Windmills

don-quixote-windmill

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I don’t sit idly well. It drives my girlfriend positively batty and I’m sure my boss will soon fill my yearly review with comments to this regard. I stay busy, often for good, sometimes for ill.

I’m not letting myself touch Wozzle, at least not the version people are testing for us. It’s a good build, it’s testing very well, and it’s important to us that people download it with confidence knowing we won’t just yank it out from under them every 30 seconds with an update. That’s fine with a digital game, but when people take the time to print, cut, and sleeve, we owe them a steady build.

But. The mind wanders. We really want Wozzle to be just awesome. We’ve chased after a few rabbits already. Some entirely fruitless, or mostly fruitless with one tiny benefit. This weekend has revealed yet another rabbit hole.

Naturally, we dove in head first.

Let’s talk about why I chase them.

Note: Forgive the mix of singular (I, me) and plural (us, we) in this document. I’m semi-writing from my own perspective and that of me and my design partner, Joshua Buergel.

What would your favorite publisher do? Or, what would a great publisher do? I had a mental revelation yesterday. When it hit me, it made so much sense that it astounded me it hadn’t guided my thinking prior to this. As I thought on it further, I realized it had influenced me in the past, but not to the same degree. The thought was simply, in regards to Wozzle, “How would Gamewright handle this?”

I think Gamewright is a pretty incredible publisher of games and I own a few of their products. My most recent addition from them, Cube Quest, has already been enjoyed 16 times in the 2 weeks that I’ve owned it. Their games are simple, playful, beautiful, and just fun to own.

I’ve done this with other games in the past. I designed Sol Rising to be something Colby Dauch and Jerry Hawthorne of Plaid Hat Games would enjoy. I have another in-progress prototype that is meant squarely for Portal Games. But, in those cases it was more a high level “who could I pitch this to?” type question.

With Wozzle, it led us to nitpick our rules. Gamewright only publishes a few games a year. They are aimed at a very wide market of parents, families, and children, which means they need to be colorful, clean, easy to learn, and well-refined.

When viewing Wozzle through the same lens, we started asking quite a few questions. Which of these rules add more complexity than they add fun? Which of these rules don’t suit our target audience? Where can we condense and focus the fun?

An example of something we skimped out is the kicker. This is the concept in poker where you have two people tied with, say, a two pair. Neither of them has a higher pair, so you need a kicker. This could be the card in the Community, which means they split the pot, OR a card from somebody’s hand. The problem is, this is a fairly unlikely occurrence. Furthermore, it’s a really complicated thing to explain. Is it so bad in this rare occasion people just split the pot?

No, we determined. The ratio of fun to complexity wasn’t where it needed to be.

In some cases, this process involves us doing a lot of extra work to go from an 85 to an 87 on a quiz, to use an American school system metaphor, but it is what a big, real publisher would do. Therefore, shouldn’t we hold ourselves to that same standard? Another change is that I re-made all 30 cards to not change the mechanic, but the presentation. Why? We think it’ll be more accessible. It was a pain, but it’s what a AAA publisher would do.

In the software world, we often branch our builds. This is often for the purpose of a demo at a convention like E3 or Gamescom. We branch, isolate, and polish a build for the show. Meanwhile, the majority of the team continues to work on the actual, shipping software.

Another, more recent phenomenon is the notion of A/B testing. Pioneered (I think) by free to play game developers, different tuning variables, art, UI layout, or even mechanics will be shown between different sample groups, called cohorts. The purpose is to find out which solution works the best and propagate it to every build.

We’ve branched Wozzle before with minor changes and now we have not one, not two, but three rules documents that we’re testing and pondering. Why? For the same reason our nefarious government overlords have R&D. We want to see if we can learn anything from our branched skunk works projects that can make the main line better. There’s a pretty high chance that these branches will result in fruitless dead ins. But, by chasing these windmills we’re able to determine that the mainline is in fact the superior solution OR, just maybe, find something even better.

I realize all of this sounds like the indecisive spinning of a man man. But, we’re not! If anything, I think this is some of the most sophisticated, mature development I’ve ever put into a personal project. I’ve personally taken inspiration from other sources around me lately.

