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?

Wizard Poker Development

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You can read the rules here.

Post by: Grant Rodiek

One of my goals for 2014 was to design smaller, simpler, weirder games that, if possible, can support a larger number of players. I’ve been making a lot of smaller prototypes, typically involving cards (Draftaria, Fool’s Brigade, Wizard Poker, Clarity) and it has been very productive and very fun. I really recommend wild, mass experimentation. It strengthens your other designs, is good design practice overall, and is just really fun.

I’ve been crunching on York and Sol Rising lately. Also, a little bit of Flipped. All of these are bigger, more complex games. Wizard Poker is one of my simpler little prototypes, and it’s been really fun to play, so it has received most of my attention these past few weeks after I finish the high priority work. It’s always easier to work on something like this. Diving headfirst into a problem child is less fun.

Wizard Poker has provided a lot of interesting lessons. The idea for the game came to me when discussing using Poker for a deckbuilding engine. That original idea is now buried under about 5 iterations, but the heart remains: What if you could play a poker-like game with wild abilities that lighten the spirit? What if poker were a filler that could be enjoyed at lunch or at the start of game night by people who don’t like poker?

Terminology and Key Words: When you’re building an engine atop a game as popular and well-known as poker, you need to tread carefully. You need to adhere to the proper terminology and NOT change what those terms mean. I tried to use “Fold” differently for quite some time and it caused a great deal of confusion. This applies to other games. If you’re making a deckbuilder, you need to not use a term that Dominion uses and change its meaning.

Really, using key words in a game that has abilities is so fundamental and crucial to your game playing smoothly and being easy to learn. Magic: The Gathering is a great example of this. Hearthstone is another. They create a glossary of terms, such as Wall, Battlecry, Haste, Flying, and they adhere to them. If you’re making a game that uses text and actions on cards, try to re-evaluate it through the lens of “what key words can I use repeatedly?”

This is something I started doing in Sol Rising and York and it really helps. It’s also something I’ve done in some parts in Wizard Poker, but as I develop the game, I’ll need to do it more thoroughly. For me, these are things like:

  • Draw: This single word means “draw from the top of the deck,” which is less text than “Draw from the top of the deck.”
  • Reveal: This single word should mean “place one card from your hand face up in front of you.”
  • Flip: This single word should mean “flip one card in the center to its opposite side.”

And so forth. Remember, key terms reduce text, simplify cards, and essentially act as building blocks for you to craft more complex, nuanced experiences. Instead of having one wild idea, have several simple ones that work in concert with one another.

Expectations: Another interesting thing to remember is that people have certain expectations when they play a poker-like game. And, for the sake of this being broadly applicable, you can replace “poker-like” with any classic game or standard genre. For poker, players want to bluff. They want to bet. If you jumble those concepts or overlook them entirely, there will be a lingering hint of dissatisfaction in players’ minds.

When writing rules for a game built on a common framework, it’s doubly important to not gloss over those features. If you begin tweaking things, even tiny things, your omissions become enormous, gaping holes. It was like I had to learn how to write rules all over again. Never assume that because something seems obvious or seems familiar, your players will just get it.

For me, this was really made clear when I introduced the concept of a final betting round. I did this to provide an opportunity to bluff and bully, but I did so in a way that doesn’t conflict with one of my core goals: no player elimination. My initial rules for this were two sentences. Oh, how wrong I was! The current rules are longer and they precisely outline every step. Never assume, unless your assumption is that you need to over explain.

Eliminating Elimination: It has been a real challenge to design a poker game that doesn’t involve player elimination. The winner is the player with the most Coins at the end. Coins are also used to activate special abilities, called Spells. Therefore, Coins are both points AND currency.

My first idea, which has persisted, is to give players a way to earn coins through, essentially, folding. Now, I had to revise the wording because using Fold for this caused a great deal of confusion. “Wait, he folded. Why did he get coins?”

Now, it’s called “Cash Out.” Initially, using Cash Out was too good, so players simply did that instead of playing. Not good. I then decreased the amount given, but it was still too good.

I then made it so Cashing Out helped you AND the pot, which meant those still in the hand would also benefit. Close.

Finally, I put a limit on who could use it, which meant the player in the lead couldn’t simply stay there by using Cash Out. There are still some quirks, but it is ultimately a relatively simple way to make it such that players who are losing can quickly Cash Out to get back in, but also, the best way to earn coins is to win the pot. The incentive should be clear.

Catch Up Mechanics: In a game like this, where players can lose a lot of coins quickly AND I don’t want elimination to exist, there need to be more catch up mechanics. It can’t just be tacked on. It needs to be core to the experience.

I gave players a way to gain spells for themselves. This was actually one of my first ideas, but back then it was the game, not a catch up element. There are two Basic Spells that exist in every hand. They are constants that never change. There are then 20 Advanced Spells. In a 2 or 3 player game, you draw 1 per hand to pair with the Basic Spells. In a 4 and 5 player game, you draw 2 per hand. This means every hand is unique and offers different abilities and bonuses to take advantage of.

In the original version, the player who won the hand gained all the coins in the pot AND a spell of their choice. There was a spell for everyone, so the game was about tableau building. The problem was, not all spells are created equally. If a player both won the hand AND took the best spell, he or she would be very difficult to take down.

This was also very complicated. Players weren’t sure if they were vying for spells or coins (it was both). It meant I needed to balance everything very differently, which I didn’t really want to do. Not because I’m lazy, but because it’s fun when wild, ridiculous things come out in this game. It’s only for one turn for everyone and part of the game is using this power.

I reduced the number of Advanced Spells out each hand and made it such that the winner of the hand took the coins. Then, the players with the fewest coins gained the spells. This worked, mostly, except if a player won early hands, his opponents would have so many powerful abilities. They could easily out-spell him. It discouraged winning early. I guess when I said it worked mostly, I mean it didn’t work at all. Your game should never discourage victory, or at least not confuse it.

A few iterations passed, and ultimately I’ve settled on this (until it turns out it doesn’t work): The player(s) with the fewest coins at the end of a hand take the Advanced Spells. They may use them once only by paying to the Pot (like normal spells, which simplifies the rules). Once used, they are removed from the game. Players may instead Purge them, which means the Spell is removed and the player gains 2 Coins. It’s a catch up mechanic with 2 flavors: coins or a powerful ability only you can wield.

The PNP: I’ve never designed a game that was simple to Print-N-Play. I released a PNP for York and one for Sol Rising. The former had zero plays, the latter 2 or so (which was immensely helpful). Even Farmageddon‘s PNP, shared during its Kickstarter campaign, required you print and cut 108 cards. Wizard Poker is the simplest PNP I’ve ever made and I’ve already had at least 4 people cut it out. Hopefully more?

