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

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. 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

54CardLogo

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

54CardLogo

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.

The Unnecessarily Huge Hocus Post Mortem

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Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

Grant: The Kickstarter campaign for Hocus, the first published game by Hyperbole Games, designed by Grant Rodiek and Joshua Buergel, is now over. The campaign was an immense success! In 30 days, we raised $31,403 from 1,639 backers. Our original funding goal was $6,000, so this final result far exceeded our expectations.

Although we do not have a precise number yet, we believe we’ve sold approximately 1800 copies, which is over half of our print run of 3,500. At the outset of the campaign, we intended to print 2,000 copies, which we then increased to 2,500, and ultimately settled at 3,500. This is wonderful, as it means we have a much greater opportunity to earn additional revenue through the retail channel with more copies.

Josh: And, the large number of backers greatly increases our ability to be successful with distributors, try and find international partners, and just generally get Hocus to as many possible places as we can.

Grant: Below is our post-mortem of Hocus: its design, development, and events concluding at the end of our Kickstarter campaign. We obviously cannot detail fulfillment, manufacturing, shipping, or pre-orders in a thoughtful way, as we haven’t experienced them yet. I’m sure we’ll write about them as well. Things went unexpectedly well for Hocus, so in lieu of a “What Went Wrong/What Went Right” format, we’re going to discuss a broad range of topics pertaining to the Hocus Kickstarter.

If there’s anything about which you’re curious that we don’t cover below, email me, or comment!

Long Public Development

Josh: Develop your games where people can see them! It gives you so much credibility from day one that your game is real and that you take it seriously. Early support translates into a successful project.

This one was fairly easy for us, for a couple of reasons. First, the fact that Grant and I started working on this design together as a result of him publicly looking for feedback was an instant validation of the approach. I wouldn’t have joined the project if Grant wasn’t working in public. Second, we don’t live in the same city, so we were already doing all of our communication electronically. That made it easier to open up some of that communication to the public as well. Third, we’re both voluble guys who like talking about our work, so it’s easy for us to get excited and just keep blabbing. But please, work in public. It just makes everything about your process easier.

I can’t emphasize enough how much our credibility helped our launch. We both have robust personal networks that got us plenty of backers, but we were also able to get a large number of fellow designers and other enthusiasts backing early because, in part, they knew we’d done our homework on the game. If you want any kind of virtuous cycle for your project, you need to really maximize your initial push, and public development is huge.

Grant: I’ve had several people ask me how we spread the word for Hocus. I took a deep breath and began explaining that it isn’t just Hocus, but the long process of becoming a part of our community and putting in my time. I’ve been an active member on the Twitter community for 5+ years. Josh has been active on Con Sim World for 10+ years. We’ve both been reading rules for publishers for a while, both AAA and tiny noobs like ourselves. We’ve tested for others, gone to conventions, had beers.

I’ve had folks say “I want to launch next month. How do I get people to check out my game?” And the reality is that you just cannot do that. Yes, sure, you might have a good enough product, enough ads, good enough art. But, you really want to launch out the gate strong. We had over 300 people support us in the first 30 hours and a lot of that is due to our social networks, developing in public, and building our relationships with countless testers, peers, and writers.

No Stretch Goals

Grant: Before we went live on Kickstarter we announced that we wouldn’t have Stretch Goals in this article. We followed that up with another article discussing the fallout from that announcement. Then, later, we announced we’d be upgrading our tuckbox to a two piece box in response to the fallout.

BoxinaBox

Josh: It was a bit of a gut-check, really. We faced what was our first uproar from the public, and we had to decide if we were going to eat the costs even for a small print run, or try and paper over people’s discontent with tuck boxes. In the end, we made the decision to try and give people the best product we could, and it was clear from the comments we were getting that most people thought that that best product had to include a two-piece box. We decided to stick to our principles of trying to make the base game as great as possible, and it seemed to pay off.

Grant: This approach to stretch goals led to a lot of terse conversations on social media and in email. You can still see the comments on our blog — Stretch Goals are a very contentious topic from both sides! Before our campaign, I was fairly convinced that we’d hit $10,000, but we’d dwindle quickly with no reason to tell your friends. I really hoped we’d hit $15,000 due to our price and art and social media outreach, but that was a low hope. It was basically the price we were willing to pay in order to act in a manner we thought best for Hyperbole Games.

Well. We funded in 27 hours and in our update following this we laid out our No Stretch Goal plans for our backers. We mentioned it already on our page, but not in a super overt, hammer blow way. We never wanted, and still don’t want, this decision to be a crusade. If you want to do Stretch Goals? Sweet. It hasn’t stopped me from backing a project and I don’t expect it to. You can read this update here.

Josh: I was holding my breath. It was totally unclear to me how important the sharing efforts of our backers were to the campaign, and furthermore, if the lack of stretch goals would hamper that sharing. It was all terra incognita for us. Would our momentum slow down? Would people tune out? What was going to happen?

Grant: The response was largely silent. People didn’t really care. A few folks said “neat, sounds good.” Every now and then someone would pop up with a comment along the lines of: “We know you aren’t doing stretch goals, and that’s cool, but…” with an idea. Some were perfectly fine (art on the inside of the box?), some weren’t really feasible (unique art for every card in the deck?). But, people were cool with it and it largely didn’t come up.

Josh: Interestingly, our pattern of backing was very unusual. I’ve looked at a lot of Kickstarter campaigns, thanks to the handy graphs at Kicktraq. Virtually every normal campaign (that is, a campaign that is raising funds to print a game that fits into the mainstream of the hobby) has a common pattern: for the first handful of days, each day is worse than the previous. Things might jitter a bit for days 3-6, but really, you’re looking at falling backers for the first week. Well, Hocus followed it for a bit – day 1 was highest (as you’d expect), with a drop off to day 2 and to day 3. That’s all normal. But then something odd happened. Day 4 was bigger. And then day 5 was bigger than that. And then day 6 was even bigger. I’d never seen the pattern before, and I checked. If anything, our lack of stretch goals might have even helped our secondary sharing. It’s hard to tell causality, of course, but our funding pattern after hitting our goal was exceptionally strong.

Grant: What’s our takeaway? Mostly, it’s fine to not do Stretch Goals if you’re clear about it, don’t make a big deal about it, and develop a full product from the start. Potential backers really chafed when we said “our game is really nice on day 1,” yet we had a tuck box. People called bullshit, to be frank. When we had 8 Spell books, a two piece box, linen cards, and a nice rule sheet from day 1, well, we had a full product.

Josh: After we responded with the two-piece box, the community seemed to really get that this was the full deal. We were holding nothing back, but we didn’t have anything to increase, either. It was honest, and people seemed to not only accept that but appreciate it.