At work, we had a few key features “locked down.” We thought they were done. Then, someone asked if they should really be locked down. We all grumbled, sighed, and then thought about it. Like the multiple stages of grief, we soon found ourselves at acceptance. No, it wasn’t as good as it could be. Yes, it can be better. The result? We made it better.

In another case, I have a beloved elder project that I thought was pretty good. As it turns out, the foundation was pretty good. The core was good. But the details? Not incredible and not as good as they could be. I’ve had all of my beliefs and assertions challenged and it has led to a great leap forward.

There’s acceptance of the known and the embrace of potential. Potential, though, like ideas, is everywhere and sometimes just hot air.

Calculated, thoughtful questioning may be the best thing for your design. If you make an B game, is that good enough? Can you make it a B+? Then an A-? The line for when to stop and when enough is enough is really fuzzy. I clearly haven’t found it, or I simply haven’t been able to identify it.

Who then, can show us the line?

Our players and loyal testers are potentially the greatest line identifiers. With each rabbit hole we’ve engaged a mixture of our most dedicated testers, team members, and peers. The response hasn’t been universal yet and I never expect it will be.

Twice, today, we had our survey return with an answer of “No! Don’t do that!” In a sense, it’s an incredible compliment. What the hell are you doing? Don’t touch it. I like what you’ve done. It’s comforting to know both that people like what we already have enough to yell at us AND that we’re humble enough to return from the depths of our rabbit hole, hats in hands, with nothing but shrugs and mud speckled grins.

The lesson I aim to share is this: when you think your rules are done, take another pass. When you think you have the best set of cards, identify your 3 weakest ones and try to replace them. If your mind conjures an alternate mechanic, branch and test. At least discuss it.

When you walk past the cute girl at the park, turn around. Introduce yourself. She may be involved with someone, or she may become the love of your life. That’s a bit hyperbolic, I agree. But, look around. Yeah, that’s right. I chose that name for a reason.

The Story of Scallywags (Part 2)

This is Part 2 of Chevee Dodd’s story about designing Scallywags and finding a publisher. Here’s Part 1

Guest Column by: Chevee Dodd

Shortly after submitting Doubloons! to BoardGameGeek it received a bit of attention.  A few people even made sets and tried it out!  Some people left comments.  Some people posted in the forums.  Some people sent me messages.  Some people even started working on their own versions with updated art and layout!  The few people that tried the game were very encouraging.  They told me that I had something and that I needed to give publication another shot.  I had already begun working on my next game and had abandoned traditional publishing for this new found freedom.  It was liberating to be able to share and discuss my game with complete strangers.

The fans persisted however and I gave in.  I made a deal with myself.  I would pick one publisher and I would send them an introduction letter.  If they picked up the game for publication, great.  If they didn’t, I would continue to work Doubloons! and other print and play games and never look back.  Obviously, the fans were right, but the journey to publication was not a simple ordeal.  Not at all.

I spent a bit of time researching publishers.  I had a few in mind and I wanted to pick the one that really made the best sense for both parties.  With a bit of study and deliberation I picked Gamewright.  I needed a publisher that worked well with light family games.  I needed a publisher that liked adding toy value to their games.  I wanted a publisher that would put a great deal of effort into making sure the game looked great, played well, and appealed to everyone.  Gamewright makes great family-friendly games with excellent components and stunning art.  I knew they could give Doubloons! the treatment it needed.  It just so happens, they are also the same publisher that produces Loot.

After I had the publisher selected, I started the process as I always had.  I could not find submission guidelines on their website, so I resorted to a traditional introduction letter.

This is the email I sent:

I would like to submit, for your review, a game of my design.  If I have not contacted you through the correct channels, I would appreciate the opportunity to present my game to the proper personnel.  Thanks!

——————–

Title: Doubloons!

  • Age Range: 8+
  • Time to learn: 5 min
  • Time to play: 15 min

Components:

  • 50 cards
  • 40 coins (in various denominations)
  • 1 rules sheet 

Description/Theme: Doubloons! is a light-hearted game in which players take on the role of swashbuckling pirates divvying up their booty. To begin the game the coins are dumped in a pile in the center of the table. The coins are only marked on one side and are left as they fall (face up or face down.) On their turn, players use cards to take doubloons for themselves or give them to their opponents. The coin’s orientation never changes. There are cards for distributing face-up and cards for distributing face-down coins; thus, throughout the game you will be giving players face-down coins and can somewhat manage an idea of what the value of their take is.

