Raising My Bar

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few more notches on the bar, it seems.

The Roles

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

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

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

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

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

Peer Pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Thoughts

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

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

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

Thoughts?

Table Top for Four, Please

Sol

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neptune

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

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Within this fiction, I see some opportunities:

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

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

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

As you were, Fleet Marshal.

The Love of the Craft

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Just some musings tonight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Evolution of Dune to Rex

Dune

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rex

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

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

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

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

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

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

A List of Changes from Rex to Dune.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s your direction, young Atreides?

Analysis Paralysis

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Variance is Showing

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Quick Note: Last year I observed many of my blog posts were overly specific about my games. Many of my posts were very specific and assumed a great deal of previous knowledge on the reader’s part. As a result, unless you’d read everything on the topic, a blog post would often feel like jumping in the middle of the season of Game of Thrones. Huh? What the heck is happening?

As a result, I’ve tried to broaden my topics and write about my games as examples for a broader subject, not THE subject. This means I need to wait until an idea hits that I can turn into a larger topic, but hopefully it’s working for you readers.

Let’s talk about variants. 

What is a variant? I shall define a variant loosely as a minor rule change that seeks to modify an experience without a significant variance in overall experience or components. That definition is already suspect as a.) I just made it up and b.) I used words like “minor” and “significant.”

Typically, I’m actually against variants. If I’ve ever read one of your rule sets, you can attest to me leaving feedback to ditch the variant and focus. Variants to me often feel like half baked ideas. They feel like concepts that weren’t good enough to officially add to the game, but were a pet of the designer and snuck into the final rules.

My general philosophy is that a game should have everything it needs: no more, no less. I’m hugely in favor of expansions, so I’m a big proponent of designing games with natural paths to expansion. Expansions are a good way to add additional content, new strategic layers, or even additional complexity that experienced players can appreciate. But, I feel like expansions come later in the life cycle once a game has matured and is needed by its loyal players.

Variants typically ship with the game, in the rules, and have a fuzzy vibe of official about them. Why is this here?

Variants feel like uncertain twists. Instead of draft 1 and pass, you draft 1, keep 1, and pass. Instead of winning the game with 15 points, you instead win when all of your cities are level 4. The thing is, when I see little twists like this, the first thing in my mind is “well, which is it?” I don’t really want to feel like I’m beta testing a final game. I don’t want to find the best way to play. My hope is that you, the designer/publisher/developers have already determined that for me. Tell me how to play. Don’t give me a buffet here.

I approach variants much like I approach mods in PC gaming or house ruling — I don’t want to do it. I just want the right game, the perfect edition, and I will love it to death. Therefore, it may just be a matter of preference?

Should you vary? 

Variants are very appealing as a designer. They give you a community approved outlet to toss in a few things that you think may be better or just happen to personally prefer. But, approach them with caution. Game design is ridiculously difficult. The long-term development process of testing out every rule, every card, every variable, and every player number is very thorough and trying. You need to test your final rule set so many times to find every hole, imbalance, king making opportunity, and exploit. You need to test your final rule set to squeeze every ounce of fun into the game. Time you spend testing variants is time that detracts from making that single, perfect experience.

As learning designers, something I consider myself to be, we must challenge ourselves to create beautiful experiences. To do that, we must focus, refine, test, and be incredibly clever and creative. Use variants to test and find the right solution — don’t stick to the first one that seems to work. But, don’t use variants as a crutch to be indecisive. Don’t use variants as a way to pad your game content.

One of the best places to vary is for player numbers. It is often very difficult to make a game work with 2, 3, 4, and 5 players. Don’t be afraid to add rules tweaks, within reason, to make the different numbers work better.

The Wozzle Variety

Now, to go against everything I just wrote, I’m going to talk about how I’m including variants in WozzleWozzle is my 2-5 player card game that takes some of the core elements of Texas Hold ‘Em Poker and twists and refines them to become and entirely new game. I’m pretty proud of it and it has been testing quite well. You can watch my short video walk through of the game here.

The first variant for Wozzle came about when we began testing a card that every player started the game with. It gave them a one-time use power. The card is relatively simple and it was testing well, but it had a few problems that made me question it as a core aspect of the game:

  • By giving players a starting card, it added an additional thing to learn when playing.
  • It’s an advanced card for players who really know the game.
  • It’s a card that doesn’t get played in every game. It can have a narrow use.