Four may not seem like much, but I think it’s pretty good. The game has “poker” in the title, so I know that’ll turn some folks off immediately. Which is why I need to change the name.

The point here is that if you make a PNP, try to make it simple. Make it easy to print, easy to learn, and give folks a good reason to try it out. Joshua Buergel and Jay Treat have been giving me piles of feedback and it has been immensely helpful. PNP is a great route to take if you’re interested in it.

The Next Trick: I don’t know what will happen with Wizard Poker. It’s testing well and it’s a game I really like. It’s fun to play and fun to develop. I feel like it’s this odd combination of Texas Hold ‘EmCoup, and Ascension rolled into one. It’s a good candidate for Drive Thru Cards or The Game Crafter, so perhaps I’ll do that and watch tens of cents roll in!

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions or comments, send ‘em below!

Public Information and You

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

One of the most important lessons I took home this year was how to properly use public information in my designs. Battle for York is full of public information, specifically, the abilities of your faction and location of your armies.

One of York’s greatest flaws is a direct result of this public information, magnified by the number of factions. Players are constantly leaning over the table asking “what can you do?” and then 3 minutes later, “What can you do again?” It’s the wrong way to handle public information.

There are some signs of bad public information:

  • The information is critical to all players. If I need to know everything you have or can do, then that info should be in front of me. I define critical as it being something that will greatly impact and affect the decisions of others. For example, abilities for a deterministic battle system (ex: York).
  • There is too much information. If I address the above point by showing you everything…you now know everything. Everything can be a lot. Folks will disagree, but I find Smallworld‘s reference sheet entirely overwhelming.

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  • The information is text and/or exception driven. It isn’t just a few facets, but a great deal. Soon, players’ cups will runneth over.
  • To complement the above point, the most important thing people need to know IS the text, not other, more easily consumed statistics.

Before I use my own designs as anecdotal examples, I thought I’d point out some examples of good, AAA public information.

Summoner Wars: Basically every card (i.e. unit) has text that grants it a special ability and rule exception. But, there are a few reasons this works just fine.

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  • A unit’s attack power, and whether it’s ranged or melee, are easy to see. These are really important regardless of the exception.
  • All similar commons share the same information, which means if you learn it once, you learn it multiple times.
  • Movement and attack rules are, by and large, the same across the board (with some exceptions).
  • The cards are on the board face up when in play, not tucked away in front of a player. This makes them easy to view.

To be fair, the first time or two you play a faction, you’ll play a little slower checking things out. But, I do not think that is a problem with how they present the information, but the fact that, hey, it’s an asymmetric, faction-based game.

The Speicherstadt: Over the course of the game, players amass many cards (up to a dozen or more) of varying types. This could be very confusing, but it’s not.

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  • The cards a player has acquired will influence his future decisions, but they won’t grant new powers or change the core interactions of the game. A contract might inform you “Grant needs green cubes,” but Grant will still interact in the same way (third person apparently).
  • The cards have no text, other than a few numbers. They use very simple, well-designed iconography.
  • Many of the cards, once used, don’t matter for the rest of the game. With the exception of one card (the Port), once a player claims a ship, it no longer factors into the game.

The two most important pieces of public information you need to know are how much money a player has, and how many workers he has left to place.

Applying My Lessons

Looking at York as a guide post for something that wasn’t quite working (but can be solved), I started applying these lessons to my current games. Mars Rising uses a lot of simple tricks to simplify the fact everything is public in the game.

  • When a defensive ability (like shields) is active, you place a token on the board. The other player can still ask for specifics, but ultimately this informs at a glance “This squadron will be harder to kill.”
  • Squadrons that have already attacked (once per round) have a marker, so you know you don’t need to worry about them shooting you in the immediate future.
  • Squadrons that have used an ability (once per round) have a marker, so you know you don’t need to worry about any funny business in the immediate future.
  • Ship classes generally define behavior. Interceptors shoot fighters. Destroyers are very flexible, but not particularly strong in any one area. Battlecruisers kill capital ships. People can eyeball a squadron and instantly know “they do this” without needing to know, specifically, the stats.
  • Current formations are shown with a token on the board. The rules surrounding formations are very simple. If I see a wedge formation, I know what it means.

Most importantly, your opponent’s information isn’t necessarily critical to your success. They can’t do anything on your turn. The goal is typically to destroy the enemy, with some exceptions for scenarios. Therefore, it’s most important to know what YOU can do and decide who to destroy.

Flipped, similarly, has a great deal of public information that doesn’t hinder the game. Yes, I see your properties. If I know you’re heavily invested in downtown, I can use that information to evaluate whether I want to go there and whether our clients’ end goals coincide or conflict. If I can hinder your score, then I might go there. Furthermore, knowing where you intend to develop aids my strategy towards manipulating the contractors. If I know you’re developing in downtown, I know whether we’ll be jockeying over the contractors and the movement penalty.

The other driving factor is that, in line with many euro games, I can only hinder and affect you so much. Yes, we’re vying for properties (timing on acquisition) and trying to support our neighborhood bonuses, but there’s only so much I can do in order to ruin your day. The game is about efficiency, optimization, and taking advantage of opportunities. Not hurting others. Therefore, I use your public information to guide my decisions, not to crush you.

Finally, I found it’s much simpler to place the cards in front of me so I can plan out my improvement schedule and the work that needs doing. I didn’t like holding cards in my hand and referencing them. It was unnecessary secrecy.

In both of these new games, someone with chronic AP could chew on the information for some time. But, that person would do this with a private hand of cards, or even a dice roll. The key in dealing with AP folks is to mitigate their sickness, not seek to solve it. There is no cure, as noted by the World Health Organization and seconded by the UN.

In closing, some good public information tips.

  • Public information works better in games where your decisions revolve mostly around what YOU are doing, not others’ decisions.
  • Good public information is simple and can often be represented with symbols. Lengthy text is best left to private information.
  • Use simple aids and reminders to tell people the most important aspects. Often, they don’t need to know everything. Think of the attack rating in Summoner Wars, or the defensive marker in Mars Rising.
  • Public information tends to work better with fewer players.

What are some of your favorite examples of good public information? Any additional tips? What did I get wrong? Share in the comments!

Inspirations of Late

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve been inspired by a few standout games lately. It’s a bit shocking to me when I read interviews with super famous designers who note they are too busy testing their own games to play games from others. I love playing other games to learn about new mechanics, see clever component tricks, and even just find ways to diversify my personal designs.

