Self Doubt is my first Tester


Post by: Grant Rodiek

I have several games in the works right now, which on one hand diffuses my focus and may not be entirely healthy. But, on the other, all of them are in weird places: long term development, early testing, late testing, rules tweaking, pitching, and so forth. All of that stuff consumes one portion of my brain and the other side, the creative portion, has little ideas with which I like to experiment. Some emerge, some don’t.

There is a really good argument to get a game to its playable state as quickly as possible. Come up with an idea, yank out some cards to build it, and test. I don’t think that’s a bad approach, and for some peers that’s the only way they CAN do it, as their mind requires the tangible pieces to move about and consider.

I, however, especially this past year, have found myself moving through a long marination phase of consideration and introspection before I build the prototype or even build the rules. And lately, I find myself building a prototype, then taking another week or so to think on it further.

Self doubt is my first tester and I want to make an argument for such marination to occur. Not to say it’s the ONLY way to do something, or even that it’s the right way, but merely to suggest that you may find gems by doing such a thing.

Firstly, your testers are precious, or more accurately, their patience. If you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by a group of designers, it’s possible to bring garbage to the fore and they’ll be fine with that. However, few have such a benefit. You should take the time to consider your prototype privately before exposing it to your test group, if only to make a stronger first impression. If your prototype is so mechanically broken that little promise can be seen, you’ve done yourself and your game a disservice.

Secondly, without a little marination, you, like myself, may find yourself relying on “old favorites” or “old habits.” I have a crutch upon which I constantly lean, which is action cards. I love them, but it’s stifling my creativity and unique approaches to problems. My first response “this needs spice” is to design 30 action cards. Nein! If you’re rushing to prototype, you’re only allowing your creative brain to conceive so much. You will fall back on comfortable trends, which again, is a disservice to your design.

My suggestion, is to take your core theme and core mechanic, then quickly build around it. If this includes your crutches, fine. Do it with abandon. Then, instead of taking the game to Billy’s, circle back and circle your less inspired concepts with red ink. Quickly list out alternative solutions to solve the same problem. And if something is in your design, you should know why, even at this stage. Challenge yourself from the viewpoint of using a simpler mechanic, or fewer components, or using a specific component to jumpstart the creative process. If you rely on cards too often, use hex tokens instead. If your favorite game in the genre uses a rondel for action selection, experiment with dice instead.

However you go about it, give yourself the time and put forth the effort to do things differently. Let your inner demon speak up and say, “Hey <your name>, can I be honest? You can do better.”

My final element to this simple treatise is that you need to be your game’s greatest champion. I was listening to Alex Bloomberg’s Start Up podcast this morning — hugely recommended, go grab it. In his first episode he’s pitching to a billionaire investor, who notes the most important quality to a company pitching him is their emphatic and devout belief that what they’re doing is important and will be successful. They aren’t saying “this can be cool” or “we think this is an idea.” They say, with conviction, this idea will change the world. This business will make money.

You need to allow self doubt to seep in to challenge your conviction. You need to battle it and emerge victorious. You’re going to receive input, especially early on, that your game isn’t fun, that it’s unoriginal, that it’s fiddly, overly complex, or isn’t as fun as a recent game from <insert hugely successful designer>. They’ll be completely right now, but in the face of that, you need to know why they’ll eventually be wrong.

Allow the early criticism into your design from day one. Take the time to address the concerns, enrich the core, and become your greatest fan.

Eureka Moments


Post by: The Design Community!

I asked a handful of designers about eureka moments they’ve experienced in designing a game. Something that really opened their eyes to how things could work in their designs, or a way to solve their current problem in a magnificent fashion. Some of the examples seem specific to an individual game, but if you read into them, you’ll see broader themes that can apply to you. And in case you miss it, I break out some of these at the very end.

Note: To avoid a resume-like list, I simply introduced each participant with a single item. If you want me to mention another of your projects, just email me!

Ignacy Trzewiczek: Publisher at Portal Games and designer of Imperial Settlers

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.

Corey Young: Designer of Gravwell: Escape from the 9th Dimension

Santorini resulted from a chain of eureka moments. The first came while I was playing around with some 1-inch lasercut hexagons I’d picked up at a game convention. It occurred to me that when I split one into 3 sections that each became an isometric block.


I started fiddling around with these, playing with M.C. Escher-like artwork. While I liked the mind-twisting aspect, it didn’t feel grounded in reality. My primary concern was that each tile had 6 possible orientations. I considered marking the top or bottom corner to indicate “up,” but all the markings were ugly.


Then, while doodling in my design notebook, I drew an elongated hexagon. BAM! That solved it. The hexes still interlocked, but now there were only 2 possible orientations. With minor visual cues, “up” would be obvious. In some cases, the tiles work in either orientation. The wider format also made the overall image feel less vertically stretched.


The last eureka moment came when I was trying to come up with a way of getting the tiles to stay together in the right orientation. My original prototypes were simply tiles situated on a tabletop. The inspiration for the inclined board came from a music stand.

Geoff Engelstein: Co-Host of Ludology and designer of Space Cadets

Notable Eureka moment: Making losing fun in Space Cadets. That was by far the last big feature to be added. We had played for years where to win you had this climactic ‘Jump’ attempt, with much yelling and screaming. But you lost just by taking too much damage, which usually simply came down to a die roll. Yeah, it could be a tense die roll, but it just wasn’t the same.

One time I ran back-to-back playtests with different groups. The first won, with much cheering as they jumped successfully. The second lost the game, and it just was like air going out of a balloon.  And the thought just popped up in my brain – “Losing needs to be just as exciting. There needs to be a minigame about losing.”  Very quickly we sketched out the criteria:

  • Needed to involve the whole team
  • Needed to be thematic
  • Needed to help save you from losing.

So you always had one last shot for redemption, and you had to pull together as a team to do it.

It took lots of tries to get something that worked, but ultimately the ‘Core Breach’ mechanic became my absolutely favorite part of the game. I think we really did make losing just as dramatic as winning, and it perhaps creates more stories than anything else in the game.

Joshua Buergel: Designer of Foresight (Coming Soon)

One of my favorite eureka moments came on Foresight. I’m a huge fan of Uwe Rosenberg, especially his early card games. One of the things I enjoyed about them was the unexpected ways he used them. Things like not being able to sort your hand in Bohnanza, or the rotating hands in Space Beans. At the same time, I read an article by James Ernest about creating games that break implicit rules, the things everybody knows about games and game components. I think it was written about the extra turn mechanic in Spree, but I thought it was interesting. Since I’ve been a lover of traditional card games all my life, I decided to see if I could apply those principles, unexpected use of cards and breaking implicit rules, to a traditional pack of cards. It hit me in the shower one day, finally. The implicit rule I should break would be that all cards in a poker deck have the same back. If I broke that rule, what could I do? From there, the idea of putting suit information on the back of the cards came about very quickly, and I had my deck of cards in essentially its finished form.

Gil Hova: Designer of Battle Merchants

My journey so far has been a bunch of smaller eureka moments. I’ll highlight two that stand out, though.

The first came relatively early. My first few designs were simple bluffing games. At some point, I realized that I hated playing bluffing games! I was still new to board games in general, and it was a big shock when I realized that the games I liked the most were not always the games that everyone else liked.

We all play games, but the kinds of games we enjoy are all so different. They offer experiences ranging from contemplative thought to cutthroat bitterness. Not every game is going to appeal to every player. Once I realized my favorite games were deep economic Euros, I was able to focus my designs to what I liked best in games: making interesting plans and executing them around other player’s plans.