Play continues until all players have 10 coins, at which point the game ends and players total the value of all their coins. Biggest take wins!

I thank you for your consideration.

Chevee Dodd

The introduction was short and simple.  The goal of an introduction letter is to quickly introduce the game, the required components, and the core concepts without going into too much detail.  I did not attach the rules, nor did I include any images of components.  The goal is to not waste the publishers time if they are not interested.  Most publishers have a production schedule that may be years in advance.  They may already have games in the production lineup that conflict with what you are working on.  The theme might not fit their style.  The game mechanics might not fit their brand identity.  If they want to see more from your game, they will ask.  If they don’t, they will politely tell you that they are not interested.

My reply came seven months later.  The publisher was interested and wanted to see more.  They asked for rules and any pictures I could provide of the components.  I was told that it could take another 4 to 8 weeks for review after this information was submitted.  This time it only took a couple of weeks and the publisher asked for my prototype!  The only problem was that I had given my only prototype away during the Print and Play Secret Santa that ran on  BGG that year!  I scrambled to get something presentable together and mailed it off as soon as I could.  I had made it this far a few times before and I was not getting my hopes up, but I did not want to damage my chances by being less than punctual.  This process, after all, was what jaded me towards traditional publication in the first place and I wanted to be sure that I did everything I could to help the game succeed.

It was another five months before I heard back from the publisher.  It was now September of 2009 and it had been nearly a year since I contacted them and over a year since I had designed the game.  The testing was very positive and they liked the game!  Unfortunately, they couldn’t commit to it yet because of a backlog in production schedules, but I was assured they could make a decision in early 2010.

Contracts and Lawyers

Well, 2010 came and went and nothing.  We traded pleasantries a few times and I was assured that they were still considering the game.  In the mean time, I had changed careers and started college.  Game design had taken a back seat in my life.  I stopped working on new games and had little hope for the future of Doubloons! I wanted to design games still, I had just been put on hold while other things needed my attention.  It was not an enjoyable time in my life, but I got through it.  Occasionally something new would pop up on BGG.  People were still discovering Doubloons! and creating content.  International Talk Like a Pirate Day was a popular time for the game.  With card names like “Arrrrrrr” and “Shiver Me Timbers” it was a natural fit.  That kept me hopeful that I could return to design and keep publishing print and play titles at some point in the future.

I learned something about print and play games in those two years.  The more difficult the game is to create, the less chance people will put in the effort to make their own sets.  Making forty coins with identical backs and different fronts is a difficult task.  Not everyone wants to purchase a custom rubber stamp to imprint coins for a game they have never played.

September 2011, three years after I initially contacted Gamewright, I received an email.  It had been almost an entire year since my last contact with them and my patience had paid off.  They wanted to license the game!  I received a preliminary offer that was quite generous with one exception.  They wanted me to take down all print and play files I had put on the Internet.  I was conflicted about that point.  I had abandoned traditional publishing so that I could make my games available to everyone.  I embraced a new ideal that I felt strongly about.  I used open source software to design a game and I wanted to give it away.  I realized, however, that the game was difficult to make.  The coins made it prohibitive and I believed in the game.  I wanted people to be able to play it.  Being published by Gamewright meant that anyone could pick it up and play.

I accepted their initial offer and we started working on contract negotiations.  I won’t go into specific details about the contract, but I will say that their offer was in my favor.  I had read many horror stories about crooked publishing companies giving designers horrible deals that robbed them of their creation, but this was none of that.  I am no lawyer, but from what I read initially, it sounded very much in my favor.  I trusted the publisher in every way, but I did not immediately accept.  First, I sought out the help of a friend that just happens to specialize in contract law.  He gave everything a read and assured me that it was on the up and up.  I encourage everyone in a similar situation to do the same.  I was lucky to have a close personal friend available, but if not, I would have paid a different lawyer to review the contract.

I did ask for a few minor changes.  The initial contract was very blunt in removing me from any and all discussions involving changing the game.  I was perfectly comfortable with them changing anything they like, but I did ask to be informed.  I did not want to receive the game at publication and be completely shocked at the changes.  I did not want to have to answer questions about the product without being completely aware of every aspect.  They obliged my request as long as they were given final say on everything.  Not a problem.

