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 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.

Revising Your Design Process

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m obsessed with my game design process. My mind is my primary tool, but the way in which I exercise it, extract from it, and push it, must be constantly re-examined to ensure I’m doing my best work most of the time. I Tweeted about this earlier this week, but I wanted to write about it in greater detail, provide some context, and some actual examples.

I want to be a great designer. Not a prolific designer, or a best selling designer, or a famous designer, but a great one. At some point, when it happens. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take all that other stuff, but first and foremost I want to be really good. I believe the rest typically follows. I think a part of that path is doing things well.

Sometimes these changes emerge organically. There’s a lot of that with Hocus and Landfall with Josh. Hell, that all started with an email that said “Uh, I think you’re my co-designer?” When you work with someone almost exclusively through text, it changes how you communicate, how you express ideas, and how you work. Some of that can also be brought over to my solo designs.

I’m recently trying something entirely new, with great success, for Sol 3.0. I’ll write about this and Sol 3.0, but first, I want to talk about some of the things I’ve tried.

Most commonly for me was Brainstorm, Write Rules, Build Prototype, Test. I used it for Farmageddon. This works well when an idea crystallizes perfectly in my mind. I’ll walk my dog, stop at the park to write a note on my phone, go home, and write it all down. It all makes sense, I have no questions, it just works. The problem is, how often does that happen? So rarely. Maybe once or twice. The rest of the time, that first attempt to write the rules is akin to Pooh Bear trying to squeeze through the hole. I’m trying to force so many ideas against so many uncertainties. As soon as I finish a setup section, I’m trying to figure out how a player will win. Then I ask, but wait, what do they do on their turn. Oh crap! Are there turns? Is it a round? Check Twitter. Oh, I’ll mock up a card for a bit. Hmmm…what does this mean?

Suddenly, I’m so lost and stuck and I forgot why I started the design in the first place. There is a graveyard of half-finished rule sets in Google Drive that rivals the banks of the river Styx.

I’ve also tried a process trademarked as Cheveeing It, by my friend Chevee Dodd. Chevee thinks with his hands. He makes stuff in his wood shop, throws pieces together, and tinkers until something emerges. He’ll have a kernel, but as soon as he has that kernel, he busts out a poker deck, his dice, and anything handy. I’ve used this some, most disastrously with larger games, for many of the same reasons listed above. The larger the game, the more moving parts, the faster I get lost in a morass of things. Only now, instead of a partially finished rules document, I have a partially finished pile of index cards covered in ancient Grantieform.

This process did work very well for me with Hocus. I began the game with a deck of Bicycle Playing Cards, a bag of pennies, and 30 pieces of paper with Spells written on them. I whipped up the game in the morning, a friend came over for breakfast, and we played.

I think this process works in games with simple decisions, few components, and few mechanisms. Cards with numbers style games (Red 7, Abluxxen, Hocus, Modern Art, High Society), simple dice games, or maybe even light abstracts. In a way, you can call it the Agile of tabletop design. Agile can work incredibly well with small teams that produce simpler, low dependency software, but in my experience, works heinously with large, highly complex projects.

Another process, most recent for me, is the Remote Collaborative Chute. This is what Josh and I did for Hocus and if you can find a partner, I highly recommend it. I think, due to being remote, we had to do things differently than if we were in the same room. In the same room, I still think things would have gone well, but we would be doing a two player version of things I mentioned above.

Remotely, most of our important conversations occur in email. One of us will make the long argument for something. I don’t mean argue as in disagreement or yelling, but argument as in a pitch with thoughtfulness to back it up. When we’re brainstorming, we’re spitballing via messenger software, doodling pictures and mailing them, crafting mocks in Google Drawing, or sending pictures of games on BGG. “Like this, but with this.”

We review every single line of text together. Every decision. Every tuning pass. It’s intensely thorough, but it’s required so that we both know what’s going on and can discuss it. Many things are just rubber stamped. Josh or I both have our moments when we say “I think X” and the other person grunts and waves their chalice, sloshing cheap wine on the hounds. Then there are the “wait a moments,” where the chalice is set aside and we discuss upon the bear rug.

I don’t really have any faults for this process, but it requires a good partner. Like finding a good significant other, it’s not easy and sometimes it just works.

But, not everything I do is with Josh. Just, a lot of it. So, it’s time to revise some of my solo practices. Cheveeing it doesn’t always work. Nor does my rules first method. I recently picked Sol Rising back up with the intent to overhaul it entirely. Sol began its life as Blockade, where ships were actual blocks with pegs. This evolved to Sol Rising, with card based ships and a full thematic campaign. Then, Sol Rising 2.5 late last year, where I took some steps to integrate story more thoughtfully. 2.5 gave me some really good ideas. There were some elements I really liked that I thought made the game very unique. I felt like, if I were willing to throw a lot of work away, the end result might be smoother, more exciting, and easier to pitch. That’s what I’m doing.

