Three Development Sessions

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I was just on a walk and I began thinking about the three types of sessions I have developing my game. Two of these are obvious, but one isn’t, so I thought it might be useful to others to discuss how I go about developing games.

Session One: Discuss the Game

This session requires at least one other person. If you have a co-designer, or development friend, this is great. I discuss my games almost daily with Josh or Antonio, and it is a constant aid.

The discussion topics vary based on the point in the development cycle. Earlier, you tend to hear statements like:

  1. What makes sense with this theme?
  2. Would it be cool if players could do X?
  3. What type of mechanisms are you interested in right now?

In the middle of the cycle, especially during early testing, the questions shift to:

  1. X is a problem. What are some ways it can be solved?
  2. Testers are frustrated by Y, but I think it works. Do you think that’s really the issue?
  3. What’s the best way to describe this mechanism in the rules?

Late in development, the questions might be:

  1. Do you think Card A is balanced against Card B?
  2. Are you worried this is a possible strategy or outcome?
  3. What is the optimal layout for the card?

The key to this development session is actively discussing the game, its problems, and its potential with someone who is informed about the game and your goals. It’s important to have questions against specific problems. Earlier you can wander and brainstorm, but very quickly, these conversations bear more fruit if focused.

Do you have a discussion partner? You should!

Session Two: The Targeted Fix

These sessions are typically very quick. This is when I sit down at my computer with a very specific goal in mind. These sessions usually occur after a Discussion session, Testing, or receiving a report from a tester.

The Targeted Fix usually involves:

  • Tuning a specific card, faction, or mechanism
  • Fixing wording, including typos, grammar, clarity, or function
  • Modifying or re-designing card or component layout
  • Editing Rules
  • Re-writing rules
  • Fixing rules

I often complete targeted fixes in minutes. The decision occurred previously and the only element that hinders me is the quantity of the fixes. I typically write rules early in my process, so maintaining them takes seconds or minutes at worst. I invest the time to create card templates so that I can update and modify cards quickly as well.

More lengthy targeted fix sessions include re-writing rules from scratch, or changing the graphic design for the game. Otherwise, this is a very in and out style of development.

Session Three: Fishing

This is the most common and arguably least fruitful form of development, but I believe it’s massively important and can be overlooked. It often feels unproductive, and can easily lose out to watching TV, designing something new, or staring at a wall, even. But, I think you can improve a game’s score by a few percentage points by fishing often.

Fishing is about sitting in front of your games components to re-read them, shuffle them, and ponder them. I often have my rules open in a tab on my laptop and I re-read them while watching TV. I open up my card content excel in another tab and read that. I open up the card files and check those out. It’s about soaking in the content and, if this makes sense, people watching.

Fishing might result in:

  • Finding text errors.
  • Shaving 3 words off a sentence in rules.
  • Finding a better way to write a card.
  • Finding an aspect of your game you present badly.
  • Staring at a thing long enough to admit it bothers you enough to finally fix it. This could be a mechanism, layout, or an individual card not pulling its weight.
  • Spawning ideas for new content.
  • A fresh card layout.
  • A new rules flow.
  • Forcing you to ponder why a mechanism serves your game.

An overwhelming majority of the time, fishing results in nothing. You have to accept that. But, by soaking yourself in your design and forcing your mind to constantly consider every aspect of it, you’ll tease out new ideas, new fixes, and small and even grand ways to improve your design.

It’s easy, and most obvious, to simply test your game and then make changes. But, working to have someone to discuss changes with goes a very long way. It forces you to think through the design change, answer “why this is needed,” then implement it with thought and care. It’s easy to then close your laptop and go do more obviously productive things. But, the key is to not develop a game that works, but to develop a game that’s special. The key is to know why every part of your game needs to exist. The key is to sift until you find that gold.

I challenge you to think about your development efforts. How do you spend your time? How do your sessions serve your design? What are you lacking from your development frame work? If you answer those questions, you can then seek the solutions to improve your development output.

Solstice Beta Wave 1 Results

Post by: Grant Rodiek

You can read the rules for Solstice here. You can watch a still mostly accurate rules video here. You can download a Print and Play with all changes here

The first testing wave of Solstice has been going for a month now, and a lot of small changes are going to be incorporated into the design to make it stronger. The overall feedback has been good so far, and the testers have been great. We have a pretty active Slack channel to discuss things. but testers haven’t limited themselves to that. One tester recorded a 25 minute video of her group discussing the game and answering my question guide. Another tester took a break from work to discuss the game’s theme and other topics for an hour. Super cool.

I should also note, for people curious, that my experiment in selling a POD version of the game, at cost, has been successful. Several people took me up on the offer and they’ve generally been very engaged testers. Woo!

In this post, I want to write about the changes being introduced into the game for wave 2. I want to explain why I’m making the changes, and throughout, offer advice and insight that can benefit you when conducting a blind test program for your own designs.

Balance Changes

Balance has performed well so far, which is good. The game is lightly asymmetric, but unlike Hocus, the asymmetry can be balanced more mathematically and is less of a feel exercise. However, there are a few small notes that needed to be addressed.

Siege is an Event that exists to hinder players who dog pile on a single region and hinder the leader. Previously, it had the following effects:

“Monarchs cannot score this region. Strength Victor loses two points.”

This can be a real double whammy. If your Monarch (no Aristocrat, more on that soon) doesn’t score, that’s a 2-5 point swing. And if you then lose another two points…damn Daniel. The card has now been simplified and nerfed to be:

“Monarchs cannot Score this Region.”

This is a pretty good and clean stopper and doesn’t feel so punitive.

Regarding the player cards, they’re in pretty good shape, but I took some feedback and used it to investigate some issues. Basically, players felt that some clans have much easier ways to score their 3 Point cards. Now, this is true, but if you look into it, it is a little more nuanced.

The Warchief and Vizier that Score 3 are easier to resolve than the Assassin and Monarch. However, their 3 Point Score is minimized by the fact that the other factions score 2 points. So, it’s an advantage, but not a huge one. Conversely, the other Monarchs and Assassins don’t score nearly as much as the others. However, in one case, a faction DIDN’T score the two points others were scoring, so I brought them in par.

I then looked at the Elders and found a few more problems. The Sea Clan could score 4, when the others could only Score 3. I brought them to par. I also noticed some of the other clans were given more points in the stats for which they weren’t strong, which is an unfair tweak. That was an easy change.

Overall, balance won’t see a swinging shift, but it will be brought more in line, which is key.

Content Changes

I finally admitted some cards weren’t working and altered them. Supply Caravan has been a problematic card for a bit. It was too hard to execute, almost always resolved the same way, and didn’t make the game more interesting. Lame!

I replaced it with Escape.

“<Favor> Victory: You may add your Prisoner to this Region (ignoring card limit). It resolves normally.”

This is the first card to leverage prisoners, which makes it interesting. If you have this card, it can/will change how you use the prisoner, and can lead to a very surprising result.

Although not a direct result of the testing, we’re also rolling out the B Sides of the Regions. This is something we’ve been discussing behind the scenes, and many testers echoed a desire for such a feature. Essentially, there are the plain A Sides to every region, which just reward points. The B-Sides, however, reward fewer points, but grant players bonuses to resolve. This will change the game and add a new strategic layer without too much complexity.

The final content change is that we added a new disclosure rule to add variety. On the coast, you now disclose the card’s strength or favor values.This adds more variety.

Rules Changes

There haven’t been dramatic changes to the rules, but there is one that I think will really improve the game.

Players are now dealt a random card that is a prisoner at the start of every game. This has two subtle impacts. One, it increases the number of cards in play, which further reduces the already unlikely chance one player has none of their cards in play. Secondly, it removes the exception that players do not have/cannot use prisoners in round one. Now, all rounds have all content.

Otherwise, there’s a minor rule change regarding Region use. It was noted that players felt the need to control THEIR region, but there are no rules for that. But, previously, regions were associated with different clans so to aid in setup. For example, if you’re playing with the blue and green clans, you simply toss in the blue and green regions. No more. I removed the clan affiliation from the Regions. Now, you choose regions at random equal to the number of players.

Accessibility Changes

To make the game more accessible, I made a few tiny changes that I think will have strong implications. Firstly, I re-positioned some of the card diagrams to the top of the rule. This way, you have them in mind while learning the rules.

I designed a set of quick start rules for first time players. Effectively, players are dealt a specific set of cards, and use a preset pool of Events. This lets them have simple Events for their first game and they skip the drafting phase. Many players are scared or uncomfortable drafting cards before they know how to use them. This alleviates that.

I separated the two player rules for quick access.

I put all Prisoner rules in a single section. I reference them elsewhere, but I put them in a single place so you can learn them all at once.

Some players were missing the “Play face up” text on some cards. I made sure to bold and underline this text. I did a similar thing for “Discard a Farmer card” on a few cards in Farmageddon and it did the trick. Humans are really bad at glossing over information. Help their brains out and add subtle call outs to key exceptions.

I tweaked elements of the overview and added a few snippets of high level, guiding text to help frame the game for players. For example, I note that favor tends to grant powerful Event bonuses, whereas Strength tends to reward points. The initial overview does a full step by step of the 3 key decision points in the game, instead of glossing over it. These are subtle changes that only strengthen a player’s ability to learn the game.

I added a high level description of a clan’s strength to the back of the reference card. For example, it’ll tell you that the Mercenaries are dominant with their military, and have a total of 8 strength and 5 favor. At a glance, you now know  what you’re good at.

I changed the X on some cards to a 0. The X was meant as: this doesn’t resolve in order, it just is. But, the X was misleading. In one case, a tester noted that it reminded them of Magic The Gathering, where the X means a conditional variable. Always remember how other games use language! By making it a 0, players read the cards first, so they can resolve them before any other. This is such a “no duh” change that I’m ashamed I didn’t think of it sooner.

Finally, I added new diagrams to explain more situations in the rules to better show how cards resolve.

Theme Changes

I had to conduct a bit of theme re-work to mitigate some disconnects and improve the experience. Without art to help me, it’s tough right now, but it’s important to work at it as much as possible.

Firstly, many of the cards had name changes. Most of these are to accommodate the final art and presentation, so I want to change the names NOW to take them for a spin.

Secondly, I re-wrote the game’s introduction and premise. I wanted to better frame the conflict and the characters involved.

Thirdly, I removed the notion of clans. The final game will not be fought by geographic factions, but different ones in the same location. The game is now about the Merchants, Mercenaries, Wizards, and Seers. Four groups with different visions for the future. The players are Machiavellian figures manipulating these groups from the shadows. There was a concern, that’s best highlighted with the question:

“Why the heck is MY Monarch going here? I didn’t put him there!”