I find my tastes are changing quite a bit. In the past I was far more mechanically focused. Lately, I find myself far more focused on some fuzzy aspects and holistic product design. Things like the experience, the components, and the vibe I want to convey.

There are a few constants I have always sought in all of my designs:

  • Hour or less play time.
  • Low complexity. I fail here often, but I try. It’s something I pursue constantly.
  • Interesting card play. So far, this has meant dual-use cards for me.

Here are the things I’m challenging myself to think about more and more as my tastes shift.

  • Story! By this, I mean compelling characters, a fiction and developed universe/world, and persistence. For example, can my choices in one scenario affect another? Note: I want to be careful to say I’m trying to make games more thematic. I feel that adjective is tossed around a bit erroneously. I’d like to tell stories.
  • Dice! I’ve dabbled with dice in a few designs (Frontier Scoundrels, Poor Abby Farnsworth), but they’ve never been front and center. I want to grow creatively and change that. Dice allow for uncertainty and calculated risk. They allow for EPIC moments. They are also a great way to make your game more accessible, something I’ve learned from Dawn Sector, where the majority of the outcomes in the game are certain (and therefore nerve-wracking for new players). That being said, LOTS of randomness doesn’t necessarily excite me. I like to find ways to use it in a compelling fashion.
  • Miniatures! Or, perhaps more accurately (and vaguely), neat components. In my personal play habits I find I’m way more inclined to get a game with neat pieces instead of, say, cube fest. More and more I’m a “eurotrash” guy — I want elegance and strategy in the design with fun presentation. Many scoff at miniatures for being that component that nets millions on Kickstarter. But for me, personally, and for many of my friends, they make things more exciting.
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Krosmaster Arena: Visually stimulating!

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Bora Bora: Not visually stimulating!

  • Toy-like! This is somewhat related to the miniatures property above, but is more abstract and difficult to precisely describe. Sometimes a great game shares more in common with a favorite child hood toy in that it ignites your imagination. You find yourself making sound effects and “moving” the pieces like a total kid. Toy-like also means it’s delightful to hold and feel. It’s something a video game can’t do.

A few games have really stood out to me lately to inform these new design desires.

X-Wing Miniatures Game: A poster child for awesome components and quality design. Super toy-like as well! The game is filled with constant, simple choices and is visceral. You move pieces, roll clunky dice. It looks and feels great.

starwarsRisk Legacy: A story you and your friends write every game. The stickers are also incredibly fun. The take on this has been 50/50 from my friends, but it really hit home for me.

risklegacyMice and Mystics: Story, persistence, presentation, and dice, oh my. Honestly, Plaid Hat Games is a poster child for beautiful games that have crazy pieces and relatively smooth gameplay. Mice and Mystics is just a goofy toy chest.

magRory’s Story Cubes and The Extraordinaires Design Studio: These creations from Rory O’Connor and Anita Murphy are just awesome. The simply look delightful, are fun to hold, and immediately broaden the imagination.

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My hope is to demonstrate these qualities with my latest game, which I’m tentatively calling Blockade. You can read about my early thoughts and brainstorms here and here. The physicality of Blockade will hopefully stand out immediately. Big blocks stacked next to and on top of each other. A pile of colorful dice. And cards with awesome, colorful, highly stylized characters. Maybe like these?

gumby_blockhead

Can’t you imagine a stuffy admiral with a big mustache and this glorious noggin’? I can.

Speaking of the admirals (and others), they’ll have names. Stories. Their abilities will be extensions of their personalities and they will live and die gloriously as you play through their stories. You’ll have moments of fanfare and seconds of terror. Well, mild, completely manageable amounts of board game terror.

So really, little terror.

Perhaps it’s due to my job, which is overly stressful lately, or the fact I find it so difficult to get my friends interested in more serious fare. Maybe it’s a byproduct of my frustrations in developing Dawn Sector? There’s something about the need to create something playful, even at the expense of being a serious game, that is moving me forward.

It’s an evolution and an interesting one at that. It seems I’m returning more to my roots (Farmageddon), at least for now.

How do you evolve as a designer? How have you changed? What excites you lately? Anything I should be playing to reference?

Within Your Reach

Post by: Grant Rodiek

If your mother was anything like mine, you may have heard the phrase: “Don’t worry about what they are doing. Worry about what you’re doing!” We tend to over think and overreach towards the things outside our control instead of focusing on what we CAN control.

That’s the silly side of human nature — chasing what we can’t manipulate instead of firmly gripping what we can. In discussing this with a friend, we realized there was a simple blog post to be had. After all, so much of our time as designers is spent fretting over publisher feedback, play tester feedback, reviews, BGG comments/ratings, and more. It’ll kill you if you let it.

As a designer, your first and only task is to focus on the things over which you have direct control. Not everyone will like your game, as people have opinions, tastes, and preferences. But, reasonable players, who are the only ones with whom we shall concern ourselves, will appreciate a basic average of quality and craftsmanship. Your goal should be that the worst review you get says “It’s a good game, just not for me.”

The question then is “What can I as a designer control?” For a moment, let’s pretend the publisher won’t change every little detail. And for some designers, who use Print-On-Demand and Kickstarter self-publishing methods, this is an accurate assumption as YOU are the publisher.

Things firmly under your control include:

Game Length: One of the first decisions you should make is about the length of game you’re targeting. This is a front of box detail that will greatly dictate who buys your game and when it’s played. Aside from absurd analysis paralysis folks, this is under your control with the game’s end condition, length and complexity of player turns, overall complexity of decision making, and more.

Quality of Rules: The rules are a publisher’s, player’s, and reviewer’s first exposure to your game. It is the foundation of their entire experience. If your rules are poorly written, poorly laid out, and of insufficient quality for explanation, you are unlikely to have happy players. Take the time to proofread, test, and iterate. You control this. If you have confusing elements, fiddly exceptions, or pockets of “whaaa?” step back, refine the mechanic, and try again.

Theme: The quality of your theme is very much within your power as a designer in a few ways. Firstly, the quality of its integration. Does it fit, or did you just tack-on steam punk to make it more marketable? Do the art, text, and components reinforce the premise of your game? Also, is the theme appropriate for your audience? If you’re targeting a broad gender neutral market or a younger audience, half-naked females (I hate this cliche) aren’t appropriate.

Theme is most assuredly a preference. Some prefer elves to space marines. BUT. How appropriate and well-suited it is executed is in your court.