The second came much later. I was chatting with another designer over Twitter a few weeks ago, and we discussed the traps our early designs fell into. His fell into the “this card forces you to discard your hand, the next card forces you to lose your next turn” trap. Mine fell into the “roll dice to see how many dice you roll” trap.

Both traps use gaudy mechanisms to obscure player interaction. They seem like they add interesting and meaningful gameplay at first, but in practice, they actually obscure it. It took me a long time to learn how opacity and transparency affect game design. They’re both useful tools, but as a new designer, I tended to toss opaque mechanisms in just because they sounded cool, without realizing how much they pulled players out of the game.

I was lucky enough to fall into the NYC-Playtest group, who repeatedly urged me to cut useless mechanisms and to not be afraid to make radical changes. Prolix, my first published game, had an awful, clunky letter movement mechanism that didn’t actually add any value to the gameplay. Once I followed my playtesters’ advice and cut it out, the game started to really sing.

AJ Porfirio: Publisher at Van Ryder Games and designer of Hostage Negotiator

It was realizing that my game could not be all things for all people. There will always be someone who doesn’t like your game. When I started out, it was painful to hear the tough criticism and sometimes very harsh remarks. Over time, I’ve come to realize that it is ok that everyone does not like a design or publication of mine. What is important is that the target audience DOES enjoy it. So in a nutshell, know who your audience is and make design decisions with them in mind!

Todd Edwards: Writer of the Nerni children’s books and designer of Streets and Sidewalks

There I was, working on a solo combat game to take with me when I traveled. That meant the enemy AI needed enough attack variety so that I wouldn’t be able to predict what was coming, you know, to make it more like playing against a person. So I added cards and added cards until I had 120 or more. The game got too big to fit in the small travel box, which defeated the original purpose. Then I remembered my brief brush with combinatorial chemistry back in grad school. What if each card had two bits of info, and you drew two cards for each attack? Then you can have a much bigger variety with a small amount of cards. Then each enemy got five cards. Not only did that make the game portable again, but it let the AI build combos with the attack from one unit and the modifier from another. The AI felt more like a human opponent and the game turned out better than I’d hoped!

Daniel Solis: Publisher at Smart Play Games and designer of Light Rail

I was testing a bluffing/deduction game inspired by Liar’s Dice, where if you lost a wager you’d lose one card from your hand limit. If you ran out, you were eliminated. The last player standing was the winner.

Unfortunately, this led to runaway losers because a smaller hand size made it that much more difficult to make educated guesses about the overall game state. The game was too long and un-fun.

The Eureka moment came when a playtester suggested flipping the win/lose condition on its head. Instead, running out of cards is a good thing that you’re trying to achieve. This makes a natural catch-up mechanism as the player furthest in the lead has the least information to work with.

Since then, I’ve always kept an open mind about victory conditions when I hit designer’s block. Instead of wanting the most X, maybe you want the fewest? Instead of the tallest building at the end of the game, you want it tallest in the middle and then tear it down as quickly as possible? Sometimes there is a juicy design space in “shoot the moon” mechanisms, too.

Ed Marriott: Co-Publisher at Moon Yeti Games and designer of Scoville

My eureka moments are few and far between. But one moment of note was when I realized you could buy 1000 assorted cubes from EAI Education for around $20. That made my prototyping so much faster. I use the cubes all the time. It’s funny to me that sourcing components is my eureka moment so I’ll give another eureka moment.

When designing Scoville, I fumbled over the grid design for a while with how best to have it operate. When I stopped thinking about it and just chose the simplest method everything in the game fell into place. Sometimes it’s easier to just go with something and test it rather than toil over numerous design iterations in your head. Get your games on the table! You might be amazed at the results.

Kyle Hendricks: Co-Designer of Bountytown

When design started on Bountytown, it was originally supposed to be a Touch of Evil re-theme. My eureka moment was sitting in a meeting room at my day job, thinking about the core conceits of the game, and it hit me hard. The “spaghetti west” is always misrepresented as super white and male. Bountytown then took a MAJOR shift as the main goal was to provide a voice for often under represented folk. Because of that, we took huge changes with mechanics and breaking from our other “formulas” which made it what it is today!

Jay Treat: Designer of Legacy of the Slayer

For Cahoots!, the big eureka moment was realizing that instead of having one suit per player and fiddling with a formula for sharing points with opponents, I could have one suit per player pairing and the scoring would just work automatically. By challenging a core assumption about trick-taking games (that there are always four suits) and by considering my goal for the game rather than my current solution for it, I was able to simplify and innovate at the same time.

Legacy of the Slayer’s genesis was in the eureka of combining two solutions to problems I had with existing story games: Cards to focus the narrative on characters and their development, and a system to ensure that loose ends get addressed before the game ends. It’s important as a game designer to find what bothers you in the games people are playing and imagine solutions; That’s vital practice in developing the problem-solving skills you need, but also one of the better sources of inspiration. When a solution is so compelling you want to build a game around it—even better, when you realize you have multiple solutions that would fit the same game—the end result is likely to be a product that innovates in a way people enjoy (as opposed to innovation for its own sake which is often a dead-end).

Ben Rosset: Designer of Brew Crafters

I was taking a brewery tour at Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton Delaware and the owner, Sam, was so passionately describing how he grew the brewery into a thriving business in such a short amount of time, and talking about all the new equipment they were installing that year and about the new recipes they were researching, and then suddenly it hit me: this would make an amazing game! I went home and immediately got to work on what would become “Brew Crafters”.

Chevee DoddDesigner of Pull!

I’ve always wanted to design a trick taking game. I love games with a “problem solving” aspect, and trying to deduce players’ hands to figure out the perfect play really excites me. So, I designed a trick taking game PULL! and that’s exactly what it was. A game where playing perfectly was a requirement.

The problem is, that’s not fun for most people. There’s a reason why Bridge isn’t heavily talked about with excitement among gamers… but Tichu is. So, during my weekly gaming sessions I started paying more attention to what makes Tichu “fun” for us. I found the answer during a particularly close game when one player was trying to go out first while setting up his partner. An opponent, who hadn’t done much the entire hand, suddenly throws out a bomb, which wrecked the brilliant play of the other. This happens a lot when playing Tichu, and it’s neat, but that wasn’t the moment.

Shortly after his bomb, the opponents threw out a bomb of their own. BAM! Eat that. Nope. Quiet guy calmly looks at his hand, and throws the rest down. He had an Ace high straight bomb! Just like that he went out, totally destroying his opponents and the table burst into laughter and mocking.

That’s what PULL! needed: an injection of coy little plays that could totally turn the game upside down. That’s when I went to work to make the game “fun.”

Grant Rodiek: Designer of Farmageddon

Early in Farmageddon’s life I was having difficulty solving the tuning of the Crop and Compost cards. You needed Crop cards to plant and Compost cards to harvest the Crop cards. I couldn’t get the distribution right! Players always had too many crops or too few compost, or vice versa. The thought occurred: why not let Crops be used as either? This solves the distribution entirely. In fact, it removes the problem. It also adds a nice little choice: how do I use this crop card?

Multi-use cards have since become a favorite tool of mine. They feature prominently in York, LF, and surely more to come. But, they are also a key element of my favorite games, including Race for the Galaxy, 7 Wonders, and Summoner Wars.

Secondly, and most importantly … I worked on York for years. The core mechanics didn’t change much, but I was constantly polishing barbs and imperfections. Smoothening and removing bumps. A friend noted I was going to strip the screw, so to speak. Over time, it became clear that I had sanded the game into a foundation. I had sought elegance at the expense of fun. Since then, I haven’t feared inelegance or “fat” as I think of it. As long as it makes sense, and increases the fun, I leave it. You can see these changes in Sol, which is full of fun items, Hocus, and LF.

Some highlights, in my opinion.

