Great Tension

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As a noun:

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

As a verb:

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

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

Constrain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obfuscate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tax

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

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

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

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

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

End It

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

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

Many games simply have a limited number of rounds.

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

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

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

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

A Production Leaflet

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Mel Brooks’ ‘The Producers’

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good communication is simple and follows a few clear rules.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mechanisms that Perturb

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want to do this.”

“Nope.”

“…Okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are your preferred methods of a game ending?

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

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

Do you know of a case where this mechanism works?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment below! Thanks for reading.

The Low Hanging Fruit

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

The beginning of a new design can be an overwhelming occasion. If you’re hiking Half Dome at Yosemite, which I recommend, the first time you encounter one of the very long and very steep climbs, you think, “why am I doing this?” It can be overwhelming, as I said, and you might not know exactly where to start.

If you’re anything like me, and experience tells me we all do things a little differently, you’re thinking of the big idea you hope to express with your game. The experience and the overall vibe. This might also pair with a component or mechanism you want to use, like dice, or a rondel, or worker placement, or perhaps another product defining point, such as player numbers or length.

So, you have the gist of an idea, potentially a mechanism or limiting factor (2 players only!) to restrain it some, then a huge cliff looking down upon you. “Go ahead!” it jests. “I won’t laugh.”

Eesh.

A trick I often use to calm my designer’s nerves and make progress in the appropriate direction is to seek out low hanging fruit. By this, I mean ways to make your task simpler, while still helping you craft a design that is unique, novel, and deserves to be played. One important thing to note is that merely identifying and championing these fruit doesn’t make the design task easy. The path from A to B is still fraught with disappointment. But, the goal is to get out of the wilderness sooner and find ways you can be unique from the start. Personally, I find my games’ most unique elements evolve through testing and iteration, and trying to identify that spark from the first step is, for me, impossible.

I’m going to provide a few quick examples of my personal experiences with designs and low hanging fruit, as well as throw out some other designs that I think similarly benefited. But, it’s just a guess!

Hocus Poker: At the outset, Hocus Poker (then Wizard Poker) was built around the notion of poker plus spells. The poker portion meant a similar deck of cards (suits and ranks), as well as the hands with which the world is familiar (flush, full house). But, we’ve always had guiding low-hanging fruit to constrain us creatively:

  • No player elimination. This is generally a universal no no. It works with actual poker, in which people are gambling, but not in a casual game.
  • No gambling. Poker is fueled by an exchange of currency. Hold ‘Em is miserable when you’re playing for jelly beans. We didn’t want a game that required people to spend money to have fun.
  • Cards only. This was primarily for publishing concerns (cost, box, complexity), but also for product elements such as portability and accessibility.
  • Design a game around card management, not bet management. If you remove money and player elimination, you need a fundamental shift.

None of these are brilliant insights! I think we can all agree they are rather obvious. These qualities took a year of development to realize, so our work was not done for us. But, by quickly gravitating towards easy differentiation, we could set forth productively.

Dawn Sector: When I began Dawn Sector in 2012, I was still relatively new to the hobby (which limited my knowledge of existing titles), but was also fiercely committed to shorter games. In the past year I’ve made a commitment to bring out longer games at game day, but in 2012 games that took more than an hour basically weren’t played. I wanted to make a war game, and a quick examination of top war games revealed some opportunities. I know these fruit aren’t exclusive to my game, but they aren’t super common either.

  • More than 2 players. So many war games are strictly head to head affairs. To me, there was an opportunity to expand that number to 4. That seemed obvious.
  • No player elimination. In 2 player war games, it’s fine to play until one side is expunged. With 3 to 4 players, that’s not fun. Although it has taken years to create a system that supports this, it was an obvious opportunity at the start.
  • As a partner to the previous bullet, all players needed to be involved, engaged, and viable until the end. It’s far simpler to say ” nobody is eliminated” than “you’re all in it until the end unless you play heinously.”
  • Short play time. Many war games range from 90 minutes to 6 hours. One of the reasons Memoir ’44 is so popular is due to its short play time.