I removed it from some of my tests to streamline them and found that it wasn’t hurting the experience with its absence. Then, I tested it with and spoke to my development partner — it still had value. We decided to make it a variant. This then opened the door for additional variants that use this system of everyone begins the game with 1 card of the same type. We added a second one, specifically to make 5 player games more interesting. In a sense, it’s like a minor expansion that adds just a few cards and light gameplay.

The game also needed some light modifications for both 2 player and 5 player. Due to the economy mechanics, the game absolutely needed a way to slightly tweak the 2 player game to work better. It’s a minor twist and easy to learn. The 5 player tweak was trickier. With 5 players, it’s easier for some players to get left behind and feel like they are out of the game. If everyone is winning, the game can also take a little bit longer. The solution was to add a minor way for players to win points, even when they don’t win.

With 2 player, one blind playtester, the excellent Robin Lees, noted he missed a poker mechanic in Wozzle, especially in head to head games. We discussed it and ultimately came up with a solution that we’re now testing. It adds a single card, which contains one minor rule that works within the game’s framework. As of now I’m worried about the complexity it adds, so I’m tentatively treating it as an advanced variant. But who knows? It could make its way into the 2 player core rules.

The Lesson?

Really, there is no right way or wrong way. I think focus is important. I think you need to create the best, single, perfect rule set for your players. But, some games lend themselves better to micro expansions and variants to tweak complexity and provide different experiences. This works really well for Wozzle and in some ways makes it a bit of a sandbox for me in Wozzle. But, the idea of adding variants for YorkSol Rising, or even Farmageddon just doesn’t seem appropriate.

What are some of your favorite variants? Which games do it right? Tell me in the comments below!

Interaction and Variability

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

This week, I want to write a few posts about some of my personal beliefs that drive my enjoyment of the games I play and fuels the foundations of the games I design. I’m starting with the concepts of interaction and variance, two highly contentious topics that are very important to me.

Last week, I Tweeted this very succinct statement that summarizes this post well: I love interaction and variance in games because it more strongly resembles life. I prefer besting the unexpected to solving stability.

To be clear, I don’t necessarily enjoy games with a high degree of luck. I especially don’t like such games that are too lengthy. I do enjoy the tension in games like 1812 or X-Wing when a critical dice roll can decide things. But, if you play those games enough, you should realize that most of the game is decided by planning and human decisions.

I greatly enjoy variance and the unexpected. I love it when a game cannot be solved or predicted, but the players must simply dive in and use their skill, gut instincts, and a little luck to emerge on top. I’m fascinated by the choices players make when they need to derive success from the hand, metaphorical or real, they’ve been dealt.

Let’s look at Summoner Wars, a game I love. In the game, your odds of hitting in combat are pretty good: 3+. That’s a 66% chance of a hit on every roll. That means you can begin to rely statistically on certain things occurring. But, there are other fantastic variables. You might desperately need an Event card, but you haven’t drawn it yet. You might have no Champions out, when your opponent has all three. How do you solve that problem? The beauty, for me, is using the known and making tough choices to survive, outwit, and outlast.

You can see this notion of “use the tools you’ve been dealt” in my other designs. In Farmageddon, I tried to tune the deck of Action cards to almost ensure there are ways to tackle most situations. Yes, you might get stuck. But, the key is, the board changes often. You will lose Crops. They will be stolen. Therefore, the game is not about “what will I do in 3 turns” but instead becomes “what can I do RIGHT NOW to improve my chances?” It’s about triage and risk mitigation. Terrible things will happen, trust me. But, those terrible things aren’t just aimed at you. Everyone is in that mess together.

In York, I apply this philosophy without a take-that attitude, but still, one that requires taking a chance and doing your best. Every turn you have 5 simple cards (though this can be modified in ways). These cards are, more or less, your fuel. Your resources. What is the best thing you can do with your five cards? Which battles can you win? Which might you lose? Where might you exploit an opponent’s flank or take control of a poorly defended city? How will you best use this round to set yourself up for the next scoring phase?

In testing, some elements of York have always flustered, and will always fluster, certain player types. Some people insist on knowing everything, which is odd for me in a game about war. Turn order is not deterministic, so you cannot make assumptions there. What your one, two, or three other opponents have and want to do also can’t always be ascertained. The only fact is what’s in your hand. With it, I force this simple question: what is the best thing you can do that you control?

For York, and many of my games, I’m driven by this quote from Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, the great German Field Marshal: ”No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength” (or “no plan survives contact with the enemy”).

He also said: “Strategy is a system of expedients.” I love that. There is a purity and a truth to it.

