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?

Balancing the Balance

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Balancing a game is arguably the most difficult and time consuming phase of design. When refining the mechanisms and trying to reach an Alpha and Beta state, you can grab new testers, test once, and gather the data you need to progress. However, with final balancing, not only do you need your mechanisms to not move at all, but you need to attempt to create controls in a realm full of variables to isolate and identify what’s out of whack.

We are in the balance stages of Hocus. We haven’t changed our mechanisms for about 6 months now, which means we’re in the fine print of balancing. Our testing matrix is quite complex, even for a simple game, due to a few factors:

  • 2-5 players can play. The game has a different texture if you’re playing with 2 players versus 5.
  • There are 9 different Spell Books, which means there are tons of permutations
  • Our game has a luck factor, due to the cards you’re dealt and draw
  • Our game has a skill factor, due to the decisions you make in an ever adjusting situation

We’ve progressed through a few levels of balance. I’m going to discuss some of our efforts for Hocus, then for each case immediately broaden it to a higher level so that it’s useful for other. Essentially, I want this to be useful for all!

The Killer Hand: As we’ve written about prior, throughout the course of Hocus, we’ve found that by altering the probabilities of the game ever so slightly, and giving players further means by which to alter their chances, certain hands become far more probable. This is dangerous when those hands are things like a Full House, which is supposed to be one of the best hands in the game.

There are a few ways in which we ultimately balanced the killer hand for Hocus, including:

  • Limiting hands to 6 possible cards. With so much player agency, 7 cards is too many.
  • Adding a timing element to the game. A good strategy is to expedite the round such that those with a solid hand cannot profit too much.
  • Forcing players to pay for their own points. If multiple players think they’re in contention, a Pot can get quite big quite quickly. However, if everyone knows Bob has the killer hand, or is likely to, they’ll leave Bob to it. See bullet #2 on why this is problematic.
  • Letting players dynamically define what good is. If you give someone full reign over a community, they’ll build a Straight Flush, Full House, or powerful Flush or Straight. However, if you muddy their plans, suddenly a high Pair can be viable. It’s really about playing the board and not following along with someone else’s plans.

Your game may not have concerns with a killer hand, but there may be incredibly powerful cards about which people are worried, or certain strategies that seem very potent. The solution might not always be to fix every number so that things are perfectly balanced, but give players agency to balance things themselves.

I’ve heard, for example, that Old Friend in Last Will is too powerful. Old Friend gives you a bonus action every turn. However, if you observe, the person who goes absolutely first to get Old Friend will rarely get other worthwhile benefits. And, if you obtain cards such to deny them hefty combos, you’ll find Old Friend isn’t quite the deal breaker  you think at first glance.

One downside of a player agency driven solution is that in an age where people might not play your game a second time, they may not see that it is in fact balanced. If people just play once and don’t begin to dig into the game, they’ll leave with a bad first impression. You’ll have to evaluate if it’s worth the risk.

The Dominant Spell: Hocus has 9 Spell Books. All but one of them have 3 unique Spells that complement each other, and the 9th has 2 Spells used to manipulate a small deck of bizarre and wondrous cards. While it isn’t a CCG by any means, there’s a lot of content and many permutations here.

Throughout development, we’ve seen several cases where certain Spells would be used repeatedly by players. The idea is that sometimes it should appear to be the best option, but not always the best option. So, how do you preserve a card’s potency and intent without removing all of its teeth?

We utilized a few tactics.

Cost: Cards and time are the economic resource of Hocus. If you make someone discard cards, or draw, but do not allow them to advance the game state, they must choose to forego other opportunities and risk losing a window to use their cards by taking a Spell.

Synergy: Every Spell stands on its own, but some are clearly and obviously tied to a partner. If you do Spell A repeatedly, that’s fine, but until you utilize Spell B, you won’t see the full power of your battle station.

Time: I mentioned this before and I’m going to mention it again. If you allow players infinite time to experiment, dig, sample things, and pry, eventually, they will find the thing they want and win. However, if you give players a ticking clock, and provide incentives for others to push it, you’ll find that time waits for no player. Limited and unclear number of actions is a beautiful way to curtail a potent option.

Opposing Spells: We’ve deliberately seeded Hocus with abilities that can dominate a particular aspect of the game, but little else. Sure, you put a lot of big stuff in the Community, but the Illusion Wizard did as well…face down. Sure, you have three Pockets to choose from, but the Alchemist manipulated your Pot such that it’s of little value. The game is deeply interactive and everyone is intertwined. If you let someone do whatever they want in a vacuum, they’ll misbehave. If you force them to deal with their neighbors, interesting things happen.

It’s a mistake to remove powerful, big abilities from your game. It’s incredible fun when players feel like they are cheating, but doing so well within the bounds of your expectations. Being powerful is fun. However, you need to think about all the methods your game provides you to limit things.

Do you have a timer in the game? A way to force people to make choices?

Do you have any resources? A cost? These can be official resources, like food in Imperial Settlers, or subtle resources, like cards in hand, Victory Points, or, well, TIME.

Do you have interaction? Man is the greatest foe. Though every number may be mathematically sound, many games like Magic and Netrunner and Innovation show that interaction and cunning opponents are far more interesting solutions.

Intermission: The cluttered and plodding content

One of our best testers, Marguerite Cottrell, sent us a fantastic video a few months ago that provided some really wonderful insights we ourselves had missed. Essentially, she noted that Spell Books that did X tended to be better than Spell Books without. She also noted that every Spell Book tended to do a major and minor thing, but a few Spell Books didn’t really have a major thing.

Wonderful, insightful, and very good. The lesson is to find someone who can examine your game from a high level. Or, you yourself need to break out the spreadsheet and find ways to categorize and quantify your content.

However, as we rushed to balance leveraging these insights, my friend and tester Matt Yang noticed how much slower the game had become. In order to give everyone the identified X, we had doubled the content of almost every single turn in the game. Players now had to make 2 decisions that were deeply involved.

Oh dear.

We recognized that we needed to maintain nice, quick pacing for our game and balance. We thought way back to the original intent of the X and remembered that it was intended as a catch up in very very specific situations, namely, when spells had a very niche use that might not seem immediately valuable. We had then crept out from that to add this catch up to things that didn’t really need it, then to everything.

The lesson is to have a purpose for every decision you make. Remember why you did a thing and what problem you’re trying to solve. Keep that in mind as you apply that tool to other situations. Often, you’ll find that a fix for one problem is inappropriate for another and the consequences can lead to a major revision.

The Advanced Inclusion: Because we’re foolish, or wanted to have a ton of content in the game, we opened up our final 3 Spell Books to be a bit wonky. Whereas the first 6 Spell Books more or less just manipulate the various elements of the game in different ways, our final 3 Spell Books introduce new mechanisms and complexity.

Here, we have to balance a few things! Firstly, once someone learns how to navigate the complexity, are these Spell Books viable in competition? Secondly, how do we allow the game changing mechanisms but still keep them within balance? Often, abilities like this are very controversial. If you look at the Japanese faction for Imperial Settlers, you’ll see many players say “How the hell do I win with them!” That’s me. You’ll also see players say “Oh the Japanese are so powerful.”

Some of the divide here is simply due to the fact that the faction is so different from the others. Remember that perception is a big part of balance. If players are convinced it isn’t, no matter what you can prove otherwise, well, it isn’t. When introducing new mechanisms in cards, factions, and so forth, be sure to keep them simple enough that the learning curve does not adversely affect this perception.

The core backpressure of exception based design is accessibility. In this case, you’re almost less worried about balance at the outset and more concerned with: can my players get this and utilize it in a way that is compelling and competitive. When you introduce new mechanisms, keep that learning curve in check first.

The Control Experiment: Try to find ways to create control experiments. Give your best playtester (there’s always someone who is a super good player) the weaker abilities and see how they do with it. See if they can craft strategies and come out ahead. Give your weaker players some of the stronger, more apparent abilities and see if they can come out ahead. Keep track of what wins, and how often, and whether they win with the same strategy or there are different options.

You can also give your best player the most difficult content to leverage. For us, those are the exception based Spells. You can observe the difficulty ramp as it passes from your best to worst players.

Be sure to test with the same group over and over and to test the abilities about which you’re concerned against new ones. Think back to your high school science class. Pursue the testing methodically and take notes. Easy things to track include:

  • Final scores
  • Ways in which points are earned (and using what tactic)
  • Abilities used and how often
  • Reactions when certain abilities are used: Do people feel like it was fair? Unfair? Excitement? Frustration?