You’ll see that none of these are mechanisms, thematic ideas, or even component suggestions. You can do this with many genres! For example, if you want to make a worker placement game, what are the easy things to change? Well, exclusive spaces could be something you get rid of. Changing the available spaces is also an idea. Most auction games require at least 3 players. Can you craft one that is compelling with 2?

Imperial Settlers: This is one of 2014’s top rated games and one I’ve been enjoying myself as well. Ignacy is a favorite designer of mine and I found his efforts on this game deeply inspiring. As many of you probably know, Imperial Settlers is a new game built on the engine of 51st State, which is a game of Ignacy’s that came out a few years ago.

51st State is very well regarded, and still has expansions coming out, but it is known for being incredibly complex, intricate, and detailed. As he does with all of his games, Ignacy has written at length about it on his blog. Go find them! (I’m lazy)

Looking at 51st State and Imperial Settlers, Ignacy tackled, in my opinion, some low hanging fruit.

  • Imperial Settlers has very few limitations. You aren’t gated on the number of cards, or duplicates of cards. You aren’t gated on the amount of resources you can collect, or how many deals you can have. If you can play it, you can do it. This leads to some nuttiness, but that’s OKAY. There are just fewer rules. Few exceptions.
  • The presentation is incredibly approachable. The characters are cute, chubby, and colorful. There are little cartoon sword tokens for combat (like Zelda!). There are cute little wooden apples and pink little people. It’s such a fundamental shift from apocalyptic 51st State, but man, it’s such a clear opportunity.

I can’t speak as intimately about it, but from my understanding, the above strategy is largely what the Privateer Press team applied to Warmachine as they looked to compete with Warhammer 40k. You can also see this strategy in much of Blizzard’s work in the digital space. World of Warcraft is a director’s cut of what is/was great about MMOs that came before it. League of Legends is a director’s cut of Defense of the Ancients. Taking something fun, distilling, and focusing it, are great fruits to pluck.

Finally, and I’ve written about this at length in a previous post, is the conversion of Dune to Rex by Fantasy Flight Games. That team clearly examined the game’s history, the balance debates, and did so through the lens of modern consumer tastes (versus those of the 70s and 80s). As a result, I believe they targeted a few fruit:

  • Shorter play time. Rex plays in around 2-3 hours, whereas Dune seems to be more a 3-4 hour game. That hour is really crucial.
  • More forgiving economy. The original Dune economy was incredibly tight and, if someone played poorly, could effectively eliminate you from the game. The new economy is designed to counter that.

There are other details, but those are two keys for this discussion.

When I examine games I love, I’m constantly reminded of how much one can improve a game by expediting the game’s pace and rate of player involvement. City Hall, a current favorite, is a 90 minute to 2 hour game, but every player is involved in every decision. Nobody is ever checked out as they must remain engaged.

Dead of Winter is so innovative as it reduces downtime AND infuses story by providing Crossroads cards and personal goals, which makes the traitor mechanic more interesting than usual.

Another constant that seems to be useful is replacing a standard component with something else. Instead of a pawn, use a die in worker placement. Instead of a miniature, use a card in tactics games. Figuring out which component to use isn’t obvious, but the starting point can be to take a standard favorite, and just pick a few elements.

What are some low hanging fruit you’ve plucked for your designs? What other examples can you share from games you’ve played? Start the discussion in the comments below.

My Favorite Games of 2014

WarGames

Post by: Grant Rodiek

It’s always fun to think back upon the year and reflect on the best games. I’m still relatively new to the hobby (only about 5 or so years), which means I don’t typically hold myself to 2014 releases. Instead, I like to comprise a list of games new and new to me that really stood out in 2014.

My list is based on games I felt really stood out, that I played sufficiently to judge, and that I’d easily recommend to others. I make up weird categories in some cases, because I’m a rebel like that.

Most Played Game: Star Realms (702 Digital Plays, 32 Tabletop plays)

If you followed my Ascension career closely, in which I played almost 2000 games, you won’t be too surprised to find that I played a LOT of Star Realms. And it’s so easy to see why. This is pound for pound one of the best $15 games out there.

The game is essentially Ascension v1.5. The designers removed the clumsy point tallying at the end, or monsters versus normal cards, or questionably integrated Constructs (speaking of the base game, specifically). The direct conflict model of points is a real delight and the game doesn’t feel mean or vindictive. I was also really surprised to find the game plays well in team mode, which is why I own two copies.