Grant: It really comes down to value. We also introduced bonuses throughout the campaign. We didn’t anticipate these, but we scrambled and met the challenge in a way that didn’t greatly affect costs and in no way affected our schedule. These bonuses included:

  • A high resolution PNP available to backers at the $5 and greater pledge level, available immediately. Interesting note: several backers warned me not to give it away during the campaign because people would just take it and leave. The evidence I have available doesn’t indicate this really happened.
  • A wooden first player token that fits in the box.
  • 2 Joker cards.
  • Variant rules, including a drafting format.
  • High resolution blank cards for players to create their own spells.

To be honest, people seemed relatively quiet about these as well. We had approximately 400 comments in our 30 day campaign and most of those were from 5 people, two of whom were me and Josh sharing announcements and responding to folks.

Josh: Again, it’s hard to read the tea leaves here and see if those bonuses were encouraging other people to share or not. It’s tough to untangle. But, I have to admit, I was a bit disappointed with the response to our bonuses. People seemed to think they were fine, they’re happy about them, but I just didn’t feel like we got an excited response. I’m still happy we did them, though.

Grant: Could we have raised more with Stretch Goals? I don’t know! Did we actually generate goodwill that will in turn pay dividends on future games? That’s impossible to know, at least for some time.

We believe in the future that, if we choose to use Kickstarter again, we have now established that Hyperbole Games doesn’t use Stretch Goals. I believe when backers receive their games, they’ll be very pleased with what their money bought them. I believe this precedent, and the hopeful success of the final version of Hocus, means we can now continue to act in this manner. For future pre-orders or Kickstarters, I imagine we’ll put more planning into bonuses to add, but any we do add will be fun trinkets, nothing core.

The Kickstarter revolution isn’t coming, but we are very comfortable with our decisions and really the lack of noticeable effect it had on our performance.

Josh: That unusual funding pattern makes me think that our lack of stretch goals didn’t really hurt us at all. It’s impossible to really prove, but comparing our campaign to comparable games (similar price points, component counts, etc) shows that we had a very strong performance during the periods in the campaign that you would have anticipated stretch goals helping out. I’m very content with the notion that this was the right strategy for us.

Page Layout

Josh: We sweated the details on the page before launch. And by we, I mostly mean Grant. He kept going over, and over, and over the copy. I contributed when I could, and we spent a long time working on it. And I’m really happy with where we ended up. There’s not much I would change. The placements of our quotes were great, the featuring of previews was great, it had clear information about what we wanted to have, and we didn’t have to answer too many backer questions about stuff covered on the page. I was especially pleased at how simple the offering is.

There are two things that I wish we had done differently. First, the text on the backer levels wasn’t perfect. And you can’t modify those after people use them! We should have spent more time thinking about them. Specifically, they absolutely should have listed add-on information right on the backer level, so that that information was right in front of the backer when they were putting in payment information.

Grant: For example:

Pledge $15 or More

1 Copy of Hocus. Backer pays shipping.

US backers can add additional copies for only $13 apiece and no increase in shipping.

Shipping Fees:

  • US: Free Shipping
  • Canada: $7
  • Rest of World: $12

Josh: Second, I wish we had done a few examples of costs in the main page, telling people how much different things would cost. I think it would have eased a bit of confusion and perhaps encouraged a few upgrades.

Grant: We did this on almost every update, but something in the Add Ons that said:

“If you are a US backer and want 3 copies of the game, back at the $15 level [with an image of that level] and pledge $41.” Basically, a guided walk through.

I had countless backers tell me “your page was so well laid out! All the information was there!” Yet, I had many other backers ask where they could find the PNP, or whether there were add ons they could support, and so forth. Ultimately, I think there are a few problems:

The Kickstarter layout is literally a single page with a scroll bar. It’s just a row of information. “Below the fold” basically allows for zero information, so backers must scroll if they want to learn anything.

The ecosystem of Kickstarter has formed such that a million pieces of information are required. I think this is largely good and it puts a burden on publishers who wish to be successful to do the legwork. But, most pages include written description, component listing, press information (previews/reviews/interviews), how to play videos, stretch goal information, how money will be spent information, the team, and more.

Extra clicks in games and web design and apps are generally a “no no.” The fewer clicks a customer must use to reach their destination, the better. A Kickstarter page is just a scroll, so you don’t need to go through any menus. However, I’m very curious if the option to create tabs or pages within your page would improve things. Something like this:

Untitled drawing

Each of these “tabs” would have a title and image, set by us, the creator. We could do no tabs, 3 tabs, 50 tabs, whatever. Ultimately, it would give backers a very clear way to see what was going on in small chunks. I bet superior web designers could really do wonders here.

Josh: You know, as long as we’re spitballing stuff that Kickstarter should do (they won’t), it would be super cool if backers saw a different page than non-backers. Backers could see a simplified page with prominent links to PnP stuff, rules, backer-only content, all that groovy stuff. I dunno. Maybe I’m dumb.

Grant: That’s actually a fantastic idea! I’d also love a better way to send different backers different content.

The Price

Grant: Josh and I were of one mind for almost everything throughout development of the design and planning for Hocus. Discussion on the price is probably the biggest debate we had, and at times it really had me in knots. I’m not really a people pleaser, but I really cherish my relationship with Josh and I didn’t want anything to come between it. This was one of those cases where, unlike everything else we debated, it ultimately came down to my opinion versus his.

For a long time our plan was for Hocus to have an MSRP of $15 and be put on KS for about $12. We wanted to move a lot of copies and be a very easy decision for people who don’t know Hyperbole Games or Hocus. We aren’t established so we need to be an easy sell.

We put together some business models and everything seemed to check out. We went about our work. As I spoke to peers and publishers about our plans, all of them looked aghast when I told them our price. After a while, this really concerned me. We discussed it and felt that $12 was still right. But, it was driving me crazy and I poked around our business model. It turns out we had a few omissions and were missing some things. We also spent more on art than I think we originally intended, at least in our $15 MSRP mindset, and the numbers no longer lined up. At least, not according to my assumptions and concerns. We also needed to be far more successful, again, according to my model, in order to break even.

I tend to be a conservative, plan for the worst, hope for the best kinda guy when it comes to business planning. Josh still believed that we would move significantly more copies at a lower price point and the benefits of additional copies would pay greater dividends long term.

Ultimately, neither of us were able to convince each other and I made the decision to increase our KS price to $15. I’m glad it didn’t bite us — we did fine. But, seeing how well we did at $15, would we have sold 1000 more copies at $12? I don’t know, and there’s no way to prove it. Decisions like this are terrifying when it’s your first go and you have nothing to base it on.

Josh: Essentially, this is another unknowable here. What does the demand curve look like for games? How can we explore it? What happens at different price levels? What about post-campaign stuff? There’s a lot of these things that are hard to plan for without knowing what level you’re going to end up at ahead of time, and there are a lot of ways to set pricing for different channels. I think that Grant and I had different internal projections, different pictures of what probabilities there were, and it led us to different conclusions about pricing strategy.