Number of Supported Players: One of the first questions a designer must answer is “how many people will play this game?” Although it is tempting to expand what you say the number of players is, you need to do what’s right for the product and your customers.  2-6 players looks way more marketable on a box label, but if 3-5 is correct, you need to say 3-5.

In addition to your honesty, it’s also within your power to do the design work to make your intentions a well-executed reality. Modifying the rules and content to support that extreme player number is a pain, but you never want a review to ding you for bad player numbers.

Art and Layout: As noted above, art is purely suspect. However, there is a quality bar that you can avoid, namely, does it resemble a piece of work made by a child using MS Paint? The layout of your board, cards, and rules is also very controllable. You can prove that it works through testing and iteration. Furthermore, there are best practices like using clean, easy to read typefaces, using a sufficient font size (6 point font is a no), avoiding distracting or aggravating colors, and putting things together in a way that lends itself to how people read and process information.

If all else fails, blatantly lean on the best layout work of some of the well-established publishers. If you know a game has a great card layout, use it. Start from there.

Mental Accounting Required: One of the things most designers overlook, especially on initial prototypes, is that players can only account for so many things. If they are holding 5 cards, each with 6 pieces of information, and must examine a board, and a reference board, and dice, and 6 opponents, their heads will explode. Focus your design such that the key elements towards making decisions are the ones in play. Strip away the rest.

Things firmly outside your control include:

One’s appreciation or fondness for your mechanic: Some players hate deckbuilding games. Or dice, or randomness at all for that matter. Take-that can be hugely controversial and some people absolutely despise direct interaction between players. But, for all those examples I listed, there are more people who love them. Hell, there are people who love Monopoly and the original Risk. Do your best to focus on those who might love your game, not those who absolutely won’t.

Empire has random turn order. This will probably be noted in every review of the game. But, those who play it find it’s not a problem and that it works for the game. So it goes.

Bad Players: You simply cannot count on player skill. If you create a game that has strategy, depth, and at times complex decisions, some people will simply play your game badly. For example, Trajan hurt my skull and I’m not really inclined to play it again. Between the mancala bowl puzzle and the broad range of choices, I couldn’t quite make heads or tails of things. The game isn’t bad, it just wasn’t for me. I was bad at the game.

One of the things that was most difficult to balance for Empire is that some factions are less obvious and straightforward. Skilled players had a fair and balanced experience. Poor players would be trounced by the more straightforward factions. You can deliberately choose to widen or narrow the skill requirement, but at the end of the day, some will simply play poorly…and many will curse you for their mistakes.

A Group of Random Players: If you’ve attended a board game convention and played with a random assortment of people, you may notice the game experience varies wildly than when you play with close friends. For better or worse, this will affect everyone’s opinion of your game and you can’t quite control that.

For example, I played a very interactive, take-that game at KublaCon. It was a 6 player game with me and one other solo player, then a boyfriend/girlfriend couple and a father/son duo. The game quickly became tedious and not fun because the two couples played as a team, so I was a solo player versus two combined factions. It wasn’t fun or fair and I don’t look on the game experience fondly.

On the opposite side, I notice when playing Farmageddon at GenCon that some children ALWAYS pick on their sibling or their parents. They aren’t playing “to win” per se, but they are playing for schadenfreude and the poking often accompanied with families. This didn’t ruin a parent’s experience — they are used to it! But some siblings grew VERY angry. When asked if they want to play my game again, I would wager many would shout “No!”

Your game simply might falter in a convention demo or at a random game night. It happens.

Did I pick all the right elements? Did I miss something? Do you disagree with me? Let’s chat in the comments.

Convergent Design

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

A friend of mine has been thinking about a game for years that lets your group play as the crew of a starship bridge. Each player would play his own mini-game that determines his station’s performance and the group’s individual successes would add up to determine how successful the mission is for the whole team. And then Stronghold Games printed Space Cadets. It’s not just the same theme and execution, there are even specific mini-games in common. He was understandably disappointed and I knew exactly how he felt because I’ve been there. A lot.

I was able to console him with the reassurance that this happens all the time. I’d be surprised if every one of you hasn’t experienced something like this yourself. Which is why I want to reassure you that’s it not just you. I call this phenomenon Convergent Design, after Convergent Evolution, the idea that animals with little-to-no evolutionary relationship have developed distinctly similar features through unrelated paths, largely because those features are fairly optimal and their development inevitable.

Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison independently invented the lightbulb within five years of each other. Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and Pixel Lincoln were all released within a year of each other. The same year I finally got publisher traction for Assault on Khyber Station, I found Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space on a dealer’s table and a week later I heard people raving about Escape, which turned out to be The Curse of the Temple. While that last one is more coincidence than a duplicated idea, you can still see a clear trend. Even Space Cadets isn’t alone: Artemis is the same idea for the PC and Spaceteam for iOS.

I attribute it all to the global zeitgeist. While every human is as unique as a snowflake, we all consume the same media and participate in the same culture. Modern communication has reduced the latency of this effect from years to mere minutes and even mitigates the previously large cultural differences between nations and continents. With several billion people laughing at Seinfeld and holding their breath for Harry Potter, it’s no wonder that a few of us are going to wonder “Hey, what if you could set reminders by location instead of time?” all at once.

In the Unpub zone at GenCon this year I watched a Rick Collins game, Scrapbots, in which players build robots from junk and battle them against each other. Each robot’s abilities and well-being are defined by card slots in their hit locations (head, chest, arms, legs). In one fell swoop, I saw two of my designs preempted. I might have been crushed, but I’ve been in this position often enough to know not to take it personally. Instead, I laughed that I never did get around to developing either of those games, so if my goal was to see those ideas realized, I just got a present. I save hours of headache and hard work while someone else does it all for me, and I’ll get to just buy his game and enjoy it already completed. Thanks!

Now, I am being optimistic here. If the game does get published and is as awesome as it can be, then all is well. If, on the other hand, the game fails to be published, not only am I back to square one, but I basically have no chance selling the game to the publishers that turned down the original. And if Scrapbots does get published but turns out to be bad, then I’m really screwed: I won’t have a sweet game to play, I won’t have my desire sated to see those ideas well-realized, and making the game myself to do it right would be a fool’s errand because no publisher will want to touch a game seemingly derivative of a well-known flop.

When I was 15, Wizards of the Coast was accepting external Magic set submissions. I put together something I’d be too embarrassed to show anyone today, but with a few solid ideas in it just the same. The same year I mailed that off, they announced the big policy change and stopped accepting anything. I never got a response whether they even read my stuff. But that Summer, they released a bunch of new cards and mechanics that they obviously stole from me.