But, when building a new game on top of a 2+ year old foundation, it doesn’t make sense to do what I normally do. I have a lot of good ideas I’m bringing with me. Things that are incredibly well tested. I also know what isn’t good enough, and I have high level ideas for what I want to accomplish. I felt like, in a way, I needed to pitch myself.

First, I opened a word document and listed about 12 high level things, from the experience perspective, that I wanted this game to have. Some are entirely new, others directly lifted from Sol, and others still a partial version of what Sol contained. I bolded the key point, then typed out a few sentences to provide a gist for what I’m looking for.

I wrote my goal, first. 

“Play an epic space opera with 2-4 players. Enjoy a persistent narrative campaign with friends in which your characters grow, get promoted, and die, and experience a smooth and dynamic combat game.”

I started listing ideas. Here is one that is a modification of my guns/missiles combat mechanism, which has always existed in every version of the game in some form.

“Advantage Rock Paper Scissor: Stealing from D&D, to emphasize the weapon systems Rock Paper Scissor I really like from the current game, I’m going to have situations where you’re at advantage and this gives you bonus dice to roll or situations. For example, Interceptors are at advantage against Bombers. Bombers, when close in with heavy capital ships, are at advantage. Battlecruisers against destroyers are at advantage. All will be on the card, and advantage will mean the same thing across the board. This will reward you, but not devastate you, for having the right ships for the right problem.”

Here’s one that’s almost a direct lift from the current game.

“System Failures: One of my favorite systems from the existing game. I want to make this system more robust and compelling, not just something that ticks away stats.”

Here’s something new.

“Custom Dice Combat: Custom dice that are rolled in combat. Different ships and Commanders will have different uses for the same die faces. This way, you don’t need to memorize rules, just chuck the dice and see what that ship does. The goal is that different ship types and commanders feel unique, results are varied. Commanders and ships can have faults that lead to interesting problems.”

So I have my guiding principles. I can sit in a meeting full of marketing executives, wave my hands about, and watch them nod as I list off high level ideals. I’ve been in those meetings, I know what’s going on. But, now I’m at the point of conflict that I typically find myself in for the first two methods. How do I explain everything? What do I do when I get stuck?

The thing about a prototype as mature as Sol Rising is that I just know it. I can live it and breath it. I can picture it in my head, even the new version. One of my first goals was to remake the map entirely. I hadn’t done that in almost 2 years. It was a weakness of the game. This is an entirely visual exercise, so I made a simple mock.

MapMock

Then I thought, where are the Units? How are the players represented. So, I added those. They’re the numbered diamonds above. I then thought, how are they controlled? Who runs them? I made play boards and tried to create a point of view for what that would look like.

PlayerBoardMock

You’ll notice at the bottom I have a hand of cards. I didn’t bother mocking those up…I wasn’t there yet. And when this was made, I just put in slots for things. I thought a character card might be cool, but I left it blank. I thought multiple squadrons and orders might be cool. I didn’t know how they would work, so I made a slot, and left them blank. I knew there would be phases to the round. But…I didn’t know what. So, I left it blank. I began creating a to-do list of things to fill out.

I made a mock for all 6 sides of the custom die. Then I realized I knew what I wanted my characters to do. That helped inform the dice further as well as the round order. Knowing the round order informed what the ships needed to contain.

ShipMock

I even made token mocks and cards for damage and such. Leave no stone un-turned, and no opportunity to make a lousy mock safe.

Tokens

None of these icons are final. I used the basic shapes provided in Google Drawing. And, if you’re reading he text above and going “But Grant…?” just ignore it. I needed to create basic examples just to get a feel for how the systems work.

So, after a week of chipping away at it, I’ve storyboarded my entire game. Like Pixar with a movie, or George Miller with Fury Road, I know how every step can and should play out. Now, I’m going to draft rules based on this framework. Now I’m going to write the dialog and the story. Once I have that, I can flesh out all the first pass content that I can test. Then, I can strap the story and scenarios I’ve been crafting for years and update them for the new system.

I’m really excited, both by the future of this game, but also using storyboards and mocks to craft the game and take it out of the cave of my mind.

What is your process? How have you evolved it? What do you do to remain sharp and improve? Share your thoughts on my article or answer these questions in the comments below.

Funny Games

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I find myself greatly drawn to the notion of humorous games lately. More specifically, designing games that are legitimately funny for those playing them. I don’t mean games like Apples to Apples, or Bad Medicine, or Cards Against Humanity that are intended to be funny party games. In a slightly finicky twist that makes this a blog post, I’m talking about games whose mechanisms and experience facilitate a lot of laughs.