Hopefully some of this is useful as you enter the balance phase for your own game. It is difficult every time I encounter it, so I always learn with every try.

A Low Chance of Success

Sol3

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Earlier this week, I played Columbia Games’ Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign, 1815. This is an old, classic war game design, with blocks to allow for fog of war, rather elegant mechanisms with a few key exceptions, and lots of dice rolling. We played our first game with the strategic and tactical ineptness you’d expect from first time generals (at least with this system), which meant the battles took longer, more dice were rolled, and we were overall less decisive.

At first blush, it’s easy to say: well, the probability of hitting on the dice was too low and that lead to the game dragging on. You can also say this about Combat Commander: Europe, an utterly phenomenal design that uses dice on cards to represent a dice rolling mechanism. There, too, firefights can drag on. Or, for those who aren’t war gamers, Eclipse. In this game, a 6 is a hit, a 1 is a miss, and everything else doesn’t work. That is, by default. Sometimes battles seem to require far too many rounds to see a resolution.

At a first glance, for all of these, it’s easy to say “the probability needs to be increased to prevent the game from dragging on.” However, after multiple plays of Combat Commander and Eclipse, something else became clear. Low probability of dice (and other randomness mechanisms) exist in order to give the designer, and therefore players, a greater decision space in which to manipulate the game state.

Let’s walk through the options for just these three games to quickly demonstrate my point.

Napoleon

  • By default, most units hit on a 6. The healthier the unit, the more dice rolled.
  • Cavalry hit on a 4-6 when rolled for their first attack. Otherwise, a 5-6.
  • Artillery, when engaged, hit on a 5-6 on their first attack. Otherwise, a 6.
  • Infantry hit on a 6, unless attacking infantry in Square formation.
  • Infantry in Square formation are only hit on a 6 by cavalry, but take more damage from artillery and infantry.

Napoleon doesn’t have cards or ways to modify your units. However, within the battles, you can choose to disengage and re-engage your cavalry unit to gain that huge bonus once again. You can disengage artillery to move them elsewhere to snipe from afar. Because everything hits on a 6, typically, you have breathing room as a player to forego a turn of low efficiency firing in order to maneuver for high efficiency punches. Only players who fail to grasp the depth of the system will pass it all off as pure random.

Combat Commander

You can fire in two ways, essentially: using a single unit, or combining units. If you do the latter, you take the best unit’s default firing score, then add +1 for every additional attacking unit in the group. For both of these, you can play cards to modify your dice roll and add additional bonuses. Finally, in both cases, you draw a card to add a random number to your base stats.

Your initial thought is to attack every turn, as soon as possible. Suffering a single hit can be devastating, and each unit can only sustain one before dying. However, the strategy of the game is to use cards to reduce risk in maneuver, pin down an enemy, and gather cards to unless a devastating hail of fire and grenades from which your opponent does not recover.

Here, again, it’s easy on your first play to ignore these bonuses and grow frustrated by the slow, ineffective plink of combat. But, this is where skill comes in. The game is giving you room to improve your chances. Or, you can rely solely on luck and fail against a superior player.

Eclipse

Last example! Your ships by default hit on a 6 and miss on a 1. However, you can customize your ships with new equipment and upgrades, which is my favorite part of the game. Here, you can increase defense to require a natural 6 be rolled, or improve offensive capabilities so that you hit on a 3 or a 4.

The game lasts about 3 hours, which gives players time to customize, upgrade, and see their fleet grow from a batch of gnats to a mighty, devastating combat fleet.

Mice and Mystics modifies probabilities with equipment, Abilities, and character abilities. Merchants and Marauders lets players outfit their ships with equipment or purchase special ammunition to mitigate the dice and modify things.

There are examples everywhere.

What this means for you.

Naturally, the needs of your games and designs will differ. You may not have a nuanced tactical maneuvering system, like in Napoleon. You may not want to encourage positioning and prep for a big attack or play. You might not care about long-term progression in your ships, civilization, or character.

However, keep in mind that if your dice always have a high probability, the laws of probability indicate one thing will happen. Averages will do what they do: average things. You will have far less room to maneuver as a designer and your players won’t need to think as much because the optimum strategy will be to roll the dice and take the hand fate has dealt them.

In a way, lowering your probability on dice rolls, chit pulls, or card flips is very similar to planning out a proper cost curve for a CCG design. If every card costs only 1-3 resources to play, you’ll quickly find yourself severely limited on options for your power curve. However, if you expand that to 1-6, and introduce even a second resource, you suddenly have a huge amount of room in which to maneuver.

One important thing to consider is the length and pace of your game. If you’re crafting an experience that is 30 minutes or fewer, having a wide range for probability probably isn’t appropriate or necessary. However, once you enter that hour mark, and certainly advance to the 2 and 3 hour mark, you want to adjust your probabilities in order to introduce progression and a long term gameplay arc.

What I mean, is that players in round 4 should not be making identical decisions that they made in round 1. If your game has a strategic layer, then think about decisions players can make in the short term to improve themselves in the long term.

How I plan to use this.

Currently, Sol Rising uses aggressive probability tuning for combat paired with abilities to make it even more aggressive. While this keeps the pacing brisk, it also limits the tactical decision space.

Although this will introduce additional complexity, I want to think about a few systematic mechanisms to allow for greater breadth in the combat resolution probability. This will most likely come in the form of range and close combat bonuses. The core movement and ability mechanisms will remain crystal simple so that this doesn’t turn this medium weight tactics game into a heavy tactics game.

Conclusion

Give yourself room to allow for divergent strategies and excite your players with luck they can better guarantee and attribute more to their skillful play than fate. Allow progression to create a nice arc to the experience, and avoid ways that lead to predictable play.

What are some of your favorite examples of what I discussed? What do you think? What did I get wrong?

Sayest Thou Poker?

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I have some thoughts on branding, naming, and pitching your game to others that have been culminating for some time. Though this is a specific case study, I think what I’ve learned here will apply to your project as well, so give this a read and tell me what you think.

We’ve been struggling to choose a final name for Hocus Poker for a few months now. I think we have a final candidate, but we’ve really gone back and forth to arrive at that point. Really, much of it revolves around the inclusion of Poker in our name.

Despite it being a key component of our origin story, Poker has really become a liability for our little game. For those not aware, Hocus began its life one afternoon when I asked “would Poker be more fun with Spells?” I have immense respect for the game of poker, but I don’t often enjoy my experience playing it. There seemed to be fertile ground as a designer to manipulate. Plus, it seemed easy. You shouldn’t be surprised to find that I’m stupid.

I, and soon after we, sought to change a few things with Poker while adding in Spells:

  • In most hands, your best play is to Fold. That’s not fun.
  • Poker requires money. No entry fees here!
  • Poker requires a group of 4-6 players to be fun. We sought to support lower player numbers.
  • Poker takes a long time to play. We wanted to fit well within a lunch period.
  • Poker features elimination. Everyone’s in until the end for us.

One of the things I love about looking to peer designs is that it becomes easy to quickly create a base line. When you first begin a project the possibilities are overly vast. That list above pointed us in a healthy direction. However, we saw a few strengths with Poker to build the other half of our base line:

  • It’s built around the classic deck. This deck is a wondrous thing. I love a deck of cards. 4 suits, some ranks, go.
  • The classic hands have a really great statistical lineup. The distribution of rarity is quite excellent.
  • The classic hands are reasonably well known by many people. Not all, as we’ve discovered. And holy <divinity of your choice>, do not change them. In any way. Ever.

We saw a good framework here to tinker with. We had our base line. However, framework is one thing. In some ways, it became a big part of our presentation, which wasn’t ideal in hindsight.

Lesson: If you aren’t sure of a name, perhaps consider a super random code name. Don’t look first to your mechanisms.

Perhaps we should have just called Hocus “Project Wozzle” until we had a final name ready?

Poker has been a problem at almost every stage of the pitch for us. I’ve had doors closed in my face as soon as the “ckkkk” leaves me lips, but we’ve also seen wild, angry men rage when they discover what they’ve done to “their” game. The problem with an elevator pitch is that you only have a floor or two, then your listener is either holding the door open or escaping that rapidly ascending box car.