The enemy is sometimes other players. It is sometimes the game pushing back against you. Both, for me, enrich the experience and in almost all cases are a requirement for me.

I’ve begun listening to the Ludology Podcast recently. In one episode, Geoff Engelstein wisely notes that planning far ahead and thinking strategically is one skill. However, he noted that being able to manage unpredictable elements is another skill. Often, I feel people in our hobby think that  interaction and things that interrupt a good plan diminish the game’s skillful input, but I disagree. You’re just choosing a different style of mental exercise.

In his review of Relic Runners, a game with very little luck, Quinns said the following two things that removed all interest I had for playing the game:

Relic Runners is a tremendously tricky game that’s built almost entirely from perfect information, meaning you know exactly what the consequences of your actions will be, allowing you to plan for your next turn. And the turn after that. And the turn after that.”

And:

“In other words, Relic Runners is a both game where the more time you spend telescoping your turns outward in your head, the better you’ll do, but where no other player is invested in your actions when you eventually decide on them. These two factors come together in a tiny disaster- about half of the turns I took felt like compromises, brought on either by social pressure to not slow down the game, or by my own inability to calculate whether – for example – with an ability to move two paths, I could perform a colossal, game-winning Relic Run.”

This element of perfect information, of solving the game, of extreme predictability, just doesn’t excite me. I want my opponents invested in my turn. I want to evoke an “oh no!” or “ah ha!” based on my decision.

I realize that citing an extreme case is a lazy way to prove my argument. Potentially, though, not as lazy as quoting another author’s words to say it for me. But, I’m trying to prove not that you’re wrong, just help elaborate why it isn’t interesting for me.

Some of my favorite games that also demonstrate my points include:

  • Summoner Wars: Order of drawing, dice-driven combat results
  • Robinson Crusoe: Inventions, Event cards, die roll on adventures
  • Ascension: What’s in the center? What is your opponent taking?
  • Dragon Heart: If you draw the worst cards, how can you trick and mislead your opponent?
  • Legacy: So many cards, so many variables. How shall you make this generation thrive?
  • 1812 or 1775: The order in which certain cards are drawn has a massive impact. Key ones include the warships, for you or opponent. Also, dice!

In conclusion, when I play a game, I’m not interested in planning out a strategy and slowly executing it precisely. I want to pick a direction, sure, but react and evolve accordingly based on every tree that falls in my path. I want to be a problem solver or fixer. I’ll leave deep planning to the armchair quarter backs. Me? Put me in the fray.

This is a more comparable model to our world, which games often simulate, and makes for a sweeter victory. Perhaps, I’m just not very patient or intelligent? Feel free to heap derision upon me in the comments below!

Reverse Engineering

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

A story theme I enjoy in science fiction is when a supreme species gives a lesser species a technology to wield. The lesser species doesn’t understand the technology. They can’t recreate it or repair it. They just know how to use it and often, with disastrous consequences.

Game designers are often the lesser species. We imitate without understanding.

A great deal of game design is derivative. It just is, and that’s fine. The key is to add a twist, craft a unique whole, or abstract things differently. For example, I saw a opportunity to create a shorter, multiplayer war-game and York, a game with many unique elements, emerged. Will it win an innovation award? No. Well, it might, but I would cock an eyebrow at the nomination.

As we design and create new experiences based on or inspired by existing mechanics, it is essential that we fully understand the source material. To reverse engineer something, you must fundamentally understand the original. You cannot be the foolish lesser species.

This requires patience, study, and thoughtful examination. You can essentially tuck it in with so many other design lessons that are learned through experience, failure, and trying again.

Far too often, especially with the recent explosion in our design community, I play far too many games that just seem to miss the point. I’m guilty of it myself! My first design was a horrid conglomeration of RiskMonopoly, and Catan, but it didn’t pay proper homage to any of them. It was a shallow farce. Blockade used a ridiculous dice mechanic that has nothing to do with space combat and it was so confusing for players. Eventually, I had to recognize what it was, what it wasn’t, and evolve accordingly.

Likewise, in the wake of Dominion came an avalanche of shallow, derivative games that didn’t understand why Dominion is great. Same with the  post-Magic CCGs. You can find this in worker placement, set collection, you name it.

Therefore, how do we reverse engineer properly? How do we gain an understanding of our inspirations?

Firstly, you must play games in that genre to a great extent. Play many of them. Play them repeatedly. You will begin to see a common thread that links the good ones. You’ll also begin to understand the extremes of the mechanic. War games, for example, range from weekend-long, rigorous simulations of a real life battle. They can also focus on a few fictional space fighter craft duking it out during a half hour. Both of these experiences are derived from the same point and it’s important to understand both, at least somewhat, before you can jump in the middle with your own creation.