I don’t think humor comes from flavor text, or funny images, but from the mechanisms themselves. Like true thematic integration, humor must come from the actions of the players and the overall experience, not the window dressing.

Some of the games that cause us to laugh the most are Coloretto, Carcassonne, Speicherstadt, Libertalia, and Witness. Why is that?

What then, makes for a funny game? There are a few elements, which I’ll detail briefly.

Simple content that allows players to focus more on their actions and opponents than the intricate details of their hand. See Coloretto versus Netrunner. Basically, player spent reading and learning cards is time not spent enjoying the table. Time spent deciphering icons and keywords is time not spent talking trash, discussing strategy, and staring your friends in the eyes to read their intentions. Funny games give players room to breathe, laugh, and crack jokes. Brainpower is required to be funny and overly verbose cards don’t allow for it.

Player interaction. We can debate this example I’m about to toss out, but one of the reasons Dominion will never be funny is that it’s not very interactive. Yes, there are some cards that allow you to swindle and torture your friends, but fundamentally, it’s not a terribly interactive game. It’s not a bad game, it’s just not a very funny one. Humor is all about surprise that isn’t upsetting, timing, and in some cases, tragedy. Good player interacting in competitive games is often all of those things. If you’re doing something to help yourself, it’s often at the expense of opponents. Now, I think the interaction needs to not be mean. Take that games are often mean. Good, funny interaction can be swindling someone with a low ball auction, taking the card they desperately wanted, or leaving someone with the bill when they thought they were driving up the price. Interaction is funny. That back and forth tension will just build great jokes. Feature it in your game if you want to be funny.

Schadenfreude. This continues the previous note some, but it can manifest itself in other ways. It can be the case that you are dealt some horrid luck. That’s funny for everyone else. Perhaps you think you have the upper hand, then your friend reveals a card in hand just as you’re pulling the chips towards yourself. That’s funny for the rest of us. By designing mechanisms that allow for schadenfreude, you’re giving everyone a reason to laugh. And, as long as your game is balanced such that someone can bounce back, it won’t be all of us laughing at you, but all of us laughing with you. That distinction is key.

Public information. This one might seem strange, but it’s important. If there’s some level of public information, players can begin talking about it, boasting, criticizing (or swearing) at each other, and having some great table talk. I love games like Carcassonne and Coloretto where you can watch everything evolve. Everyone sorta knows what everyone else wants. You know that Bob really wants to sneak into this castle. And when they draw the piece they need, everyone starts to laugh when Joe shouts “you bastard!”

Hidden Information. But but but I just said public information! Secrets are fun as they lead to bluffing and two words that dominate my games of Netrunner with my friends: hot treats. If you want to see a nasty smirk emerge on the face of me or one of my friends, watch us play the Corp in Netrunner. We’ll install a card, smile, tap it, and say “some hot treats for you.” Coup is inherently funny because everyone is lying. Everyone knows everyone is lying. It’s really just a matter of knowing when to call them on their lies. Secrets are hilarious, especially when they lead to unexpected consequences.

I don’t know why exactly I’m drawn to having humor in my games. I think that humor, as a side effect, improves my early testers’ perception of a game. I’ve found with my latest prototype that they’re less resistant to early, garbage tests because they are having a good time. Imagine what happens when the game is fun?

I think to games of poker or dominoes with my parents, or playing Hocus at Thanksgiving. The number of groans I hear around the table as someone blocks another player, or steals someone’s points, or scores big, just make for a very enjoyable experience.

I think that’s a key to why board games are special and worth pursuing. Video games are only funny in a singular sense. Yes, occasionally something incredible will happen online, but this is usually more a case of online virality and less a moment of humor between friends. The secret sauce of board games is social interaction. Being in the presence of other people. Sharing a table with friends while interacting among a set of rules. Humor is so intoxicating. It’s such a delicious human experience. It seems foolish of me to ignore such an ingredient for my games.

What games make you laugh? How do you craft humor in your games?

Balancing the Balance

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We utilized a few tactics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intermission: The cluttered and plodding content

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

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

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

Oh dear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Low Chance of Success

Sol3

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

Napoleon

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

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

Combat Commander

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

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

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

Eclipse

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

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

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

There are examples everywhere.

What this means for you.

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

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

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

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

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

How I plan to use this.

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Sayest Thou Poker?

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are some of my favorite responses:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Design Muscle Memory

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

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

Here are a few examples.

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

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

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

Example

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

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

pic496639

Cards from Dominion by Rio Grande Games

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

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

Netrunner-isabel-mcguire-pic1381139

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Designing for Alchemy

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hocus Poker: The Pitch

Hocus

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who would you say this game is for, Josh?

Josh: Is it a cliche to say everybody?

Grant: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh: My job there is never done, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh: Other things to watch out for:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grant: Now I know how John Arbuckle felt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh: Yes, email him. He loves abuse.