The idea behind Solstice is that you don’t have perfect control. You aren’t directing your characters. You’re merely doing what you can to move some people to one place, thematically alert leaders that a Monarch is there, and should be assassinated. If you look back 300 years, conflicts were very difficult to fight because allies couldn’t communicate like we can now. Hell, 100 years ago in World War 1 it was practically impossible to coordinate an assault beyond shouting distance.

The name changes are intended to support the fiction I’m positing. Some people might always have a slight…break with that, and ultimately, I have to accept that because this is the game’s secret sauce. The fact that you can draft and play other player’s cards is important and is one of the neat things the game does.

Shifting the factions around had a few implications. I had to move the military cards to the Mercenaries faction. It didn’t make sense that they weren’t the strongest in the military!

Lessons and Things to Keep in Mind while Testing

Blind testing Solstice is eerily familiar to Hocus, Cry Havoc, and Farmageddon. There are things that are always true, which, if you know, you can leverage to conduct better testing.

Testers are good at finding problems. They’re not always good at finding solutions. When testers share a frustration or a dislike, don’t ask how they would fix it. Ask why they don’t like it. Ask what they want to get out of it. Ask what experience they want to feel. Use that information, and knowledge of your design, to address the root cause. I had one tester recently note I should make Solstice a deckbuilding game to add more player control. Aka, I should completely make a new game! Focus on the why, not the “how to fix.”

Testers will sometimes say crazy things, and you need to ask questions to get to the root concern. Initially when testers said they felt there was imbalance, I disagreed. I had to ask, pry, and poke, and eventually I found out WHY they felt that. Guess what, they were right! Another tester had good concerns with the theme, and it took about 30 minutes on the phone to really understand his critique. You have to dig in most of the time. The initial comment won’t tell the full story.

Take rules, layout, and text seriously. Every time I take the lazy route and don’t update a diagram in the rules, or put off a change, it bites me. Testers always comment on these things. Take your testing as seriously as you can, and your testers will reward you with effort.

This is going to sound dismissive, but it’s not meant that way. But, more and more I think it’s very true. As long as a game is in a prototype state, people will always find things wrong with it. They just will. I bet that if Eric Lang took Blood Rage, a game that has fairly universal praise, but put it in front of people with prototype components, people would complain about it. How do you use this information? Well, know your game. Know your goals. Know where your game is at right now, and where it needs to be. At some point, the game will be finished and you’ll need to flip the switch. If you did your job, your testers will agree.

On Cry Havoc, Ignacy and I were arguing about cards and text until the moment we hit print. On Farmageddon, I was worried about tiny issues until my core test team said “Dude, it’s done. Seriously. It’s good!” It’s human nature to nitpick and critique things that are “in progress.” We go into red pen mode. Know that, and use that information wisely.

Be okay telling testers they are wrong. There are times when your testers will have comments that are inaccurate. But, you need to damn well know they are wrong. I’ve played Solstice 70 times. Most of my testers haven’t played it more than 5. Sometimes they will have a comment that is inaccurate. I need to be able to discuss this with expertise. This doesn’t mean you can be dismissive, or arrogant. This is a good opportunity to ask questions and get to the root cause, or learn more about their perspective. Know your game inside and out, and know your goals, before you go hands off and ask others to dig in.

Not all testers speak game designer. This is useful for evaluating customer feedback as well in reviews. Testers often confuse things like randomness, luck, strategy, and balance. I’m going to say this on almost every one of these notes, but do not fixate on the key term used. Instead, ask a question to better understand their point. They might say “the game is too random” when they really mean “I wanted more control.” They might say “the game is unbalanced” when they mean “I didn’t feel I could recover from the point deficit.” Don’t fixate on words that hardly anybody uses consistently. Instead, have a discussion and get to the root cause!

Work to understand perspectives in order to understand feedback. I had a long chat with a tester who was describing some of the frustrations two of his friends were having with the game. Initially I thought, man, I need to fix this, but then we dug into the play styles and personalities of the players. It turns out, Solstice just may not be their ideal game. Now, as is true with most of these comments, that doesn’t mean I can dismiss their notes! It does mean, though, that Solstice may never be a 10 for these guys. But, I should work to make sure it’s a 6 out of 10, not a 2 out of 10.

Again, ask questions and find out what their true concerns are. In this case, they wanted more control. I made sure there’s a prisoner in round one as a result as it gives more control and improves the probability of the card pool. These testers, who are more inclined towards Euros that have less direct player interaction in your decisions, were uncomfortable starting the game. It was tough for them to draft with imperfect information. Therefore, I made those quick start rules.

Solstice is a drafting game. It’s an interactive game. There’s not a lot of randomness, but players can and will upset your plans. Like with Hocus, and Cry Havoc, and Farmageddon, the game isn’t about a perfectly executed plan, but making the most out of the resources and things you can control. To make an extreme example, Solstice isn’t Caylus, but I need to improve the margins where I can to alleviate concerns.

There will be all types. Players who want more luck, more complexity, more strategy, more variety. Know your game, know your goals, and do your best to satisfy them, but don’t water down your game. You can never make everyone happy. But, you can thrill the pants off your target audience.

Conclusion

This post is beginning to run a bit long! Hopefully this information is of some interest to you, and hopefully these tips are valuable. If you have any questions, comments, or feedback, post them in the comments!

My Proposed Design Curriculum

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I was thinking about Game Design degrees the other day. To be honest, as a 10 year veteran of the digital industry, I don’t put much stock in them. As a degree holding business major, I don’t put much stock in that, either. The thing is, design and business are things that you need to learn organically through experience. You’re good at them based on your personality, your ambition, and the supplementary skills you have that bolster it.

I thought about the things that aid me most in my design and development efforts, so below is my proposed design curriculum for folks going to school to be game designers. I hope you’re ready to enroll!

Statistics: Probability and statistics will teach you the fundamentals of almost any game. What are the chances of a particular outcome happening? How likely are you to win? What are the chances of a certain event revealing itself?

It’s not just important that you understand this to craft the engine of your game. It’s also important so that you develop basic muscles to gauge how difficult it will be for your players to calculate their odds. If players cannot make an educated decision based on the mechanisms you provide, your game might as well be random. So, leverage statistics to create a complex engine, but also use them to reign yourself in.

Macro-Economics: I think people often mistake Economics as a mathematical measure of a nation’s money. More than anything, I think Economics are a method to explain human behavior. Economics often explains why people do the things they do. If you look to many of the most pivotal revolutions in history of them, many of them revolve around grievances…that are based on economics.

This is perhaps the most important class you can take at Hyperbole College of Games. Macro-Economics will introduce you to concepts such as:

  • Trade, and why people do it
  • Opportunity cost, and how you can leverage this in your design
  • Dynamic cost, driven by supply and demand
  • Scarcity
  • Sunk cost theory — are you throwing good money, or effort, after bad?
  • Market driven economy (which is another way of stating things already stated above)

Going deeper into economics is only to your benefit.

Intro to Computer Science: A basic understanding of computer science is crucial not so that you can code a digital version of your game, but so you can leverage the rigid logic of computer software to create smart, progressive decision chains into your game. Computer programming, distilled greatly for our purposes, often revolves around a few basic concepts.

  • If this is the case, do this thing.
  • If this is the case, do this thing OR this thing.
  • If this is the case, do this thing, otherwise, do THIS thing.
  • This thing always equals a set value.
  • This thing always equals a set value, unless another condition is true.

Computer code is a series of simple Lego pieces that layer upon each other to create a rich and sophisticated series of commands. I am not a massive proponent of elegance at all costs. I am okay with complexity, but only when it has a purpose. As soon as you start introducing exceptions and conditional statements, the software that is your game is more complex.

We seek to provide a fundamental course on these Lego pieces so that when you add complexity you understand how it affects your overall software.

History: History is such a rich background of inspiration. There are so many excellent quotes that inspire ideas. If you look to military history alone, you can draw from it for decades of work.

Where Economics often provides a mathematical reason behind some of history’s greatest events, the Historical angle tells the story. By focusing on the characters and how events change their lives, you learn the human perspective that makes it interesting and fun.

History is vast and has so many perspectives and interpretations. I recommend for your coursework that you focus in an area that is exciting to you. Recommendations include:

  • The Roman Empire
  • The History of the United States
  • The Italian Renaissance
  • The Russian Revolution and history of the Soviet Union
  • World War II
  • The History of Space Exploration
  • The History of the British Empire
  • Post-Colonial India
  • Ancient China

Political Studies: Understanding the structures that govern humanity and why these structures are overturned is fascinating. Political studies will teach you about manipulating human passion, negotiation, compromise, and contracts.

We recommend you study political studies after you’ve taken a few courses on history and economics. These two will provide the foundation you need to understand HOW politics are fully leveraged, and why choices are made for certain political structures. Politics will teach you the levers by which to manipulate your opponents and how, as a designer, to provide your players the tools they need to create a rich, treacherous environment.

Technical Writing: Essential to design is the ability to communicate clearly and concisely to your audience. You will do this via cards, tokens, and most importantly, rules. Technical writing will teach you the crisp, precise language that you need to illustrate vast, complex worlds that are your game.

Technical writing is about excellent grammar, a broad vocabulary to know the perfect word for the situation, and how to communicate a great deal with few words.

This technical writing course will be full of practical course work. You will constantly be tasked with writing rules for simple folk games, using 15 or fewer words to communicate complex mechanisms, writing copy for advertisements and pitches, and more.

Geometry: Games have a lot to do with spatial relationships. I’ve always personally been on the Geometry side of the Geometry versus Algebra split, and I think it’s a fantastic mathematical discipline. I especially love geometric proofs, which are a wonderful exercise in logic that will aid you greatly.

The Art Sampler: You don’t need to be a fully fledged artist, but the art sampler will teach you some basic skills that will aid you in bringing your experience to life. And, also thinking about your game from a different angle. You’ll learn about:

  • A primer on anatomy for humans and common animals
  • Color theory
  • Basic principles of graphic design, specifically for legibility in what you’re presenting
  • Discussing lighting
  • A primer on perspective and camera angles
  • A sample of Art History to appreciate the greats

What has aided you in YOUR design efforts? What courses are missing from the curriculum?

The Evolution of Gaia

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A few months ago I mailed copies of Project Gaia to four groups for testing. The game was only about 6 months old, but it had gone through several iterations, felt “okay,” and good enough to send to folks without my presence. The goal was to attain validation for the concept. Not to hear “this game is good, box it up!” but to gauge the pulse of folks and get a general thumbs up or down on the concept.