Ultimately, Grant seemed to feel more strongly about his position than I did about mine, and I didn’t think the price point we selected would be actively harmful, so I decided to give ground here. It’s impossible to really know who got it right, but I’m comfortable with the decision making process. And I think it was a good thing to have worked through, as a conflict we were able to sort out.

Grant: A few things will allow us to lower our prices in the future. Right now, Hocus is really our only revenue source, so it was tough to assign all costs to it. But, next year we will have a few revenue sources, including Hocus (KS and post-KS), hopefully my design signed with Portal, and a few other things I cannot yet discuss. This will give us some breathing room and we’ll hopefully better meet in the middle.

Thank You Notes

Grant: I’ve always made fun of the notes Kickstarter companies send to every backer. I’m cynical and grumpy and I always thought “pssh, just a copy and paste.” But, because it seemed like a good thing to do, I started writing notes to all of our backers, starting day one. I tried to type a personal note to people I knew, but if I didn’t know you, the gist of the message was:

Good <time of day> <first name of backer>!

Thank you so much for backing Hocus. We really appreciate it! Do you have any questions I can answer for you at this time?”

The overwhelming number of people didn’t say anything, but I did receive quite a few messages back, including:

  • No, everything looks great, thanks!
  • How do I add extra copies?
  • How do I get that wooden box?
  • Woah, do you email every backer? Wow!
  • Hi I cannot wait to play!

Ultimately, the thank you note was a handshake. It was a warm greeting. It told backers, “hey, we’re available and here for you. Ask away!” It got some people out of their shells and was the first way I was able to demonstrate that we care about our customers. If you keep up with these and do them daily? They aren’t that much of a hassle. Beyond your first and last days, and assuming you aren’t Reaper Minis, you should be able to keep up with 20-30 backers per day.

Do the thank you letters. They make a difference.

Josh: This might be the thing I’m most jealous about on the campaign. I wish I got to do these!

Grant: Every day a percentage of these customers would respond with the kindest things about how much they enjoyed the PNP or appreciated how we were doing things. It was really nice.

International Backers

Grant: If anything we did is a “what went wrong,” it was our assumptions regarding support from international customers. In short, we woefully underestimated the amount of support we’d have for international backers. I’ll comb through the numbers to provide something more accurate in the future once we release surveys, but if I had to guess, I’d say 20% of our backers are international, stemming primarily from Canada, the UK, and Australia. No surprise really that English speaking countries made up the majority! I was surprised at how many Norwegians backed us — that was really cool.

After only a few days we recognized that our assumptions were off and began investigating solutions. The problem, quite frankly, is that many of the solutions are great for publishers with far greater scale in operations and more stable long term plans. Hocus is our only game. Landfall will not be a traditional title (spoilers) and Project Cow Tools won’t be ready until the end of 2016 IF we meet our very aggressive goals. Plus, me and Josh have personal, non-Hyperbole projects in the works.

In short, it’s difficult to invest in a proper international infrastructure with only Hocus, and really, only our Kicktarter backers to justify it.

Josh kept asking: even if we knew Hocus would do better with international backers, would it have changed our decisions? And the reality is…not really? We obtained quotes from many companies and did quite a bit of investigation, and many of them were just a lot more trouble than our scale could justify at this time.

Josh: Hindsight is only helpful to the extent that you can identify major decisions you would have done differently. And, I think, in the end, we would have gone with what we did. We got pretty far into investigating a different fulfillment method, one we thought would save both us and our backers money, until we got in touch with one of those international backers and were disabused of the notion, forcefully. I’m still investigating fulfillment options, but in the end, I think we’re going to end up back in the same place.

Grant: One thing occurred to me in the middle of our campaign: companies like Czech Games Edition and Portal Games have been around for 10+ years. They have many award winning, top selling games. They’ve done very well. However, up until very recently, both of them worked with publishers in other countries for international versions. Everything we’re doing with Hyperbole is focused on slow, reasonable, long term growth. Right now, we think we are good game designers and developers. We think we are good at art production. We hope to soon prove ourselves as competent sellers and businessmen. I don’t think we can really add international sellers to that just quite yet.

Our plan is to seek international partners to create domestic versions for other territories, with proper translation, packaging, you name it, to suit the territory. This is a long term plan, and one in which we have ZERO experience. But, we have some irons in the fire and we’ll see.

Were we EU friendly, we would have absolutely had more international support. We also would have had happier backers as they wouldn’t be paying $27 for a copy of Hocus (for which we’re eating about $6 per copy as is). But, and time may very well prove us wrong, though it might have been the right decision for Hocus, it would have been the wrong one for Hyperbole.

Josh: I’m not sure if we did it perfectly. But, I’m comfortable saying we didn’t do it wrong. This was the low risk option, and that’s a good thing for a first time project. I wish we could have offered our international backers a better deal, but this is not a terrible one, and it’s just a simple, honest way to go about things. They can go onto USPS and check the postage rates themselves, and can see we’re not ripping them off. It fits with our lack of stretch goals: we’re doing our best, we’re trying to do right by our backers, and we’ll just lay thing out forthrightly and honestly.

Logistics Preparation

Grant: We tried to “dot every I” and “cross every T” before beginning our campaign. Mostly, we didn’t want to lose our shirts from a really stupid oversight. We were able to do this because we gave ourselves about 8 months to balance our final mechanisms, prepare our press outreach, produce art, and work on our campaign. The obvious result is that we weren’t caught off guard by anything. The subtle result is that we had really good answers for questions that emerged.

That sounds smug and arrogant, but it’s true. We were ready.

Josh: We’re both planners. And that’s good – we don’t need to balance that out with an impulsive person! I’ll occasionally go off the reservation on peripheral stuff, but on the core things, we have very matched approaches: list everything out and knock it all down. Early.

Grant: When folks had suggestions that weren’t feasible, we could succinctly and instantly state why. When people wanted to know why our fulfillment date was in February 2016, we had a clear answer. When we decided to investigate more international fulfillment options, we were able to dive in head first as we weren’t busy catching up on other things.

Often times, you’ll hear Kickstarter campaign runners note how busy they are and how exhausted they are. Truth is, I was exhausted during the campaign, but more from my day job and preparing for my wedding. I can honestly say the Hocus campaign didn’t keep me up any later at night. Now, time I’d normally spend on design was instead spent on Kickstarter, but that was 1-2 hours every night, maximum. Some days it was no time at all.

Josh: I had even less to do! Yes, I’ve been investigating fulfillment options, reading comments, fiddling with ads, and prepping files for production behind the scenes, but that’s not really any different from stuff I might be doing otherwise. I was sleeping soundly with how well Hocus did.

