibilities in the matrix.
  • Provide Avenues to Catch Up: If you consider my suggested causes for analysis paralysis, you can also identify potential solutions. If someone is terrified of making a mistake, a clear solution is to provide ways for players to recover from poor play. This leads to a greater discussion of Catch Up Mechanics, but ultimately, I believe that in most cases, a single sub-optimal decision shouldn’t pitch someone out of contention for the win. If players know they are reasonably free to experiment and take risks, they’ll do so, and they’ll do so more quickly.
  • Hide Points, or obfuscate the victory: SAT word! If someone knows precisely how close they are to victory, or precisely how close they are in comparison to their opponents, you’re giving them the opportunity to min/max a great deal of things. Games like Small World make victory tokens private information. In Modern Art, my currency sits behind a screen. Or, put a slightly different way, in Twilight Struggle, only one player can have a scoring card at a time. This gives them the advantage the other must ascertain.

This post has gone on a bit longer than I’d like. Much like a player with analysis paralysis taking their turn! Ho ho, the jokes.

What are some other solutions to curbing analysis paralysis in your designs? Do you think I identified the causes well? Share your thoughts below in the comments!