The tests have gone well, but the game had a lot of problems. Most glaringly were the issues with complexity. The game had a lot going on, and it took me a while to find out what was needed, why, and how to do it simpler. Thankfully, one test group in particular, Ruth and Jeff Ashton, stuck with me over 3 or 4 iterations now.

An in game photo taken by the Ashtons

An in game photo taken by the Ashtons

I received a very positive test report from the Ashtons Friday, which was a really nice affirmation of the work that’s gone into the game. It feels like the project is really turning a page, so it seems like a good moment for reflection.

I want to write about many of the changes that have been made. I’ll try to cover it at a high level so it’s both interesting and useful to folks who aren’t intimately familiar with Project Gaia. Another way to see some of these changes are to watch two developer vlogs I recorded, showing the game at two points in time.

Here are the rules for the game. The Print and Play is linked at the top.

A quick explanation of the game: Project Gaia (name TBD) is a combination of my love of CCGs, like Netrunner, and tile games, like Carcassonne. I wanted to make a game where building a deck was core to the experience, but I knew I couldn’t make a full CCG. I just don’t have the testing resources, the financial resources, or the audience.

Therefore, in Gaia, players build or draft decks of 9 cards from a limited pool of 55 cards. There are 3 card types: powers (action cards you play then discard), creatures, which hold territory and attack, and monuments, which act as tiles that grant bonus actions. The cards that aren’t used have Terrain on the back and they are placed as tiles to build a planet.

Players alternate taking actions on their turns to play cards, manipulate the planet, and battle. The result is a 30 minute card game with a nice amount of depth and interaction.

Card Costing: A key to games of this nature is cost. In Magic, Netrunner, and X-Wing Miniatures, cards have a mana cost, click and credit cost, and squad cost, respectively. You even see this in Star Realms and Dominion. If a card costs too little, it’ll become overly dominant and can ruin the game. If it costs too much, players will avoid it in favor of something that’s easier to get out.

In card games of this nature, tempo and pacing are crucial to manage.

I love multi-use cards. Borrowing the Magic mechanism from Summoner Wars, cards originally required you discard other cards to play them. The cost ranged from 1-3.

Going back to the very beginning of the game, this has caused all sorts of problems. Initially, the game was laboriously slow — you were constantly left with no cards. To counter this, I gave you a free draw every turn, and you could spend your entire turn to draw back your discard pile (somewhat like the discard and draw action in Combat Commander).

But, the problem was that people would spend all their cheap cards to play the good cards. You actually saw this a bit in the Summoner Wars meta where players would completely forego commons to play only Champions. The game ground to a halt, as it would take multiple turns to fully draw up, get your big creature, then maybe lose him, forcing you to refresh.

I also noticed creatures didn’t have a lot of purpose. I’ll dive deeper into the iteration of creatures below, but I added a mechanism where every creature you had in play reduced your discard cost by 1. So, if I have 2 Creatures out, a 3 Discard card would cost 1. While this idea is simple, it was very complicated. Players constantly forgot it. They were overwhelmed by the math, as well. Think about it — if you’re evaluating 5 cards in your hand, and all of them have a simple math problem, that requires you work much harder to decide what card to play.

DiscardReminder

The reminder card

Shortly after I added reference cards to help you remember that you had a creature discount, I took a step back, and admitted I was devoting a ton of mechanisms to making this single mechanism work. Basically, I was putting a lot of good money after bad.

I removed the discard cost entirely. It was immediately more fun. Players started with all 9 cards in their hand and they could just play them. One action, one card. Suddenly, the game was simpler, faster, and players were able to enjoy the full range of cards. I removed the free card draw at the beginning of the turn.

However, this too had a few problems. For one, nobody ever spent 1 Action to draw 1. Players would spend their full turn to draw their entire discard around turn 3 or 4, and would never need it again. This felt like there wasn’t really an interesting economy of decisions related to card draw. I removed the 2 Action – Draw your entire discard option. Now, you spend 1 Action to get 2 cards (at random). Therefore, fewer actions, and one that’s more consistently used throughout the game.

But, finally, there was one more issue — some cards were clearly better, but all had no cost, except the single action. My option here is to make all cards consistently powerful, which is both difficult and, in my opinion, boring, or implement a cost. I learned my lessons from the previous iteration, so I returned to the discard, but a much simpler version. Now, cards either cost 1 Action, or they cost 1 Action plus 1 Discard. The 1-3 is gone.

GaiaReference

In summary, there is now a nice way to balance better cards that isn’t complicated and doesn’t require supplemental mechanisms to make it work. There is a nice hand management layer to the game. Turns are simple. Take two actions, which basically means playing two cards, using two cards in play, drawing 4 cards, or some mixture of these.

Creature Evolution: Creatures needed a lot of love. When I decided to have a strong spatial element, I felt like it only made sense, thematically and mechanically, to have creatures on the worlds you’re building. Summoner Wars is my primary inspiration for Creatures. I wanted them to move simply in a grid system and attack to protect your other creatures, protect monuments, and foil an opponent’s plans.

All Creatures have either permanent passive bonuses, conditional bonuses (do this to get a thing), or Actions (like many Monuments). For a while, creatures were in the game just to be there. You didn’t need them for anything and often, players wouldn’t play them. Therefore, to help combat the card discard problem, I made it so that creatures reduced the cost by 1. If you had all 3 creatures out, your cards were free to play!

This is mechanically simple on paper, but as I noted above, was too complex and didn’t work. Then, I made it such that Monuments could be used by players to complete objectives. I also made it such that Creatures could block regions from use. However, as combat began heating up, players noticed a few problems:

  • If someone just flooded their deck with Creatures, it made them all free to play, and an opponent would be unable to knock them off or score.
  • Creatures were so flimsy. They all died in one hit, which meant they were impossible to keep on the board.
  • Creatures could be played anywhere, which made it even easier to just hot drop a creature next to an opponent’s and kill it. Whack a mole!

I added three fixes to address these. I added a Deck creature limit of three, I did a tuning pass of health and attack, and I made it so that creatures had to be played to a specific land type. This really improved things!

After listening to a fantastic Mark Rosewater Drive to Work podcast about worldbuilding, I decided to put his teaching to work and really think about how the creatures belong to the world. It was a really fun exercise! I thought about each terrain and what it meant for the creatures in that ecosystem. I tried to design key principles for each one. Then, I listed common and fantastic creatures one might find in such a region. Finally, I put the names to paper and tried to find a marriage of theme and mechanism. I think it was a really fruitful exercise. As the game tightens up, I plan to dig into the theme more strongly to find how I can add more of those touches to the experience.

You should read the scoring section for further details. Creatures went hand in hand with those changes. Mostly, creatures became simpler – no card discard cost, no range – but also became more integral to scoring. Players had to have at least one Creature or Monument involved in an Experiment to Score it. Then, only cards covered by your Creatures could be added to your Biosphere. This made Creatures integral and simple. You can take the ground you cover, essentially.

Finally, for now, I recently did a tuning pass on Creatures to further diversify their values per feedback. Now that I had the discard cost back (though only a single discard), I could make some creatures more powerful. I also began using the knobs more fully by experimenting with Movement speed, defense, and the bonuses provided by the creatures. The hope is that a player will choose 3 Creatures that have synergy with their other cards. Somewhat like how Ice or Programs will really dictate how your deck plays in Netrunner, Creatures will be the primary movers and shakers in Gaia.

Here are some creatures.

Creature_BoltMoth

Creature_Serpent

Card Design Evolution: I’m very proud of the work done here. I’ve put a great deal of thought into it and have seen great results come from investing time into the quality of the layout. Now, it’s all placeholder. Obviously, a professional will do the work if/when it gets published. But, for now, I’m super proud of the results.

Initially, the cards had far more components, so more needed to be displayed. A creature, for example, had:

  • Name
  • Creature Symbol
  • Tile Affinity: Basically, play this to a Grassland
  • Discard Cost
  • Card Text
  • Creature Stats: Defense, Movement, Range, Attack
  • Creature Discard Reminder

Yowza! Naturally, some of these things were lopped off as the game simplified. Range was eliminated as a creature component. The discard reminder died with complex discard cost and was replaced with a simple discard symbol.

However, the Creature symbol needed some thought. It seems obvious now, but it took a minute. I wanted to have symbols on the cards to represent the type. The idea being, players would see that symbol, think “this is a creature,” then remember from the rules, “Creatures are played like this.”

The problem was that with 4 card types (it’s now 3), all of which played a little differently, the symbols didn’t help. Players basically had to remember 4 rules that weren’t reinforced on the cards. Lame! It was frustrating, because the rules were really simple.

  • Powers: Resolve the card, then discard it.
  • Creatures: Play to the tile type indicated.
  • Monuments: Play to a Desert.

But, people kept mixing things up. I took inspiration from Ashes from Plaid Hat Games. On their cards, they tell you exactly where cards are played. They use simple phrases like:

  • Play to your Spellboard
  • Play to your Battlefield
  • Play then Discard

I thought about it. Why can’t I do the same thing? I removed the useless icon and at the bottom in tiny text, I just told players how to play the card. Here’s an example:

Creature_GrandBeaver

Monument_Beacon

For each card, Creature and Monument respectively, the bottom tells you how to play them. Just a nice reminder that is driven home. I did a few other simple things to convey differences. Notice there is a bullet shaped frame on the Creature. The idea is to convey, you play it to this type of card. But, on the Monument, it’s in a box. Now, a real designer will improve on this, but one conveys an action, they other conveys a permanent state.

There are other cues I can provide eventually using color and shapes. In fact, I found some art on the internet, just as an experiment, and put together some card mocks. Now, I did them. They look bad. But, it’s fun to see what they could look like with more than white backgrounds.

Mock_BeaconoftheSteppe

Again, ignore my terrible choices. But, you can see a generic grasslands shape on the bottom, so players always know “this is a grasslands.” That lets me remove the icon in the top left. I made a specific icon – the fence – so you can also know that it’s an icon. Finally, more fun art!

I did a similar exercise with a creature.

BearMock

Here, you have a generic forest silhouette on the bottom to remind you where to play it. But, it isn’t filled in, so that it doesn’t state that it IS a forest. You then have the pertinent character stats in the top left corner, all chosen to represent a creature.

Gaia is a complex game with 55 unique cards. I’ve had to put a great deal of work into the layout of the cards sooner than typical to help facilitate that learning. But, every step has paid dividends. Tiny, subtle tweaks have noticeably improved the enjoyment and comprehension of my testers.