  • Don’t wait, but get busy on creating fun. The magic will happen as you work.
  • Losing should be fun too!
  • Don’t worry about making games for everyone. Make a great game for someone. Make the games YOU want to make.
  • New mechanisms can be found by breaking current rules and expectations. Break core assumptions to innovate.
  • Take inspiration from the world around you, be it flavors, sights, or key moments in your life.
  • The best doesn’t always have to be the biggest or most. You can win with the fewest or another less obvious fashion.

If you want to contribute your eureka moment, email me, or share in the comments below!

The Constitutionality of Rules


Post by: Grant Rodiek

Today’s post is me transcribing and odd thought process going through my head the last few days. The thesis is a tinge weak, but I find the notion fascinating and hopefully it leads to useful thoughts in your own mind.

I love the United States Supreme Court. I don’t always love their decisions, but I love the institution and think it is one of the more brilliant creations of the founders of the United States. The court exists to provide long-term, precedent setting interpretations of our almost 230 year old Constitution. The document, meant to be a living, breathing, evolving supreme law, must change to adapt to the modern world.

It’s fuzzy, intentionally so, and the few words of the Bill of Rights (for example) will be debated probably until the end of our republic (which I don’t foresee, but who knows). The Second Amendment is particularly prone to wildly varying interpretation. It reads:

“A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

Does this mean only the militia should exist and be armed? Anyone can have arms? Is there a limit to the type and quality? Security of a free state implies their use being for defense against external forces, whereas guns are often advocated for self-protection, particularly in the case of criminal instances. I’m not trying to make commentary on this topic, merely prove the point that 27 words have a million interpretations.

Please don’t turn this into a gun debate. It’s not the point of this article.

In stark contrast, the rules of our games are intended to be taken literally with zero interpretation or wiggle room. Any fuzziness is derided and is seen as poor craftsmanship on the part of the designer/publisher. If there is a set rule structure that must be followed to enjoy the game, well, that makes sense. But, and this is where my thesis begins to lose its momentum, I’m curious if we can or should craft games with a more interpretive rule set?

In a sense, many RPGs already do this. Many are a sandbox of rules that you can pick and choose from in order to craft the adventure or session to your liking. Mods, to borrow a PC gaming term, are an accepted and encouraged standard of the medium. I wager few D&D designers are upset when people home rule a rogue’s ruling to maximize fun.

Home ruling exists to some degree in board games, for a few cases. One, to fix a broken element in an otherwise solid game. I imagine this is frustrating to a designer, as it means they botched it, or that people disagree with a decision that might otherwise work. In other cases, people just want to layer or tweak things to suit their personality or play style. I know Jerry Hawthorne is outspokenly in favor of folks home ruling Mice and Mystics.

But, I’m not sure in either of those cases the mods are intentional. The interpretation is a byproduct for some users, not necessarily the main course. The strength of the Constitution is that it can be reinterpreted, widely applied, and amended to re-address current wrongs.

I imagine a few scenarios.

Imagine a broad, operational game of war in which the rules of engagement and the rules of war are re-defined and enforced over time. Perhaps you have 6 independent countries, none allied for any cause. Country A employs chemical weapons, let’s say Mustard Gas, against Country B. Country B may be able to build a coalition about this, due to a moral mechanic baked into the game, or perhaps the strategic importance. Perhaps the other countries have a lack of their own chemical weapons to employ. Moral outrage, for them, is convenient. The court in this case would be a United Nations or Geneva Conventions like body.

This wouldn’t result in a rule that is taken from a table of options. We the players would define how it works. Perhaps Mustard Gas can only be used in a war that has stalemated. Perhaps an army is limited to 3 machine guns. These are weak ideas, but it’s a quick brainstorm.

The rules shift and can be reinterpreted such that Country A adjusts their behavior. Or, doesn’t, with consequences.

A second thought. Imagine an economic game at the turn of the 20th century. Children work in factories, labor unions have limited power, women can’t vote. I’m speaking of the United States, by the way. Obviously you would need to sacrifice economic game complexity to facilitate the other mechanics (or not, if you’re going for the uber game). But, let’s say Company A leverages child labor. Or, they pay their words a very poor wage. In this game, Company B could similarly compete, OR, as a strategy, they could bring suit and attempt to alter the rules of the game.

Here’s where it gets interesting — instead of me plopping a card down that defines HOW it’s changed, we, as players, decide the new laws. We, mid-game, define the rules we must follow.

Right now, I’m appending some fuzzy social elements to rather traditional game structures. I began this article by tying this all to the United States Constitution, so let’s get a bit weirder. What if the game were in two parts: the preamble (so to speak) and the game. Let’s say this is a 1-2 hour experience. Probably leaning towards the 2. Let’s call it 2.

The game would provide a broad swath of rules, ideas, and notions. It would provide the components to support these rules. Perhaps cards with symbols and various reference points for them. In one Constitution, blue square means one thing. In another, it’s different. Your group’s constitution could create an economic game. A game of Machiavellian politics. You could almost see the preamble phase as you defining the challenge of your country. After all, the issues of agrarian 19th century America are quite different than industrial, global super power 1970s America. Or, the country of your choice.

I love the idea of two groups meeting to discuss their interpretations. Or, two groups, or a community of online groups, sharing their interpretations and games. I think the key is making it simple to create legitimate and fun “constitutions” in the preamble. It’s all too easy to try to make everyone a game designer when really, most people don’t WANT to be game designers. They want to be players.

This is a weird thought exercise, and I’m not sure it delivered on its premise. I’m relatively certain it didn’t. But, perhaps it will generate a thought in your head to conceive a more perfect thesis.

Ignoring Kind Feedback


Post by: Grant Rodiek

In Friday’s post, I noted that the folks at Cardboard Edison had asked me two questions. The result of the first question was Friday’s post. The second question is answered, or so I hope, in today’s post. Thanks again for two great prompts!

Today’s Question: What do you do when a tester says “You removed my favorite feature?” Or, more broadly, what do you do when your iterations conflict with testers’ opinions?

If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you’ll notice a few recurring themes. The first thing that comes to mind to answer this is one of my most predominant recurring themes: what is your goal for the game? If you can answer that question succinctly, and I think you need to be able to before you do ANYTHING with your design, the choice is clear.

Before you respond to your tester in regards to any feedback, positive or otherwise, you must be able to answer these questions for yourself:

  1. What type of game do you want this to be? What are your high level goals for the experience?
  2. For whom are you developing this game? Who is your audience?
  3. What is the most important part of your design? To which part of your design will you allot the most complexity? Where do you want your players’ attention? What is their key decision point?

If you can answer those two questions, you can begin to answer these:

  1. Why did you make the change in the first place? Ideally, it was to bring the game more in line with the answers outlined above.
  2. Why do you think the change will do a better job of satisfying your goals?
  3. What were the alternates that you considered before deciding upon this change?

To be explicit in my expectations, you need to know why you’re making the change in the first place. Never make changes to your game just to change stuff. Understand fully what the problem is that you’re trying to solve and why you think the change will address it. Otherwise, you will meander for months or years with no forward progress.

Let’s circle back for a moment. You know the game you want to make and your target audience. Ideally, your target publisher as well (assuming you’re solely the designer). You know what makes your game special. You also know 2 or 3 areas where your game is falling short. You know what you want to fix in order to bring it closer to the goal. You act decisively and remove a feature that a tester enjoys. They speak up about it.

Quickly, I want to note what’s important here: You’re coming to the table as an expert. You’re bringing as much data, logic, and science as you can to this vile hobby of ours. You’ll need that.