The expansions should be hitting for Star Realms VERY soon. I can’t wait to play them in 2015.

Favorite Euro: Ra (3 plays)

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This is a fantastic game. Once again, Knizia finds an incredibly clever way to introduce a bidding mechanic. Every player has a few Sun tokens, with a number that ranges from 1-16. As tokens are drawn, they are placed in a group together. Tokens are worth points in a variety of ways — typical stuff. When you bid, you bid one of your numbers, highest number wins. You then lose the number and swap it with the one previously spent: sometimes lower (much lower), sometimes higher (the highest!).

The game is so clever and plays with up to 5 people in a lunch hour. I highly recommend this outstanding Knizia for those so inclined.

Second Favorite Euro: Evolution (4 plays)

Evolution is my kind of euro: simple, thematic, and highly interactive. In the game, players are using cards in a variety of ways to carefully evolve their species in hopes of gaining enough food. Species can be given new traits that grant interesting abilities, merely strengthened, or fed to grow in population.

What’s most compelling about the game is that it’s interactive – carnivores exist. They will eat you. Because of this, evolution actually takes place. Something I greatly dislike in many games is the complete lack of arc. Turn 1 is the same as turn 2 is the same as turn 3. In Evolution, you must constantly rethink your creatures and evolve them to remain on top. It’s a tense game that plays in well under an hour and is beautifully illustrated. Give it a look!

Note: I almost didn’t present this category because, as you can see, I didn’t really play many Euros this year. I find my tastes have shifted and I really don’t chase down euros much. I’m really looking for clever mechanics, player interaction, emergent play where possible, and lately, Euros aren’t scratching that itch. We’ll see where my tastes go in 2015.

Favorite Money Drains: Netrunner and X-Wing

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I think everyone needs to have a game series they just love. Something where every expansion is gobbled up and they giggle as they open another box or pack. I have two of these: Netrunner and X-Wing. Both of these games are a few years old now, and neither are new to me in 2014, but they played such a prominent role in my 2014 gaming that they are worth discussing.

Netrunner is a game that I’ve bought content for, but haven’t played largely until this year. My friends and I made it a priority to play this year and it was totally worth it. This is a beautiful game, with deep asymmetry (which I love), great theme, and so much flexibility.

X-Wing is a game I’ve played steadily since launch, but I think the new releases, particularly the Aces packs and Phantom are just phenomenal. They are really injecting great new content into this game that keeps me excited. Every time we play we try something new and that’s saying something.

What impresses me most about both of these is just how well they are designed. We are never confused about a Netrunner card or new pilot in X-Wing. The content is so polished and it just makes sense. No, we don’t do tournament play, so perhaps we’re missing some shoddy tuning here and there. But as far as I can tell, these are just wonderfully developed products. That’s something to appreciate as a consumer and aspire towards as a creator.

Favorite Co-Op: Legends of Andor (8 plays)

Andor

I had a few I played this year, but the one that really excited me was Legends of Andor. I think the game is just incredibly cool. I like how it combines a tightly scripted narrative with dynamic sandbox elements. It, along with Robinson Crusoe and Mice and Mystics, have been big inspirations for Sol Rising.

I held off playing this game for a long time due to criticisms that the game had no replay factor. But, I’ve played several of the scenarios multiple times and have enjoyed them each play. Which characters you use and how events unfold can really change the story.

I’m also impressed at how clean and tight the game’s mechanics are. I’m not really an elegance guy. It’s not something I really crave. But, Andor is quite elegant and I find in this case, it really helps shine light on the cool story elements. This is a great game and I sincerely hope somebody imports the German expansions soon as I’m almost finished playing all the scenarios.

Favorite Weird Ass Game: Cube Quest (23 plays)

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Let me break this down quickly. Each player, behind a wall, sets out up to 25 cubes in any orientation. Create walls, towers, minefields…whatever. You then remove the wall. On your turn, you flick a cube, some with special properties, in an attempt to knock off your opponent’s king cube.

Hilarity ensues.