Grant: You owe it to yourself, your normal life, your project, and your sanity to be prepared and do your homework ahead of time. Create a very thorough checklist. Leave no stone unturned. Give yourself months to complete the checklist thoroughly and properly. It really pays off.

I’ve had many people email me for Kickstarter advice since we proved to be successful. They often ask the most basic day 1 questions, followed by “we’re hoping to launch our Kickstarter next month.” Don’t rush into things! Do your homework ahead of time. This is one of the few places where learning on the job is a terrible idea.

Final Art and Graphics

Josh: Maybe more than any one single factor, our professional presentation on the game drove our success. We spent a lot of time thinking about art direction, spent plenty of time finding a great illustrator in Tiffany, and made sure we reserved time with Adam, our preferred graphic designer. All in service of making sure our game was striking and looked great out of the gate. We were able to fund those costs out of pocket before the campaign, and it made a huge difference in our credibility. We’re new publishers. Everything we can do to reassure backers that we’re competent and going to make a great game was going to be worth it. Obviously, not everybody can afford to pay for their artwork up front. But having at least some final graphic assets right out of the gate makes just an enormous difference.

Grant: It helped that we only had a few illustrations for the game. Don’t create a game with 65 unique illustrations for your first title!

We had some funny trials finding an artist before Tiffany. We found one whose work was strikingly distinct and just…edgy. Unfortunately, we had some communication snafus and we hit a wall in our progress. Eventually we had to cut the cord and renew our search.

I enquired for great artists with Brett Bean. Brett is one of my favorite illustrators alive and his work was so instrumental in Farmageddon’s success. He recommended two, one of whom was Tiffany, and we reached out to her. Fortunately, at the time we met her, Tiffany was contracting for Electronic Arts in the same building where I work. We were able to meet at Starbucks for a coffee to meet each other and discuss things.

I’ve written about art before, but there are some really key things and I think we did well at them.

  • Know what you want! We had a Pinterest Board full of imagery. We could speak clearly about every card. We had a very clear vision.
  • Know your components. Ours were locked. Size, number, everything.
  • Set parameters! We wanted Tiffany to work within our space, but as she saw fit. We wanted her to craft something unique, not just do a police sketch of what we had in mind. We gave her a world, a theater, an idea, and we gave her time to create.
  • Hire great people! Adam is an EXPERT at box design and print layout. Just look at our box! Look at it! He’s also an artist as well, which is how we made our card backs just explode with detail and life. He enhanced all of Tiffany’s illustrations.
  • Pay your people. Fairly. And on time.
  • Be responsive. When your artist comes to you, respond ASAP so they are not wasting time. Good artists are busy!

I think, overall, our art process went incredibly well. I think our output stands toe to toe with almost any game on the market. And I have no doubt that it benefitted us, being finished, for the campaign.

Now, one key thing to note is that Hocus actually has a very low number of illustrations. If we had a game with 54 unique illustrations? I’m not sure we would have done ALL of them ahead of time. That would have been a significant investment. But, maybe we would have? I’m not sure. This is one of those cases where having all art finished made sense for us, but it might not for games with more art than we have.

The Pre-Campaign Hotness

Grant: We weren’t sure when to try to hit the Hotness with a thumb drive. We decided to do it about 2 weeks before our campaign when our box cover was ready and we had examples of every card with final art. We uploaded our cover and for 2 days, over the course of about 5-6 Tweets, I asked people for their thumbs. Then, the quality of our art and momentum took over.

The result is about 100+ thumbs for our cover image, and a presence on the Hotness for a week. That was really awesome! Shortly after us, the Hotness was dominated by 1 or 2 game contests running and everyone else  was quickly trounced. Our timing was fortuitous, but obviously that’s not something anyone can plan for.

Being on the Hotness was really great for us. I wrote about it in depth here, but the gist is that we saw a huge uptick in PNP downloads, more social media followers on Facebook and Twitter, several newsletter signups, and a lot of chatter around Hocus. We had a very strong launch for our campaign: 347 backers in our first 48 hours! I think a lot of that has to do with our presence on the Hotness.

Conclusion? Try to hit the Hotness a little before your Kickstarter launch. Not too soon, and not during. The real benefit is to bolster your launch momentum, which is so insanely crucial. If you have a weak initial 48 hours, by the time you hit the doldrums on day 3, you won’t have anyone to spread the word organically.

Josh: I think of a campaign taking place in several stages. First, it’s up to your personal social network. Your friends, coworkers, family – the people who will just jump in right away. That sets up a crucial second wave, which is all those folks sharing your campaign on their social networks. The friends-of-friends. Those two waves make up the bulk of your day 1 and day 2 backers, and the size of those waves is huge. The biggest reason? It keeps you high in the Kickstarter search results, which drives a surprising amount of traffic. That leads to the big third wave, which is ripples of shares, organic discovery on KS, and other people wandering in.

So, a pre-campaign Hotness drive, or more broadly, awareness drive, is crucial in increasing the size of that first wave. The more you can make people aware of things and prime them to back on day one, the more you’ll see a positive feedback loop of activity and the more you’ll roll at the beginning.

Ads and Previews

Josh: Grant took point on previews, and I sort of took point on advertising. For my day job, I’m an exec at a company that gets a significant amount of revenue from ads, so I’m familiar with how these things work, I know the lingo, and I felt comfortable with the whole exercise. For the previews, our strategy was to identify a small number of folks that we thought would dig the game, reach out to them early, and try to get a few really high-quality previews we could feature on the page. We don’t really think having a giant pile of previews helps anybody, and it would just generate a bunch of work for us in lining them up. Having some on our KS page from third parties is important for credibility, so we tried to stay focused and concentrate on quality.

I think that part of our strategy worked great. The previews we got were fantastic, they really told potential backers what the game was about, and we were pleased to feature them on our page and really give some space to things. I’m pleased with how it worked out. We wanted to give people enough information that the price point and art would carry the day.

For the advertising side, we honestly didn’t put a ton of thought into where we’d put ads before the campaign rolled out. We knew BGG was the right place to put most of our ad spend, and so that’s what we did. I reached out to Chad Krizan to get the sell sheet in February, and we decided that we wanted to go for the front page takeover. That required a total ad spend of $700, which was close to what I’d mentally budgeted for promotion, so that was kind of that. For timing, we wanted that takeover to hit towards the end of the campaign, to reinforce the 48-hour reminder and try for a really big finish to the campaign. You get a lot of virtuous cycle effects from these sorts of things, so timing two of our biggest promotional things to go off at the same time seemed like a good idea. Because I reached out to Chad in February, we basically had our choice of days we could pick for a takeover, and the dates of our KS were set: avoiding Origins and Gen Con, nestling right into the middle, with a BGG takeover towards the end of the campaign. As with so many things, planning ahead and lining things up way ahead of time pays off.