Before you ask questions, I find it useful to come to an agreement on terms. Or, in absence of agreement (which really you don’t need, this isn’t a democracy), you can at least state your personal goals. Provide a lens: This is the game I want to make. This is what I think is important.

Your first question to the tester is, “Why is it your favorite feature? What did you love about it?” There are a thousand ways to boil and egg (are there?), and once you know what their end goal is, you can deliver that in a way that suits your goals.

Your second question is whether they agree that the problem you intend to solve is indeed a problem. This is a really good way to take their temperature on the end result. If, ideally, you can both reach agreement that you have a problem, then you can move forward. You can then brainstorm and discuss potential solutions that better preserve their favorite feature and still address your problem. This is why question 2 immediately follows question 1.

Really, this is about having a directed discussion. It’s your design, your project. Enter as the moderator and drive the conversation.

Many of us want to placate our testers. For the longest time, maybe years, they are our only fans. They are the only people who have played our game. They’re the only ones who know what we’re trying to accomplish. The difficult truth is, they may be our only testers ever if we don’t sign the game. But, and this is difficult, in the same way one must learn to listen to feedback and leverage testing advice, one must also learn to ignore it or leverage it accordingly.

Just as bad as changing a design haphazardly for years under your own direction is doing so at the behest of your testers. Never forget that it’s your design. You’re striving for your name on the box. It’s your vision.

In conclusion, know what you want. Know what you’re trying to achieve. Know what is sacred in your design and why it’s sacred. Then, work to know what your players like and why they like it. Or, on the opposite side, what they don’t like and why this is so. Enter every discussion knowing what works with your game and what isn’t currently working. Design is an art, but development can be more scientific. Identify issues and eliminate dead ends. Do this by understanding your design and your goals.

Feedback, positive or negative, is only valuable if you know how to use it. A tester who likes your game is fine, but remember that you’re seeking an audience of thousands, unless they’re buying the entire print run.

Researching Theme


Post by: Grant Rodiek

A few days ago I asked the excellent Cardboard Edison for blog ideas. They quickly came up with two, one of which is the topic of this post. It was a great idea, but also especially exciting as it’s something they are apparently working on right now. I love a captive client!

How does one go about researching for a thematic game? More importantly, what is important in such an effort?

I have several steps, in priority order, that I’ll walk you through now! For this post, I’m going to use Sol Rising as my primary example. I believe it’s my most thematic design, is a mature design, so I feel my points have merit, and its creation closely mimicked the process I’ll propose.

Step 1: Pick a Good Theme

I’ve written about theme in the past here. But, for the sake of brevity and a fresh outlook, I think a good theme needs to pass a few tests.

  1. Is it a topic that excites players who are driven by theme? Selling beans is out.
  2. Is it a topic that most people can reasonably intuit based on common cultural norms and expectations? For example, for Sol Rising, the required viewing to enjoy the game is at least one Star Wars battle scene, a single game of Homeworld, the Dominion War (name?) in Deep Space Nine, or some Battlestar Galactica. It’s difficult to make a thematic game about Dolphin breeding in the Pacific. Most people probably don’t know enough about it.
  3. Is it a topic that excites YOU? A thematic game is greatly about passion for the subject matter. Nobody is going to feel like an admiral of the fleet if you wade in tepidly.
  4. Thematic games are often great because they are a solid platform for fun, delightful components. I want to be cautious here and warn folks that good theme does not mean a fun coat of paint. It drives me batty when people fawn over a game that is “so thematic” just because it has custom shaped meeples.

Step 2: Define the Player’s Perspective

Who are your players? What is their role? What is their point of view? In Sol Rising, players are admirals of fleets. They are in charge of multiple capital ship squadrons, fighter squadrons, and need to accomplish multiple objectives that will affect the fate of entire star systems and thousands of lives.

Alternatively, I could have made players planetary governors. Or ship captains. Or squadron commanders. Or fighter jocks. But, I didn’t. I made them fleet admirals.

Why is this important? Well, it defines very clearly what you need to research and what decisions you put before your player. A ship captain, for example, needs to worry about his engine room. Or his position in relation to a specific ship. See: Captain Kirk fighting Khan. A fleet admiral? He doesn’t care about your engines. He cares about your squadron and whether it’s completing its defined task.

A common, and fair, criticism of thematic games is that they are over complicated. It often feels that when you’re playing a very thematic game that the designer couldn’t stop him or herself from saying “it would be cool if.” It’s like an improv session that never ends, as the “yes, and” never subsides.

Use the player’s perspective to focus your efforts. Yes, your fleet admiral could care about crew morale. He could care about the engines on ship 2. He could care about researching lasers. He could care about the planetary atmosphere. OR, he can care about the things an admiral would care about.

Not only does this make your game simpler, more focused, and easier to research and design, but it’ll make it more thematic!

Step 3: Research Broadly

I think it’s possible to know too much about a topic and to dive too deeply into presenting it. Now, we can go back and forth on whether games can have more simulation properties, but for the sake of your perspective, I’m discussing 1-2 hour thematic experiences that are games first, simulations second.

I remember a designer at work, a professional musician, designed our music design for the game. And it was SO deep and complex. In a way, it missed the point of what people wanted, which was the high level experience of being a musician. Therefore, research broadly. As you identify opportunities for your design, dive more deeply into those elements.

Here are some of the things I researched for Sol Rising:

  • The Expanse Trilogy for narrative inspiration and designing a plausible solar system filled with political entities and intrigue.
  • Star Wars, specifically the Battle of Endor, for combined arms combat. By combined arms, I mean a mix of capital ships and fighters. Star Wars Armada takes this away a tinge from Sol Rising, but previously, you either (often) played a game about fighters, or a game about capital ships. Sol Rising is about both.
  • Homeworld, for mechanics about formations and commanding groups of units. One of the neat things about Sol Rising is that you don’t control 20 ships individually, but 3-5 squadrons of ships.
  • Summoner Wars for card ability design.
  • Memoir ’44 for incorporation of environmental elements.
  • Robinson Crusoe for Event system design.
  • Mice and Mystics for narrative game design.
  • Starcraft II for unique mission design. Every single player mission in Starcraft II presents a unique challenge to the player within the system framework.
  • History on Napoleonic Warfare, specifically for information on how cavalry affected the battlefield. I had the idea early on to treat my fighter squadrons as cavalry. I read both biographies of Napoleon, as well as historical fiction series.

As you can see, I sampled a broad assortment of other print games, digital games, fiction, and historical elements. The benefits of this include gaining a wide variety of ideas, not having a single heavy influence that might skew my game into a too derivative direction, and I largely keep things at a high level. This last one is important because I want to present a game where people who generally know what Admiral Ackbar does can make decent hunches about Sol Rising BEFORE knowing the ins and outs of the design.

Step 4: Abstract early, abstract often

This might seem counter to the premise of thematic design, but in fact, it isn’t. Some of the most crucial thematic decisions you can mark are about where to input abstraction and where to get more specific. Again, thematic designers often make the error of making every mechanic a super deeply, broad element of their design.

The problem this causes is that your players will be overwhelmed. They’ll spend so much time trying to make basic decisions that they’ll never feel like they are in the game. Thematic design is about players making intuitive decisions that appropriately mimic their thematic equivalent. In Terra Mystica, there is this complex mana pool mechanic. It’s very complicated, especially on an initial play. It’s not thematic, at all, because no wizard in fiction ever has had to use such an abacus of mana. Being a wizard is about casting a spell. To be fair, I don’t think Terra Mystica was trying to be thematic.