Here are some of my favorite responses:

  • “Oh, I don’t like Poker.” At this point I’ve lost them. They aren’t going to care to hear us discuss the fundamental differences.
  • “Uh, that’s not Poker.” They want Hold ‘Em. They’ll only accept Hold ‘Em. Unlike people who like worker placement, and therefore lots of worker placement poker players don’t want a twist.
  • “Ah, so it’s a variant.” Ouch! This one burns in the third degree. Nothing like spending over a year of your design life on a variant! The other challenge is convincing someone to spend money on something they perceive as a variant.

Lesson: People have very strong expectations for so many things.

You see this with many genres and themes. I hate zombies. I am so sick of deckbuilders. Ugh, abstracts aren’t for me. You aren’t lying to people by not using these labels. It’s somewhat like how you trick a 5 year old to take a bite of their dinner. They enjoy the food…until you tell them it’s <hated ingredient>. Same with players. Don’t trigger their Pavlovian response if you don’t have to.

Affixing Poker to our name was misleading, driving inaccurate expectations, and for some, giving our game an unfair reputation. I started thinking about how other games handle this. Agricola doesn’t call itself Farming Caylus. Diamonds isn’t called Diamond Trick Taker. And I’m not sure anyone loves Ra Bidding Set Collector as much as I love Ra. I’m leveraging some extreme examples here because it amuses me. But, hopefully you get my point.

Lesson: You can be influenced by a thing without needing to put it on the letter head.

Texas Hold ‘Em is what most people think about when they hear “Poker.” It’s on television, on your smart phone, and many of us have enjoyed a Poker night in our lives. Truth be told, we share very few things with that game, most notable of which is the classic Poker hands. But, the player decisions, structure of the game, and strategies are all unique to Hocus. Therefore, the game deserved a divorce.

So, we knew that the poker moniker had issues. We saw that it was not giving our game a chance to stand on its own. Then, I read this blog post on BGG. I really liked this post. It got me thinking. You can disagree with her examples and precise ordering recommendations, but overall, my key takeaway was that you need to present the experience of the game, what makes it unique, and not just append genre labels.

Lesson: Beyond your name, mechanisms, and easy labels, define your game such that it stands out uniquely and conveys its experience.

For Hocus, this is creating opportunities with your limited cards, choosing the right spell at the right moment, and deceiving and foiling your opponents where possible. That’s broad! What I just said doesn’t really make Hocus sound unique. That’s fine, we can fix that. But, you can also see that we didn’t restrict ourselves to pattern recognition, hand management, poker hands, and alternate player powers.

Keep all of these lessons and thoughts in your mind. I’m a big proponent of developing publicly, but I’m trying to be smarter about it. As much as I want discuss things in the most casual and lax of manners, first impressions matter. How you deliver and pitch things matter. Once you make a first impression, it’s tough to rescind.

Moving forward with my designs, I’ll be more careful to consider project names that are safe and don’t build assumptions. I’ll think about what I’m borrowing to form my baseline, but also more immediately what I’m pushing that’s unique. In the end, I hope it leads to more exciting and thrilling pitches from the start. That’s the hope! This is all one big lesson I keep consuming one spoonful at a time.

Hopefully, this spoon was useful. Tell me what you think in the credits!

Design Muscle Memory

This post sponsored by the Hocus Poker PNP! Download it from BGG (and give us a thumb!) or read the rules.

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Design should become easier the more you do it. No, conceiving a unique mechanism is never easy. Identifying that killer solution to a terrible problem is never easy. But, there are dozens, even hundreds of tiny steps that you can begin to ignore if you’re honing your craft and paying attention. Well, ignore is the wrong word. You won’t think about them because they’ll be ingrained in how you make every decision.

Today, I wanted to share some basic things I think are a part of my muscle memory. The hope, is that by taking advantage of this muscle memory to quickly move past the basics, you can more easily start work on the hard part – crafting unique mechanisms, experiences, and balancing your game!

Here are a few examples.

Card Design: A great start for new designers is a card game. Everyone has owned a deck of bicycle cards, or played a CCG, or played some form of card game. They are immediately accessible and require few components, which is great for new designers.

There are many subtle things I’ve learned about cards in my design travels! Some of them include:

  • Use clear 1-2 word card titles. Keep them short and simple. Make sure titles are easy to read and pronounce. If players have difficulty reading or knowing what the title means, they might ignore the card in their hand. Yes, they will!
  • Good titles should reinforce the function of the card. Pesticides, to most people, are connoted as a bad thing. Good titles can act as a bookmark in the player’s mental encyclopedia. With repeat plays, they’ll see this title and will remember what the card does.
  • Limit the number of functional areas. Let’s assume you know to limit the overall amount of information on a card. However, it’s easy to squirrel key pieces of information in different parts of the cards. Train players to look in 1 or 2 places max!
  • Key info on the left…usually. Players often fan cards such that the left side of the card is visible. Be careful about tucking key info in the right-hand side. There are exceptions! Magic puts their card cost and creature attack/defense on the right.
  • Think about key terms. Develop a language for each game, being careful to not screw with common terms used in other popular games. Key terms save words, especially when you’re explaining key concepts over and over (like Draw, Discard), and constrain you, the designer, with a tool box. How can you be creative with the 5 key terms you’ve established?
  • Think about icons. If you’re going to use a concept often, very often, and it’s dead simple to convey in a single icon? Consider incorporating it. Money is a classic example. Everyone understands “Get 4 <Money icon>.”
  • Make card text concise. You and a tester are falling off a cliff. I don’t know why you’re in this position, but make the most of it. How are you going to explain the card? The more words, the more people can misinterpret. Using your key terms, your icons, and concise language, say what you need to say. You can gate yourself by creating prototypes with 12-14 point font. You’ll run out of space quickly. It will force you to write better.

Example

In the above mock up, the blue squares represent potential areas for you to place functional information. Pick 2 of them! 

I think Dominion exhibits a “best in class” for good card design and it’s never far from my mind when thinking about a first pass layout. You can see a very simple title at the top. Many cards, like Upgrade, Trading Post, and Torturer cue you into the card’s function. You have 2 key areas: purchase price at the bottom and function in the middle of the card. Everything else can be ignored. The game uses a handful of key terms, like draw, trash, discard, and action, so you can quickly ascertain a card’s function. Finally, they bold simple actions, like “+3 cards” or use the gold icon to quickly communicate “this card gives you money” or “this card gives you cards.”

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Cards from Dominion by Rio Grande Games

Netrunner is a far more complex game that also adheres to many of these principles. You see icons used for Trash, Clicks, or Credits. They use the top left of a card and the middle for most information, with a third piece for Trash or the Strength of Ice. They use a series of key terms to keep text short. Netrunner offers a cliff-like learning curve, but thanks to fantastic use of a few icons and key terms, that cliff is lessened.

Note: For that last comment, I’m referring to terms like Click, Install, Rez. We can debate HQ, Grip, and Archives for hours and that’s a topic for another post. 

Netrunner-isabel-mcguire-pic1381139

The above pictures are from Android: Netrunner by Fantasy Flight Games.

Mechanism Design: When designing mechanisms, it’s very simple to explain the idea in your head, play a test hand or two, and spend months working on it before you write the rules. But, it’s very simple to forget that you will not ship with every copy of your game. Don’t kill your creativity or brainstorms, but begin to pair mechanism creation with mechanism explanation.

When I design a new mechanism, I ask myself these questions. Often subconsciously, as it’s just a part of my process.

  • How will I explain this in my rules? How many words will this take? Is the weight and importance of the mechanism equivalent to its weight and complexity in my rules?
  • Does this mechanism add sufficient fun for its complexity and weight?
  • Does this mechanism give me something unique, does it increase the fun, or does it solve a problem?
  • Does this require a diagram in the rules?
  • Does this require examples?
  • Does this require a reference card?

One of the most controversial elements of York, before I licensed it to Portal, was the fact that turn order was determined at random. This drives some people batty! I experimented with several alternative solutions, but all of them were too complex and too wordy for what they added. Random turn order was both simpler, more fun, and appropriate for what I needed. I arrived at that conclusion from testing, but also answering my questions.

Note: Portal has come up with an awesome solution that preserves the experience of random, but is cleaner and more compelling.

In the very first version of Hocus, we had an increasing cost mechanism that was created to make less-used spells a more enticing option. It was a subtle mechanism that did the job well. It was also insanely confusing for so many of our testers. We tried literally dozens of ways to explain it, represent it, support it with components, and more. People really struggled with it. Now, we know that, and we’ll think twice about similar mechanisms in the future.