As with the previews, I’m pleased with how things worked out. The ad spend on BGG was productive, with clicks to our Kickstarter page costing us about $.27 each. We had a conversion rate of about 8.5% across all visits to our page (which is fantastic!), so that $700 ad spend generated somewhere in the neighborhood of $4100 in extra revenue. Knowing that, we should have upped our ad spend! Now, of course, some of those people might have found us through another avenue without the ads, or they used the ads as a reminder, so the real profit there is likely lower. It’s still impressive.

Interestingly, the takeover banner was about the same cost per click as the other ads we bought on BGG – a higher clickthrough rate, but they’re also more expensive per impression. However, the takeover allowed us to concentrate ad impressions on that day, to try and maximize the closing finish. And it worked, as we nearly beat our day 1 numbers on the second to last day of the campaign.

I also experimented with Twitter ads during the campaign, just on a small scale, with a $100 ad spend. Those ads were timed to bolster a weekend, to try and not let our position on Kickstarter searches decay too much. Those ads, targeted at an audience with “board games” interests, cost about $1.50 per click, and probably converted only three folks (as best I can tell), so that wasn’t a great avenue for us. Was it the timing of the ads? The content? The platform? Hard to say, really, but it’s an area I’d like to explore more.

For regrets, the biggest single thing I regret not doing for this campaign was having a deeper ad strategy. I should have had more analytics hooked up, and I should have experimented with more types of ads on other platforms and I should have had better tracking of them. I don’t think our ad strategy was unsuccessful – we put the vast bulk of our ad dollars in a very sensible place – but I’m not sure we learned that much to fuel future efforts in this kind of area. But I do highly recommend BGG ads, and Chad is fantastic to work with.

Below, you can see what our referrer dashboard looks like. You can see the sources of a lot of our traffic, and how much of it is from parts of the Kickstarter platform (the things in green). There probably aren’t that many campaigns where Twitter is outdoing Facebook, but that’s where our social presence mostly is.

Dashboard

Grant: Uh, what Josh said. For previews, I chose a few sites and content creators whose work I really enjoyed and with whom I had a relationship. I reached out to them very early with the simple email of:

Hi, We’re doing a KS for Hocus in June. I’d love to send you a copy in June and a final copy when it’s ready. We’d love you to write a preview. Are you interested?

Due to the fact we reached out so early to most and had a solid game and a good relationship, almost all of them accepted. I heard many backers tell us that they heard us via On Board Games, or watched Jon Cox’s amazing video preview on our page, and so forth. As Josh said, this content aided our credibility and just fleshed out our presentation. I’m so happy with the partners we chose.

Hustle – Mid-Campaign push to “go tell everyone go go go go go!”

Josh: We didn’t spend a lot of time during the campaign hustling for coverage, or prodding our backers into sharing. We both mentioned the campaign pretty often on Twitter, but that’s because we talk about most stuff on Twitter. I think we might have left some money on the table here, but cajoling your backers into becoming your salespeople comes at a relationship cost. We were more than happy to just have people as customers. If they want to help, great! But putting their money on the line to help us produce the game is fantastic.

Again, it’s hard to say how much this stance hurt us. But if we’re trying to build a real business here, we’ll be able to reach people post-campaign at retail, and we didn’t need to turn into hucksters to make this thing happen. And that made us both happy.

Now, we did stay in touch with our customers with updates. But we tried to make those interesting, with plenty of design notes and history of the game in them, along with some miscellaneous surprises for folks. We didn’t plan out a schedule of those ahead of time, and perhaps we could have planned things a bit better, but we only really got one complaint about them, so I think we did fine.

Grant: That complaint was about frequency as well, so take that as you will. We wrote 14 updates in 30 days. That’s not too bad.

There are a lot of typical, obvious things we could have done to hustle more, including:

  • Thumb this photo
  • FB sharing goals
  • Twitter sharing goals
  • Generally just telling people to tell others

It’s not that doing these things is bad, but it sometimes feels exhausting as a consumer. I feel like promotion is our job, right? We tried to really have our PR elements lined up ahead of time, including several previews on Jon Gets Games, Geek Dad, and I Slay the Dragon. We have interviews with podcasts like Who, What, Why? and On Board Games Crowdfunding Edition. We also mailed copies to dozens of testers and some prominent folks. Some turned into coverage for us, some didn’t.

But, we wanted to reach out to our fans on a one-on-one basis and provide them with interesting development commentary using our updates. It doesn’t seem like our lack of hustling hurt us too much. Either Kickstarter sent sufficient people our way, or our extra copy deal led to friends talking to buddy up on a pledge, or folks just told others or shared the PNP.

I don’t think we’re natural salespeople. I’m a terrible networker. I sorta naively hope the work speaks for itself, which I realize is foolish, but we lucked out in this case. It’s something we should re-examine next time.

Wording and the Nitpickers

Josh: One thing about having a pretty big early set of backers is that we were able to get a fair number of eyeballs on our PnPs and our rules. That’s fantastic! We had many backers reach out to us to tell us they’d played the PnP and were backing the project as a consequence. There’s no possible message people could tell us that makes us happier by the way. One thing that all these backers did was look through what we’d put up. We didn’t get much in the way of balance suggestions, just a couple comments. But we got an absolute ton of wording suggestions and nitpicks.

It’s easy to get a bit annoyed by that type of feedback. You immediately get a bit defensive, thinking that your wording is fine. However, settling down, we could clearly see that there were ways to improve our wording, and we tried to take every bit of textual input we got. We couldn’t quite take all of it, but having those PnPs ready to go at the start of the campaign has materially improved the wording in our rules and cards.

Grant: Key piece of advice: If you use a verb, never use another verb. We found that we used “Play,” “Place,” and “Add” interchangeably. And, it’s fine. It doesn’t hurt player understanding and it didn’t really bring forth rules lawyers. But, making it all a single term means that it reduces friction by 1% more. We had a ton of nitpicks like this and it can be trying, but it’s important to do. I’m so thankful we had hundreds of eyes on our final final game and I hope we can get this on our next game even sooner. It was invaluable.

Something we REALLY hope results from our KS and relationship is more testers. That would be worth its weight in gold. Gold I tells ya.

Interesting Tactics of Note

Grant: A tactic we observed to be very successful for other campaigns is where you have a super low level entry price point, say $15. You then have a Deluxe Price Point, that is the entry level, plus a minor expansion, plus Stretch Goals, for, say, $25.

What seems to happen is that people get their foot in the door via ads, social media, or what have you with $15 in mind. They make the decision to buy at that point, but then see the $25 price point. In many cases, folks would back at the $25 level, as they already decided at the $15 point, but wanted the major offering.

Very fascinating! I’m not sure it’s something we’d do, but it seemed to work very well for the few we saw do this during our campaign.