One example of abstraction in a design of mine are the defensive abilities in Sol Rising. In previous iterations, you might Overcharge Shields. You’d place a Shield token on your ship. The problem was that the opponent had to ask, and remember, what that token meant. There could be multiple defensive tokens in play. Both players had to remember when that shield would go away, as there were rules to account for that. At the recommendation of a tester, I made the defensive abilities one-shot abilities. Now, Overcharge Shields let you remove 2 damage. At first, this seems strange. Shields prevent damage, they don’t remove it! But, if the end result is the same, in that I have less damage? And it’s simpler to do? Well, it works.

In York, one of my most thematic tactics is Dig In. It simply causes more casualties for the attacker. You don’t have to place fortifications, or spend time digging. You abstract that decision.

For Orb, a design I’m prototyping now, the player’s perspective is that of a squad commander of elite infantry. You’re not controlling individual units, but the squad. Therefore, when you deploy a sniper and a demolitions expert, you don’t have a specific token that says “Sniper” with rules on it. No, instead, you draw cards related to those roles and you add 2 generic unit markers to the board. It’s one of the abstractions of which I’m most proud because it beautifully preserves and supports the player’s perspective and keeps them focused on the thematic decisions. I need a sniper. Instead of managing that sniper’s footsteps, I’m instead managing a sniper’s contributions to my arsenal.

Step 5: Stop and ask, how can we use this?

As you’re conducting your research, as soon as you come across a nifty idea or fact, put down the book, or the game, and ask: How can we use this?

Begin prototyping, mentally, with your suggestions. The idea for formations in Sol Rising came very early. I was reading and realized that most games focus on controlling one ship at a time. I thought, a ha! Multiple ships. I then got out some blocks and began messing around with manipulating them for the sake of combat effectiveness. Eventually, with that seed planted, I went back to my research.

Your design should begin to take shape and grow as you research. What’s less useful is 50 pages of notes and information with context or relationships to one another. What’s more useful is:

  1. We want the player to be this guy.
  2. Being this guy means you do this thing.
  3. Sometimes this thing can be affected by another thing.
  4. And so forth.

Essentially, you should start building your core elements and applying layers as you research. Begin to channel and focus your research to channel and focus your design. Once you identify that you want Element A in your design, it’ll help you evaluate all future ideas.

How can you use this? Answer that question as you go and being laying the foundation during research. This is much better than returning to months of notes only to find you’re more or less at step 1.

Was this useful? Do you feel you’re better equipped to research a thematic game? Share your thoughts and your personal ideas in the comments below.

Pre-Baking with Dopamine


Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m going to play FAST AND LOOSE with science for this past. I hope you’re ready for it. One of my favorite publishers, Uwe Eickert of Academy Games, frequently talks about the “Dopamine drip” in games. You can read about Dopamine exhaustively via Wikipedia here. One of the brain’s Dopmaine systems is related to reward driven behavior. Scientists believe it plays a part of our “seeking,” as in, we’ll do things in order to get the reward.

What makes a game rewarding? What are some rewarding things one can do in a game? What are things you the designer can insert into your design that’ll bring plays back for another go and deliver that satisfying brain tingle?

Using my own brain as a guide post, which I realize is questionable at best, I’m going to identify a few of the ways to get your Dopamine Drip installed. You’ll note that I don’t consider victory or scoring points to be good examples.

Surprise: Or, more specifically, the delivery of a surprise. You ever see someone give another person the perfect gift? Notice how the giver was almost, if not more, excited than the recipient? The same holds true for a game. If you’re in a battle and you execute the perfect unseen maneuver, you’ll get a surprise. The traitor mechanic in Dune/Rex is perfect.

One example of a simple recurring surprise is removing the box at the start of Cube Quest to see how your opponent setup his side of the board. Or, in a CCG, when an opponent plunks down an enormous card using a combo you never conceived. That’s one many of us have felt.

Drafting a card that affects many others is another great case. To continue on that last thought, drafting games and games with simultaneous play are outstanding for delivering constant and delightful surprise. Look at the popularity of Gravwell and Get Bit!, both of which are built around HIGHLY interactive simultaneous choices that lead to surprising outcomes for everyone at the table. That, potentially, is another key: everyone’s choice in those two games affects everyone else at the table. That’s a surprise in a big way.

You may not be making a drafting game, so let’s bubble this back up to a higher level. A great surprise must be something within the players’ control. It isn’t just a card flip off the top of a huge event deck. A great surprise effects most, if not everyone in the game. A great surprise should cause an audible reaction. Examples include “Nooooo!,” “Ah!,” and “You bastard!”

It’s a big impact “no vote,” a disastrous left turn, the ultimate betrayal, or the nuclear option on turn 2.

The Likely Outcome: This may seem counter to the previous statement, but I think the likely outcome can be a great additive for your game. One game that comes to mind is Summoner Wars. Your combatants hit on a 3+, which means each die has a 66% chance of delivering a wound to an opponent. However, you still frequently see a roll of five dice result in no hits, or 2 CRUCIAL dice landing both hits to seal the game. I’ve often said Summoner Wars has the perfect probability on its dice and I happily copied it for Sol Rising.

The British Regulars in Academy’s 1812 and 1775 games is another great example. They are the only faction without a Flee option on their die. They also have more Hit faces than the others. This means they won’t retreat and they will cause more casualties. But, sometimes they peter out (sorry readers named Peter) and don’t deliver the hot mortal broadside. Yet, they often do.

Star Realms, which is devilishly popular right now, is full of likely outcomes. The decks never get that big and the parameters of the cards are quite simple. Mid to late game you’re hoping to begin drawing a full hand of Blob ships to deliver that 20+ damage turn. You SHOULD get that. But, it might elude you. The small deck and quick pace of Star Realms make it a game where you’re constantly chasing that one perfect hand. It’s so close, it should turn up, and often, the player who receives it first will win.

Look to the cube tower in Shogun/Wallenstein. If you chuck a pile of cubes inside it, there’s a likely outcome. In fact, there’s a Ludology podcast on this somewhere in their catalog that I listened to recently where Geoff Engelstein studied the probability.

A final example are simply weighted dice rolls. Think about those tense moments playing D&D when your rogue steps forth to sneak past the guards. He has a big bonus to his stealth and should be able to knock it out. There’s satisfaction in that knowledge, and joy and surprise when it overwhelmingly succeeds (big surprise?) or dramatically fails. I think there’s joy in failure and I think the likely outcome is a great contribution. Never forget that Probability is a cruel mistress. Set her up to delight and disappoint you spectacularly.

Passive Interaction: My posts are often very example driven. I come up with a thesis and try to defend it. This one just came to me while looking at some of my games and thinking of moments that lead to sheer joy in the players at the table.

I think this is one of the reasons Euros are so popular. They are full of passive and often subtle interaction. Worker placement is essentially a series of passive aggressive prioritization of need and nitpicking. Oh, you took that from me last turn? Well, I’ll take this from you now. You can just see the JOY wash over their face.

In The Speicherstadt, one of my favorite games, you can just hear the smirk forming as someone places a worker down on a card you REALLY want to buy. Same with Spyrium. Or Modern Art in the open bid, or Rex/Dune on the bidding phase. I have a friend who ALWAYS bids something up just hoping we’ll eat the cost, which has led to some hilarious meta-play between us.

Fill your game with ways to let your players passively jab at their opponents. People want to compete and they want to best one another. They just don’t want to be mean, often. Fill your rules with all the ripostes of an aristocratic British social soiree and you’ll be in business.

Thoughts? Where am I off? Where am I close to the mark? What are some of your favorite examples of the Dopamine drip in games?

A Smidge of Orb


Post by: Grant Rodiek

The majority of my development brain is focused on Hocus Poker right now. The revision is testing very strongly and we (me and Josh) think we’ll be able to bring a very pretty version to Board Game Geek Con in November. I spent the past week or so revising the graphics files for Sol Rising and it’s being printed now by Print Play Games. I hope to have a really nice version to show to potential publishers at BGG as well. Other than 2 scenarios, I consider that game largely pitch ready.