Second Weird Ass: Mysterium (3 plays)

I’m a huge fan of Dixit. It’s one of the prizes of my collection. Earlier this year, I picked up Concept at the recommendation of so many. They weren’t wrong! But, it wasn’t quite for me. The game was a bit…binary? I’m not sure. Well, enter Polish game companies. Mysterium combines the abstract fuzzy, weird art with the crime solving path of Clue. One player, a ghost, gives you completely bizarre cards that represent “dreams.” You must use the clues in these cards to identify the weapon, the location, and the culprit. This is a very challenging and very amusing game that plays with 7 people in under an hour. There aren’t many games that do that and it’s why Mysterium is so special.

Favorite Filler:  Colossal Arena (5 plays)

Damn you Knizia! You’re so good and prolific. Colossal Arena is a fairly old Fantasy Flight Game that you can snag for $20. How old? Well, it uses a Clippy (yes, that Clippy) like character to teach you the rules. It’s incredible.

In the game, you and up to 4 others play as folks better on a monster filled arena. 8 monsters enter, and after 5 rounds or the deck runs out, far fewer will exit. You bet on the monsters, but here’s the trick: your bets are worth more the sooner you place them. Sure, you might bet on the Colossus now, but now he’s a big fat target for others to take down.

On your turn, you play 1 card, numbered 1-10, to one of the surviving monsters. Once every monster has a card for the round, and one of them has the lowest card, the round’s over and the monster with the lowest card dies. There’s also some special abilities, but that’s about it. Oh, and some truly nasty fragile alliances. This is a really great game.

Second Filler: Red7 (9 plays)

I really enjoy Red7. It hasn’t been a huge hit with my friends, who range from “cool” to “eh”, but I think the game is quite clever. W. Eric Martin of BGG News described it as the introductory Chudyk. I think of it as an adult’s Uno.

The game gives you a hand of 7 cards, each of which can change the rules of the game or help you win the game under the current rules. It’s a nice little twist to figure out when to play what cards and how to deliver the game winning surprise towards the end of the round to know everyone else out.

Favorite Abstraction: Tash-Kalar (6 plays)

It’s a bit odd having a category for this, as I don’t really play abstracts, but I think this game is fantastic and I needed a category. What I love most about this game is that you feel really clever, but there isn’t too much work. It is somewhat like a brain burner, but doesn’t come with the headache afterwards. You know what Tash-Kalar is? It’s the Coke Zero that doesn’t taste bad. 0 calories but all the flavor. Basically, it’s a mythical light beer.

The first time you play Tash-Kalar you struggle with which shapes to create, how to defy your opponent, and how best to use creatures. But even in that first game, you soon see through the Matrix and you spot the patterns. It becomes dead simple, or so it seems, and then the real game begins.

Not recommended with more than two players.

Best Social Experiment: One Night Werewolf (25 plays)

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For a while there, I was really into the Resistance. We played it quite a bit, then I grew tired of it. I felt like every game was just shouting for 25 minutes, followed by some lucky guesses. It felt like a meandering party game.

Then I obtained Coup, and I was really into it. I played it well over 30 times. Then, I grew tired of it. It just wasn’t very dynamic. It didn’t have enough flexibility in its framework to do crazy things.

Then a friend brought One Night Werewolf. After 25 plays, just this year, I’m still in love. Then again, I can’t say no to a lustrous fur pelt.

One Night does a few things I really love. Most importantly, it provides enough pieces of a puzzle that can actually be solved while still providing an enormous stage for social delight. A friend might declare they are the trouble maker and reveal the two they swapped. Then a few minutes later note that was a lie. Then again, note that last one was a lie. But no, seriously. I’m, I mean, he, is telling the truth. The first time you play a Villager you think, ugh, I have nothing to do. But, then you get creative. I’ve had some of my most fun designing ways to be influential and helpful as a villager.

One night is Brilliant with a B (because that’s how you spell it, guys). I’m a little less excited by the expansion, as I find it just leads to chaos and too much info, but really, we can pare that back and just use a few new ones each game. One Night is social deduction best in class. Full stop.