Except they didn’t steal them. I know this because it takes considerably longer to develop, template and print a card than the time they had to steal my idea.

Last year, I led a team that designed a Magic set that I am quite proud of. Not only were there a half-dozen nearly identical cards printed in Wizards’ version of the “same” set, there were cards released while we were still working that matched brand new designs and forced us to remove or drastically change them.

And that wasn’t surprising, because not only were we working in the same medium (this ubiquitous magepunk TCG) with the same frame of reference (the preceding 18 years of Magic sets), but we were even working within the same parameters (to design a flavorful core set that’s easy for new players to learn but interesting for established players to draft) toward the same goal (to lead into a multicolor-themed fall set named Return to Ravnica). In fact, one of the reasons I consider the project successful is the number of solutions our team shared in common with the Wizards’ team. If we hadn’t hit some of the same touchstones, it would have been a sign that we were off in our understanding of where Magic is and where it’s going.

When I go back and apply the same logic two decades ago, my old anger at having my ideas “stolen” is replaced by pride that even as bad a designer I was at the time, I was still on track enough to come up with the same things the professionals did. When Jason Tagmire learned about concurrent Lincoln movies, he used that as fuel to help market Pixel Lincoln. When Edison learned about Swan’s work, he sent goons to eliminate his competition. Wait, bad example…

The point is, it’s up to you how to respond when someone beats you to the punch with your own idea. You can throw a fit and let it eat you up inside. You can take it as validation. You can thank them for saving you the effort. And you can even team up with them and use it to your advantage.

You might even reevaluate what it means to ‘own’ an idea. But that’s another article.

Adventures in Space!

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m designing three different games, all within a science fiction theme. Although I’m not actively pursuing this or worrying about it, it would be interesting to have 3 different stories and experiences within this one universe. But, we’re getting distracted.

Actually, humor me a minute. Was it not super compelling to discover Aliens and Firefly are within the same universe? I know. Right?

I know in my last post I wrote about space not appealing to me, but I’ve latched onto moments that I find very compelling personally and that has helped. I think that’s the key — instead of obsessing over massive premises, I’m focusing on little stories and experiences that really appeal to me. Now, I’m trying to abstract them into mechanics and overall games. Some of these include…

  • In movies like Alien and Aliens, after every horrible moment the survivors regroup and ask “Well, what do we do now?” I find this a very compelling sequence for my story-driven co-op game. WHAT NOW?

  • In Halo with ODST units (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers), Starship Troopers with the mobile infantry, and even just the good ‘ole 101st Airborne Division of World War II, I’m very drawn to the intensity and coolness of commandos dropping from the sky without warning to cause mayhem.
  • I love it in any movie when a starship just unleashes an unholy broadside against an opponent. The awful Wing Commander does this in its final scene. In the recent StarTrek it is awesome when the Enterprise jumps on top of the Romulan vessel with guns blazing. The ambush, the broadside — I love it.

The focus of this post is to discuss some of the early developments for one of my three games, but before I do that I thought I’d outline the three games very briefly.

Cooperative Game the First –  The Epic One: I went on a long, rainy run with a good friend and we hashed out a good scenario for a medium weight cooperative game. We have a beginning, middle, and end game with win and loss conditions. We have some neat mechanics. This will be a game about escaping from an oppressive empire to build a new home in secret. But, the empire is coming and they will find  you. It’s a matter of time and whether you’ll be prepared or not to survive. This will be a game with long-term planning and strategy, probability management, and a nail-biting finish.

This will use a chit-pull mechanic and some terrain/exploration elements (Eclipse) is an inspiration here. It will feature an expanding/collaborative tech tree and combat at the finale (perhaps throughout).

An inspiration for this game is the classic Relic game Homeworld, which is one of the finest RTS PC games of all time.

Cooperative Game the Second – The one driven by story (I first wrote about this one here). This is a game idea I cannot get out of my head. The original kernel for the idea was that great movies like Alien, Aliens, The Avengers, Firefly, and Star Trek are driven by the characters and their personalities. The coward, the smart ass, the genius, the hot head — the stories are interesting because of who they are and how they deal with things more so than what’s happening.

I’ve been trying to figure out ways of turning this into a mechanic and not a wannabe light RPG. I’ve gone to many places and I’ve been circling this for a long time. Some of my inspirations have been Apples to Apples and Dixit (yep), Dungeon Command (for the mechanic where they assign adjectives to characters and equipment, i.e. this is an Int ability you can assign to any guy with Int), DuranceMice and Mystics, The Resistance, and Friday.

The thing is, I don’t want any fuzziness. There should be clear rules, what I can and can’t do. But, I want people to be able to lean into the story if that makes sense. I want the rich social interaction of The Resistance. More on The Resistance, I think part of that game’s brilliance is that it takes 15 minutes and is fun if you lose or win. I don’t think Pandemic is nearly as fun if you lose. So, I’m going for that vibe. This is all fuzzy, and it is in my head. I’m working on it, I’m circling, and I’m closing in.

Competitive Game – This game was born out of 1901. That was a quick idea I had that I set aside and morphed into this. Both games were built upon the notion of team versus team, with each team being comprised of two different roles: Navy and Army. That has translated quite interestingly to the new premise. Now, it’s star fleet and ground units. More on that in a minute.

The fictional premise is that the big Confederation has lost a planet to a group of insurrectionists. The Confederation dispatches a fleet to put down this insurrection and retake the planet. You’ll have superior fire power and conventional weaponry versus an entrenched enemy who isn’t as well armed, but knows the terrain and will fight in a guerrilla fashion. My goal is for this to be a 30-45 minute game, 2-4 players.

Originally with 1901 I was really leery of creating another map and another board. It’s such a difficult thing to design. I tried to abstract this and move away from the typical map. I wanted something that allowed for spatial relationships, but I didn’t want a complex map. I thought about a grid of cards (thick card-stock ones like in Mr. Jack, yum!) laid out in a 3×3 or 4×4 setup. Cards will be incredibly distilled, simplified elements. This square has the communications station, which has a benefit. This one is a city. This one is a mountain. This one is a plain (i.e. nothing).

So, if the ground units are moving and fighting on this grid (let’s say orthogonal movement), where are the fleets? Well, ground units can only affect their surroundings in a limited way. But a star fleet, in orbit, should be able to affect a broad range of things. Basically, whatever is beneath them, right? I thought it would be quite simple if the fleets move on the outskirts of the grid and then affect the cards along that side of the grid. Along these outskirts there may be environmental hazards/objects like a star base or perhaps an asteroid belt.