Things People Liked

Grant: The idea for this section came from Steve Caires. It feels a little braggy, but it will also be useful, hopefully, in that you can see the things people appreciated. How should you look at this? These are the things people liked enough to comment on.

  • How to Play Video: Many backers told me they watched this and backed the game as a result. I only spent about 5 hours making it, so the level of effort was fully compensated by the support and appreciation.
  • Thank You Letters: Everyone who responded seemed to note that they appreciated these.
  • The Game: Many many people played our PNP and really liked it. That’s…good! And expected. We haven’t spent 18 months for nothing.
  • Page Layout: When asked if they had questions, people would often respond “Nope! Page was crystal clear.”
  • Responsiveness: We tried to respond to every comment, message, and email before going to sleep every night. Folks commented frequently on how responsive we were.

The Spam

Grant: One thing I was somewhat expecting before we launched was to receive messages from people. Holy billy. Basically the second you fund, or look like you’ll fund, you will receive daily messages from:

  • “Companies” offering their promotional services. These all had a mega scam vibe.
  • Manufacturing companies seeking your business. They will email you repeatedly until you actually respond and tell them no. This is maddening, by the way. Don’t shout at people like they are a wall!
  • People seeking Kickstarter advice. This is fine, actually. I’ve asked so many people things in the past. I need to pay it forward.
  • People who want you to offer their mailing list a special deal so they recommend your project to their mailing list.
  • Other Kickstarter campaign runners seeking a co-promotion deal.

Let’s discuss this last one further. The intent, I think, is good and honest. Someone wants you to mention their campaign in an update. In exchange, they will mention your campaign. All parties benefit, more backers move around.

Right? I immediately developed a policy of rejecting all of them, because it was easier to do this uniformly instead of picking some versus others. This was actually a very easy decision in every case except for one. The reality is that I knew nothing about any of these games. I hadn’t played them or read their rules. I also didn’t know the publishers or project owners. Finally, it just felt odd. I see people complaining about Kickstarter projects promoting their new games months or even years later. I’ve received messages from people long after the initial project and as a consumer it’s like, okay, I get it. But, I’m not on your newsletter — leave me alone!

In our updates, we felt it best to talk about Hocus. That’s why people were there, right?

Josh: We’re putting a lot of effort to build trust with our backers, our customers. Our entirely strategy is predicated on building a long-term relationship with folks, and having them recognize that Hyperbole Games stands for quality. Cross-promoting projects we don’t know can chip away at that trust, even if it’s small. We weren’t about to cross against our strategy for this, even if it might have boosted our campaign.

Grant: Now, we did promote Paradox in our 10th Update. They didn’t ask us to promote their game, though they promoted Hocus when announcing that Adam McIver was working with them. I’ve played Paradox a few times and really like it. I was a day 1 backer for their game. I know Brian, Paul, and Randy. I felt comfortable speaking on their behalf and that of the game’s. I wanted to share it regardless, but also, I wanted to reciprocate their kind deed.

I know some people have done this very successfully and it seems to work, honestly. Apotheca, which has 2,600 backers and raised $112,000 featured co-promotion with about 5 different games. Their backers didn’t seem to mind, and Andrew clearly picked his partners carefully.

I don’t see myself changing this policy. It seems simplest to simply decline, politely, invitations to do this. In some cases I have no doubt Hocus would have benefited, but I really wanted to ensure that my recommendations were backed by knowledge and I just wasn’t able to do that, except with Paradox.

Josh: It’s a stance that’s easy for me to take as well. Our campaign is about Hocus, Hyperbole, and our customers. Anything that might disrupt that is something we’re going to put aside. Simple.

Grant: We’ll need to adhere to this even when we have another game. We shouldn’t bug previous backers with our next game. I’ve seen folks complain about it on Twitter and we’ll need to not abuse our Hocus backers’ trust.

Cancellations

Grant: At the start of the campaign I knew we’d have cancellations. I thought it would be 5-10 over the course of the campaign. In reality, we had 94 people cancel their pledge to Hocus, an average of 3 per day. With the exception of 2 people, nobody told me why they cancelled and I never followed up with any of them or asked why. It didn’t seem appropriate.

My mature brain thought: they have read more into the game and are no longer interested. Or, they want to spend their budget elsewhere. Or, they just changed their mind.

My lizard brain thought: OH MY GOD WHY ARE THEY CANCELLING WHAT DID I DO OR SAY WHY!!!???

I emailed some peers, checked in, and they all basically confirmed my mature brain’s sentiments. The two people who told me about their cancellation? Both had overspent for the month. It’s just one of those things that’s tough to bear, really. It feels like getting dumped, but more than anything, you want to know why.

Josh: I’m able to deal with this with more equanimity. I don’t see the cancellations, I just get to hear Grant’s gnashing of teeth. Me, I’ve only ever cancelled one KS that I can think of, but I can get why people might do it. I suspect most of them are just about budget. Seems reasonable to me.

Grant: I think that as Kickstarter grows in popularity and it becomes more common, you’ll see more people who just pop around projects. All of us are around for 30 days and they basically have tokens “in the arcade” that they can spend on anything.

This is one of those “problems” for which I don’t think there is a solution. We wouldn’t change our conduct, and there never seemed to be a correlation between any of our actions and a cancellation. We almost always received a cancellation following an update, probably because someone already considering doing so was reminded. But, otherwise, they just…happened.

My advice? Just prepare for it. Have a friend to whine to privately. I had Josh. Find your Josh?

Josh: Because it doesn’t bother me, I was able to just be philosophical about it. I recommend inventing ever more ludicrous reasons why people are cancelling.

The Video

Grant: We are not video makers. It just isn’t our skill set. When considering our budget spend on things like ads and preview copies and such, we felt like BGG ads were more important than paying someone for a really slick video. You only have so many bullets to spend and we hoped that a video preview, like the incredible one from Jonathan Cox, or our own how to play videos, would give people a little more meat.

Our video was very humble. It was a smidge over a minute in 4 cuts – intro screen, me talking, me talking some more after I forgot a line, and an exit screen. We simply laid out our pitch and price and let the rest of the page do the talking. We heard no complaints on our video, and I think our stats are pretty good!

We had 17,970 video plays, though you need to remember Kickstarter had AutoPlay for much of our campaign. The important stat is that we had 43.95% video completion. I’ll take it!

If you can make a video like Apotheca’s and it fits in your budget? By all means, do it. It’ll probably help you go viral and it really adds another layer of professionalism. But, if you’re like us, keep it simple, keep it low cost, and just let it do its job.

Do we use Kickstarter again?