Secondly, look to the point of decision in these games. Look at where a player is making a choice and what their choice entails. Let’s look at some examples. Note that I’m making some quick, succinct generalizations for the sake of brevity.

  • In a push-your-luck dice game, (Zombie Dice, King of Tokyo), a player is choosing what dice to keep and whether to roll for something risky. They are managing chaos. The joy from these games comes from the adrenaline of “oh my god I rolled that!” and “Should I try to roll for that?”
  • In a worker placement game (Caylus, Lords of Waterdeep), a player is choosing what they want most versus what their opponent needs most. The tension that emerges from potentially losing the spot you desire and the joy of accomplishing a series of unlikely placements is important to preserve.
  • In a CCG (Netrunner, Magic: The Gathering), players experience joy from crafting a deck that matches their style or personality. Players love “breaking” the game and finding exploits. A good CCG should cause someone to shout “I can’t believe this combo exists!”
  • In a tactics game (Memoir ’44, Summoner Wars, Krosmaster: Arena), players enjoy directing a limited number of units to outmaneuver and outwit an enemy. Choices focus on who to move, when, who to target, and in many games, what special (and limited) resources to spend. If you have one devastating artillery barrage, when is the right time to use it?

That is an entirely incomplete listing of game types and it surely isn’t the final word on those game types. But hopefully, I’ve begun to make my point?

Thirdly, you need to examine how your hook or unique twist leverages, strengthens, and preserves the core elements that makes the experience delightful. Your improvements won’t be, ideally, cheap layers, complexity, and fluff.

If your mouse trap still just captures a mouse, but now requires a buffet of 6 different cheeses, a wine pairing, and a velvet coated trap, you haven’t made a better mouse trap. You’ve just added window dressing and complexity. As you reverse engineer, never forget the original intent of the device. Be sure that your new and improved widget accomplishes the same thing but newly so. New doesn’t mean more. New doesn’t mean added complexity.

Fourthly, after your game is relatively settled with core mechanics and a decent tuning pass, sit down and play it side-by-side to your favorite similar game. Discuss with your testers whether you hit the right notes and drive the right emotions.

This is a difficult topic to convey, and frankly I’m not convinced I’ve conveyed it. Perhaps a summary statement will cap this properly?

Seek to understand your inspirations fully. Do not mimic cheaply or thoughtlessly, but embrace that which makes them special and enhance in a meaningful way.

The Cup Doth Runneth Overeth

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

This is a post I’ve probably written before, but it’s a lesson that bears repeating. Honestly, it’s one of the most difficult things for junior and advanced designers alike to keep in mind. As I was just reminded of it myself, I wanted to attempt to remind you.

When designing a game, never forget that your players will only be able to process so many concepts and elements. Never forget that their cup, their mind, will fill up. They will be overwhelmed at some point and it is YOUR sacred responsibility to manipulate the contents of their cup so that you go up to, but do not exceed, 100%.

Think of distinct components as a pie chart. Think about all the little elements you have, then consider what you think is most important. If your battle system is your coolest, most unique feature, it may take up 40% of your player’s mind space. It’ll require 40% of their learning efforts. That means you have 60% for everything else.

Here are some common things in games that you may not realize fill your players’ cups:

  • Number of resources or currencies.
  • Number of steps in a turn.
  • Number of phases in a round.
  • Whether the steps in a turn must be taken in order, or in any order.
  • Number of distinct mechanics, unique or established.
  • Number of variables on a card.
  • Distribution of a card in a deck — it matters to some and it’s something to consider.
  • Probabilities of a die roll. Is it 1/6? 1/36? How many types of dice do you use (d4/d6/d6/d10/d10)?
  • Take the previous bullet and twist it up a notch if you use custom dice.
  • Number of different card decks or card types.
  • Number of places to look with their eyes. In York, players examine the board (spatial relationships, changes constantly), their hand of cards (changes every round), and their reference board (used less with future plays, but overwhelming initially).

One of my favorite personal examples of reducing complexity in a design is my turn order choice for Battle for York. My combat system was complex and had quite a few moving parts. I knew I needed to reduce complexity. I didn’t want turn order to be a strong factor in the game, nor did I want it to be a decision point. After experimenting with multiple semi-complex solutions, I arrived at the simplest: purely random. Some disagree with it, and that’s fine, but ultimately, I was able to lower the complexity to the point of not overwhelming my target audience.