Here’s a rough mockup. You can see the comm station, mountains, 2 cities, the artillery battery, airfield, some normal spaces, some blank spaces. You can see the confederation fleet on the bottom side looking at those bottom 4 squares. Meanwhile, the rebel fleet is hiding in the asteroid cluster.

These two forces, the fleets and the ground forces, are both fighting their own battles. However, it’s a deeply synergistic relationship. Both affect each other and must work towards a common goal. A decent comparison may be the Battle of Endor. There is a ground battle and one in space. But, whereas in that one it’s an order of operations issue, in my game I’m hoping for more fluidity.

What are some of these synergies? Well, here are a few examples I’ve brainstormed:

  • The fleet launches drop troops to the surface to be controlled by the ground commander.
  • The ground commander gains control of the artillery battery to harass the enemy fleet.
  • The ground commander lasers a target to guide the fleet’s bombers.
  • The fleet transports the ground troops quickly from one square to another.
  • The ground forces jam the enemy fleet, which allows your fleet partner to get into position.

And so forth.

Drafting is a big inspiration for me for the game. I really love the mechanic and I’m trying to incorporate it in slightly different ways. Player actions will largely be driven by their cards. Each round, teams will have a quick intra-team draft. This does a few things for the experience:

  • Each teammate gets individual agency in what he chooses for the overall strategy.
  • Good teams will see what they each drafted and try to build synergies.
  • This solves the issue of table-talk — instead of lots of whispering, which kills the flow, or no table talk, which is lame, you can draft, know what you both have, and work off each other’s hands.

Cards will have some dual use to them. I REALLY want to keep this simple (I don’t want people reading cards for hours like in Seasons), but I’d like players to think “should I take this or should I leave it for the fleet?” I imagine it’ll be a brief 10 card draft, each player gets 3 or 4 cards, some number are discarded. The idea is that experienced players will really begin to learn the subtlety of the decks and how to use things. Perhaps the decks will be set in phases so there are early game cards and late game cards. I want to keep it as simple as possible so we’ll see how it pans out.

Another way I wish to draft will be in that each round, players will draft the territories to which they play actions. If I draft the territory with the comm station, my teammate can then drop troops to it. You can’t. I drafted it, it belongs to my team.

Combat and resolution will be straightforward like in Empire or Smallworld. You’ll play abilities for distinct outputs, but your cards will modify them. Territory will also feed into this. For example, an action may become more potent if I have a specific territory. I’m hoping this is a matter of syncing up icons, i.e. “If you have this, use this output. Otherwise, this one.”

I think this simplicity can be quite compelling. It worked well in Empire as it was straightforward and had just a little bit of variability based on your opponent’s actions. One thing that came to mind, especially with drafting the territories to influence and affect, was “drafting with interruptions.” I don’t mean a counter-spell “ha ha” like in Magic, but you reacting to my decision to draft the territory. Perhaps you set an ambush? Perhaps you retreat? Perhaps you drop in troops to reinforce?

One final thought on this: Stratego. It’s excellent. Stratego is a simple game of planning, memory, deduction, and bluffing. Reconnaissance will be important. Positioning the fleets to “scan” and learn more about the enemy can be vital. Really, I love the idea of a 4 way game of cat and mouse.

This is all just insight into where my mind’s at, what I’m trying to create, and how I work. If anything jumped out at you, good or bad, or you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

Faction Design

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I wanted to give you a bit of reprieve from Field Marshals, especially as it has been the topic of so many columns lately. However, when I was fishing for column ideas, the most excellent Eric of the great blog Games & Grub asked me for tips on designing factions and balancing them. This has been my focus for a few weeks now on Field Marshals and I want to help where possible.

I’m not an expert on faction design. Really, if anyone is it’s Colby Dauch and crew with Summoner Wars.  I have learned a few things and I will try to abstract it somewhat so that it’s useful even if you aren’t designing a war game. There are a few key points I wish to make:

  • The key to designing a faction is knowing which knobs you can twist.
  • Only make a faction as complicated as it needs to be and nothing more.
  • Make the factions unique at a high level before designing the details.
  • Every faction should have a strength and a weakness.

What do I mean by factions? By faction, I mean different entities within the game that follow different rule sets. These could be a character class (ex: Rogue, Ranger, Warrior) or in the case of Field Marshals, different armies. The Summoner Wars Master Set ships with 8 factions.

Factions can be e a great addition to your game because they provide a great deal of variety. Just when you think you can’t lose with the Orcs, take a chance playing as the Elves only to find you need to relearn the game somewhat. Factions also cater to different play styles. Some players prefer stealth and subtlety, others go straight for the throat. From an aesthetic standpoint, factions give you an opportunity to appeal to players with different visuals, tell new stories, and generally expand and enrich your game world.

However, factions aren’t always the right solution and shouldn’t be approached without deliberate intent. They can quickly expand your game content out of hand, add a great deal of complexity to an otherwise simple rule set, and will most assuredly create a balance headache for you.

The key to designing factions is knowing which knobs you can twist. Factions are essentially exceptions and variants built upon a core, refined rule set. You do not want to design factions within a completely open sandbox as you’ll begin creating ridiculous things! Only begin faction design once you have a very firm understanding of your game.

It’s like grammar. Know the rules backwards and forwards so that you can break them at the right moment.

I’ve spent several months testing Field Marshals with a single Army. Every player used the same Army with the same Tactics. As a result, I’ve been able to focus on the map layout, add things such as Fortresses and Seaports, refine victory conditions, player turns, movement, turn order, and more. I always knew I wanted to consider factions at some point, but I avoided the distraction for a very long time.

As a result, I now know what features are available to allow me to craft a compelling faction.

  • Factions can have unique Tactics: Tactics are the core of Field Marshals. They are separated into Offensive, Defensive, and Support Tactics. Defensive and Offensive Tactics modify the otherwise non-random aspects of battle and Support Tactics let you do things like taking an additional Move or building a Fortress.
  • Factions can Reinforce differently.
  • Factions can battle differently. Better “fighting” armies may have a more favorable attrition rate in direct battle.
  • Factions can move differently.

One thing that I should note is that I’m not using all of these things. In fact, 90% of faction play will be entirely manifested in an Army’s Tactics. I’m making a slight tweak to Reinforcements such that 2 factions will do it one way and the other 2 will do it another way. That’s it. If I’m successful, I may craft additional factions that further bend the rules.