Josh: Maybe? One of the biggest surprises to me is how many backers were driven directly by the Kickstarter platform. Obviously, we believed in its ability to get us more attention and folks on board with the project, but there were a lot more people finding us by browsing than I thought there would be. It’s been an impressive enough result that I think we’ll have to weigh using Kickstarter again pretty seriously. Obviously, we’d love to have a robust enough presence and strong enough mailing list to be able to support a pre-order system that works without giving up 10% of our revenue to Kickstarter.

Whether we use Kickstarter going forward will depend on a few things. It’ll depend on the performance of Hocus beyond the first shipment. It’ll depend on how much our presence in the market grows. It’ll depend on the size of our mailing list. And, most of all, it’ll depend on the specific game.

The next product of Hyperbole Games is probably Landfall, which is not going to go on Kickstarter, because it’s going to be a small printing where we need all the margin we can get. I think we’ll have no difficulty selling it out through non-Kickstarter methods. The game after that, though, might be several things. If it’s Project Cow Tools, which it might be, that’s a Kickstarter possibility. It’s a game we hope will have a fairly broad audience, and we’d like to take it to as many people as Hocus. That means we might really want to get the increased reach that Kickstarter provides, even though it costs us 10% of our revenue. The success with Hocus has been big enough that I think we would be foolish to ignore Kickstarter as at least a possible avenue going forward.

Grant: Josh really nailed my thoughts. We used Kickstarter for Hocus because we needed to prove demand in order to enter production. We were willing to pay them 10% to help us sell far more copies than we could have on our site and help us grow our reach beyond our social network.

In the past, Kickstarter didn’t drive much browsing traffic. Now, it absolutely does! Funny how things change. We really hope we have many people join our newsletter, as that is one of the most valuable tools for a publisher.

Landfall is going to be a small, boutique, weird printing and the 10% cut on KS would really affect our ability to make it. But, Cow Tools will be a bigger game than Hocus. It’ll be a bigger risk. If KS gets us 500-1000 more early customers than we can do just through our own site? It’s tough to ignore that.

We’ll really need to see where we are in a year from now. How will Hocus sell?

My biggest fear before Hocus launched was that our Stretch Goal plan would fail and we’d have to wrestle with very angry and frustrated customers on the platform. That didn’t happen and many of my Kickstarter fears have dissipated.

We’ll really have to see.

If you have any questions, comment below or email us!

The 54 Card Guild: #1

54CardLogo

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I want to invite you to join an elite and secretive organization. It is exclusive, difficult to find, and reserved for only top individuals.

Actually, it’s none of these things. I want you to join me in making games so that we can all improve our craft of design. I want you to join the 54 Card Guild!

A peer recently said “Be mindful of the people from whom you take your advice as many of them know just as little as you.” Over the years I’ve evolved my blog from sometimes pompous “this is how to do a thing” instruction, to philosophical meandering, and finally to more case-study styled pieces based on my own work. I don’t think I’m the worst offender of unworthy instruction, but I do worry that sometimes I’m too quick to make my own thoughts and work front and center when in reality, I want others to learn by doing. It’s how I learn and I think it’s a great method to improve design.

I’ve always been flustered by Game Design Books and GDC talks. They seem to opine in a vacuum bereft of reality, constraints, market conditions, you name it. They seem to be one sided and I feel there are far too few absolutes for monologues in this space. I think there’s more room for dialog, open thought, and experimentation.

The Content

Every 1-2 Fridays I’ll post a written blog and sometimes provide a short video. The idea is to start from the beginning (brainstorming) and continue through a variety of topics, including some layout basics, testing tips, rules writing, and more.

I will likely veer and swerve and hopefully the content is concise, interesting, and useful to you. All articles will be tagged with 54 Card Guild so they’ll be easy to find and reference.

The Work

All of us, me included, will be making a game. I have already begun working on mine so that I can stay ahead of things and use my efforts to guide the content.

The only limitation is that your components are strictly limited to 54 cards or fewer. These can be any cards, not just a poker deck, though doing that is encouraged!

This means no dice. No pennies. No board. Just 0-54 cards. Great creativity is spawned from great limitations. Focus on the core essence of the experience you wish to deliver and do it with a mere 54 cards. You’ll be surprised at what you craft.

We’re doing a similar exercise at work and my friends are making simple deckbuilders, heart variants, and party games. One even said he wants to make a hyper distilled version of Fief that strips out the board and war game and focuses on the social dynastic building.

I’ll try to provide weekly assignments. This isn’t homework. I’m not grading it, and nobody will mind if you miss a date. The idea behind these assignments is to provide milestones to guide your work. I find deadlines and measured goals help me, so perhaps they’ll help you. Feel free to ignore them!

So many words…Let’s simplify.

I want you to make a game with me that contains 54 cards or fewer. I’m going to provide notes and thoughts to aid and guide, but want you to feel free to pursue your own path and borrow what works for you and ignore the rest.

Let’s begin Guide #1…

Note: In order to facilitate sharing, I’ve created a group for us on Slack.com! Slack is a great website and smart phone app for easily sharing ideas and chatting. Email me at grant [at] hyperbolegames [dot] com if you want to join!

Guide #1: The Brainstorm

A good brainstorm will often emerge if you provide yourself freedom from distractions and a way to quickly record a wide range of thoughts. I do the majority of my brainstorming in 3 places:

  • Driving in silence
  • Walking my dog + iPhone Notes
  • Showering

At work, much of what we do is team based. A good method we have found is to pass out sticky notes and sharpies and individually jot ideas that we then stick to a big white board. This lets us individually focus while also collaborating.

Do yourself a favor and bury your cell phone when brainstorming. Get away from your computer. While Google Docs is a great place to type, having the Internet at your finger tips is just inviting distraction.

This is the easy part. The difficult part is finding your inspiration. There are a variety of nodes from which to draw, and you may be surprised to find they match your preferences in games to play!

  • Classic games. Do you love Poker, Black Jack, Bingo, or Scrabble? Well, games like Rise of Augustus, Battle Line, Samurai Spirit, Hocus, and more draw from these foundations. Hell, Richard Garfield likes making Hearts variants.
  • Favorite games. Think of your favorite 10 games. What is your favorite element of each? Is it that moment when you betray your friend? Do you love rolling that pile of dice? Do you like building a deck before the game? Or creating broken combos? Think of that core and write it.
  • Brainstorm Algebra, or X+Y=Z. Think of combinations, strange and intuitive alike. Drafting + Worker Placement. Zombies + Civil War. City Building + Winter. These combinations can be Mechanism + Mechanism, Theme + Theme, Experience + Experience, or any combination thereof. See where these threads lead. In fact, take items from the first two bullets and plug them in as variables.
  • Real life experiences. What are things you like to do? Cook? Perform stand up comedy? Exercise? Great designers draw from life experiences.

If the experience or thematic angle isn’t working for you, perhaps think of ways that you can use and manipulate cards. Cards are intensely flexible! Below, I’m going to show you a handful of common and perhaps less common ways you can use cards in your game.