Favorite Game of 2014: Combat Commander: Europe (5 plays)

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I really like tactical war games, particularly about the World War II theater. I have more or less everything that’s been sold for Memoir ’44, and I hope to one day play it all. But, I was eyeballing Combat Commander on BGG. Yes, it was less glossy, and yes, it was a much longer game, but the love for it seemed to be unanimous. I asked Josh about it and he gave it every thumb he had. He then found a few others and forced them to also provide thumbs.

I think Combat Commander is a masterpiece of design. It creates these awesome situations full of heroism, bad luck, clever ideas, and dynamic moments. A fire may force your men out of their cover form the woods. A Russian hero may rise to charge the machine gun nest. A sniper may pop your officer, causing your entire flank to crumble. It does all of this with a beautiful card system that is used to initiate actions, roll the dice, and trigger events.

What I love most is that the game isn’t fair, but it’s intensely fun. And war isn’t far. Nor is it predictable. Great commanders figure out what to do when the moment of decision comes. That’s what I find so compelling about this game.

The game is such a great sandbox and I think it’ll be hugely influential over me for quite some time. I’ve already purchased the large Mediterranean expansion and 2 of the battle packs (Paratroopers and Stalingrad). I can’t wait to play them all.

Second Favorite: Rex: Final Days of an Empire (4 plays)

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Dune is one of my favorite works of fiction of all time. Though Rex replaces Dune’s original theme with the uber generic Twilight Imperium universe, the mechanics are so deeply intertwined with the theme that like Muad’dib, I can see it even though it’s not exactly in front of me.

Rex streamlines and smooths the incredible Dune experience for the 21st century. If you enjoy dudes on a map, deeply asymmetric gameplay, negotiation, and fragile alliance,s you must play this game. The asymmetric powers are a delight, the combat system will force you to think and rethink every step, and the layers within layers theme of Dune is so present in the game. It’s such a gem.

Third Favorite: Race for the Galaxy (plus the cards for Gathering Storm so we can play with 5) (7 plays)

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The first time I played this, maybe as soon as round 2, I said aloud “holy crap this game is incredible.” And it is. Once you get past the icons, which present a steep cliff face of learning, you’ll encounter an infinitely replayable game of constantly interesting decisions.

You pick a strategy, and then you go for it. And if and when the cards you need don’t come, you must evolve and cast your lot with something else. Every card has so many uses and the game has so much compelling room for mastery. This is a brilliant masterwork of card design. There’s a reason it’s so beloved. What an exceptional design!

What did you think? What did I get wrong? What were my stand out choices? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

How to be a Great Recommender

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Christmas is upon us. Unlike previous years, people seem to be coming out of every nook and crevice to ask me for a game recommendation to buy a friend or loved one a board game. It seems my “healthy” obsession has become widely known.

Word of mouth recommendations are the single greatest form of advertising ever created and I get really excited when someone comes to me for a recommendation. Especially with a board game. I realized driving home tonight that I more or less spoil my ability to be surprised by games. I’m able to buy more or less any game I want and I frequently act on that. Unlike the vast majority of normal consumers, many of us in the hobby forget that most people buy 1-3 games each year. That’s it. If I did that, it’d be really awesome to get a new game for Christmas! Instead, I buy everything and my family just ignores the hobby as a gift idea. After all, I probably already have it.

Therefore, it’s really key for me to give someone a great recommendation. I want them to be excited to dig into the rules as soon as they open the box. I thought about the way I typically go through my recommendation process and thought I’d share it for the two of you interested.

How does one become a great recommender? Come along and I’ll tell you.

Ask about the recipient’s experience with games. This is incredibly important. You don’t want to buy Robinson Crusoe for someone who hasn’t played many board games. Similarly, someone who has played many lengthy, meaty games and enjoys them may not be terribly keen on King of Tokyo.

A co-worker’s wife heard about Mice and Mystics, heard it was good for children, and asked him to look into Mice and Mystics. He asked me. I love this game and have played it extensively. But, I couldn’t recommend it for my friend and his 8 year old daughter. Why? They don’t play board games hardly at all. The core, minute to minute experience of Mice revolves around moving your character and attacking a bad guy. That’s dead simple. But, managing gear, dealing with scenario elements like crossing the water (which is in the first scenario!), the surge, the special behavior of Brodie…it can get complicated.