For now, I don’t want to add more complexity simply because I can! I want players to be able to shift between factions relatively easily. The difficulty (and fun) should come through learning to master the faction. If every faction required players read 4 pages of rules, they’d quickly set my game on fire.

Only make a faction as complicated as it needs to be and nothing more. This is a continuation of a previous point, but it’s worth stating again and again. Just because you are able doesn’t mean you should design several wholly unique rule sets. If your factions can be unique and meaningful with just 2 rules, then you’ve done your job. Factions are one of the best ways to over complicate and ruin your game if you aren’t careful.

I was worried initially that I would need completely new iconography for the different factions. I was also worried that I’d need to design 8 Tactics for each Army (which was the number the vanilla army had in the previous iteration). However, as I dove into the actual implementation, I conceived of some clever ways to deliver on the fiction and keep the iconography universal between every faction. I also found that 4 unique Tactics were more than sufficient for each faction.

With only 4 unique Factions, that means, at most, there are 4 players, 4 Armies, and 16 total Tactics in a single game. That’s not an insane number, which means it should be possible for players to follow and, within reason, anticipate the moves of their opponents. Only testing will verify this hypothesis, but I believe I’m moving in the right direction.

Make the factions unique at a high level before designing the details. I’m designing a war game with historical footing in 19th century European warfare. It was relatively easy for me to create 4 unique factions using this backdrop for inspiration. I planned the factions at a high level initially to ensure they were distinct and unique. With faction play, especially early in your game’s life cycle, there is no room for subtlety. Be bold.

If you cannot create something unique at a high level, don’t bother fiddling with the rules or implementation. The unique rules and variations for each faction need to be obvious for your players. The conceit needs to be plausible, else your players will be consulting the rules or ignoring your over-designed implementations. Minor tuning changes may not be sufficient for creating unique factions.

My current 4 factions are as follows (Don’t worry too much about the names. I’m still fiddling with story/world development).

  • Imperial Army: They are designed to be the basic, well-balanced Army. They are inspired by the professional regular armies of Prussia and Britain. The Imperial Army are essentially the Terrans from Starcraft, if that helps.
  • Yorkan Clans: The clans are heavily inspired by the Native American tribes during the Indian Wars of the American West, the Spanish Guerrillas during the Peninsular War, and the Vietcong. They are a guerrilla Army focused on hit and run tactics, Ambushes, and not getting caught in a head to head battle.
  • Royal Brigade: This is a highly mobile, cavalry based Army. They are honestly more inspired by the Blitzkrieg tactics pioneered by the German Army in World War II. Speed, mobility, encirclement, and hitting the enemy in his flank.
  • Republik Militia: These are the rabble that have risen up under the promise of a better, democratic government. They are ill-trained and led by politicians turned Generals. They don’t fight well, but they have large numbers and can manipulate their opponents through political means.

One thing that helped me visualize these four factions is that the Army I have been testing featured many of the same Tactics. Now, the Tactics are distributed such that each Army has a very small, but unique subset of powerful choices that make them unique.

Every faction should have a strength and weakness. After you conceive the base idea for your faction, you should immediately begin to answer the following two questions: What is this faction good at? What is this faction bad at?

For the guerrilla Army, they are good at appearing in unexpected places of the map and hit and run tactics. They are everywhere you don’t want them to be. However, they are very bad at straight up fights. If you pin them down, they will be in trouble. It’s key to move them and time your strikes well, because going toe to to with the Imperial Army may result in failure.You may find at this stage that your answers sound very similar for different factions. If this is the case, you may want to take a step back and revisit the high level concepts.

Quick Recap. Know your overall game before you being fiddling with factions. Treat factions as exceptions to the core rules. Design within a limited framework and seek at all times to limit complexity. Focus on boldly unique entities. Subtle blends should be reserved for “down the line.” Every faction should have a strength and a weakness.

Did this help? Did this answer any questions? If not, post your additional questions below in comments. I always want to improve my content, so if I could have explained a point better, please tell me!

The Joys of Youth (Part 1)

Post by: Grant Rodiek

One of my favorite things about board games is their tactile qualities and toy like nature. The joy of holding cards, throwing dice, and moving little figures around the play space. It’s fun to touch and hold the pieces and imagine a greater world before you (as opposed to having a video game dictate things to you).

I had a great childhood and I loved games and toys. Still do! Because of this, and the fact that every year I draw closer to having my own children, I’m really interested in designing games for children. There’s something really compelling about crafting an experience for a father to enjoy with his little girl, instead of putting an iPad in front of her and watching TV.

But. Designing games for young children is difficult. Really difficult. It’s less that you need to design a game full of subtle strategies and multiple paths to victory and much more that you need to design something that appeals to a 4 year old who may not be able to count, read, make complex choices, or even handle losing!

In this post I’m going to share the data from a small survey I conducted with parents who game with their children. In a follow-up post I’m going to share a design I’ve written as well as the early feedback I’ve gathered from parents.

Many months ago I asked the parental nerds who follow me on Twitter about the games they play with their children. Eight parents with a total of 16 kids with an average age of 6.0625 years old rose to the challenge! Here are the questions I asked:

  1. What are the ages of your children?
  2. What are the genders of your children?
  3. What are your children’s favorite games?
  4. What are YOUR favorite games to play with your children?
  5. What are the most important factors for YOU when you purchase a game for your children?
  6. What is the important factor for your children when buying a game?
  7. Do your children enjoy a particular mechanic more than others?
  8. What themes excite your children the most?
  9. Do you want your children to learn something when playing a game? Do you prefer a game to be overtly educational, or is it okay for it to be more subtle?
  10. How often do you buy games for your children?
  11. How often do you play games with your children?
  12. What do you think is the right length for a children’s game?

If you’re interested in a spreadsheet with a distilled take on all the data, click here. However, here are some of my high level takeaways from the data:

  • The three most important factors in your design will be simplicity (easy to teach), short play time (10-20 minutes), and an exciting theme.
  • Avoid blatantly educational design decisions! Most children can smell a rat — they’ll be disinterested in playing homework and parents agree. Try to weave things like decision making skills, basic math skills, pattern recognition, risk taking, social skills, and learning to win and lose gracefully into your design.
  • Find a way to incorporate decision making into your game, no matter how simple it is. One example I was given is to draw 2 cards in Candyland, then let the child decide which one to play.
  • Parents are only purchasing games 3-4 times a year! Here’s where it gets even harder — you’re competing with smiling Disney and Nickelodeon characters on box covers for these rare purchases.
  • The interests and capabilities of young children grow and change almost as quickly as they do! Knowing how rarely parents may make purchases AND how children will be learning new skills in school as they age, future proof your game and add value by incorporating layers into your design. Said more succinctly, if possible, design your game so that it can appeal to a child from the ages of 4-6.