Many of those questions above are questions potential publishers will be asking themselves when they are considering your game. They aren’t just asking if they can have fun, but whether they can explain this to customers, if the complexity level is right for their target audience, and whether they have the component bandwidth to support your mechanisms. You should have answers for those questions before they arrive at an answer that eventually means the same thing as “Not interested.”

As you grow more experienced in your designs, you’ll have fewer instances of “I’m doing this mechanism because I can.” Instead, because you’re doing things with purpose to save time, you’ll have more instances of “I have this mechanism to improve balance,” or “this mechanism exists to create a story,” or “this mechanism is the key decision point for players.” And so forth.

Probability: Probability is a wonderful tool and one of the most devious bests facing every designer. Over time, you’ll find your handle on probability will greatly expedite the pace at which your prototypes become enjoyable.

For example, dice rolls! If you want you combat to move along quickly, be decisive, and have few wasted rolls, you probably shouldn’t go below a 50/50 hit chance (assuming a single die roll). Even with a 50% chance, you will find that things will rarely happen 50% of the time, but might instead work out to be 10% or 20%.

You’ll also find that perception of progress has a heavy hand here. If players roll 1 die, and hit on a 50% chance, combat can be maddening. But, if they roll 3 dice and hit on a 50% chance, that’s much better. See Memoir ’44 when attacking infantry. In Memoir or Summoner wars, which have up to a 50% (for infantry) or 66% chance (per die) to land a hit, you’re always making progress. You rarely kill an opponent of substance in a single hit, but you’ll steadily plink away and deal damage.

One of the criticisms I think is fairly leveled against Eclipse is that combat can take forever. A large battle towards the end of the game may have 5 or more dice rolling rounds, with over half of them resulting in no change of state. Players want to see progress being made, otherwise the game feels broken.

A good counter-example to my argument of 50% or greater is Space Hulk. In this game, Space Marines kill a Genestealer on a roll of a 6 on a six-sided die. This 1 in 6 probability is balanced by a few things.

  • The Genestealers have 1 health. If you hit them once, they die.
  • Combat is often a series of 2-4 rolls. If you continue firing, you hit on a 5+, which is much better odds.
  • A primary component of the experience is the charge of the Genestealer down a hallway to close to melee distance. A single Genestealer on the board is actually an abstraction of many Genestealers. It isn’t that you aren’t killing any in the fiction. It’s that you didn’t stop all of them. Space Hulk is essentially Aliens — think to the scenes where overwhelming firepower still barely hinders the Xenos.

When designing  a game with dice, I use my muscle memory to support the experience I want. I complement this with tuning on other elements. With Sol Rising, ships can sustain 4-5 hits, which means I want them to take damage often to make progress possible. In a game like Memoir, there are usually just 3-4 Hits per Unit, so it should be a little slower. And so forth. Leverage your experiences to set your initial probability to a level that supports the game you’re trying to make.

Conclusion: I fear this post is growing a bit lengthy and hopefully I’ve made my point. What do you think about muscle memory? What are some examples of YOUR design muscle memory? How do you get to the important stuff in your design more quickly? Share in the comments below!

Designing for Alchemy

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I am very much a combo driven designer and frankly, and probably not surprisingly, it’s something that I love as a player. I often say I design the games I want to play, which is why you see action cards and multi-use cards in almost everything I make. For my current design, I realized that one of the coolest byproducts of the mechanisms I’ve put together is the sheer number of combinations that can come about as a result of player decisions. I wanted to write about crafting combination rich games, or building a sandbox primed for player designed alchemy.

Doing this isn’t just a great recipe for fun, but is also a phenomenal way to gain extra mileage out of every component and infuse your design with high replay value. If a choice is the same regardless of context, it may grow old. But, if a choice can be melded to an element of the game’s current state for unexpected gold, well, you can make choices in your design to better pluck that fruit.

I think it’s key to note I’m not just talking about a game like Magic the Gathering or Netrunner, CCGs which give players massive toolboxes to craft interesting decks. While deckbuilding is great, it isn’t something every game can or should support and I want to make this more relevant for players crafting euros, war games, and other such titles.

The first ingredient for your delicious alchemical stew are (semi-)permanent game states. If we’re just looking at a CCG, players know the cards in their decks. They know their ideal state, if the pairing emerges. That’s predictable, at least to one player. For your design, you should have 2-3 (if possible) (semi-)permanent elements that can be manipulated.

Let’s think of some examples of semi-permanent states. Note that some of these are actually permanent.

  • A region in a war game. Units and structures can be added and removed to it. In Twilight Struggle, this could be Italy.
  • A placement location in a worker placement game. Workers can be added to it. In Agricola, this is where you go to get 1 Stone.
  • A player-built entity. In Netrunner, this could be a remote server built by the Corporation, containing an Asset and Upgrade(s), or an Agenda and Upgrade(s). Protected by Ice (i.e. Firewalls). In a block war game, like Wizard Kings, this can be an army group. You know there are 4 blocks, but you don’t know if they are Archers or Dragons or all Infantry. In Imperial Settlers, players are all building their civilization with structures.
  • A pattern of meaning, particularly in an abstract. In Tash-Kalar, these patterns mean that cards can summon creatures. In Chess, you can protect one’s King, or create an assault group.
  • Event cards with effects. In Robinson, you have an Event card that emerges every round, then joins previous Event cards that weren’t resolved. You also have things like penalties to affect the difficulty of your next construction adventure.
  • In many co-op games,  you have a non-player hostile threat. In Pandemic, these are the infection cubes. In Legends of Andor, these are the monsters. They have very binary functionality, but they provide threat and pressure.

Essentially, you need something that can be modified. This something needs to have presence in the game for an extended period of time.

The second ingredient is a way to make a lasting modification. This must be player driven and it must alter a state (like the one above) for longer than the immediate present. This means that placing a worker on a spot in Agricola doesn’t count. Yes, I’m preventing others from going there, but as soon as the round ends, it’s available again and will be the same as it’s always been. Continuing this point, when the new placement slot is flipped over in Agricola, that also doesn’t count. It isn’t player driven.

However, the cards a player has in Agricola do count. Why? They are player driven, they are an optional play, they affect the game permanently, and they alter the state of things on the board. These, more than anything, may be the special sauce in Agricola. The tiles fill this role in Caverna. These are what make every game different and give every player a way to be unique, clever, and emergent.

Imperial Assault does this lately with character progression. Yes, I see you rolling your eyes. This is an RPG standard, and Descent 1st and 2nd Editions did it prior, but this is the recent one, and one I’ve played. The semi-permanent state is a player’s character (Rebel) or army list (Imperial). The lasting modification are new gear and abilities that the player chooses to apply.

One more example. I played Memoir ’44 this weekend and was reminded of how great a game it is. One subtle way of manipulating the board is by taking key terrain and denying it to your opponent. For example, I desperately needed my tanks to get past a village, which had them pinned down. However, this isn’t a lasting modification. A single retreat flag can push his infantry from the village.

This situation became far worse when an opponent played the Dig In card, which let him place sand bags. These allowed him to ignore retreat flags and forced me to discard additional dice when attacking. Oof!

This dig in card is similar to my favorite part of Combat Commander: Europe. The entire game is more or less ways to manipulate states, though not all are player driven. Players may pop smoke grenades, reveal planted mines, or choose where to use a hero destined to be honored posthumously.

The third and final ingredientat least for this introductory post, are multiple ways to go about this process. Player agency is key for this being a really rich, enjoyable part of your game. Merely having things to affect, and letting players affect them, is not sufficient. It’ll get you far, but it won’t be as sticky as is ideal. Sometimes, sticky is good.

Libertalia is one of my favorite games that demonstrates this point well. At the start of each round, every player is dealt the same 9 cards from a deck of 30. Note: My numbers might be off, but it’s approximately that. However, not every player must play the same cards at the same time. Furthermore, cards carry over into the next round. The patient player might play the Governor’s Daughter in the final round when the other players used her in the first. The Mutineer may reveal himself at the worst possible time for your personal plans.

In Libertalia, every player has the same decision space, but great freedom in how they use it.

Evolution, the recent strategy game from North Star Games, is packed with multiple ways to solve every problem. There are multiple ways to defend yourself, including chucking cards to increase population and size, starving other creatures by sandbagging the food supply, or creating a synergy ecosystem of defensive traits. Every card has value and multiple uses. Due to the state of your opponents’ ecosystem and the needs of your creatures, how you use those cards will change every turn of every game.