Planet Construction: Originally, the players built the planet at the start of the game. After building or drafting decks, they’d turn the cards over, shuffle them, and deal 3 to each player. Players would take turns placing these on the Planet, then drawing a new one.

There were two early problems. One, the planet was too big. It had a little too much of everything and there was no conflict or tension. Players would just build what they needed in their own corners. Secondly, the rules were too restrictive. I said you had to attach a card to one of its type. This meant you’d effectively have a Neopolitan planet of Grasslands, ocean, and forests, cleanly separated.

I shrunk the planet from 15 to 11 cards and added an initial seed – 3 random cards played diagonally. But, if one of each type wasn’t played, this meant you could play a card anywhere. So, now it looked like a slightly melted Neopolitan. I removed the restriction entirely. Play a card wherever you want, as long as one of its sides matches the side of the same length of an existing card.

Fundamentally, though, this section wasn’t interesting. It added another 3-5 minutes to setup, depending on the AP of the players. It also felt like a choice that I didn’t want to be a choice. Players would try to build the planet “correctly.” My fear in providing a pre-arranged layout was that the game would become static. But, I ripped off the band-aid to implement the following solution:

Players chose 1 of 3 pre-defined layouts shown in the rules. Cards would be shuffled and randomly dealt, so you’d have a different layout with a different assortment of cards every time. This was simple, and worked pretty well. Then, when I added the special tiles (Mountains, Fjord, Fissure), I had the final twist. After the layout is complete, players alternate placing the special tiles. They can place them in deserts (blank spaces), or displace another tile, shifting the row or column to make room.

Now, the planet is setup quickly, with randomization in the tiles, and a slight, quick player twist to really get it going. The key summary here is that I simplified it and focused on what the game really needed. Building a deck is the cool part. Not tediously building a planet!

Tile Evolution: Project Gaia was in my mind for months before I figured out how to make it and begin testing. I knew I wanted to make a tile game. In fact, the original original idea was to make a game where players would create tile sets, like decks, that they would then use. But, this had some weird product complications, and tiles were too small to give me the flexibility to make a broad, robust game. When I realized I could use the cards as tiles, and save cards by using the cards that weren’t selected, it was a real eureka moment.

Tiles were originally varied and complex.

P_FLeft

O_F

O_DMid

Those are ugly, but you can basically see there are forests (green), oceans (blue), grasslands (brown), and deserts (tan). The problem with this much variety was that it was impossible to line anything up. It also made the game very complex in a weird way that wasn’t intended.

Immediately, I shifted to simple, solid tiles, and cut it down to 3: grasslands, ocean, and forest. One neat idea to deal with blank spaces that would inevitably emerge due to shifting and removing cards was that blank spaces were deserts. This meant fewer cards, but I still had 4 states.

At this point, the Tiles felt rather dry. It seemed like the game needed some punch. Therefore, I introduced Landmarks. On some tiles, there would be bonuses granted to the player on top of them. Due to the random nature of what was in the game, this would add some variety to what powers were out.

ForestGlyph_2

The landmarks would do things like:

  • Increase card draw
  • Destroy planet tiles
  • Add planet tiles
  • Let you move creatures
  • Let you add creatures at no discard cost

The problem with Landmarks was two-fold –

  1. It added more complexity. There were just too many variables to track. And, you had to discern the icons on them, which was lousy.
  2. They were tough to use. The benefit of them was often outweighed by the cost of not using creatures to complete scoring objectives.

The landmarks also exposed a more fundamental flaw with the game — the Creatures weren’t interesting enough (discussed above), and the Monuments weren’t interesting enough. Instead of adding more stuff, I removed the landmarks, simplified my rule set again, and strengthened my core content.

I reverted back to plain, simple tiles. But, the itch scratched again. First, I added Mountains. These two special tiles were added after you setup the original map. Players couldn’t shift Mountains, which meant they locked territory, but also provided a defensive bonus to creatures. Temporary safe havens.

The mountains worked. They were a nice spice. Therefore, I added two more. The Fjord and the Fissure. The Fjord was trying to solve the problem of players just adding Tiles anywhere on the map and immediately completing scoring objectives. Now, you could only add tiles next to the Fjord. The Fissure was the Omega to this Alpha. Any cards, creatures or tiles, that moved onto the Fissure were destroyed. Basically, a caution zone.

The Ashtons reacted negatively to the Fjord initially. It felt overly restrictive and annoyed them. This is one of those cases where you need to take the feedback, but really think on it. I knew the game needed a constraint on adding cards. But, perhaps a single card was too much of a limitation? I made the following change, and asked them to try again.

Mountains now could not be shifted, and took on the Fjord’s power. They no longer provided a defensive bonus. Effectively, there were two Fjords. No change to the Fissure. The change was received well! It gave players some flexibility, while also establishing basic limitations. With these special tiles, the planet was overall very simple, with just enough spice, and the Monuments acted as the primary points of differentiation.

Mountain

Mountain

Fissure

Fissure

Now, players can focus on creating and shaping the planet, and choosing whether to let an opponent keep their Monument in play to focus on scoring, or take it out, in the hopes of gaining momentum.

Scoring Evolution: This section of the game has probably seen the most iteration, aside from changing every single card for wording, balance, or functionality probably 30 times each. No exaggeration!

When I started the game, I didn’t want this to be a war game. I didn’t want it to be about dealing X damage (like Magic) or killing an enemy base (like Summoner Wars). I wanted to have an open path so you could use the cards in a variety of ways and hopefully have tons of variety. Therefore, I was leaning more towards the Netrunner system of scoring points, which can be done in a variety of ways.

I wanted the spatial element to be front and center. You’re creating and shaping the planet, so that should be how you score. Initially, I had scoring cards with very precise goals on them. There were 7 in play. Once somebody scored 3, the game won. There was also a fourth card type that were basically powers, but if you met their condition, you’d score the point, removing the card from your deck. It was like having a secret objective.

Score3b

Above, someone would score if they had 4 Forests in precisely that orientation on their turn. This had quite a few problems. Firstly, there is the complexity of the shape itself. If the board starts with 11 tiles, plus player Monuments and cards, plus this can be mirrored…wowza! It’s tough to watch all that. If you recall, this system is similar to Tash-Kalar which also has that, and it’s tough there too. But, the surrounding framework of Tash-Kalar is MUCH simpler. Vlaada is a genius, after all.

Also, initially, you just got this if it was in the world. There was this agonizing problem of wanting to set yourself up to score, but not get close to it, then your opponent would score. Players would play chicken and have a staring contest. It would grind the game to a halt as players tried to setup the multi-turn setup to create the pattern and keep an opponent from getting it.

It was also tough to focus on all seven goals at once. Therefore, I put in 3 at a time. But, sometimes they were difficult to execute, or painfully simple to execute, based on the random start of the board. I created more to create more variety, but the problem still remained. Sometimes the game didn’t jive well and it was tough to get the precise shapes.

I was worried about players just auto-completing them. I started putting in back pressures. To score,  you had to discard cards. Or, take an action. I tried several things, but the fundamental problem still remained, and adding yet another reason to discard cards exacerbated the discard card cost I discussed at the top. Plus, people were really struggling with the shapes.

I shifted to a much simpler system. Simply have a defined number of tiles of a type touching each other. No patterns, just assortments. Now, players merely had to create a pocket of 3 Grasslands, for example. This is round the time I started involving Creatures more into the scoring framework. An opponent couldn’t use a tile covered by your creature to complete one of these goals. Players could use their Monuments to complete these goals, but not their opponents. Now, there’s a layer of board control which started to create a more cohesive whole.

Here are two of the Experiments. One is a simple Planet one, the other a simple combat one.

Experiment_TheSeas

Experiment_Predators

There was still was the problem of the cost. Eventually, I kicked the framework and made it such that you would complete the goal at the end of your turn if the conditions were met. Three of these Experiments are in play at all times. At the end of your turn, you can score the three if you qualify for them. Then, any new ones are drawn. You would then get a reward instead of a single point.

These rewards led to the creation of the Biospheres.

Biosphere_DiverseA

Biosphere_StrictA

Above are the two possible Biosphere cards players would get at the beginning of the game. One flexible, one linear. When you met the condition, you’d get a reward. You could score a Tile on the planet to your Biosphere, completing that slot on the track, or you could do other things. This idea sorta worked, except it didn’t.

There were too many confusing rules on what you could take, and why, and when. Players were allowed to force their opponents to take cards for their Biosphere, which would cost them points if it was the wrong tile type. So, putting an Ocean where you need a Grassland would hurt. There were also just too many symbols.

I tried again with a new iteration.

Biosphere_Ocean

There were 3 Biospheres, each associated with a tile type. You had a great deal of flexibility going down the track, choosing one available card in each row. If you chose the highlighted tiles, you’d get a bonus. This was better, but still too rigid, and players hated shoving a card in their opponent’s Biosphere. It felt wrong for the game.

I tried to simplify it. To complete an Experiment, at least one of your Creatures or Monuments must be involved. This means you need to maneuver and have presence on the board. This is effectively “the cost.” Instead of discarding cards, which is lame, you have to effectively do fun stuff. You know, moving creatures, attacking your opponent, and setting up your Monuments. I used a strength of the game as a cost.

When you complete an Experiment, you get 1 or 2 Rewards, but never the same one twice. These include:

  • Adding one Tile covered by one of your Creatures to your Biosphere. This was a nice simple solution. If you have creatures, and they are in position, they allow you to score good tiles.
  • Add a tile to the Planet from the Supply
  • Remove a tile from the Planet
  • Add cards back to your hand (if you want to move a Monument, for example)

Adding Tiles to your Biosphere Scores points. Looking to Coloretto, I tried something dead simple. The deeper you can go in a single color, the more points you get. If you have 4 Forests, your forests are worth 7 Points total. If you have 2, they’re worth 2 Points.

This allows for flexibility and it’s very simple. As a final tweak, you also get an immediate bonus based on what Tile type you add to your Biosphere. These help move the game forward.

GaiaReference_Back

On the horribly designed card above, you can see the 3 simple bonuses, as well as the card to point distribution on the bottom.

In a nutshell, the scoring is about manipulating the planet and marshaling your forces to control a sector. Then, you add tiles to your Biosphere for one time bonuses, but also, hopefully, focusing on 1 or 2 tiles to maximize your points. The game ends when the 6th tile is added to a Biosphere.

Conclusion: I think at 4500 words this has gone on far too long! If you have any questions or thoughts, just ask. I’d love to talk about Gaia and where it’s going. Thanks for reading!