A few parents noted that playing cooperatively against the game just wasn’t very compelling for their children. However, one had this to say:

“[My child] loves games like Pitch Car and Jungle Speed, but even the light competitive factor can bring out an ugly side with young players. Survive is fun for him until you start eating his guys. We try to focus on “there’s always another game to play” and “at least you got to play a game”, but it doesn’t always work. So solo and co-op games tend to make more sense.”

Here’s one response I found very interesting: “There’s a fair number of TV programs that are able to attract both adults and children (Spongebob comes to mind).  Games seem to do a poor job of it.  For me, playing games with my daughter is a bit of a chore.  I do it for her, not because I think it’s fun.  Maybe it’s an impossible nut to crack, but I wish someone would figure it out.”

Finally, as I’m not (yet) a parent, I forgot that a significant aspect of raising a child is not just teaching them to read and count, but also to be a successful human in society. This response really resonated with me when I asked about games with educational value:

“Honestly, I am more interested in teaching them to follow directions at this point, i.e. play by the rules. Sometimes Shoots and Ladders turns into just moving any which way or “No I don’t want to go down the slide”. Also, that it is ok to lose. You don’t have to win EVERY time.”

I look forward to the discussion this generates! Please share your thoughts in the comments below. Check back later this week for my children’s game design and an early analysis of it.

I’d like to thank the following nerds who took time out of their busy schedule to help make this post possible: Cyrus Kirby, Jonathan Liu, AJ Porifiro, Corey Young, Kevin Hogan, Tom Krohne, Justin, Michael Harrison, Nolan Lichti, Chris Uriko, Kevin O’Gorman, and more!

On the Take (That!)

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A Take That! mechanic in a board or card game is essentially griefing that’s allowed, encouraged, and promoted by the rules. Take That! is typically defined by overtly aggressive player actions that are performed to the detriment of one’s opponents. Some examples of Take That! mechanics include the Raider’s Outpost in Alien Frontiers, many cards in Discworld: Ankh-Morpork (kill an opponent, burn their building), the entire game of GUBS, and about 88% of the cards in my own game, Farmageddon. One more: Uno. All of it.

The inclusion of a Take That! mechanic in your game design will be one of the most controversial decisions you will make. It will be incredibly polarizing for the audience and as such, you shouldn’t include such a mechanic in a frivolous manner.

Many designers seek to add more player interaction to their game and their first stop is often Take That! It’s the obvious choice, but perhaps not the right choice. Subtler mechanics are not the focus of this post, however.

The purpose of this post is to discuss the merits of Take That! mechanics, the downsides, and provide some tips on integrating Take That! into your designs if you’re feeling sassy.

Why Take That?

Take That! is really great for a few reasons, namely its accessibility as a mechanic and the thrill it provides.

The application of a Take That! mechanic is often blatantly obvious to players, which means Take That! mechanics are inherently accessible. These mechanics are fundamentally aggressive and as a species we understand aggression. If you do Action A to player T, X will occur. People understand and enjoy Take That! mechanics and the sales seem to indicate this: Munchkin, Uno, GUBS, and Fluxx have all sold well.

I cannot imagine a universe in which I successfully explain all the actions, structures, and values of Agricola to my younger brother. I  can envision one in which he blows up my crops in Farmageddon and enjoys every second of it.

Take That! is also exciting. Knowing that something bad will happen, but not when, and not to whom, creates a sense of anticipation and excitement. Not being struck by the devastating action of another player is thrilling! Of course, being struck is less so, but we’re on the good side at this point in the post.

Finally, remember that some people don’t play games for intellectual stimulation or intense competition. They want to zap each other, laugh, and pass the time. I think this is the strongest argument on behalf of Take That! — it makes people laugh.

Why Not Take That?

Take That! often feels cheap or unfair, especially to the victim. It’s not fair that you were targeted (again). It’s not fair that your opponent drew the card instead of you. You didn’t have a choice or say in the matter. It’s just not fair.

Take That! devalues strategic play. Games that require a great deal of planning, strategy, and careful decision making are made intensely frustrating when one action from an opponent entirely and unpredictably undermines your entire strategy. This is especially frustrating when the win is snatched out of your hands on the final turn!

Because they are often so overt and aggressive, Take That! mechanics stand in contradiction to the more subtle and thoughtful mechanics preferred by many players who seek a more intellectual game experience.

Finally, Take That! mechanics can be very stressful. I fully realize that above I said they were thrilling, but it’s possible for a single mechanic to elicit several emotions from players, especially different players. One player’s exciting thrill ride is another player’s tedious or terrifying “It’s a Small World.” Just imagine the animatronic children your game may cause.

How to Take That?

There are some high level guidelines to help steer you towards the right level of Take That! for your game.

Firstly, you must understand your target audience. Who will be playing your game and when will they be playing it? I designed Farmageddon for casual gamers who might play the game after a small dinner party or in the evening with family. No brains will be burned while playing this game. If you seek to design a deeply strategic game, Take That! is not the correct choice. The more casual your audience, the more acceptable Take That! will be.

Secondly, how long is your game? The longer the experience, the more frustrating Take That! mechanics are for all players. Discworld would be far less enjoyable if it lasted even 15 minutes more to play. There are many cards throughout the game that can dramatically swing things in and out of a player’s favor. But, at 30-40 minutes, it’s a great deal of fun! The longer your experience, the less acceptable Take That! will be.

The frustration of Take That! is mitigated further if you provide your players a way to defend themselves. The Raider’s Outpost in Alien Frontiers loses its potency as the game continues because of the decoy card that protects you from theft, or the fact that you have so many resources that losing a few is no longer a crushing blow. In Farmageddon, Foul Manure cards protect players’ crops from all the terrible things in the game. You need to give players peace of mind, an eye amid the storm. Take That! is less frustrating if you give players a way to protect themselves.

Finally, give every player an equal chance to force their opponents to take that (or this?). Don’t allow one player to dominate through lucky draws or unfair turn order rules. Don’t make it so the player who is the leader is always the one to attack. Take That! is less frustrating if you distribute the chaos uniformly across all players. 

I find Take That! less appealing as I grow and experiment as both a player and a designer. But, it absolutely has its place and it often makes me laugh. It’s a tool for you to wield, albeit a very controversial tool. In this case, think before you come out swingin’!