CCGs are obvious, so I won’t belabor that point. One of the reasons they are so intoxicating to players is that there is a massive card pool with which to solve problems. I cannot get enough of Netrunner after almost 50 plays. I have so much agency and space as a player to do cool things. Intoxicating is the best word to describe it.

Finally, when discussing multiple use, it would be a shame to not mention Carl Chudyk, designer of the brilliant Innovation, Glory to Rome, and Impulse (which I haven’t played, but have read the rules). Innovation is a masterwork, as far as I’m concerned, and one of the reasons for this post. Every card has multiple uses. Which cards come out, when, how they are scored, when and how they are used, makes every game a new tableau of possibilities. It’s just incredible. There are so many things to manipulate, so many decisions and player can make to affect these states, and multiple ways each can be done.

Let’s end this. Whether you’re making a war game, a bizarre card game, a CCG, or even a euro, design for alchemy. Give your players a rich source of player agency by letting them put their stamp on the game world and change things according to their desires. You don’t need to be a sandbox RPG or trashy dice roller to do this.

  1. Create several semi-permanent states.
  2. Allow these states to be manipulated in a long-term fashion, ideally by the players.
  3. Allow multiple ways to manipulate things to create additional variety.

What are some of your favorite games that do these things? Which examples did I muck up? Which should also be included? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Hocus Poker: The Pitch

Hocus

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

Grant: It turns out Hocus Poker 5.0 is pretty dang fun. We were pleased with the results from our own local tests, BGG Con tests, and family tests over Thanksgiving. After about 6 months, we feel it’s time to share the game with the public once again. We’re going to blind testing!

Before we get too far, you can read the rules for Hocus Poker here. You can get the PNP files here. The game is 82 cards and nothing else. As far as PNPs go, it’s not too bad!

Josh: And, really, you can skip printing 8 of those cards if you’re comfortable keeping track of score using literally anything else you have handy. That puts it at 74 cards, which is really not too bad at all. It’s a fun, quick game, and we’d love to hear about more people trying it out.

Grant: After flubbing a pitch at BGG Con, Josh and I exchanged a few emails back and forth to better improve our pitch. Here’s what we settled on. Imagine this spoken dramatically with great flair and bravado.

Hocus Poker is a classic style card game that asks how would wizards play a game of poker. This game takes some elements of poker, but uses them to create a wholly unique experience.

The game is played in rounds by 2-4 players. If any player has 25 points at the end of the round, the game is over and the player with the most wins.

Ultimately, players will build their best poker hand, as the best poker hand will claim the pot. There are a few twists that make this game unique. Firstly, all players will build the community and pots together on their turns. Secondly, there are two communities. Thirdly, cards can be played as poker cards or for their Gem value in the pot. Every card can be used in three ways: in a community, in a pot, or in your personal pocket.

That’s the basic game, which is quite fun. Let’s talk about advanced Spells.

Josh: Before we get to that, I’d just like to say here: it’s important to realize that while this game is obviously rooted in Poker, we’ve really tried pretty hard to make it a unique game. I think it’s easy to think of games as “just” a variant of some other classic game, and obviously we’ve used that as a starting point. But Hocus Poker is really its own thing at this point, a game that plays differently from just about anything else in my collection. Which is saying something.

Grant: I’m very proud of it. It took a long time but we believe that we have a game that is unique, easy to learn, and has a light skill element.

Who would you say this game is for, Josh?

Josh: Is it a cliche to say everybody?

Grant: Yes.

Josh: Aw. I would say this: very serious poker players are not really our target audience here. If you play a ton of poker and take it really seriously, you’ll probably find yourself just saying “we should just be playing Hold ‘Em” while you play Hocus Poker. That’s cool, I love Hold ‘Em, I play it every week at a regular game. We weren’t trying to improve that game, but you might still find yourself pining for it if you’re a serious student of the game. Other than that, it slots in well as a light card game for most folks. It helps to have a familiarity with Poker, just knowing the hands, but is certainly not necessary.

Grant: I think it’s a great lunch game, or game night opener. I have aspirations of it being the type of game someone tosses into their backpack to take to a picnic.

Josh: I’ve actually used it as a game night closer several times, as a wind down from a big centerpiece game.

Now, advanced spells. The basic structure is cool, it provides for interesting play, surprises, and an engaging game where nobody is eliminated. That’s all good stuff. But you can really turn it up a lot with the advanced spells. Once you do that, everybody suddenly has unique options on their turn. Nobody’s position plays the same, and you get a varied experience just by changing which set of spells you have. Asymmetry is tons of fun, and I think what we have here works well.

Grant: Every set of 3 Spells, which we refer to internally as a Spell Book, follow along a particular style of play and advantage. Flame, for example, is highly reactive. You’re able to dump a pocket of 1 or 2 cards into a Pot, then build a new Pocket. Why is this advantageous? Well, once you build a pocket, it cannot be modified. And you only get two. Secondly, often times you’re trying to balance between building the community to support your sought hand AND building a pocket to leverage it. With this spell, you can play a pocket early to stall and see what people play. Somebody may feed the community with a set of cards that let you build a straight or Full House. You dump your now bad pocket and react.

Josh: And that’s just one. Each book gives a different feel, while still providing for enough familiarity that people can still play the game just fine.

Grant: Right now we have 6 different books, for 18 Spells total. Although the game only plays to 4, we want there to be quite a bit of variety.

Josh: With 6 spell books, there are 15 different combinations in the four-player game. That’s pretty cool!

Grant: There’s quite a bit of variety and breadth here. In a way, it reminds me of how Red7 has a few ways to play. Easy, less easy, and woah there’s lots of stuff now. For us, the ramp is: Basic Spells, Add Moonbears, then finally, Add Advanced Spells.

Now that we’re re-entering blind testing, what would you say our goals are? Other than mocking me in emails. That, sir, is accomplished.

Josh: My job there is never done, though.

My primary goals here are pretty simple. One, are we right about the fun here? We both like this version, a lot, and our local testers do as well. Will that carry over to people who aren’t just trying to be polite to us? I think our local testers would tell us if the game was lousy (they have in the past), but taking it wider is the only way to be sure.

Grant: I’d be pretty upset if my local group told me “this is awful” for most of the year only to lie to me now.

Josh: Yeah, and I know where my friends live, so I’m pretty sure they aren’t going to make me angry.

The second goal has to do with the content. We have thirteen Moonbear spells (well, there are a couple repeats) and 18 advanced spells. I want to make sure that those are balanced, fun, fair, comprehensible, and just all around entertaining. Balance is really most important across the spell books, not the Moonbears, but shaking out the content is really a big goal here.

Grant: Yes. The data points I want from our testers are:

  • Scores paired with Spells used: Do we have a trend for a certain Spellbook winning most often?
  • Favorite Spells: It’s worth the effort to balance content that’s most fun and popular. If everyone hates Darkness, for example, it’s probably better to replace it, then start balancing again.

Josh: Other things to watch out for:

  • Spell use. Did everybody use all of their spells? Or did somebody just ride one spell hard and ignore the others.
  • Moonbears. Did they seem reasonable? Too powerful? Too specialized? Unfair?
  • Timing. How long is the game in minutes and rounds?

Grant: I’m a smidge less concerned about Moonbears in that, as you’ve noted before, they are a spice. Which ones come into play and when is really difficult to predict. And they are bonuses, so we’ve deliberately made them a bit more niche in their application and less potent. But, it’s something we have to get right.

Josh: What I’d like to keep an eye on is if any Moonbears are regarded as really lame. We can swap those out if people think they’re stupid or irritating.

Aside from those concerns, we of course are both looking out for rules clarity and subjective impressions, which are always important to watch out for. Honestly, this isn’t that long a list of things to watch out for.

Grant: The subjective stuff will help us gauge our next steps. The game is a little weird and, my flubs aside, we’re not exactly sure who to show it to. But, we’re also not opposed to doing it ourselves. If folks like the game and we can begin some good word of mouth with our early testers, that might push us one direction or another. Or, it might help generate buzz for someone to aid us.

Josh: Unless our testers all chase us around with pitchforks, it’s a game that will get published, somewhere. But, where? We don’t know, honestly, and we’re going to try and figure that out with this test. But there is one thing we’re pretty sure we’re going to do with it, which is enter it into the Ion Game Design Competition.