You have to remember that there’s a language that comes with board games. We may not think about it, but there are many things that come for granted. There’s a language, understood mechanics, and a way to just “get” things. Games like Catan and Ticket to Ride and Pandemic really succeed outside the core hobby market because they don’t get too caught up in “inside baseball,” as they say.

Find out their experience first. This is so key.

Ask how many players they tend to play with. Someone may want a game to play with their wife. They may want a 3-4 player game for their lunch group. They may want a game they bring out for social gatherings.

You have to remember that you aren’t buying a game for yourself, but them. I’ve asked this question now to four groups and I’ve received four different answers. After their experience and knowledge with games, you must ask about the player number.

Ask about any currently owned games. Let’s avoid this low hanging spikey fruit. Don’t recommend a game they currently have! But also, detect a pattern, if possible. Now, chances are someone who “plays board games” has Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride. That’s totally fine! You know where they stand and their current level of experience.

Ask if they like a certain theme. But, remember, they probably don’t think in terms of mechanics or theme. The loved one asking you most likely doesn’t either. Therefore, think in terms of a way that might help you. Are they into fantasy? Science fiction? Do you think they’ll really care about the story elements?

By now, there are several deckbuilders with many different themes. You can find many war games from every time, space, and fictional void. If they might go “ooo” when they see an orc on front, ask!

Ask about price. Ideally, the asking pal is comfortable with the $30-50 range. Unfortunately, our hobby isn’t great for discount shoppers (typically). If they’re within that range, it won’t be a limiting factor. But, if it’s a stocking stuffer they seek, you’ll really narrow your search.

Give three suggestions. I always like to provide a few suggestions, all that fit the parameters, to give the gift giver the final say on what to buy. Not everyone loves this, they just want to be told what to buy. That’s why you can rank them for them. But, I find that for many people, if you give them three, and say that every one of them is great fun, you’ll give them an opportunity to think about it and apply their own personal touch.

This all seems completely obvious, but I thought it was a fun topic to discuss. Hopefully it helped you, or at least helped pass the time.

Do you have any suggestions or recommendations? List them in the comments below!

Interview with Nat Levan

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Interview by: Nat Levan and Grant Rodiek

I’m fascinated by weird and unique themes and historical takes on games. I’m also interested in how we can use uncomfortable topics as a teaching opportunity. Even better, an entertaining one. I asked Nat Levan at BGG if he’d be interested in an interview. Avast! He was!

Nat Levan is the designer of New Bedford, which is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter.

My questions will be prefaced by Hyperbole Games (HG), with Nat’s responses as Nat Levan (NL).

Hyperbole Games: Hi Nat! Introduce yourself. Who are you and what should we know about you? What’s a good northeastern greeting for us west coast types to latch onto?

Nat Levan: I’m Nat Levan. I’ve been into board games for about 4 years. I started designing about 2 and a half years ago. I work as a structural engineer by day, so I fit one of those game designer stereotypes. I live in the Philadelphia Suburbs. Is that Northeastern to the rest of the country?

HG: East of the Mississippi, so…yes! You’re here, obviously, to discuss New Bedford. This is your midweight euro published by Dice Hate Me Games. Give us the high level rundown.

NL: New Bedford is my first complete game design. It’s set in the mid-19th century at the height, and center of the historic whaling industry. The base mechanic is worker placement, but the initial pool of actions in the town is small. Players develop the town by adding buildings with more powerful actions, so the town actually grows as time passes. The new actions become available to everyone, at a slight cost.

You can also launch ships to go whaling, sending them out into the ocean to slowly collect whales each round via a draft. But as the game progresses the whale population declines, and you’ll encounter more and more empty sea. Eventually the ships return, and you need to make enough money before then to pay the sailors a share of the profits. You need to balance building, earning money, and whaling to win.

HG: What is the coolest part of New Bedford?

NL: Well, first, the whaling is the part I’m most proud of. It’s actually been almost untouched since the very beginning. I love the subtlety of deciding when to whale. If you go too early, other players can launch later and have better choice in the draft. To late and you won’t have time to collect enough whales. Drawing whale tokens naturally reflects the effects of over-harvesting, and becomes a big element in later rounds.