The amount of complexity people can handle is entirely relative. I consider myself an expert gamer, yet Terra Mystica was too much for me. I entirely ignored the cultist track, knowing full well it would cost me the game (it did). I just didn’t care, as I was at my maximum capacity. When teaching City of Remnants, at the point I arrived at battles my friend simply asked me to stop. “Can we just play the game? I’m not retaining anything more at this point.” He’s getting his PhD in theoretical computer science. He isn’t stupid. Hell, my mom was initially overwhelmed with Coloretto. It’s not a matter of ignorance or mental capability. People just hit a point at which they can’t take more.

I can’t remember who said this, but I think it’s Eric Lang, Geoff Englestein, and I’ve certainly heard Corey Young promote it. Consider adding only 1, or 2 at most, unique mechanics to your experience. The rest can be twists, or even comfortable classics. If everything is new, even a tiny mechanic, the amount of mind (or cup) space it occupies just skyrockets.

In case you’re curious, the reason for this post came about when I plugged in my last hole for Draftaria’s initial design last night. My game has a few mechanics. The biggest and most complex one is my unique element, a combination of a few mechanics presented in a new way. I think it’s cool. I then use a drafting mechanic, lifted verbatim from every drafting game, but the content you’re drafting is a little different. Remember, even light twists occupy more mind space. Thirdly, I have some light resource management with a single currency. You obtain it, then buy things with it. Very standard.

I needed to figure out how to resolve conflict. The game avoids violence, but there is trouble to resolve and conflict that must be fixed. I wanted a system that wasn’t deterministic and would lead to multiple outcomes. I kept designing and conceiving wild, complex, and new things. However, I recognized that this game already has that. It’s the thing I mentioned in the previous paragraph. So, I went with simple. You’ll roll some dice, they’ll do a thing. The dice will be standard, pipped, six-sided dice.

For the briefest of instants I thought, “man, that’s a bit underwhelming.” Then, I remembered that the rest of my game shall whelm my players. Conflict resolution isn’t the focus and it should be simple. The cup is now full, but not overflowing.

To quickly wrap this up, remember to consider your target audience. Remember that everything slowly chips away at your players’ abilities to play and remember. Remember to go up to the brim of your cup, but never over. Finally, don’t be afraid to simplify and stick to the status quo for some aspects of your design in order to excel and wow with others.

Thoughts?

Catch Up, Now

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

Game design peer and fellow farming game designer Doug Bass of Meridae Games asked me the following on Twitter:

Ask

To this, I answered yes. Free topic? Oh yeah. He then asked:

Ask2

Interesting. This isn’t something I’ve explicitly thought about much, but it’s something I imagine I incorporate quite a bit into my designs. Let’s get into it, shall we?

What is a Catch Up Mechanic?

A catch up mechanic is something that exists in the game in order to keep things close and tight until the very end. It’s also referred to rubber-banding as someone can get stretched way far back, then slung forward to the front.

One of the most obvious examples of this can be seen in Mario Kart, the video game. Often, the player in the lead will get weak power ups when in first place. However, the player in last place will tend to get ridiculously powerful abilities. As a result, if you’re in 1st, you need to be good to stay there. This levels the playing field when unevenly skilled players are at it, adds a layer of strategy when advanced players are at it, and frustrates whiners.

To summarize, the catch up mechanic exists to keep one player from sprinting ahead early and staying there. After all, if everyone knows who is going to win 15 minutes into the game, the next 45 minutes (or more) won’t be fun for anyone.

Bad Catching

In general, a catch up mechanic will be very frustrating for players more interested in player skill and serious competition when playing. It’ll generally make them feel as if their good play was useless as a bad player can simply catch back up by merely failing the most.

I’d also argue that bad catch up mechanics can be gamed or used as a form of strategy. Generally speaking, you want the player who wins to be the one who played the best (augmented by some degree of luck, which is up to the designer). I think a bad catch up mechanic is one that can be gamed such that savvy players deliberately play poorly knowing they can abuse a catch up mechanic skillfully in order to take the top spot. Granted, if you like such a strategy, perhaps implement it not as a catch up mechanic but an alternate path to victory. It’s a philosophical point, but an important one.