Grant: For starters, I’ve always wanted to go to Utah in the winter. It’s just a bucket list item for me. But, if we fare well in the competition, we think that’ll help us find a home, or aid us as first-time publishers. But, the timeline is coming up quickly. I think we’re sending out the PNP at the last possible moment to get input before we have to submit to the competition.

Josh: We’re cutting it fine, to be sure. But, even just the rules feedback we’ve had so far has helped. If anybody would like to have a look at an unusual but fun light card game, we welcome any thoughts you might have, especially if those thoughts includes abuse for Grant.

Grant: Now I know how John Arbuckle felt.

Josh: The only thing worse than making a Garfield reference is spelling it wrong.

And yes, I know how his name is supposed to be spelled, which also turns out to be worse.

Grant: Would you believe me if I said this was an elaborate trap to tease that information from you?

Josh: No. Would you believe me if I said it was because I have a seven-year-old who loves Garfield?

Grant: Yes, and I’d say you’ve made mistakes as a parent.

Oh, hey! Check out Hocus Poker! Rules here. PNP here. Tell us what you think! You can email me here.

Josh: Yes, email him. He loves abuse.

Me and BGG 2014

bggcon-room

Post by: Grant Rodiek

About two weeks ago now I attended BGG Con 2014. I was there from Wednesday afternoon until about Sunday at noon. This was my first time attending the convention and I enjoyed it greatly. I thought BGG Con was basically the director’s cut of Gen Con. What I mean by that is that tons of great publishers were there selling games. There was a huge library of games to play freely and tons of free space. The accommodations were right there and quite nice. Finally, and most importantly, all of the publishers that are normally so busy at Gen Con had plenty of time to talk to designers like me.

Essentially, it had everything I like about Gen Con, but more condensed and focused. It was a little less busy. Sure, you didn’t really have the cosplay or minstrels dancing about, and the events paled in comparison, but those are things I care absolutely nothing about.

I had a really good, fun time at BGG and I wanted to write about some of my experiences.

What I Played

I played 27 unique games at BGG Con, many of which were unpublished prototypes. I really try to pay it forward as I know I’m going to ask people to test my own designs. There were some standouts in the prototype space, including:

Parado

Paradox: This is a game designed by Brian Suhre and soon to be published by Split Second Games. Brian is an awesome guy, as are Paul and Randy of Split Second, so this game being my favorite of the convention (period, not just of prototypes) really made me happy.

Paradox is a medium weight game for 2-4 players that takes about an hour to play. The game combines drafting to build sets, as well as a Match 4 (1 up from Match 3, popularized by Bejewled) to gather the resources to complete the sets. As this is happening, the quake (shown on the board on the left side of the image above) moves around and destroys planets, which reduces the value of the sets. No worries! You can rebuild them.

ParadoxArt

I thought the game was just brilliant. It had so many cool elements that were beautifully woven together in a thinky, but not overwhelming package. Furthermore, the publisher hired many different artists to create a unique past, present, and future for every planet. It forms this brilliant hodge podge of quirky, incredible art. I’ll be interviewing Brian shortly for this site. I’m also getting a copy of the game so I can play it more and share my thoughts to aid the future Kickstarter. GREAT game.

FogofWar

Fog of War: This was an amazing 2 player operational game set in World War II by Geoff Engelstein. The game strongly features deception, bluffing, and hidden information and beautifully abstracts many of the things that often bog down a war game. I thought this one was awesome. I’ll buy it as soon as I’m able.

Prime Time: This is a medium weight euro from Gil Hova for 2-5 players that takes about 75-90 minutes to play. The game is all about building and managing a television network and it’s very charming as such. In it, players are carefully managing which Stars to hire, which slots to fill with what shows, and what Ad content to air. There are also some very well designed cards that add some spice to this mix and provide alternate strategies. I know Gil’s still tweaking some things, so I’m curious to see where this ends up.

Zero Day: This is another Brian Suhre design. The name will change, but I hope the game doesn’t. Zero Day is a 20 minute two player card game that has the smoothness of Star Realms with some of the theme and ideas of Netrunner. It’s not a CCG or a deckbuilder, but it has the flow of those games. In it, you’re managing  your hand of cards to take down the corporate servers and exploit loopholes in order to earn the most points when the game is over. This one was really slick and quite fun.

In addition to prototypes, I also played many published games that were quite good. The standouts for me included:

Napoleonics

  • C&C Napoleonics: I played in an epic game of 8 total players. I fought, and won, Battle of Waterloo. Incredible experience with a game engine I love. The hosts, a pair of brothers, were especially cool. Thanks Duke brothers!
  • Pret-A-Porter: This is an out of print game from one of my favorite designers, Ignacy Trzewiczek. It is a heavy, unforgiving economic euro about the fashion industry. I thought it was awesome, interactive, intuitive, and frankly, having Ignacy teach is always a treat. He used a plastic spoon like Patton would use his riding crop and would joke about our terrible moves and missteps.
  • City Hall: This game is a rich, complex role selection game from Michael Keller. Players are trying to win the election, which is done by maximizing the population you’ve brought in and your approval rating. The cool twist in the game is that YOU pick a role, but then players bid influence to actually take the role. As the player who chose the role, you can pay the influence, or claim the influence from the highest bidder. There’s a great choice of managing what actions you want to take and when to take the influence. It’s super sharp and I want to play again.

What I Bought

Bought

I love buying games at conventions. It’s so fun to bring home new games, remove old, tired games from the shelf to trade, and get more of a favorite. I was able to get a copy of Mysterium from Portal, which I’ve been following for several months now. I had no idea it would sell out, but this was something I knew I wanted.

I was super excited to discover a new expansion for Claustrophobia, which is a game nobody every mentions, but it’s incredibly fun. I don’t think it’s even in stores yet, so woo, I’m cool. Continuing the expansion train, I snagged a copy of Bots for Theseus. This is such a good game and if you like 2 player thematic abstracts, I recommend you try it. It’s very good. Finally, I picked up the Spyglass, stickers, and Livingstone scenario (with newspaper!) for Robinson Crusoe.

Ignacy was kind enough to pick up a copy of Fleet Commander from Essen for me. This is a two player game of fleet combat with really neat miniatures. As I’m designing Sol Rising, I wanted to take a look at the competition. Finally, I was very excited to pick up a used copy of Knizia’s High Society. Geoff Engelstein has mentioned it several times on the Ludology podcast and $15 seemed like a cheap price. This is such a good game! I played it ten times with my family over Thanksgiving immediately following BGG. My mom, dad and I played 5 games in one sitting one night. It was a big hit.

There are other games I bought, but these were the stand outs.

What I Tested

My #1 reason to attend conventions is to test prototypes. Full stop. I want the feedback and I want to see how my games are performing. As many of you know by now, Portal Games signed Dawn Sector (previously Battle for York) back in January for publication. If I had to guess a release date, I’d say Gen Con 2015, but I have no clue, honestly.

DSTest2

It was a big priority for us to demonstrate all of our changes to the game to the American market and identify areas to polish. We believe the mechanics are largely finished, but we know there’s still some rough edges that hinder accessibility and lengthen play time. Both Ignacy and I were a little surprised at how difficult it was to get people to test. The truth is, folks come to BGG to play finished games. Testing feels like work, and it is. Nonetheless, I was able to get in three really good tests and several impromptu discussions with folks.

The result, was five pages of legal pad notes and re-tuning/polishing all of the content in the game. Many cuts were made, but I’m so excited for the next steps of Dawn Sector. Overall, impressions were good, even in its rough state (and look at the board above…it was rough). Every problem had a very clear, obvious next solution and most importantly, people understood and appreciated what the game aims to do.

Dawn Sector is a game I’ve been working on since early 2012 and it’s a game I really love. I was able to play in two of the tests and I was so excited to play again. I’ll be so proud of all the work me, Michal (my Portal development partner), and Ignacy have done when this is all finished. And we haven’t even begun the art!

I also played Sol Rising twice with one of my favorite publishers. I was very excited that the game didn’t explode (there’s always this nagging fear it might) and that the publisher liked what was going on. I was given some excellent feedback and I’m diligently applying it to the game now in the hopes of submitting the game in the near future. The Sol Rising that’ll emerge will be more thematic, with a more integrated story, and will be simpler in all the right ways. Players will be able to get to the fun more quickly and really enjoy themselves.