For me, the coolest part is seeing how the buildings all work together to support the town. You’re building up the entire industrial base. Developing all these buildings that work together, and making sure they are not only tempting to build and appropriately expensive for their value, but also thematically appropriate has been a long but fun journey.

HG: What are some of your favorite euros or like games? What inspired New Bedford? What were your goals?

NL: I’m so glad you asked the question like that. I found Agricola and Puerto Rico pretty early in my gaming history. I still really admire them, but don’t get much opportunity to play. I took what I really liked about them as inspiration for New Bedford, with the goal of making something I would play all the time. Both games have lots of replayability, but can take a while to set up and play, so I made New Bedford easier to pull out of the box. It also plays a bit faster.

I liked the more direct interaction from Agricola, but I didn’t like how limiting it felt for someone to block the space you need, so in New Bedford, you always have access to the basic actions. I liked how combinations of unique buildings help guide your strategy in both games but didn’t like how exclusive building felt, so buildings become available to everyone while rewarding the builder.

HG: Let’s move past New Bedford for a second: do you have a favorite theme? Or mechanic? What’s your ideal game to play?

NL: I don’t have a specific theme, but I seem to find myself drawn to themes of industrialization and growth. Especially the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution. I love being able to grow something small into something productive, so it should be no surprise that engine-building is my favorite mechanic. I like worker placement because it gives you that freedom of choice while tying your personal actions directly to actions within the theme.

HG: What drew you to the story of New Bedford (the town)? I’m intrigued by the premise of a town that used to be enormous and booming and is now a quaint portion of what it used to be. I imagine people never thought it would dwindle in the past.

NL: Well, Moby Dick is one piece of it. It’s a fascinating, incredibly important but largely ignored piece of American and world history. New Bedford’s story fits in perfectly with the industrialization I was just talking about. As late as the 1830s, New Bedford was still this fairly small and unimportant town, but in less than 20 years, it became, without exaggeration, one of the most important cities in the world. Then, in the same period of time, the industry fell apart due to over-harvesting of whales, the discovery of oil and invention of Kerosene, and unfortunate luck. People sort of forget that it was ever so important. The story would feel at home in ancient legend or fantasy, but it’s well documented history.

HG: I think games should teach and being up topics of history. I love Combat Commander, and I’m so excited to see the discussions Freedom have brought forth. I especially love the game documentary Dune. What is New Bedford teaching us? It’s about whales, so why does that matter?

NL: Some of the response to New Bedford has been negative due to the inclusion of whaling, which we expected. But the act of whaling isn’t depicted in the game at all. It deals with the industry on a higher level, and the historical impact. It’s interesting to see how the town grew to support the whaling industry. But what I really wanted to show, from the very inception, was how the industry grew too big without considering the effects of whaling, many of the whale species on which the industry depended almost disappeared. What makes whaling so insidious is that it the participants didn’t want the whales to disappear, but they couldn’t figure out any other options. The history and environmental lessons are one and the same.

HG: What else do you have in the works?

NL: Right now, I’m working a handful of small designs, because it’s a lot easier to playtest them. I don’t have anything in the pipe officially, but I’ll have a pile of games to take to UNPUB 5 in February in Baltimore. The most complete are a trick taking game about tailoring suits, and a 15 minute wonder building game that fits in a small bag. I’ve also got a couple of micro-games based on New Bedford and Brew Crafters (also from Dice Hate Me Games) that I’d like to show off for fun.

HG: Anything else you want to add?

NL: The last thing I want to say is that I feel really lucky with New Bedford. The response has just been overwhelming. I’m excited about the extras we have planned for the game, so I really hope we get the opportunity to put them in.

And a big thank you to my wife for putting up with all my traveling and talking about the game for the past few months. She loves games, despite the fact that I’ve been a pain to deal with. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me about New Bedford!

New Bedford is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter

10 Great Lunch Games

Sack-Lunch

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now for the less-obvious selections. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Appendix

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

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

Designing for The Deep Dive

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

Legends of Andor in play

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

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

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. 

dicegame

Mice and Mystics in play

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!

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.

Combat 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!