Hocus Poker: The Pitch

Hocus

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who would you say this game is for, Josh?

Josh: Is it a cliche to say everybody?

Grant: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh: My job there is never done, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh: Other things to watch out for:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grant: Now I know how John Arbuckle felt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh: Yes, email him. He loves abuse.

Me and BGG 2014

bggcon-room

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

What I Played

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

Parado

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

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

ParadoxArt

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

FogofWar

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

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

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

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

Napoleonics

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

What I Bought

Bought

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

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

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

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

What I Tested

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

DSTest2

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

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

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

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

Hocus

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

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

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

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

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

Who I Met

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

“It’s the Cardinal Cardinal.”

“Huh?”

“It’s Tom Vasel.”

Awesome.

I’m Original, No I’m Not

eureka_1_

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

So, let’s do that.

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the realities you need to face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Version 5 and the Brink

121221103243-man-at-cliff-monster

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B2WRJAzCcAAUesl

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

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

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

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

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

Grant: Let it go.

Josh: BOOO.

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

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

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

B2ay7miCYAEqAzV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dude, so many sweet references.

Josh: At least we amuse ourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self Doubt is my first Tester

self-doubt

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eureka Moments

eureka_1_

Post by: The Design Community!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Corey3

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joshua Buergel: Designer of Foresight (Coming Soon)

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

Gil Hova: Designer of Battle Merchants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kyle Hendricks: Co-Designer of Bountytown

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

Jay Treat: Designer of Legacy of the Slayer

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

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

Ben Rosset: Designer of Brew Crafters

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

Chevee DoddDesigner of Pull!

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

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

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

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

Grant Rodiek: Designer of Farmageddon

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

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

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

Some highlights, in my opinion.

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

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

The Constitutionality of Rules

signing-constitution

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I imagine a few scenarios.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ignoring Kind Feedback

2X4_Spreck_whispers_sweet_nothings_into_Pelton's_ear

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Researching Theme

wizard2

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

Step 1: Pick a Good Theme

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

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

Step 2: Define the Player’s Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 3: Research Broadly

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

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

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

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

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

Step 4: Abstract early, abstract often

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-Baking with Dopamine

clock_works_by_hello_fujiang-d2ylc2m

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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