Hocus

Finally, Hocus Poker was brought to the table a few times to play with friends and pitched to a few publishers. The pitches didn’t exactly go well. In one I flubbed it, and in the other it wasn’t really what the publisher was looking for. However, in the latter, the publisher made a suggestion that was so simple to implement and had an enormous impact on the game. This being, I tried a “basic” version without the asymmetric spells, just the three basic actions. Wouldn’t you know, the game is way easier to learn, is still incredibly fun, and can appeal to a broader audience as such. The publisher also noted the game was “a bit thinky,” which again wasn’t what he wanted, but was music to me and Josh’s ears.

I played Hocus Poker several times with my family and was delighted to find they loved it. My brother, always leery of learning new games, totally got it and was completely bought in. My mom thought it was great, and my brother’s wife, always quick to lay the truth down, said it was the best game I’ve ever brought home. When I tried to put it away after two games, they said “No! One more!”

I also showed the game to Gil Hova, whose tastes rarely match with mine. It was quite delightful to see him engage with the game and also ask to keep playing. Those little tiny reviews mean the world to me and other designers and they help us pinpoint where we are.

Josh and I are cautiously thrilled at the current state of Hocus Poker. After a year of constant development it feels really good to have something that’s fun and unique. You can read the rules right now and can expect a free PNP to be released in a few days. We’re also seeking blind testers to whom we’ll mail a copy. We send you the game, you test for us.

BGG was a really big deal for me. I felt like I won the World Series. There’s a small, but crazy chance that you might see published versions of Dawn Sector, Sol Rising, and Hocus Poker in 2015.

Who I Met

BGG is a very intimate con. Unlike Gen Con, where you need a GPS and message board to find your friends, at BGG you’ll just bump into cool folks. I met some new people at BGG, as well as some old favorites.

I played Fog of War and ate dinner with Geoff Engelstein, who is a designer I respect immensely. His podcast, Ludology, is really entertaining, and his games are quite good. I fought World War II strangely, to say the least, and it was deeply entertaining to watch him react to my maneuvers.

I played several games and sat in on a few outstanding rants with Michael Keller. He is a sharp-witted New Yorker with opinions on…pretty much everything. It’s immensely entertaining and if you just shut up you’ll learn a thing or two. Oh, and his games are good. And he has Starburst!

Jerry Hawthorne is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. He’s so laid back and so happy to be wherever he is. He’s full of good advice and just loves games. His work was a huge influence on Sol Rising and it was great to learn from him first hand.

Gil Hova, my roommate for the con, is one of the most optimistic and cheerful people. He forced me to be positive in his presence and I didn’t know what to do with myself. He works very hard at his craft and wades through feedback, ideas, and solutions to keep chipping away at his games until they’re good. One of the best parts about playing Prime Time was that we discussed the game for hours and you could see his mind spinning as he churned through his options.

Although I’ve met Ignacy before, it was still an incredible treat to play games with him. But, the unsung hero of Portal Games is his wife, Merry. She is equally as hilarious as Ignacy. The only thing funnier than Ignacy mocking your play is Merry doing so. I could hang out with these two for days and days. I’m so glad my game is with Portal.

I’m mostly focusing on new people, but there were so many cool folks. I sat in and chatted with Rob Daviau while he tested V-Wars. David Chott is a passionate and great guy. There’s this horde of super entertaining reviewers, including Tiffany Ralph, Paul Dean, Hunter of Weaponsgrade Tabletop, and their significant others. There was also the fun duo from Austin, Kyle Van Winkle and Michael Huven-Moore.

Basically, you could walk anywhere and find someone fun to hang out with.

In Conclusion

BGG was a really cool convention. I plan on attending from here on out. Essen, Gen Con, Origins? All maybes. But, BGG was a real hit for me. If all of the above doesn’t convince you, consider this.

On Friday night, I came back to find dozens of men and women in luchador masks howling and stomping about in the center lobby. There was a yearly dexterity tournament in which they were all participating. The battle lines were drawn and teams formed. This was serious.

I noticed one incredible tall gentleman wearing a red bathrobe, wearing what appeared to be a full head cardinal mask (like, the bird), wearing a miter (you know, the pope’s hat). I asked who that was.

“It’s the Cardinal Cardinal.”

“Huh?”

“It’s Tom Vasel.”

Awesome.

I’m Original, No I’m Not

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Friend and fellow designer Kyle Van Winkle asked me if I’d ever written about a moment where I thought I had a killer idea or mechanic, only to find someone else has already done it. The answer, is that I’ve been in that situation, but I hadn’t written about it.

So, let’s do that.

When I started working on Dawn Sector (previously Battle for York) in March of 2012, I was chasing a few elements I thought would make the game more unique:

  • 2-4 player war game with no player elimination
  • Short play time of about an hour
  • Entirely card driven. No dice!

Now, even then, and certainly not now, I wasn’t foolish enough to believe those three things hadn’t been done before. But, I was examining the landscape of games to play and found myself frustrated by the lack of options along the first two bullets. And the card only idea seemed like a good challenge.

Around May or so of 2013, after over a year of development, I discovered the game Horus Heresy. It had many similarities to my game, at least regarding its combat mechanic. Then, I discovered the game Kemet, which also had many similarities. Very close similarities. This all broke me like an avalanche hitting a flan lying on the mountain slope. Why is the flan there? It isn’t important. My internal (and to some degree, external) response was: why the hell bother any more? I’m years too late.

Luckily, I bucked up, found an amazing publisher (Portal), and we created a unique beast that, yes, still has some similarities.

Here are the realities you need to face.

  • It’s 2014. There is very little in the way of mechanics that hasn’t been discovered or attempted. In my case, three different designers set out with a similar goal and arrived at a similar solution. You know what that means? A lot of the other solutions were garbage. My design partner, Joshua Buergel, has over 3000 games. He reminds me constantly of a game that has done it before. At least in some way.
  • Few games are a single mechanic. Yes, your game uses worker placement, but it pairs it with dice. Or it pairs it with drafting. Or it uses it to fuel a war game. Mechanics in a game aren’t additive, but multiplicative. The uniqueness that springs forth from these pairings can exponentially affect the overall design.
  • Too much innovation and uniqueness is overwhelming. Players can only absorb and glean a few new elements. Even if you are brilliant and can create new mechanics, you should do this sparingly.

That might feel rather bleak, but it’s not meant to be. If anything, this is a pep rally, especially for newer designers. I don’t want you to break like I almost did a few years ago.

I think your overall game needs to be unique. I think your overall design MUST bring something new to the table. I’m super proud of Dawn Sector’s balance that keeps players in the game until the end with no elimination and relatively fast pace of play. The battle mechanic is neat and adds a lot of variety to how things evolve. And me and Portal have done some really cool things with dynamic events and such that vary a game with many other deterministic elements. Plus, factions!

In Sol Rising, you can see the finger prints of other games all over it. You’ll read the narrative and think Mice and Mystics and The Expanse/Honor Harrington series. You’ll see the events system and think about Robinson Crusoe’s exploration tokens. You’ll look at ship abilities and think about Summoner Wars.

But, the mix of fleet oriented tactics, how the events affect play, the smooth pace, and unique objectives and scenario balance make this a very unique package. Plus, it only takes an hour to play. And there’s a team campaign.

Had I been bogged down by those individual elements being derivative I’d never get out of bed. A few weeks ago I posted a community post asking about eureka moments. One of my favorite designers, Ignacy Trzewiczek had this to say, which I think is apt:

“Let’s face it – I don’t believe in Eureka moments. I don’t believe that I will ever have this brilliant idea, that moment of enlightenment that will let me invent something that awesome like Worker Placement mechanism (William Attia in Caylus), Deckbuilding mechanism (Donald X. Vaccarino in Dominion) or Pay With Cards mechanism (Tom Lehman in San Juan). It won’t happen. I just sit on my ass and work hard trying to use already invented tools and mechanism to build something fun and entertaining. I have not had many Eureka moments in my life, and yet, I managed to design couple of fun games. So my advice for you is – don’t wait for Eureka moment. Just sit on your ass and work as hard as you can. That’s all you need.”

To counter this, my friend Corey Young, who designed the very clever and innovative Gravwell, shudders at the thought of releasing a derivative game. If you follow him on Twitter, you know this! He seeks to craft unique mechanisms, whereas I seek to craft unique products, knowing full well I’m borrowing heavily in the weeds. Neither methods are incorrect, nor is one simpler than the other.

