Funny Games

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I find myself greatly drawn to the notion of humorous games lately. More specifically, designing games that are legitimately funny for those playing them. I don’t mean games like Apples to Apples, or Bad Medicine, or Cards Against Humanity that are intended to be funny party games. In a slightly finicky twist that makes this a blog post, I’m talking about games whose mechanisms and experience facilitate a lot of laughs.

I don’t think humor comes from flavor text, or funny images, but from the mechanisms themselves. Like true thematic integration, humor must come from the actions of the players and the overall experience, not the window dressing.

Some of the games that cause us to laugh the most are Coloretto, Carcassonne, Speicherstadt, Libertalia, and Witness. Why is that?

What then, makes for a funny game? There are a few elements, which I’ll detail briefly.

Simple content that allows players to focus more on their actions and opponents than the intricate details of their hand. See Coloretto versus Netrunner. Basically, player spent reading and learning cards is time not spent enjoying the table. Time spent deciphering icons and keywords is time not spent talking trash, discussing strategy, and staring your friends in the eyes to read their intentions. Funny games give players room to breathe, laugh, and crack jokes. Brainpower is required to be funny and overly verbose cards don’t allow for it.

Player interaction. We can debate this example I’m about to toss out, but one of the reasons Dominion will never be funny is that it’s not very interactive. Yes, there are some cards that allow you to swindle and torture your friends, but fundamentally, it’s not a terribly interactive game. It’s not a bad game, it’s just not a very funny one. Humor is all about surprise that isn’t upsetting, timing, and in some cases, tragedy. Good player interacting in competitive games is often all of those things. If you’re doing something to help yourself, it’s often at the expense of opponents. Now, I think the interaction needs to not be mean. Take that games are often mean. Good, funny interaction can be swindling someone with a low ball auction, taking the card they desperately wanted, or leaving someone with the bill when they thought they were driving up the price. Interaction is funny. That back and forth tension will just build great jokes. Feature it in your game if you want to be funny.

Schadenfreude. This continues the previous note some, but it can manifest itself in other ways. It can be the case that you are dealt some horrid luck. That’s funny for everyone else. Perhaps you think you have the upper hand, then your friend reveals a card in hand just as you’re pulling the chips towards yourself. That’s funny for the rest of us. By designing mechanisms that allow for schadenfreude, you’re giving everyone a reason to laugh. And, as long as your game is balanced such that someone can bounce back, it won’t be all of us laughing at you, but all of us laughing with you. That distinction is key.

Public information. This one might seem strange, but it’s important. If there’s some level of public information, players can begin talking about it, boasting, criticizing (or swearing) at each other, and having some great table talk. I love games like Carcassonne and Coloretto where you can watch everything evolve. Everyone sorta knows what everyone else wants. You know that Bob really wants to sneak into this castle. And when they draw the piece they need, everyone starts to laugh when Joe shouts “you bastard!”

Hidden Information. But but but I just said public information! Secrets are fun as they lead to bluffing and two words that dominate my games of Netrunner with my friends: hot treats. If you want to see a nasty smirk emerge on the face of me or one of my friends, watch us play the Corp in Netrunner. We’ll install a card, smile, tap it, and say “some hot treats for you.” Coup is inherently funny because everyone is lying. Everyone knows everyone is lying. It’s really just a matter of knowing when to call them on their lies. Secrets are hilarious, especially when they lead to unexpected consequences.

I don’t know why exactly I’m drawn to having humor in my games. I think that humor, as a side effect, improves my early testers’ perception of a game. I’ve found with my latest prototype that they’re less resistant to early, garbage tests because they are having a good time. Imagine what happens when the game is fun?

I think to games of poker or dominoes with my parents, or playing Hocus at Thanksgiving. The number of groans I hear around the table as someone blocks another player, or steals someone’s points, or scores big, just make for a very enjoyable experience.

I think that’s a key to why board games are special and worth pursuing. Video games are only funny in a singular sense. Yes, occasionally something incredible will happen online, but this is usually more a case of online virality and less a moment of humor between friends. The secret sauce of board games is social interaction. Being in the presence of other people. Sharing a table with friends while interacting among a set of rules. Humor is so intoxicating. It’s such a delicious human experience. It seems foolish of me to ignore such an ingredient for my games.

What games make you laugh? How do you craft humor in your games?