The 54 Card Guild: #10

54CardLogo

If this is the first time you’re seeing The 54 Card Guild, I recommend you begin with Guide #1. It will explain everything. All of the posts are tagged with 54 Card Guild. There is an active Slack group, which exists to brainstorm, pitch, and discuss games. It’s a fun, casual supplement to this course. If you’re interested in joining us, email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com. 

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Today we must discuss dark, terrifying things. We must discuss a thing that veteran designers know too well. We must discuss The Reboot. Back in Guide #4 we talked about killing a failed idea and being okay with failure. Today, we’re going to twist this topic to discuss resurrection.

It is good to do away with bad designs and move to something else. But, it’s great to salvage something, take the best elements, and start anew a half step ahead of square 1.

One thing about The Reboot is that you often won’t reboot terrible games, or failed games. A bad idea is often a bad idea no matter how you re-skin it. The Reboot is crucial when you have a game that is fine, solid, but not great. This is the path you take when you have an idea that won’t be good enough to fully match the goals and ideals defined in your outline. This is why the Reboot deserves its own Guide, but also, why it’s one of the latter ones. Knowing that something is good, but not good enough, is a really tough skill to obtain.

When trying to figure out whether a game will be good enough, I ask myself a handful of questions, including:

  1. Would I buy this game? That seems like a simple question, but if your name wasn’t on the box, would you pay for it and be happy?
  2. Is this game unique? Every game should bring something special to the table. If you’re too derivative, others will know. Why should people buy your game versus another? Side Note: This is a deeper blog post Josh and I are writing now.
  3. Could you play this 100 times? Is there enough depth and replayability in the current design? Could people play this game for years?
  4. How often are your testers hitting the sweet spot? Generally, I like to think of the 3-5 moments my game should evoke. When those moments hit, do people love it? And, does your design hit those moments often enough?
  5. Can this game become awesome? Obviously, your game isn’t finished yet. It doesn’t have a publisher. It’s not done. But, is the framework you’ve laid good enough to support an amazing experience?

These are tough questions, and if you’ve noticed, it’s really 5 ways of asking the same question: if this wasn’t your baby, would you love this game? People often say they cannot choose between two good things as it’s like naming a favorite child. What if you have to give a thumbs up or down to your only child?

I recently went through this experience with a game called Barbarus. Barbarus was a game for 3-5 players that took about 45 minutes to play. It prominently feature blind bidding as its core mechanism and was seeking to emulate the vibe of a Knizia auction game. Specifically, elements of High Society or Modern Art.

I’ll spare you the full run down of the game — that’s not important. But, for the purpose of instruction, I’ll answer the 5 questions above. When I decided to Reboot the game, it was solid, fun, and simple.

Would I buy this game? The game would probably be $20-25. I don’t think I would have bought it. There wasn’t quite enough to it to justify the cost. Also, I have a few games already that do what it does.

Is the game unique? I sorta just answered this, but no, not really. Bidding is done exhaustively, and blind bidding already exists in several areas. Tying it well to a war theme was neat, but ultimately, it didn’t bring much new to the table. Bidding is well-worn and it needed a twist.

Could you play this 100 times? I don’t think so. The game lacked breadth, because there was one way to succeed, one objective, and not enough information to change your decisions. In my opinion, this game was sufficient for a cult of the new gamer, but not someone that was going to play this repeatedly at lunch.

How often were testers hitting the sweet spot? Semi-often, which is why I worked on the game for so long. When people lost a bid, folks went “aww crap!” and others would laugh. That was great. But, there were several moments where it was clear somebody was going to win, or frustration at not knowing how to win or change your fate. Basically, the sweet was being overcome by the sour.

Can the game become awesome? I don’t know, honestly. After a few months of development on Barbarus, I don’t have more great ideas and I’m not terribly inspired. I feel I’ve run the gamut, which is why I decided to set it aside. I didn’t clearly see the path to the promised land, so it felt like I needed a new path.

Depending on how you answer these five questions, your game may or may not be due for a Reboot. How do you Reboot productively? You don’t want all that work to go to waste. That’s just foolish. No, a good Reboot takes into account what you’ve learned and builds upon the premise. What you need to do, is consider your Goals — yes, I’m bringing Goals up again — and you need to create a quick list of the things your game does well, and the things it does not do well.

Try to think of 3-5 things for each category.

Things I Liked about Barbarus

  • The moment of the reveal. It was surprising, fun, and often evoked a reaction from players.
  • Having a similar set of tools from which to draw. Players all had identical decks, but when they drew their cards, and how they used them, really changed things.
  • Very simple cards. For once, I didn’t go crazy with really complex mechanisms or card text.
  • Very simple resolution. Once things were revealed, a simple comparison often resolved conflicts.
  • Overall pacing and speed. Players were constantly involved and the game moved at a good clip.
  • I liked the simplicity of the scoring. Players compete over cards that state what they are worth.

Things I Didn’t Like about Barbarus

  • Too derivative. I basically just took established auction mechanisms.
  • Too many phases. Every round had too many steps that weren’t always intuitive or easy to remember.
  • Not enough skill. I’m not sure the game allowed for enough skillful play. I couldn’t discern whether you could be “good” at Barbarus.
  • Not enough information. It was tough for players to make informed decisions about the hidden bids.

When you begin the Reboot, you can start by trying to solve some of the initial problems. Take Bullet number 4 from Things I Didn’t Like. When crafting Martian Republic, I used two mechanisms to give players more information about played face down cards.

  1. I introduced a drafting phase. Though you only take 1 card, you have ideas about what other cards are in play.
  2. I introduced an announcement. Players must reveal some information about the cards they play, based on where they play them.

I simplified the new game to a few key phases, namely a Draft, Playing, then a Resolution and Round Setup phase. Players only really make decisions in two of them. This cleans things up and moves them along.

When working on the Reboot, be sure to not lose things that worked well. Instead of creating several different cards, I gave every player 7 identical cards. This greatly simplifies the learning and makes it easier to draft. You know there are only 7 types of cards, not 30! However, to add some spice and introduce some of the variance the previous game had, different cards are worth different amounts of points for different players. This adds a slight twist that really makes drafting more compelling.

When trying to solve the overly derivative nature of Barbarus, I examined my mechanisms, and thought about interesting twists. For Martian Empire, you can draft and play any player’s cards. However, players only score for THEIR cards. This means you can use your information to put someone else in a bad position, but you want to balance how much control you cede to other players. At some point, you need to stop sewing chaos and score points!

Conclusion

I can drone on forever, but the purpose of this post is not to tell you everything about my new game, but to share the tools and key pivot points that I leveraged to create a new, superior game from the framework of the old design.

Assignment

Take the game you’ve been working on and ask yourself the five questions. See how your current game stacks up and really, really be honest with yourself.

Then, regardless of whether your game overwhelmingly succeeds with your answers, or bombs, try to list 3-5 things you really like about your current game, and 3-5 things you really don’t like. Again, be honest! Good designers can often think of 3-5 things they don’t like about excellent games that are published and considered to be good. No game is perfect, but you should use this opportunity to evaluate your games strengths and flaws to see how you can improve the former category and decrease the latter.

Thanks for reading! Look forward to a new 54 Card Guild very soon! It’s already in the works.

Proving the Concept

Post by: Grant Rodiek

There is a very important, and deeply satisfying milestone in a design, which is determining This Game is Worth Making. This step doesn’t mean the problems have been solved, that the game is fun, that it’s balanced, or unique. It means you have figured out the core gist, and now it’s time to drill down to ensure it is those things. It also means you think you’ve answered the early questions of your thesis and at least for me, it means all remaining problems are solvable.

All of us have different milestones in our designs. We have different processes, and even different methods of determining what good enough looks like. I recently reached this milestone with Project Gaia, so while it’s fresh in my mind, I want to illustrate, at a high level, what I was seeking to prove what I thought I proved, and where to go next. The idea behind this post isn’t to present a detailed looked at Gaia — you do or don’t care — but to discuss process at a high level, leveraging Gaia as a case study.

Firstly, you need to understand what your game is trying to accomplish. I think far too many designers are hyper focused erroneously on mechanism or theme. Noting you wish to make a worker placement game isn’t sufficient. This is a well-established formula. A far superior goal would be to focus on a unique worker placement experience, and to hypothesize how that will come about.

  • I want to make a worker placement game fueled by the variable properties of dice (Castles of Burgundy).
  • I want to fuse an auction with worker placement (The Speicherstadt).
  • I want to mix worker placement with area control.
  • I want a worker placement experience where every worker is single use, which means I need to balance placement and timing with an economic engine.

Now, coming up with a unique twist, or a new mechanism, is, as the French say, “Le Hard.” This part of the process is so integral to the final result and is due your diligence. If your design begins without ambition, or a mere Tweet you toss to the void, the end result will wear a similar layer of clothes.

I personally don’t operate well from a mechanism standpoint. It’s not how my mind works, and as a result, I don’t often begin a design in the manner I’ve proposed above. As a alternative way to emerge with something special, I focus on the experience and see which ingredients emerge to create a special whole.

Therefore, I suggest two origins:

  • Focus on unique means
  • Focus on unique ends

Regardless of your choice, be sure to give yourself sufficient time time to make something special. Don’t short change the final result by rushing the introduction.

For Gaia, I wanted to make a game about pre-constructed decks that felt satisfying in a limited card pool. I wanted a head to head experience that had a strong spatial component, particularly leaning towards tiles.

I knew what I was trying to accomplish.

Secondly, you need to understand how you’ll validate that you’re on the right path. As in, you’re doing what you said you’re going to do. This is why merely chasing an established mechanism, like worker placement, is a false confirmation of progress. You can quickly reach a point where players all have a limited resource, that when spent, grants a reward and denies that reward to opponents, at least temporary. Yes, I took a stab at defining worker placement for this example.

Many years ago, I was trying to make a deckbuilding game. That was my goal. Guess what? I accomplished precisely that, and relatively quickly, too! But, I also realized I had made a lousy version of Ascension.

I think it’s useful to leverage what you remember from your junior high science classes covering the scientific method. We aren’t moving drugs through the FDA, so we can gloss over the specifics. We just answered what we’re trying to prove. Now, we’re answering our verification points.

Let’s re-examine the Worker Placement ideas I tossed out.

“I want to make a worker placement game fueled by the variable properties of dice (Castles of Burgundy).”

Verification Points

  • The dice constrain my choices, but don’t force them or make the game play itself.
  • There is still tension. I want 4 things, I can do 2 of them, and the order I place matters.
  • The feedback of placing my dice is still clear. This is a beautiful element of worker placement — a direct feedback loop. I place a resource, I get a resource.
  • The dice mechanism is not too much more complex than placing a worker. If it is, it obfuscates the strategy.