Therefore, what do you do when you discover that your killer idea is someone else’s killer idea? You keep working on it. You re-examine it through a new lens. You pair it with a mechanic or component that nobody has done before. But most importantly, YOU continue to make the game YOU want. All of us are unique in our tastes and manner of thinking and development. If you give the game time via development and testing, you’ll begin to see a wide distance between what you crafted and what has come before.

Don’t break, don’t give up, and don’t fret the borrowing. Consumers want great games. They want to be entertained. Make something original, either in part, or in whole, that satisfies those qualities.

Version 5 and the Brink

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

Grant: When you reach a design iteration you dub “5.0” it may be time for what my mom refers to as the “come to Jesus meeting.” We’ve been scrambling for months to find a new framework for Hocus Poker. At the top of the Summer we threw away something that worked and had been received well because we didn’t think it was good enough. But, we’ve spent a lot of time since then trying to do it better.

Last week we tested Hocus Poker 5.0 and to be completely honest, had it not gone well, I think I might have walked away.

Josh: I’d have tried to talk you off the ledge, but it would have been time to question some fundamental assumptions. For instance, I’m not sure we could have continued on the path of having no separate betting tokens. It’s something we were keenly interested in getting right, for a number of reasons we’ve talked about before, but our iterations in this area have been unsatisfying.

Grant: To quickly reiterate, we wanted to craft a game that was cards only to save on production costs, portability, and keep the MSRP low. We were sticking to our guns of no player elimination in a game that is built on it. You know, poker.

Josh: But that was down the road. We had time to go for another major revision and see if we didn’t have another shot in us. But where to start? Grant had a playtest that didn’t go well, so that was our starting point. The 4.0 build wasn’t terrible, exactly, but it was unexciting. There were some promising bits to it, as usual, but it just didn’t leave the players excited.

This version had dual use cards (with points on the cards), some special cards in the regular deck, and attempted to feature a short decision cycle with small hands being built up gradually and a series of small showdowns.

Grant: One positive note was that my testers said it was much better than previous versions, but that was a low bar. Still, progress.

Josh: It was becoming clear that the showdowns were a problem, to me. They should have been exciting, fun, and surprises should have happened regularly. What was happening, instead, was really rote. The idea of having them happen as things went along just wasn’t quite working the way we wanted. A good idea, maybe, but not for this game.

Grant: More fundamentally, we had a lack of good decisions. You could see this in the Showdowns, building Hands, and betting. Sound probability indicated a very boring strategy: pick the best pair possible. This would often become a 3 of a kind or Full House once the Community was revealed.

We wanted players to have fun decisions throughout. That seems obvious for any game, but it’s really not. Or more accurately, how to execute against that is not. In Texas Hold ‘Em, you don’t get to change your cards. It’s all about bet management, which is done to bluff, bully, or accurately represent your hand.

In Hocus we  let players change their cards and reduced the importance of bet management. However, with such simple cards, it was basically just a matter of cycling to create the most sure thing you could. It was dissatisfying.

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Josh: Full Houses have been a recurring problem for us. Honestly, we should be smart enough by now to recognize that if they’re popping up too much, we’ve somehow goofed.

Grant: Players felt like they were stuck on a ride. Get in, build a pair, see what happens.

Josh: I don’t think we’re aiming for a really agonizing game here, but there needs to be a skill component to things, obviously. It should be a lightweight strategy game, not an “experience”.

Grant: Yeah. Honestly, we were making the “It’s a Small World” of fillers, which I don’t think is a good thing.

Josh: To be clear, that’s a Disney reference, people.

Grant: Let it go.

Josh: BOOO.

At any rate, something had to give. We needed a way for people to have some planning in the game. It just needed to happen. Grant and I both had an idea kicking around in our heads, which was simple: why not give people a bunch of cards at the beginning of the round? They could then work on allocating things themselves.

Grant: Things being their hands, the community, or the pot. Collaboratively and competitively.

Josh: On top of that, we could retain the simultaneous hands by putting two communities in play. Now, we got to keep the idea of building multiple hands, which we liked from the previous version, while keeping some form of planning. Once those planks were in place, the 5.0 version came together quickly.

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Grant: That’s a super key point I don’t want to gloss over. Previously, we let you build 2 hands under the guise of strategy. One for now, one for later. That didn’t pan out, but it WAS fun building multiple hands. Naturally, we needed a second place to use that second hand.

If 2-4 players are building a Community at the same time, there’s a little bit of volatility. By building 2 Hands, you increase your chances of capitalizing on one. Two, if you’re lucky or good.

Josh: I was briefly advocating for three simultaneous hands, honestly. Maybe for an expansion?

Grant: I think it might be viable as a wink wink 2 player version.

Josh: Honestly, the biggest problem in this version has been what to name things. “Hand” is overloaded, and people didn’t like “Holding” for what they wanted to call their “Hand.” So, we’ve had to juggle stuff around on names.

So, we worked this out, and Grant had a playtest. And, I would describe it as “triumphant.” He wrote to me, and his email was full of jubilant swearing, which is the best kind of swearing.

Grant: I was throwing hip hop hands in the air. For the record, I did not care.

Josh: Not quite ready to believe it, I ran a test myself last night with three of my friends, grizzled veterans of the Hocus Poker development process. These fine, determined gentlemen have played every major version of this thing, going back to the version with little tiles.

And, one of them said that “it’s the most fun he’s had with any version of Hocus Poker,” and another described it as “very polished.”

There’s clearly balancing work to do on spells, but after the first round, I was just playing the game. I was taking notes, sure, and noticing wording and things to tighten up. But I was just playing the game. It’s been the first time since some of the late 2.0 versions when I’ve had actual fun playing it. That sounds bleak, but we learned stuff from every one of those unfun games which I think we’ve applied. It actually seems good now!

So, where to go from here? What lessons can we learn? Persistence always pays off?

Grant: We have a lot of work left in spell balance, tuning, and proper wording. But, that’s a relatively easy part compared to where we’ve been.

As for high level, a big thing for me is that we kept slamming on the brakes. We threatened to stop the car and we actually stopped the damn car. It was really difficult to do again and again, but it really paid off. You have to hold yourself to a quality bar. There are just too many other good games to make something mediocre.

I also think we learned a great deal about identifying what we want to do with the game and how to get there. We never flailed. It felt like flailing. But, we went about it in a rather constructive and thoughtful way. We stopped repeating bad spells. We avoided known bad ideas that never seemed to work. Yes, we’ve tried Banished 30 times, but we all have to have a windmill or two at which to tilt.

Dude, so many sweet references.

Josh: At least we amuse ourselves.

I think we can identify something useful that came out of each major revision that has still stood up. 3.0 gave us the idea for individual spellbooks.

Grant: This was a huge breakthrough. Instead of all sorts of mixed actions, the spellbooks said: execute one of the four cards in front of you. Plus, your four cards are unique. Great for accessibility.

Josh: 4.0 gave us the gems on the creature cards. Those are integral parts of the game, which are solid ideas that are making things better.

Grant: I love multi-use cards. They are just so much fun. It also works really well for our poker setup. Do you use a card for its suit, strength, or Gem? 3 uses is very simple and easy to process. It provides a nice layer of choice. Looking beyond that, you think about building a pair, a straight, and how to best set yourself up for a bigger hand via the community.

Josh: Those revisions were not in vain, they just, you know, weren’t any fun. A careful post mortem of each playtest helped show which are the parts that were working, and we’ve been able to carry those forward. The ideas in 5.0 are ones that we’ve painstakingly chipped away from all the other ideas that have been floating around.

Maybe that’s a new benchmark for me? Try and salvage one really solid idea from every playtest, no matter how badly things went.

Grant: It’s a good goal and a very achievable one. I can finally talk about this — I learned a great deal working with Portal on York/Dawn Sector. They had no qualms saying “not good enough,” and I wanted to be good enough to emulate that in my own craft. But, man. It can be crushing sometimes.

I think, and this is bold, we should share the rules. You can read them here. They are about 1400 words from start to finish, which we’re really proud of.

Josh: It’s hard saying your own efforts aren’t good enough. This part was kicked off by deciding that a game that people had played and enjoyed didn’t make the mark. That’s rough enough, but continually kicking a bunch of revisions down because they weren’t fun was dreary, but it’s been worth it.