That leaves me some free time to work on the next game, which I’ve been doing for some time. My process for a while now has revolved around a long period of contemplation and thought, followed by early rules and design documentation, then prototyping. It’s slow, but it tends to lead to higher quality output sooner.

I want to talk about my new game at a high level. Few details, as those can be distracting. I’ve spent a month or two thinking about its mechanics and the overall experience. I’m deep into the rules and I’ve begun designing content for a first prototype. I’d like to think I’ll have a lightly tested version for BGG Con.

For now, I’m calling it Orb. Purely a placeholder name. Try to figure out what Orb stands for before the end of the post. Your prize is, of course, nothing.

I’ve noted before that my new games are often driven by things I’ve learned, things I’m sick of, and things I’m excited about from my immediate predecessor. After York, I wanted to make a game thematic game that involved dice and scenarios. In this case, moving on from Sol Rising, I’m still interested in science fiction, but I want to leave the confines of a starship and get back to the dirt. I’ve never made a game focused on infantry, so that’s appealing. I want to avoid scenario design and, though I’m not removing dice, I want to bring in richer card play that was absent from Sol.

I knew I wanted to focus on a smaller, more tactical experience. Sol Rising is about fleet command and York is about running a war at the operational level. I wanted to focus on the exploits of a small number of soldiers.

My starting point: Science fiction. Infantry. Tactics.

I started to think about the things in this sector that really excite me and the fictional inspiration was just overwhelming. I LOVE the ODSTs (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers) from the Halo universe (picture at the top). They are the best humanity has to offer, up to the Spartans, that is.

They launch from these small pod capsules and explode onto the ground, directly into the thick of battle. It looks awesome and I plan to have a drop pod mechanic in the game.


ODST Drop Pod View

There are also the Jump Troops of Charlie Company from one of my favorite cartoons, Exo Squad. These guys would also get into confined pods strapped to exo-suits (like the one Matt Damon wore in Elysium) and would drop into hostile zones on asteriods.



I love drop ships. Futuristic versions of the Chinook or Black Hawk, heavily laden with elite troopers, exiting the belly of a carrier or troop transport in orbit. You see cool ones in Aliens, Halo, Starship Troopers, and other great fiction.


Sci Fi. Infantry. Tactics. Drop ships. 

I’m also deeply enamored of Special Forces, both in our current time and in the science fiction I read. There’s something very exciting about highly trained, highly disciplined soldiers who execute their jobs against great odds successfully. I realized this also gave me a great opportunity for a deeply asymmetrical game. A few elite soldiers, no wait, drop troopers, who would need to complete a difficult task against a larger, but less elite force.

Drop Troopers versus Regulars. Assault versus defense. Roles. Already in the design I’m accomplishing this with new tuning variables on how combat is resolved, actions unique to different parties (in general, the drop troopers tend to be more flexible), and objective differences. There’s also a heavy stealth angle for the drop troopers. They need to setup their assault, be patient, then hit with a massive hammer. Once the space poo hits the fan, they need to get out and get home.

This won’t just be two factions, but two different ways to play. This will be an asymmetrical game.

Sci Fi. Infantry. Tactics. Drop ships. Asymmetrical.

War games naturally lend themselves to scenarios. However, after 15 (and counting) Sol Rising scenarios, I’m tired of creating this content. It’s exhausting and requires a unique skill set and energy. Therefore, the need occurred to me to create a dynamic scenario system. By this, I mean I design the framework and content by which the scenarios are created when you play as a part of the experience.

Keep in mind, I will be testing a single framework and content set for the foreseeable future, much like I did with Sol Rising, to verify all of the other mechanics. But, phase 2 will dive more deeply into dynamic scenarios. My current high level thinking is that players will grab cards from a small set for things like terrain (planet type), position (forward operating base, random patrol, heavy base), objectives (rescue hostage, destroy artillery), and any variations (weather, rules of engagement restrictions).

The map and resources available to players will be derived from this setup.

Sci Fi. Infantry. Tactics. Drop ships. Asymmetrical. Dynamic scenarios. 

Those are the top items, but there are a few more things I’m working on. I recognize that asymmetrical games have a high degree of a learning curve and one way in which I’d live to curb that is by making the game VERY card driven. I’m planning on a tight, small set of core rules, with few exceptions, and putting almost all of the content onto the cards. Yes, this will make the cards more complex, but I’d rather the rules be IN their hands instead of in their head.

One example relates to the various roles of the special forces units. You don’t need to remember what a sniper can do versus and explosives expert. You’ll have a card to do so. Similarly, if the scenario generator tells you to place a machine gun nest, you don’t need to know what that entails. You just add the cards it tells you and they’ll contain the rules.

That’s all for now. I’ll potentially talk about more specifics as I vet them and feel comfortable doing so. For now, I wanted to talk about the theme, experience, and high level goals in the hopes that some of you are interested. Enjoy your day!

Apples and Oranges: Joyous Asymmetry


Post by: Grant Rodiek

Last week at game night I was able to enjoy a second game of Rex: Final Days of an Empire, Fantasy Flight Game’s revision of the classic Dune. Once again, I was blown away by the beautiful level of asymmetry, player interaction, the amount of tension, and how often people smile because of their player bonuses.


Asymmetry is one of my favorite elements in a game. It gives you something new to enjoy every game, something special and unique that only you have, and forces you to learn not only how to play to your strengths, but exploit your opponents’ weaknesses.

Many of my favorite games are asymmetrical and the new design I’m working on now is also significantly asymmetrical. This led me to ask: what are the different types of asymmetry available to a designer and what are the implications of such types? I conducted this exercise when thinking about scenario and campaign design, as well as faction design, and I found it very useful for my efforts. It’s a good thought exercise.

This is a bit of an academic or philosophical post, so use that as you will.

Let’s Explore the Different Types of Asymmetry! It is important to note that a game doesn’t have to be, and often won’t be, just one of these. These are very loose, high level categories. Think of this as a Venn Diagram.


Symmetrical Design: It makes sense, to me, to discuss the clear exception first, which is symmetrical design. To me, a symmetrical design is one in which both players have equal opportunities, the same choices, and an identical set of rules which they must follow. Naturally, these games evolve so that options differ, but both players began with equal footing.

In chess, both players begin with equal units, and all units act identically. In Dominion, all players begin with an identical starting hand of cards and have identical options of cards to obtain. Naturally, the games evolve immediately as choices are made.

Examples include Chess, Monopoly, Stratego, Star Realms, Dominion


Light Asymmetry: I define Light Asymmetry as players having identical rules to follow and equal opportunities, but their initial options are varied slightly to differ their paths or provide variation.

You may see this as splitting hairs, but in every hand of Texas Hold ‘Em, every player has a different hand to act against. In trick taking games, players are dealt out hands at random, which are the players’ options for the trick. Or, in euros like Alien Frontiers, players are given varying initial resources, but also unique Alien Tech cards at the beginning. You can also look at a game like Ascending Empires, where the probability of the planets in your sector tend to guide your technology path in a subtle way.

To break it down simply, this can come about from the hand you’ve been dealt, starting resources, a simple character card (like in the DC Deckbuilder).

Examples include: Poker, trick taking games like Chronicle, Ascending Empires, or Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy.


Content-Based Asymmetry: I define Content-Based Asymmetry as giving all players a symmetrical foundation of rules and mechanics, layered with asymmetrical content, like cards, that tweak the core rules to create a set of advantages and disadvantages.