The Action Card

Example_ActionCard

This is a very common case that maybe doesn’t need to be mentioned. If you’ve played Magic: The Gathering or Netrunner or Munchkin, you’ve seen cards used in this manner. The core concept is that you have a card with text or a symbol that indicates an action. On a player’s turn, they choose a card to play, and resolve its text.

Action cards are great for having great variety, but don’t get too carried away with complex text. Try to avoid conditional phrases, such as “If another player has 3 or more Coins, you may play this card.” Instead, just say “Take 1 Coin.”

Try to rely on a few key words and see how far you can stretch that before adding complexity.

Drafting

Example_Drafting

This is a beautiful two step process. Step 1: Choose the card you wish to play, for its action (as mentioned above) or to build a new building or structure, or for something else. Step 2: Pass the remaining cards to the player next to you.

Drafting is great because you can present your players with a wide variety of choices, but limit them to only one. You want 3 of the 8 cards in your hand, but you can only grab one. Drafting also allows for the fun method of interaction known as counter-drafting. You might take a card that’s less useful to you in order to prevent an opponent from grabbing it. This method of indirect interaction is friendly, yet potent.

The Military Unit

Example_Military

Think of a miniatures game, but instead of plastic figurines, you use cards. Cards work well for this as you can put all pertinent information on the card. You can use cards as a ruler even to measure and allow for a free form miniature-like environment. You can even use cards for Terrain. One card is a town, the other is a hill to fight over.

Cards are physical objects that don’t need to be in your hand. Summoner Wars shows us you can turn them into units that are just as viable as Memoir ’44’s plastic tanks.

When you use cards as units, be careful about having too much information. Players naturally want to read and know everything. If you have 20 cards out, each with 2 sentences of text, don’t be surprised when players stop constantly to read them! It’s really about slowly building the player’s army, limiting the complexity on individual units, and limiting what you need to know about another player’s units.

Multi-Use Cards

Example_MultiUse_AMulti-use cards are a favorite mechanism of mine that I have used quite often. Put simply, what if every card has two or more uses? Instead of having to perfectly tune a deck distribution, you can instead say that every card has a unique element (the B shown above) and a shared element (the A shown above). You can then play the card for either use. That A can represent a category. In your 54 card deck, you might have 6 categories of 9 cards each. The As could be a Building, a Politician, Infrastructure, Roads, Power Plants, and Wonders in a city building game.

Example_MultiUse_B

You can also take the 7 Wonders approach and give every card a unique attribute, then have global rules. For example, in 7 Wonders you can play a card for its attribute, or chuck it for 3 gold, or use it to build a structure. As long as your global rules are simple, this is a great way to go that doesn’t add complexity to the card’s layout.

Deduction and Peeking

Example_Peek

I’ve been trying to design a deduction game. So far, my efforts haven’t born fruit, but it has been a fun thought process. While thinking of examples for this article, I thought about Hanabi. In it, players can see the cards of other players, but not their own, as the cards are held backwards in front of you. Players can reveal clues by saying “All of these cards are this color,” or “All of these cards have this number.”

What if you hold your cards privately in a competitive game and you must inform an opponent of a shared property of all the cards that share it? So, in the example above, “these two cards have a blue building.” Your opponent then chooses any card to reveal. After so many clues and revealed information, they must make a guess about the contents of your hand.

For what purpose, I don’t know! Maybe you’ll find a gem?

Pre-Constructed Decks

Example_PreConstructed

This is a feature my design will use. Pre-constructed decks take a pool of cards, up to 54 in our case, and challenge players to combine them in new and exciting ways to create a new whole. These games are all about creating powerful combos and exploiting loopholes in the card ideas. Much of the fun comes from the deck construction, though the “actual game” must also be fun!

To make these games work, you need to think about the handful of nodes and elements every card needs to have. You can then use other cards to play off of these. In a battle game, a Unit might have health, a cost to play, an attack strength, and a one-time bonus that occurs when the card is played. You can then have other cards that manipulate and modify those properties.

They key is to consider these properties from a high level, then begin experimenting with the details and evolving your foundation as needed.

Role Selection

Example_RoleSelectionPlayers have a hand of cards, much like drafting. Also like drafting, they play one every round, often simultaneously, that determines their power, action, or capability. You want every role to be distinct and present upsides and downsides.

Perhaps Robin Hood shown above is good at getting gold, but can be caught by the sheriff. The Fez is good for scoring points, but a bad role for remaining hidden. And so forth.

Due to the simultaneous nature, you often want a way to resolve ties. Whose card goes first? Above, I added a number, so that the person who played the 1 goes first.

Think about providing players with non-obvious times to play certain roles. Work to ensure that the Fez doesn’t have an obvious time to play. This will lead to tougher, and more interesting decisions.

Throwing Cards

Example_Throwing

You can make a game about throwing cards on a table! Yes, truly! Your cards can have symbols that, when covered by latter throws, provide points. Or, when covered, provide bonus abilities. Dexterity is a wonderful medium that provides great laughs and establishes a casual atmosphere. Cards are physical, have weight, and can hold an image and instructions. Why not throw them?

Tile Game

Example_TileGame

Cards can contain pictures that link up and when placed adjacent form a map, or panoramic picture, or a galaxy, or anything really. The cards might have a strict orientation, like in some games where the cards must be placed in order, or their placement can be up to the active player. With this latter method, players create the map and you have a more random, but dynamic experience.

What surface can you create with cards? And, can you then cover the existing cards? Perhaps you cover a mountain with a snowy mountain to indicate weather? Or remove all water to turn a river into a desert?

My design will feature tiles.

Combining Cards

Example_TwoCardPairing

This is another weird idea I had when trying to think about crafting an AI for a game. What if you need a deck that can work in a variety of situations with only 54 cards? Here’s an idea. What if every player has a character, represented by a card. Each side of the card has a level, indicated by the 4 colors shown above. As you explore the world, you draw a card from the deck. It has 4 pieces of text or symbols on it, each with a color code that matches the colors on your card. If your blue side is facing up? You resolve the blue text. Another player might resolve the red text if that’s where they are at. Suddenly, every card has 4 uses that are contextual.

Not all 54 cards have to be the same! You can mix and match different types, then have them speak to each other in different ways. Think of your cards as Lego pieces.

The Assignment

Find yourself a good, quiet, distraction free location and begin jotting ideas. Think of 5-10 fun ideas using any method possible. Narrow it down to 1 or 2 favorites. Then, using an idea from above, or one of your own, begin thinking about the mechanisms and experience you will leverage and provide. Write these down, loosely, and begin thinking in a more focused manner. Give your brain time to stew and think about these 1 or 2 ideas in the context of a more specific arrangement.

Feedback, as always, is welcomed! Use the comments or email me.