This Stuff is Hard

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Yesterday I posted about Stretch Goals and why we won’t be using them for Hocus. The result was somewhat predictable and somewhat surprising.

Jamey Stegmaier, the guy who is publishing a book on Kickstarter, thinks we’re making the wrong decision. Check his comments on the blog. He’s not wrong! We will have a less successful Kickstarter. We will raise less money.

Some people don’t like linen cards. Huh. I have people angry about tuck boxes. Not surprising. Some are quite angry there. That is surprising. I have suggestions to make art books or wooden boxes. All valid! Some we’ve looked into, some we’ll research further.

I felt really good writing the post, and I felt good defending it, but I honestly feel pretty crummy right now at this moment. I don’t know if it’s work or life or publishing frustrations. Maybe all three?

The reality is that these are our first negative reviews. Every game will have its share of negative reviews. We have no brand loyalty, nobody with Hyperbole bicep tattoos, so we’re going to have more negative reviews than an established company. We’re going to get some 1s and some angry folks. This is just the first wave. It doesn’t feel good, but we’re entering a tough arena and it happens.

Everyone has an opinion. Some are right, some are wrong, but all will be offered. At some point you have to make a decision and deal with those consequences. But, we’re stubborn, not (that) stupid. We’re double checking the numbers. Making sure everything still aligns. We’ve been working on this for close to 15 months now — decisions were made in different eras practically!

The reality is that we have to make decisions, with the information we have. Right now, that information is a scan of the competitive landscape, knowledge of our costs, a sobering appraisal of our status (it’s low, we’re first timers), and what we’re willing to pay and lose out of our own pockets.

A part of our business plan is based around getting into distribution. That is very tough. Talk to a bunch of first time publishers and they’ll tell you about a chicken and egg issue. You can only get in if you’ve sold enough, but how do you sell enough if you aren’t in? How do we convince folks that our game is a quality game and no, no! We’re not some idiots! If we don’t enter distribution, quite frankly, Josh and I will lose a lot of money.

A few questions have come up, for which we have answers.

If your campaign fails, or is failing due to the tuck box, what will you do? We’ll consider changing. Josh and I sincerely think it is the right move for us. But, if we utterly fall on our face because of a box, well, we’ll need to think about it. We aren’t inflexible. As I noted above, we’re re-checking the numbers.

If your campaign fails due to a lack of stretch goals, what will you do? We’ll figure out a different way to publish Hocus. We’ll spend more out of pocket money and obtain a small business loan perhaps, or try to find a publishing partner, or just be sad about the thousands spent already and call it quits.

Let me step back briefly to talk about Stretch Goals philosophically.

I’ve worked in the digital game industry for 10 years now. A huge and tumultuous change has been the introduction of freemium games. Basically, games that are free to download, but are often lousy experiences whether you spend money or not. Ultimately, they are attached to the same psychology of slot machines. The goal, regardless of what anyone will tell you in Gamasutra or GDC speech, is to make more money from a very small percentage of people. If 2 or 3% spend thousands, it all pans out. At least for the business folks.

As a game designer, briefly, on freemium mobile games, I found myself constantly hurting the value and quality of the experience in favor of making more money. It felt dirty as a developer and it is a lousy experience as a customer. I’ve vowed to myself that I would rather work in another industry than make freemium games.

I look to Valve and Blizzard, who have offered great, polished games with honest business models. They may be dinosaurs according to the freemium folks, but I’m sure they are okay with that. I always liked dinosaurs. Tiffany said she’d love to draw them too!

At one point we were designing Hocus content specifically for Stretch Goals. It forced the question: do we think this isn’t good enough to include for everyone? The answer was, no. It also felt strange to deliberately withhold something that made the game better in order to get more money from people. That’s what we would have been doing: making the game less good to get more money from people.

Yes, we understand the psychology of Stretch Goals. Yes, we understand the ecosystem of Kickstarter. But, we’d rather say plainly, this is our offering. This is what we’re selling and what we need help to create. It feels right and it feels honest. It’s what we’d prefer as customers.

If your campaign makes less money due to a lack of stretch goals, what will you do? Our current goal is $6000. This is set deliberately low so that we fund quickly. Joshua and I are willing to spend money out of pocket to pay the rest, and it’s not an insignificant rest.