Content-Based Asymmetry is driven largely by manipulating the tuning variables. This means it’s VERY important that you fully consider the variables your core rule set has to offer. A good example of Content-Based Asymmetry is Summoner Wars. Every player in the game follows the same phases of play. However, each player has a unique army, represented by a deck of cards, filled with a unique Summoner, 3 Champions, and 20 (is that right?) Commons. To further illustrate these variables, let me illustrate the tools the designer has to create asymmetrical content.

  • Move Properties: This includes the number of spaces, moving diagonally (it’s typically just orthogonal), moving in just a single direction, moving through other characters, moving through walls.
  • Spawning: This includes spawning next to enemy walls, certain characters or types, being removed from the board to reappear, or summoning on top of an existing character (ex: The Filth).
  • Attack Properties: Hitting on a different dice value, being able to roll extra dice in some circumstances, gaining or losing hits in some circumstances, gaining re-rolls, gaining bonuses for using Melee versus Range, being able to shoot through other characters, damage multiple characters with one shot (straight line, orthogonal), or shoot through walls.
  • Magic Properties: Discard for extra magic, summon freely in certain circumstances, provide extra or negative magic for the one who destroys it.

As you can see, with just a few high level variables, you can squeeze and extensive amount of content variation out of a game. Content-Based Asymmetry is one of the more accessible forms of asymmetry as players don’t have to re-learn the rules between experiences. These are also highly expandable and provide incredible replayability due to all the combinations in your play experience.

You don’t have to go as far as unique decks and armies. Games like 1812: Invasion of Canada and 1775: Rebellion fully convey the sense of factions and asymmetric play purely by manipulating dice probabilities.

Examples include: Summoner Wars, Theseus: The Dark Orbit, Twilight Struggle, Magic: The Gathering, Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends, Neuroshima Hex, 7 Wonders, and X-Wing Miniatures Game.


Rules-Based Asymmetry: I define rules based asymmetry as giving players unique strengths and weakness primarily through modifications of core rules and mechanics. This is more difficult to pull off, especially due to balance concerns. Furthermore, it’s a challenge to not go hog wild and create a game that is incredibly difficult to learn and play. Just because you CAN create new rules, doesn’t mean you should.

A favorite game of mine to demonstrate this is Dune, which has a new version called Rex: Final Days of an Empire. This game takes advantage of content-based asymmetry, altering some of the tuning values, but it also gives players entirely new rules, immunity, and so forth to make every players’ experience entirely different.


The other poster child for this type of asymmetry, which is one of the best selling games around right now, is Netrunner. In this game, the Runner adheres to one set of rules, whereas the Corp player adheres to another. Their decks have different types of cards, their phases are different, they have alternate victory paths, and different deckbuilding requirements. Netrunner’s learning curve is understandably steep, but the pay off in depth is just monstrous. This is demonstrated by its sales!

Although I could make an argument for it belonging to content (and really, who cares?), I think Cosmic Encounter would belong in the Rules-Based asymmetry category. The shifts are so big and distinct that I think it is more appropriate here.

Examples include: Dune/Rex, Netrunner, Cosmic Encounter, The Ares Project.


Two Games in One: This may not be asymmetry as much as it is mechanical fusion, but I feel it bears mentioning in this article. Some games are so asymmetrical that different players are playing different games. In Ladies and Gentlemen, one partner in the team is playing a light chit-pulling real-time game. The other partner is playing a set collection drafting game.

Whereas rule-based asymmetry alters mechanics to varying degrees, cases like this create two entirely different sets that somehow talk to each other, but are distant cousins, at best, instead of siblings. For example, in Netrunner, the Corp and Runners are still clearly members of the same family. They just hate each other.

Conclusion: Later this week I may discuss how I’m going to mix some of these elements for my personal design. Or, go off in another direction. Hopefully this was interesting and useful to your efforts. Share any comments below!

Josh and Grant Discuss 3.0


Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

If you read the Raising My Bar blog post, you may have a hunch that we decided to take another look at Hocus Poker to make it better. Spoiler: We did. We actually really liked Hocus Poker 2.0 and most of our testers did as well. Yes, some didn’t, but I (Grant) have to say it’s one of my strongest testing prototypes with a wide range of players in the past few years. But, after a tough discussion, we decided it wasn’t the game we wanted to release. Not under the Hocus Poker name as a full, published title with Hyperbole Games. Join us as we talk about this decision!

Grant: Let’s get the easy part out of the way. I was really concerned, from a business angle, about including tokens in the game AND not taking advantage of all 108 cards. Generally speaking, poker-sized cards are printed in sheets of 54. Once you have 55, excluding art and other things, you’re paying for 108. This is a bit of a generalization, so bear with us.

Tokens increase the cost of the product. You have to purchase a die mold (one time cost) and they add to the manufacturing cost. Plus, tokens more or less require a 2-piece box, which is expensive. Shifting to 108 cards and no tokens allows for a lower cost and more efficient product that can also be made in a tuck box. That’ll really save on price, which can be passed down to our consumers.

Josh: It essentially comes down to the size of a press sheet. You can fit 55 cards on a half sheet, but that’s it. I’ve worked under similar constraints in the past. For instance, you can fit 280 1/2″ counters on a single 8.5″ X 11″ sheet, so for Prussia’s Glory, I had exactly 1120 counters available on my four sheets (which was harder to fit than you’d guess!).

Grant: So many counters. I think it’s safe to say your cup overran with Prussians. And who wants that?

Josh: Of more concern to me is that the mana tokens would have sucked. I played Hocus with nice poker chips. Little tokens would have been terrible. But leaving them out would have been an incomplete game, and upgrading them would have been prohibitive. It’s a rough spot.

So that’s the commercial side. But there’s another reason why Grant opened a discussion on further design, and that’s skill. In Poker, the skill comes from stack management, understanding odds and pot odds, reading people, and patience. In eliminating betting, a lot of that went away.

Grant: Hocus 2.0 was a nice little game that eliminated play elimination, much of the stress from poker, and was relatively simple. I think with the right audience or publisher, Hocus 2.0 would have done fine. I’m just not sure we could have succeeded with it the way we hope.

There wasn’t much in it to make it sticky. When a game is about $20 (which is approximately the old price with the tokens), you need a reason to keep going back other than “this is pleasant.” You need the ability to improve, the desire to win, a slight need for strategy. We felt pretty strongly the game needed a skill component. Not a big one, but something. We didn’t think that 2.0 had that.

We had Uno Poker and we wanted more Coloretto Poker. I mean that in terms of skill and experience, though I’ll admit right now that is a dangerous comparison in both cases.

I was chasing a lot of random mechanics and ideas. Josh wisely brought it to a very high level. We discussed how other simple card games introduce skill and settles on a few suitable avenues for us to pursue: hand management, timing (of the game, moments to move), action building, and bluffing.

Josh: For a card game, especially one with a broad intended target, you can’t have a huge menu of actions and have things work out. The experience needs to be more focused. I thought we needed to decide what levers we should have players pushing before we struck out on new mechanics. Getting the criteria straight first was important.

And I love timing as a skill component. Knowing when to start buying Victory cards in Dominion is a really fun decision, and it comes down to controlling the pace of the game. I wanted that.

Grant: I agree on timing. Knowing when to strike is a great idea. Before we continue, we should also talk about other things we wanted to address. I was excited to get a chance to start without requiring a round structure. There are times when it’s useful to structure play around rounds, but I felt it had made our game a bit too static and predictable. Every round had a very known quantity and it wasn’t really changing much.

Removing the round also let us remove unnecessary structure and rules. In a way, it simplified the game, while allowing for more options. That’s a good win. It already broadens the game in a way that allowed for us to introduce more skill (timing, as Josh noted) and more variety between plays.