“I want to fuse an auction with worker placement (The Speicherstadt).”

Verification Points

  • Placing workers has clear economic implications, like placing a bid
  • Like an auction, placing a worker forces you to ask where you’re really willing to spend your money
  • I know what I’m bidding on, and why I’m placing a worker. Like point 3 above, the feedback is clear.

“I want to mix worker placement with area control.”

I’m making this one up (though I’m sure it’s a thing. Everything is always a thing). Verification Points could be…

  • There is viable tension between leaving a worker to hold a space, permanently enjoying that space’s reward, and deciding when to move.
  • There should be trade offs between holding territory that is viable for scoring, and holding territory that provides rewards. Perhaps like Dominion, there is a point where you pivot away from your engine towards dismantling it to score.
  • Deploying workers is still smooth and has a good pace.

“I want a worker placement experience where every worker is single use, which means I need to balance placement and timing with an economic engine.”

Like the one above, I’m making this up again. Verification points could be…

  • There is an optimal path to gathering new workers.
  • Players can get out of a rough spot — you aren’t stuck when your workers die.
  • There can be a viable strategy to hindering the supply of workers. The economics of squeezing the worker supply, versus using the workers to gain things.

For Gaia, I needed to slowly verify the following elements:

  • A limited card pool can support a variety of play styles.
  • The spatial element is integral to the experience.
  • There is sufficient complexity to provide legs, but not so much that people cannot dig through the pieces.
  • The victory condition drives interaction.
  • As a player’s deck is limited (9 cards), how you play your cards is compelling.

These verification points in every case really come down to experience. Each of them is driving towards answering the question of “what good looks like?” Whether it’s a worker placement, or a game about deckbuilding, there are tons of examples for what good looks like. Lean on those! It’s wrong to ignore thousands of data points. If you know why people love Agricola, or Caylus, don’t ignore those facts.

However, if you’re doing something new, you cannot simply rely on the past. You’ll need to hypothesize what good looks like for you, leaning on context clues of your similar foregames. Imagine games with wigs. Naturally, you’ll need to evolve these verification points when you find your first efforts, like your design, are complete junk.

Thirdly, you need to put your hopes to the test. This is, I hope, absurdly obvious. You’ll need to watch and see others independently confirm these points. When you find that they don’t, you need to tweak the design or re-assess your goals. You find the spatial element is too confusing. Do you simplify it? Decide it should be more complex? Or lose it entirely?

You find having finite workers is too restrictive and punishing. People cannot figure out how to refresh them without hosing themselves. Do you making the strategy there more obvious? Do you give everyone some permanent workers, so that gaining more finite workers enhances your strategic reach?

As you move forward and evolve your verification points, you need to not cut your game short. Don’t take a single positive indicator as proof of it being solved. Your goals are about identifying moments that’ll make your players smile. Testing is about finding out when they actually smile. And development is about making those smiles occur regularly.

It took us a year to find something special in Hocus, and it’s been several months (4 or 5?) to reach a more stable plateau in Gaia.

  • A great deal of UX work has gone in to ensure players understand how to play cards.
  • A great deal of iteration has gone into the complexity involved in the tiles. Landmarks, no Landmarks, some deserts, some special tiles.
  • A great deal of iteration has gone into the keywords, particularly, how to manipulate the planet.
  • A great deal of iteration has gone into scoring. I’ve gone from chin scratchy planning to fast and loose “ooh shiny” to slightly less fast and loose achievement.
  • I’ve already edited every card probably 30 times.

My goals have changed during this. I had to figure out how to make creatures more potent. I overreached at first with a very complex engine mechanism, but have shifted to a more intuitive and thrilling combat focus. In a sense, it’s like Summoner Wars in a phone booth. So, combat is upped.

I tried to bake in back pressures and restrictions, because CCGs have resources and currencies. But, this game isn’t really about that. This slowed the game, added more complication, and actually reduced your choices on which cards to play. I’ve stripped this back and it now is a better expression of my goal that how you play your cards is a very compelling choice.

Testing alone wasn’t sufficient. I needed to build decks and experiment privately to see if it was fun to do that. I also mailed copies to testers to gauge their interest. You’d be surprised how informative it can be to read how folks write about your game. Remember previously when I talked about finding those smiles? They things people mention are the smiles, or the frowns. If you have multiple groups, and all of them tend to say the same things, that’s a trend you can take to the bank*.

*There are no banks in board gaming. This is a hobby bereft of profits.

You reach a good point when folks independently confirm that your goals are good goals. You reach a good point when folks confirm that your game tends to present more good experiences than ones that seem deeply frustrating. You need a positive balance in smiles versus frowns. You need to solve the core, fundamental problems that keep people from enjoying the game. Not every problem. And certainly not things like balance, layout, art, and flavor. These things are important, but they are more critical in a later stage.

If you cannot get past these major stumbling blocks, you need to keep returning to the beginning of this flow. After enough iterations, you may need to move past the idea entirely.

It’s tough, but true.

  1. What is your design trying to accomplish?
    1. Is it unique?
    2. Why is it fun?
  2. How will you prove you’re on the path to accomplishing it?
  3. Test and tweak until other people confirm the things in step 2.

There’s no time frame on all of this, but generally, good things take time. At every step, give yourself time and space to think, process, analyze, and arrive at the right destination.

Once you know you have something valid, well, then you know it’s worth your time to really dig in and peel back every layer.

The 54 Card Guild: #9

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If this is the first time you’re seeing The 54 Card Guild, I recommend you begin with Guide #1. It will explain everything. All of the posts are tagged with 54 Card Guild. There is an active Slack group, which exists to brainstorm, pitch, and discuss games. There are over 25 people in it. It’s a fun, casual supplement to this course. If you’re interested in joining us, email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com. 

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Thematic development for your game is one of the most confused elements of design. That elevated it to the top of my queue for things to talk about for the 54 Card Guild. To get to the point as rapidly as possible, there is a great deal of confusion between what is thematic, and what is flavorful.

Flavor is provided most often by the visual elements of the game, and include things like:

  • Miniatures (as opposed to cardboard tokens). So many war games are deeply thematic with simple, cardboard chits with numbers.
  • Illustrations — Essential to a game, but not thematic!
  • Flavor Text — Smart barbs about the story of the world on the card. This world building doesn’t make Magic: The Gathering thematic.
  • Shaped Tokens — Custom meeples or resource tokens, versus cardboard or generic tokens. Caverna is not more thematic because it has cow tokens versus brown cubes.
  • Stories — If the rules have a lengthy narrative introduction, it sets the stage, but this isn’t theme.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you. I’m probably in the minority with this analysis. I often see folks use the phrase “this game is so thematic” because it has resource tokens of a particular shape, or fantastic art. If you go to BoardGameGeek.com, you’ll find that the “most thematic games” tend to be “games with miniatures.”

Furthermore, I think it’s important to note that flavor absolutely enhances one’s enjoyment of a game. I love a game with miniatures. I just do. I love brilliant illustrations. I love fun, tactile components. Those are the things that make a product truly great. But, we’re discussing theme.

Therefore, if these things listed above are not theme, but are instead flavor, what is theme? I made a simple graphic to illustrate the two main pieces of the pie. You can replaced these sentiments with synonyms and such, but, effectively, these cover the gist.

ThemeDiagram

There it is. That’s it.

The left side is far more important to the overall equation, I believe, but having some smattering of both is what turns your game into one that is thematic. Let’s look at these items piece by piece.

Player actions indicative of the theme. You do things in character.

If you wish your game to be thematic, you must first answer: What is the player’s perspective? Who are they?

Secondly, what is their motivation?

Thirdly, what are the tools by which they’ll accomplish their ends?

If you can answer these questions, you can begin to leverage mechanisms and player actions that will support their character. This is the heart of a truly thematic game. The reason most Feld games are not thematic is that randomly choosing from a pool of dice and building collections has very little to do with building an estate. That doesn’t make Castles of Burgundy a bad game at all, but it does mean it’s not very thematic. The manner in which you purchase goods in The Speicherstadt is incredibly fun, but has little bearing on the purchase of goods at the docks. And frankly, if Feld just mimicked yet another auction, well, the game might not be very original.

In Magic: The Gathering, the theme is that you are powerful wizards. Every time you play a card, you, the wizard, are summoning creatures, and spells, and amassing an army to defeat your opponent.

In Modern Art, you are a gallery director trying to make the most money on art. You buy, sell, over charge, and swindle your opponents to manipulate the market.

In Last Will, you are a millionaire trying to become a zero-naire, so you spend your money and buy things every single turn.

In Android: Netrunner you’re building a program as a hacker to penetrate the defenses of a mega-corp. Across from you is a dedicated system administrator, slowly updating the hardware to stay one step ahead of you.

In Star Wars: Armada, you are a fleet Admiral moving your fleet around to position them for victory. You’re building a battle plan, and giving orders, and hoping they are executed well by their captains.

In Fief, you are the lords and ladies of the great houses of France. You are building alliances, marrying, and scheming to end up on the throne. When you cannot achieve your ends with words, you do so with arms, which require a war chest.

For some of these examples above, I specifically chose games that aren’t often thought to be thematic, but demonstrate the qualities I believe to be thematic. In all of these games, your actions resemble those of a character who, in a story, would be doing the same thing.

In Project Gaia, my 54 Card Guild project (Rules Here, PNP Here and Here), I don’t think the game is super thematic, but it does support it in a few ways.

  • Players are unique, immortal beings, represented by their deck. This is similar to wizards being different in Magic: The Gathering.
  • Players build, augment, and destroy the planet to shape it as desired. This is how they win the game.
  • Players create creatures and landmasses, which roam and dominate the planet surface.

Looking to games like Black & White on the PC, it seemed only natural that as a god you can change the landmass to your liking, create new beings in the blink of an eye, destroy chunks of the planet, and create natural disasters. All of the cards are built around this idea, and they come from your hand.

Experience has a narrative arc. 

A thematic experience tells a good story, ideally one of your creation. I think some games do a good job of telling you a story to experience, such as Mice and Mystics, whereas in others, you create your own story, like in X-Wing Miniatures. I tend to prefer the latter method, as I think it’s infinitely more replayable, and I think stories of one’s own design are more memorable.

My two favorite storytelling PC games are EVE Online and Battlefield, not because of their rich narrative or cutscenes, but because the games provide a foundation in which I could be creative, thrive, and become the hero. I have stories that feel unique to me, that I still remember, and that are worth telling.