If we hit this, it means about 400-500 people have backed us, which is also a decent indicator of demand. Based on other games on Kickstarter, I think we can raise $10,000 to $15,000 at the most. This is due to our reach as publishers and our lack of Stretch Goals. If we raise $15,000, I’ll be dancing in the streets. That’ll basically be a million dollars to me. If we raise $6000, I’ll be nervous and it could lead to my first and last publishing effort.

I’ll stop talking now

In the same way I’ve always tried to be transparent about my design efforts, I’m trying to do so with my publishing efforts. We’ve said many times that we’re going to screw up. We don’t know when, or where, but as this is our first time, I’m fairly certain it will happen. Maybe it’ll be the Stretch Goals, or the tuck box, or there’s a horrible strategy we’ve missed in our testing.

At the end of the day, we have to make decisions based around an approximately $15 product with the information we know. We’re doing our best to reduce risk and make people as happy as we can for $15.

We appreciate your input and all of you sticking with us. This stuff is difficult, we’re not sure we’re very good at it, but we’re doing our best.

The Joy of Disappointment

M&M

The images in this post were taken by me using my copy of Merchants and Marauders and the Sails of Glory expansion.

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Last night we played Merchants and Marauders for the fourth time. We tossed in the new Sails of Glory expansion, or at least about half of the modules from this. I bought this game a month or so ago and it has been a regular at game night. We just love it and we find the more we play it, the better we get, the more exciting the stories, and the more we love the game.

I’ve seen a handful of people discard the game after one play because it’s too random, or too aggressive, or it doesn’t appropriately reward min/maxing. With each play, I find those arguments to be less and less compelling. The truth is that while the game does have a bit of randomness, the amount of decisions you can make to better control the environment are vast. The person who wins the game is the best captain. Yes, they might receive a windfall, but it’s important to observe how they leveraged that windfall.

I want to talk about last night’s game, because it was really profound in how it affected me.

I was doing very well in the game. Early on I sunk a friend to gain Glory and deny him a bounty of 30 gold. I sent it straight to the ocean floor as his leadership and crew were far superior to mine. I decided if I couldn’t have it, nobody could. I was the player that everyone kept saying was running away with it. The ocean was mine.

I bought a frigate early and had amazing Glory cards. I added a specialist who improved my guns, loaded my ship with heated shot, double shot abilities, had a few nice upgrades, and a captain that could sail directly into the rampant storms plaguing the Caribbean. I had a beautiful frigate and was the better match for anything on the board, NPC or otherwise.

I hit a point halfway where there were no obvious opportunities. I bought some bananas as they were in demand, though a smidge out of the way. I wasn’t pursuing a merchant’s path, but it was an easy point and there wasn’t anything else to do at the moment.

The winds turned against me, and I mean this in a literal sense. There is a wind mechanism in the new game that creates head winds and tail winds and moves the storm around. I needed to go due west and the wind was in my face. Three turns in a row the wind went due west, and three turns in a row I took a plodding, sub-optimal turn.

The game was telling me that my fate lay elsewhere. The game was screaming at me to go east. Due east, with the wind filling my sails, was my lead opponent. She had a decent ship, but was damaged and was no match for me. She had a ship laden with gold. I chose to continue west and sell my bananas. I was afraid of her. Unlike my pirate persona, I cowered, I balked at opportunity, and I took the easy path.

She sailed into port, stashed her gold, and won.

I cannot express to you how disappointed I was. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t going to flip the table. But, I was profoundly sad. I honestly wanted to walk to the corner and sulk. When my friends were setting up Pictomania, I almost asked to sit out for a game to think. Sit out. In my own house. At my own table. Like a petulant child.

M&M2

I’m still sad this morning. Lady luck did not give me the winds I wanted, but when she was whispering the truth clearly in my ear, I ignored her. I made the decisions that sunk my chances for glory and I am the reason I lost. The game presented me with a AAA, movie-esque story to tell and I opened the SkyMall catalog instead.

I thought about how this made me feel, and it just felt so powerful. Games rarely do this. They rarely sit with me, especially when I fail. But, Merchants and Marauders just broke my heart last night. Wait, that’s not correct. Merchants and Marauders gave me the platform on which to break my own heart.

What a magical game. What a profound gift!

I went to Board Game Geek this morning and moved my rating from a 9 to a 10. Something that affects me so is surely perfect, at least in my eyes. I shall sail again and by kraken I’ll take that chance next time. I’d rather sink on my burning ship than sell a bunch of moldy bananas.

Yo ho yo ho a pirate’s life for me.

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

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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)

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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)

Rex

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