Another thing I brought up were our Spells. We really love the variety they provide, but when we discussed them, we felt they were basically variations on the same thing. Some of our spells were really unique, but most didn’t really change the game. In fact, most were just a slightly different twist on a previous spell. That was a hard one to bite off. We wanted each Spell to be potent and unique and we weren’t getting that.

We also asked the question: do we need Hold ‘em? While we were on the topic of bold changes, we realized it might be time to disengage from Hold ‘Em.

Josh: Just to be clear, Hold ‘Em is brilliant, an inner-circle game that deserves every bit of its popularity. And that’s part of the problem: it is so finely honed that we were suffering by comparison. There wasn’t enough oxygen for our design. Grant and I were independently thinking about changing away from Hold ‘Em, so it was time to take off the shackles. By moving away, we opened up a lot more daylight to explore our chosen space.

Grant: Every design should have a box, so to speak. Limitations to work within. We were limiting ourselves a little too much. Hold ‘Em is great, as Josh noted. But, we were not giving ourselves room to evolve and create something more unique. In a way, we dialed it back to the original idea: poker plus spells. Not Hold ‘em plus spells.

Josh: An element sorely missing from the game was bluffing. We’d heard this complaint from testers, and tried to address it a bit, but it just wasn’t there, not enough. For a game to have bluffing, there needs to be risk, signaling, and partial information. We had a little of the first, some of the third, and not enough of the second.

Grant: These concerns and desires led to some of the most thoughtful design discussions I’ve had. We had those “What is a thing?” type discussions that seem so basic, but reveal so much. When you’re designing, I encourage you do the same, even if only occasionally. We often spend so much time to dig around “what’s cool” or make a broken thing work, but truly seeking to understand something is very useful and interesting.

Bluffing is not only a moment that is rules-light, but crazy deep, but it’s a point of humor for players and a great skill element. It’s a great modifier of randomness as well, which is why it factors in so strongly to so many poker games.

As an example, look how much depth and joy comes from Cockroach Poker, which is a game that contains almost no rules and is pure bluffing. We aren’t Cockroach Poker, but we wanted a sliver of that.

Josh: I had a good time trying to deconstruct what goes into bluffing. I think it’s really easy to overdo that sort of blue-sky thinking and never actually do things, but in a case like this, it was a very useful exercise. Sometimes, a little beard-stroking can be the right thing to do.

Grant: I’m tempted here to post a photo of the last time I had a beard a few weeks ago. I had fun shaving that one down into mustaches.

Josh: But let’s move away a bit from the abstract here and talk about remedies. We wanted to have player input in the pace of the game, we wanted to re-introduce bluffing, we wanted hand management, and we wanted tougher action selection. Oh, and we wanted to completely eliminate non-card components. Tall order!

Grant: We both gravitated early to the notion of cards with variable points on them, 1-5, that would be used to form a pot of some sort. I can’t even remember (already, how sad) how we arrived at this, but the gist was that players would all contribute to a pot. Each of them would know a single card in the pot, but nothing else. The element I thought was really cool was that each player would be dealt these cards randomly at the beginning. I may have a bunch of high value cards, which is scary, but it’s information.

Josh: It was introduced pretty early. Specifically, once we decide that Runes are cards again, making them variable value is natural. From there, given that we want bluffing to be in the game, having the values of the Runes in the hand becomes a really great starting point. For me, it reminds me a bit of the demand tiles in Automobile: you have some idea of the value of a particular hand, but not complete information. Knowing that your card is powerful changes your behavior, and the other players can key off that. But, you might be able to confuse the table and get them to chance garbage. It certainly seemed to have potential.

Grant: I was also thinking a little of Arctic Scavengers. Every round, one player knows the value of the item everyone is fighting over. It’s a fun and simple twist to the competition.

Josh: It’s a mechanic with a grand pedigree, in other words. Stuck at the end of that email was a simple note, which was: “Oh, what if you’re building more than one hand?”

Grant: That was such a genius idea. We did away with strict rounds and had this roving series of hands. Basically, players could fight over the pot whenever they wanted. But, if you only had one hand, it was a bit of a high risk and somewhat of a showstopper for you. You’d spend your hand in the Action and would have to start over. But, if you had two hands, you could pick one to use while building the other. The right tool for the job, so to speak.

Josh: Basically, at any given time, I’m always looking for ways to steal Uwe Rosenberg’s ideas. But not from Agricola, from his early card games. Here, it’s a little bit of a Bohnanza thing. Trying to decide when the right moment was to push in a hand seemed like such a fertile field for exploration.

Grant: I feel there’s a bean joke here.

Josh: You’re the guy with the farming game on his resume, that’s probably your turf.

Grant: Sadly, the bean card is the card I want to replace more than anything. Thanks for bringing up my shame.

Josh: There’s also a little bit of a little-known Martin Wallace here, 1630 Something, which had you slowly building up influence in countries and then trying to decide what the right moment was to cash those in. It’s a mechanic that has always stuck with me. Trying to gauge the table and decide when to commit your resources, when you’ve spent several of your turns building it up and there’s no reward for second place, that’s going to be a tense, difficult decision if it’s done correctly.

We also had quite a lot of discussion on what to do with spells. How players acquired them, what they were going to cost now that we were ditching Mana, what sort of effects there were available to us.

Grant: We shifted to an Action system. On your turn you’d choose one action and do that. We’ve evolved it a little since, but it basically revolves around drawing cards, getting a spell from the few available, USING a spell (which are often enhanced basic actions), or declaring a showdown to compete for the prize of variable and hidden runes discussed above.

Each turn, you’d obtain more cards, but at the end of your turn, you had to add them to one of your two hands that you were building.

Josh: I think the key decision leading down that path was your proposal of a continuous turn structure. Basically, the observation was that the game might be better served by not having the rounds/turns be so predictable. Previously, you knew exactly how many actions you had to improve your hand, and it made the arc of each round pretty predictable. Spell costs could only really increase a certain amount, hands would only evolve so far, it felt pretty static. By making the Showdowns intermittent and dispersed within the regular turns, there was more unpredictability. It also meant that the cost of spending a turn was both a more viable thing for players to do and also harder to evaluate, giving another area for players to be skilled. We both have admiration for the continuous, rapid turns of Ascending Empires, and aiming for that type of pace was a laudable goal.

Grant: There’s a lot of inspirational thievery in our new design. So, let’s recap, because we’re getting a bit long-winded here.

  • Limited information on the value of the pot. Everyone knows something.
  • Brisk turns built around a single key decision. What do you want to do right now?
  • Roundless structure that allows for more variety in play. Do you go for the pot now? Do you continue building your hand? Do you grab a spell? We put the pace under the control of our players.

We haven’t yet talked about Spells, problems with people being able to compete for Runes whenever, or Runes being uniformly good and the problems that leads to. We also haven’t discussed why this all doesn’t quite support bluffing, yet. But, it’s a good change and it shows a lot of promise. Any final thoughts, Josh?

Josh: Restlessness is good! Whenever you’ve gotten antsy with this thing, it’s gotten better. And, the nice thing is, the 2.0 version of the game is still there. It’s still good! By the time we’re done, we might actually have a couple of poker-with-spells games when the dust settles.

Grant: Yeah, whatever art we obtain for the final version, I’d like to use some of it to make Hocus 2.0 look nice. We can then make a nice PNP or put it on a POD site for interested folks. I think we can make $8s of dollars with such a venture. I try not to be restless for restlessness sake, but pursue this with the intensity of a bean farmer chasing that gold harvest.

BOOM. Nailed it.

Raising My Bar


Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few more notches on the bar, it seems.

The Roles

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

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

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

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

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

Peer Pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Thoughts

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

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

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