Merchants and Marauders and Clash of Cultures are two of my favorite storytelling games. They both provide a vast sandbox and a wide array of choices to dictate the path you’ll take. You can be a merchant, a scoundrel, someone doing the dirty work of others, or a little of everything. You can create a peaceful civilization, one built on trade, or one that dominates its neighbors. You get to put your footprint on things and tell the story from beginning to end.

Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective also does this well. You choose who to visit and speak to. You and your friends craft theories, debate red herrings, and put forth answers to solve the case. You share in the triumphs and, most likely, the defeats.

Project Gaia is weak on this front, as the elements of the world are, by design, relatively generic tiles. If the players were allowed to design an ice planet, or a swamp, that might change things. The game’s goals are also very mechanical — you’re trying to score against various pre-defined goals that are abstracted from the planet. If players were able to define their own conditions, or have ones as a part of their deck, more stories might evolve. Or, perhaps if players attacked their opponents and had a war in the end?

Ultimately, this is not the strongest game for a narrative arc, and really, it’s tightly focused around its mechanisms and has a relatively short play time (about 45 minutes). There isn’t much room for narrative, and if you’re sticking to the 54 card limitation, I wager you’re in the same boat.

The Assignment

The assignment this week is optional for those who wish to create a more thematic game. First, answer these questions:

  1. What is my player’s perspective?
  2. What is their motivation?
  3. What are the tools and resources by which they’ll accomplish these?
  4. What mechanisms would support the 3 answers above?

Secondly, create 3 short stories, no more than 300 words apiece, that describe a single session of your game. Each should be a different story to demonstrate the variety and breadth of the game. Once you have the stories, return to the 4 questions above, as well as your content and mechanisms, and see what ideas emerge to help foster those stories.

Questions?

Rampaging Barbarians

Post by: Grant RodiekConsul_First

Rules here. Print and Play is here.

Today marks the 10th test of Barbarus, a game I’ve been testing for exactly a month. This is exciting, as I feel I can finally dig in. With this 10th test, I feel the structure I have is simple, the decisions compelling, and the core mechanism is front and center.

This means I need to challenge all of those assertions and begin kicking the snot out of the design. Far too many folks give in too early, and I think it’s a real disservice to your good ideas to not let them steep for a very long time.

The core premise of Barbarus is simple: every player is using a finite pool of coins to gain the powerful First Consul role, declare wars, and bribe barbarians to win those wars. It is a game of hand management and blind bidding, which makes it a well-tread premise, and a good explanation for why the game has reached a decent place after 10 tests.

The game has seen a few fairly significant iterations. On multiple occasions I’ve had to take a step back and slap my turn structure to be unified and simple, because on multiple occasions I’ve tested a game where each phase had a different turn order and discard rule, and it was confusing as all get out.

I also had a solution for limiting the number of conflicts, but then had to layer on multiple supplemental systems to keep everyone involved. This led to a really strange and arbitrary game where many people were playing, but everyone felt siloed. Had to fix that.

I sought to make the game work with 3-6 players, which is a really long range of people. I had to cap it at 5, which simplifies a great many things and I don’t think hurts the game’s appeal too much.

In many areas the game has struggled with a wide range of points and money. For example, the money used to go from 1, to 1000, then in increments up to 25,000. This made the 25,000 absurdly powerful and the 1,000 effectively meaningless. I had to condense the range, and increase the distribution of tokens along the way. This also helped with coin counting, which was nice.

There was a similar issue with points, which used to range from 5,000 to 35,000 points. Guess what? Only the 35,000 mattered, stupid. I reduced it to 3 to 10, then 3 to 7, and now 3 to 6. I also added some flavor by giving the lower point values powerful bonuses. Take a 3 now and get a potent award for multiple rounds.

I fell into a common trap of a positive feedback loop, also known as the rich get richer. To punish losing players (which is often silly, as losing is sufficient punishment), I was also removing their Barbarians from the game. This kept the number of Barbarians at a reasonable population (are we hunting rabbits?). However, there are other ways to solve that problem. A friend suggested a token with a special power: the ability to eliminate a Barbarian. We fiddled with it some to prevent certain weird behaviors, and emerged with the Assassin. This went over really well, so I threw in two others: the Diplomat, which allows you to stall your turn, and the Apothecary, which allows you to beef up a Barbarian for the round. Basically, this lets you sneak in and obtain a 3 Barbarian cheaply, then turn him into a 6.

Finally, I really struggled making the First Consul valuable. The hope has been to make the First Consul, in some ways, the director of the game. But, they pay for that at the outset of the round, which means they have to spend precious coins for that privilege. Previously, the First Consul meant you went last…sometimes. Remember the inconsistent round behavior I mentioned above? Now, he always goes last, which is ideal in a bidding game. He had a few abilities I hoped were valuable, but they were effectively worthless. I had another issue, which is that there needed to be some certainty, sometimes, around the barbarians.

To solve both of these, I came up with a really simple solution: the First Consul draws and receives a single Barbarian which cannot be stolen for the round. That seems to have fixed it, and now, the bidding for First Consul is very contentious! However, it doesn’t seem to be a broken advantage.

Barbarus is on solid footing, so aside from today’s tuning changes, I want to start considering how I’m going to take it to the next level. I have some ideas!

For one, the game has been shortened from 6 to 5 rounds. I’m curious how it would feel if it were merely 3 rounds in duration? This would bring the game from about 45 to 25 minutes, which might make it a really tasty lunch experience.

I’m curious about introducing once per game bonuses at the player level. Perhaps every player is dealt a single card? This doesn’t serve a purpose beyond it being something fun I generally enjoy in games. But, I’m trying to resist the need for text anywhere in the game, so we’ll see.

I’d also really like to introduce a negotiation element, which is another reason to shorten the game. If the game is shortened, it won’t be a problem when 5 minutes of negotiation is tossed into every round. There are already hooks for this. Players discussing where to conquer, where to commit forces, where to assassinate. But, can I mechanize this further? Provide coins that you can actively use to assist others? Can there be shared victories? These are tires to kick. Social game play is always strong game play, and blind bidding is a natural platform for deception and betrayal.

I’m eager to see where the game goes. I think I have a foundation, which means now I can challenge it and find the best game possible.

The 54 Card Guild: #5

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If this is the first time you’re seeing The 54 Card Guild, I recommend you begin with Guide #1. It will explain much. All of the posts are tagged with 54 Card Guild. There is an active Slack group, which exists to brainstorm, pitch, and discuss games. There are over 25 people in it. It’s a fun, casual supplement to this course. If you’re interested in joining us, email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com. 

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I apologize for the delay with this entry. It appears I have a day job and in the midst of that, a trip to Texas was incurred. Today, I want to discuss testing. This post will be followed up with Guide #6, which concerns iteration and development. Due to the close proximity of these two topics AND the horrendously unreliable pace with which I’ve been writing them, they’ve been written at the same time. Yes! Guide #6 will be released shortly.

If you’ve been following the assignments, you have:

  1. Brainstormed and narrowed down an idea
  2. Filled out an Outline to answer high level questions
  3. Completed a first pass of content for your game
  4. Completed a rough rules outline to guide your instruction (and hopefully answer more questions)
  5. Conducted a solo test
  6. Iterated against that solo test

If you’re ahead of me here, then bear with me. Side question: how did “bear with me” become a saying? I would think other things would occur when “bearing” aside from patiently standing idle. Like, mauling people taking selfies, or catching salmon with one hand like a Heisman trophy winner, or climbing into a hammock, or stealing pickanick baskets. My knowledge of bears is off…

Let’s find some suckers willing testers who can get our game off the ground and into development.

Designers often note that you need to test with people who will give you an honest opinion and not sweet talk you, else you’ll think more highly of your design than it deserves. However, such a notion is pre-mature at this stage. You don’t need 4 members of the BGG elite telling you precisely why your game fails. At this stage, your game is probably a hot pile of garbage. You’re not looking for nuanced critique, but warm bodies to help you triangulate the fun and identify gaping holes in your hypothesis.

Therefore, Step 1 is to find a number of people that matches your ideal player number who are kind, open minded, and patient. These should probably be friends or family. Should you include yourself in the first test? At this stage , I could go either way.

  1. If you AREN’T playing, you can focus your efforts on explanation and furiously take notes.
  2. If you ARE playing, you can guide players through the rough spots of your rules and mechanisms by taking turns and demonstrating how to play.

I tend to be fairly observant and good at taking notes while moving, so I tend to play in all of my initial tests.

Final note before we get started: buy pizza for everyone and provide cold beverages. Bribery is a wonderful way to warm folks up to pain you’re about to inflict. Always remember — they could be doing something else. Something fun. When I’m at work with lunch, I bring cookies for everyone. It helps!

Now, we’re at a table, ideally with melting cheese in close proximity, and some number of people chosen more for their kindness than analytical skills. For your first handful of tests, typically 1-5, you’re demonstrating more a work of high concept than gameplay. It’s a rough draft and you should present it as such. Before I deal the cards or explain the rules, I give everyone the elevator pitch.

I’ll use Gaia as an example to demonstrate my point.

Gaia Elevator Pitch

“I love Netrunner for many reasons, one of which is my love of crafting decks ahead of time and showing up with something unique. I love building a plan out of a pool of cards and pitting against an opponent’s deck. So, pre-constructed decks. Naturally, I cannot have infinite cards like Netrunner, which alters my design.

I also love Carcassonne. I think tile laying is a simple, tactile, and brilliant experience. Therefore, I asked myself, how can I combine these two experiences?

In Gaia, two players are powerful beings, more or less gods, who are fighting to take control of newly formed planets. You will build, shape, and influence the planets. Each player will construct or draft a 9 card “deck” out of a small pool of only 45 unique cards. This gives you a taste of deck construction without the mental or financial investment of a traditional CCG.”

Rules Outline

Reference your Rules Outline (from Guide #3), which you should be keeping up to date, to explain your rules. Naturally, if you’ve explained rules before, you don’t need the Rules Outline! But, if you tend to be wayward and distracted, or, as it’s a new game, you’re not clear, use the Rules Outline to introduce the game. Remember! You’re using your friends’ time that could be otherwise spent playing something fun. Respect their time and give them a nice, focused piece of instruction.

Bustin’ a U-Turn

In a recent interview on the Shut Up and Sit Down Podcast, Eric Lang noted that during a play test if something isn’t working, he’ll immediately adjust and change the design to seek the fun. I believe this is pretty standard, but if I’m wrong and it’s not, hopefully you’ll listen to Eric Lang!