Some Simple, Good Examples

A few simple examples of relatively simple, light catch up mechanics in games include:

  • Altering turn order. The value of turn order changes for every game, but it typically revolves around being first or being last. Some games will put the player with the most points in the least advantageous turn order.
  • Target the leader. In the case of ties, you’ll see some punitive game events target the leader, or in the case of ties, the leader will suffer the worst.
  • Light Bonus. If a player has a bad round, he gains a small bonus to improve his chances in the following round. In The Speicherstadt, players get 1 additional coin at the end of the round if they don’t win any auctions. This is usually not by choice and is such a tiny advantage it doesn’t upset the game. It gives them another tool, not a trophy.
  • Incentivize Abilities. In Alien Frontiers, the Raiders’ Outpost costs 3 dice in a straight. It’s not the easiest to pull off. Furthermore, it’s not really a useful action for the player in the lead. It is, however, great for a player who has nothing else to lose and needs to get back in the game.

Avoiding Entirely

I generally don’t think to add catch up mechanics to my games. But, I do generally design for close games that come down until the very end before it’s decided. Typically, I do this by limiting player resources and actions. It doesn’t matter how far ahead you are, if you only have so many actions, you can only accomplish so much.

For example, in Farmageddon, players can only play a maximum of 2 Action cards. This means everyone has an equal shake to upset the game. Furthermore, players who get an early start with big crop harvests (Wary Squash is worth $15) often spend a lot of resources to do so. Foreclosure consumes 1-2 crop cards just to use, Crop Rotation costs 1 Crop to use, Foul Manure often costs 2 crops to use, and Wary Squash requires 4 crops to harvest. That means Bob might be way ahead, but he’s also out of gas. I’ve seen players go 3 full rounds without planting anything in Farmageddon come out on top. Every turn matters until the very end.

I limit players in York similarly. For example, all players have a maximum of 15 Units and only a few actions with which to move them. Sure, you can spread thin to hold more territory, but you’ll be an easy target for wolfish opponents. All combat results in attrition, so even if a player wins a battle, he’ll likely need to slow down to replenish Units before returning to the offensive. Finally, there are only 2 scoring rounds, which are spread apart. You may get ahead early, but you’ll need to continue for 3 more rounds before scoring again. A great deal can happen in that time.

Often, when I play a game that feels like a foregone conclusion for much of the experience, I don’t feel it’s in need of a catch up mechanic, but often a little more balance in its core.

Action cards are often a good way to keep everyone in the game, especially powerful, decisive ones. In Forbidden Desert, players gain really powerful cards that essentially multiply the effectiveness of typical actions, but in a very limited sense. If used properly, these help keep the players in the game without removing a challenge.

Another example are the ship/water movement cards in the Birth of America series, specifically 1812: Invasion of Canada and 1775: Rebellion. One side may be dominating a particular area, making it nigh impenetrable by land. Except, the other side will use a warship to ferry an army around your lines to disturb the stalemate. Was it fair? Sure, you knew they had it and that they could use it. You have them too! But, is it a catch up mechanic per se? No. It just keeps the game interesting and eliminates the runaway leader problem.

Having multiple resources is often a good way to keep the race fair. For example, in Settlers of Catan, players will have good resources for 1 or 2 of the resources, but not all of them. This forces trade or expensive dock trade-ins. A player rich in wood will only be rich for so long. In order to build things, she’ll need to part with it in trade.

Another simple way is to use resources to gain resources. Sure, I have a pile of gold. If you force me to spend it to acquire other things, that’ll cap my lead somewhat. This is largely based on tuning, but if you force a constant amount of inputs, nobody can get too far ahead.

It also may be the case that your game simply doesn’t need a catch up mechanic. If the game is short enough, or the information regarding scoring is hidden, you may not need such a mechanic. Often times, the perception of being in the game is just as viable as actually being in the game. In Modern Art, nobody knows how much money everyone else has. Plus, there are so many ways to win that game. I’ve played many times and revealed at the end thinking I was a competitor, only to find I was hundreds of dollars from the winning slot. Did I mind? No, because I had fun the entire time.

In Conclusion

Some easy tricks to keep things fair are to change turn order or give very slight bonuses. You can also implement bigger, lower level changes like introducing hidden scoring or allowing for dynamic action cards.

At the end of the day, really think about how players will win the game and what is required of them. Focus on mechanics that keep your players engaged for the duration and limit everyone so that no one player can keep dominating everyone unless you want that.

Ultimately, if you feel your game needs a catch up mechanic, look deeper than the symptoms to find the root case. You may not be in need of a band-aid addition, but a more fundamental change to improve the game.

How did I do, Doug? And everyone else? If you have any good examples of catch up mechanics, share them. If you know of some bad ones, share those too. Chime in!