The idea is that you shouldn’t struggle to the bitter end. You aren’t testing balance. You aren’t validating a fair end game. You’re trying to determine whether your core mechanisms, your core ideas, and your fundamental conflicts and decision spaces are compelling.

Note: This illuminates the need for a Guide devoted to the core loop. I apologize. I’ll write one.

How do you know when to change?

  • Look at the faces of your testers. They will truthfully reveal their emotions when they aren’t having fun, or when they are having fun!
  • When someone pauses for a minute to consider something, ask if they’re confused, or stumped, or frustrated.
  • When another player is thinking about their turn, ask the previous player what they think. Use that moment to get a quick pulse.

When you think you’ve found a hiccup or a problem, say “stop!” Explain what you’re changing, why, and how it is changing. Make sure everyone gets it — never forget that your players are taking in a lot of new, fuzzy, maybe poorly presented new rules — and move forward again.

When something goes wrong, pull the e-Brake and bust a U-Turn. Just change it. Use your time wisely to test as many theories as possible and find the answer as quickly as possible.

Notes

Throughout the test, note your observations. Do not seek to immediately identify solutions, or fully understand why you’re making the observation, but note things which you observe to reflect upon later.

  • What do players ask questions about?
  • When do people pause?
  • When did people laugh? Smile? Frown?
  • Something seem too easy? Too tough?
  • Is the game advancing too slowly or too quickly?

In a sense, you’re conducting a session of people watching around your game. For these early tests, you’re trying to figure out whether your game makes a good first impression. It’s like bringing a friend to meet your core group, or meeting the girl you’ve been talking to via Ok Cupid. People are making quick judgements of your game — try to capture these judgements, when they are made, and why they are made. Just watch and learn.

The End

Overall, relax and take a deep breath. Take it easy. Check your emotions at the door. Your game is most assuredly going to be bad. Take advantage of your friends’s kindness and good spirits and bolster it with your enthusiasm for the game and appreciation for them being there.

You might not play a full game — it’s okay if you don’t. I’ve tested Project Gaia 3 times without actually finishing a game. Why? It’s not ready. It’s not there yet. I learn a few things every game and then stop the test. I’m hoping I play a complete game for #4, or maybe #5. It’s key not to waste people’s time. It’s also key to not try to solve every problem your game has in a single test.

When you get home, examine your notes and compile them all in a small diary. Read them a few times, then, when you’re ready, begin iteration. We’ll cover that next time.

Assignment

Write an Elevator Pitch for your game. Review and update your Rules Outline. Finally, call an ideal number of friends over, order your favorite pizza, and conduct your test. Open a Word document or Google Doc and begin a development diary listing your notes, changes, observations, and desires for the game.

The 54 Card Guild: #3

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Posted by: Grant Rodiek

This is the third entry in the 54 Card Guild, a loosely guided course for designers new and old interested in crafting a game consisting of at most 54 cards and nothing else. If you’d like to read the first post, check here. If you’re interested in joining our discussion on Slack, email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com. 

At this point, we all have an idea that we think has a kernel of fun. We’ve brainstormed a variety of themes and mechanisms to emerge with a solid pairing. We’ve filled out the Outline to answer some basic questions for the experience and we conducted a Content Slam to actually design the game. Hopefully, from there you built the cards!

Note: Members of our Slack group gain access to Paperize, a free program that lets you export a Spreadsheet with a single button click to create your cards. I’m not lying when I say it saved me 12 hours of layout and card creation work.

We need to test our game, quickly. It’s time to begin development! However, before we put the game in front of others, let’s ensure it’s actually a viable game. We are going to run a solo test to kick the tires, identify and eliminate huge, obvious flaws, and polish up the test to ensure your first testers don’t waste their time.

Before you play your game with others, you should validate your game functions and identify your first problems. Leveraging the scientific method, you want to build a hypothesis towards the elements that will hinder the fun of your game. When you test, you should do so with a goal, and knowing the problems you have ahead of time will improve the effectiveness of this.

There are a few tools that will help you solve this effectively: a Rules Outline and a Pre-Test Check. Let’s discuss the Rules Outline first.

Note: In the future we’ll go into depth on rules writing and game testing. For now, let’s focus on these interim steps.

The Rules Outline

At times I’ve advocated for writing the rules before I even build my prototype. But, I think this is a path that’s atypical and overwhelming for new people. I don’t want to create a brick wall that gates your steady ramp into design, so let’s instead pare the rules down to a simple outline.

Similar to the previous Outline, we’re going to create some questions to arrange our thoughts. I’ve created a Rules Outline template here, which you can read, download, and use as you see fit. Below, I’m going to discuss it and fill it out for Gaia to provide an example.

This rules outline acts as a reference for you. It’ll arrange your thoughts so that you can cohesively explain your game to others. It’ll also act as a reference for you to look at to see what you thought in isolation. In your first 10 tests, your core rule assumptions will be frequently challenged and it’s nice to have something written in ink so you can firmly say “Oh, I thought this, but it seems like it may be wrong.”

Q1. How many people can play the game? 2 Players

Q2a.  How do players set up the game?

  1. Each player chooses 1 Immortal. Set the other 7 aside.
  2. Each player chooses 9 cards from the deck of 45. You can use a basic drafting mechanism.
  3. Shuffle the 27 cards that were not chosen and deal each player 3. Players use the back side and one at a time begin placing these tiles to build the planet. Build until it’s 15 tiles.
  4. Each player gets a reference card.
  5. Shuffle the 7 Immortals not chosen and deal 3 face up. These are the initial Scoring conditions.
  6. Oldest player goes first.

Q2b. Draw a loose diagram showing a game setup to play.

GaiaSetup

Q3. What is the structure of play? And what happens within the structure?

The game is played in alternating turns. On a turn, a player takes any two Actions. The same actions can be chosen multiple times and they can be chosen in any order. There is a bank of two actions.

Q4. What is the win condition? A player scores 4 Points.

Q5. When does the game end? A player wins.

Q6. Are there any special rules or exceptions that need to be considered?

Tiles must be placed such that they pair with their land type, if possible. Otherwise, they can go anywhere. On the very first turn, the player takes only one action.

Q7. What are some of the key terms in your game?

Discard, Return, Draw, Attack, Devastate, Adjacent, Add, Shift, Cover

[For the sake of space, I didn’t write the definitions out, but YOU should!]

Q8. Are there any special rules based on the number of players?

No. It is exclusively a 2 player game. Though, there is potential for a 3-4 player experience with multiple decks. Not important at this time.

Q9. Can you provide an example or explain how different pieces of content work?

There are multiple card types. Land cards are added to the board and provide new actions for their owner. Creatures cover tiles and can be moved around to attack the creatures and Land of opponents. Score cards provide one-time actions, but can also be used to Score points. Powers are one time abilities that are then discarded. Immortals provide a powerful benefit for your Creatures.

Q10. Is there anything else a player might need to know to play the game? Any high level direction?

Try to choose cards with synergies. Pay attention to what score options are available and try to stop your opponent from achievement them before you.

You can see now that I can guide someone through the game and I understand many of the parameters needed to play. Teaching your game while muttering through a jumble of rules and concepts is very difficult for others. Prepare an outline, a syllabus, a guide, to focus your teaching and square your thoughts.

Preparing a rule outline will also force you to being thinking about how you’ll teach your game. Even if you aren’t writing actual rules just yet, always remember that you will not arrive in the box with your game. Others must learn it without you. If you cannot teach a mechanism, you shouldn’t use a mechanism.

Pre-Test Check

We have our outline. Now, we need to create a Pre-Test Check. We’re going to do this twice: once before you conduct your solo session, and once after you make your changes before you test with others.

For the Pre-Test Check, ask yourself:

What do you think is most likely to not function? For Gaia, I was fairly confident that the tiles would not have sufficient connections, or too many situations would be created where the tiles couldn’t be played. I also worried about the synergy of the cards. CCGs are about creating combos and complementary engines and I feared I wouldn’t have any. Finally, I worried the scoring might not be possible in some situations, leading to a stalemate.

This question is often difficult to answer as it requires a firm knowledge of other games and often having created other games before. But, looking at my rules, I began to consider the motivations and actions of a hypothetical Gaia player. I looked at setup.

Every card back has a tile type with one of four land masses. These tiles are arranged randomly at this time. What happens if all the Oceans are drafted? What happens if there are empty spaces on the map?

I came up with some solutions by asking this question of myself. I then shuffled the cards and began laying them out as tiles. I quickly encountered a situation with a horseshoe shape. Ah ha! I needed a tile type with all 4 terrains on it.

When I worried about Scoring, I again looked at my tiles and the layout. I quickly arranged some hypothetical situations. The result was that I couldn’t 100% state that all Scoring possibilities would be valid. Therefore, I created other cards to address this. It was a little bit of a bandaid, but one that temporarily solved the issue to allow for testing.

As for card synergy, I began drafting 9 card decks to see how things panned out. I noticed I didn’t have enough forest cards, or creatures, or Powers, so I added more and improved my card distribution.

That’s really it. It’s a big and difficult question that requires honesty, but if you can answer that first question – what is broken – you can test.

The Solo Session

In the solo session, you are going to play versus yourself. You versus You. Setup the game, following your Rules Outline. Deal cards to every player, who is a fictional person. Ignoring strategy, really, as you will know everything, pick up the cards dealt to Player 1 and take your turn. Follow the turn steps, play the cards. Then, move physically to Player 2’s chair and take his turn. Play the cards. Try to react to Player 1.

Very quickly you might encounter something stupid. Something you either predicted in the Pre-Test Check, or something unexpected. Whoops! Fix it, then start over. Keep moving around the table until you feel it’s possible for everyone to play 2-3 turns before the game breaks down. You might not actually finish a game for your first several actual tests!

Bonus: If your game is working to this point, you can create a player AI and when moving around the table, act against that AI. You can create one that is aggressive, one that is passive, one that always hordes money, or one that has a personal beef against another player. You’re not testing strategy, or balance, but merely trying to create a more nuanced simulation of how a table of actual humans will play.

Assignment #3

Fill out the Rules Outline. Answer all the questions, or the ones you think are useful to you, and read over it a few times.

Fill out the Pre-Test Check, then run a solo session. Take notes on what happened and fix your game until you can play several turns without finding an obvious problem. Create an AI and begin incorporating those.

Bonus Assignment

Get a smart phone or web camera and in 60 seconds or fewer, record yourself pitching your game. Email me the link at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com and I’ll share it on the blog. Or, we can share it in the Slack channel. I’m going to post mine soon — I’m busy and in the interest of time I haven’t done this yet.