My second request was that in addition to my allotment of free copies I be given one additional copy of each subsequent printing including any foreign language editions, or sub-contracted versions.  This was a bit of a selfish request because honestly, I would love to have my game translated into multiple languages and I would totally love to have that on a shelf somewhere.  It was also so that I could track print differences between editions.  I wanted to be able to field questions about product quality if I were asked and I needed to ensure that I had an future printings to reference.

My game was going to be produced.  A real artist was going to draw beautiful images and a skilled development team was going to tweak things until it was perfect.  I was going to be able to hold the box in my hand and see my name on the packaging.  It was no longer a dream.

Accepting Change

It has been over ten years since I received my first rejection letter.  It has been nearly four years since I designed Doubloons!  I spent more than two of those years waiting to be rejected by Gamewright.  In the end, all of that patience has paid off.  My game is going to be on shelves soon, but this past ten months have taken a whole new level of patience.  Waiting for rejection takes apathy.  Waiting for news about the treatment your product is receiving is maddening.

As soon as the contract was back in the publisher’s hands they approached me about changing the name.  I was never particularly attached to the name Doubloons! so I did not have a problem with changing it.  We collaborated on the effort and the publisher eventually picked the one they liked the most:  Scallywags.  The question I have been asked most about the publication process is allowing the publisher to make changes.  I feel it is important for the publisher to have full control over the final product.  They are, after all, in the business of selling games.  As a designer, I design games that I enjoy.  That does not mean, however, that my games are perfect and ready for the market.  Game publishers employ developers that can take a raw design and polish it.  Gamewright happens to have some great developers!

When it came to every change that was made to Scallywags, including the name, I took this stance:  I am a game designer.  I design games.  The publisher sells games.  They know the market better than I ever will.  If they feel that a change will help the game sell, I have full faith in their decision.

This advice is particularly true with Gamewright, but I cannot promise you that all publishers have development teams that are as competent.  You may have to apply this advice with a bit of apprehension in your particular situation.  Whether you decide to accept change or struggle against it, be polite.  You do not want to build a reputation as a designer that is difficult to work with.  You may have a great track record of quality games, but if you are a pain to deal with, future publishers may pass on your submissions and accept games from less difficult designers.

Over the next few months various things changed about Scallywags.  Some of the changes were made without my input, some we collaborated on.  When I submitted the game I included a sheet of alternate/variant rules that had been tried during further playtesting.  I wanted the publisher to know that I was comfortable with change.  I cannot say that this addition helped them pick my game, but I’m almost certain it did not hurt.  Many of the changes we made came directly from this sheet.  I had always been dissatisfied with the end game, for instance, and we ended up going with a change that I wanted to implement should I have ever released a second version of the print and play.  In fact, the game as it is published is very close to what I wanted the second version of the game to be.

Sometime in December 2011 I received a preview of the best change ever: the art.  The publisher sent me a few card previews and I was floored.  Until this point I had no idea that the publisher was using the same artist that worked on Loot.  To say I was astonished is an understatement. The art is spectacular.  The next bit of news that I would learn is that they were actually molding custom plastic coins for the game!  I had expected punch-out cardboard, but Gamewright has gone the distance.  I had secretly dreamed that they would.  One of the reasons I picked them was for the great value they added to their games and that turned out to be a valid choice.  The problem with that decision is that it has delayed production even longer.  The game was supposed to be released in the first quarter of 2012, but instead has been pushed back because of the coin molds.  That’s okay though.  I would much rather wait for awesome bits.

So, here we are.  On the verge of release.  The game has been waiting for almost four years to be enjoyed by the public.  I have dreamed of reading stories about families enjoying my games and it seems so close.  There have been many trials and tribulations over the past decade.  Many times I wanted to throw in the towel and walk away.  I chose, however, to persevere.  I have struggled to succeed and I am extremely close.

One thing this success has done for me is renew my faith in myself.  I want to explore beyond print and play or professional publication.  I have returned to my roots.  I have a new found inspiration in open source software design.  The idea that something can be developed with complete transparency and that anyone who is interested in the product can follow its creation from the beginning amazes me.  I have set up a website where I could start designing games completely openly. I blog about every aspect of my design process.  I have published each version of my prototypes and rules for everyone to try.  I write articles about my design decisions and openly admit to my mistakes.  It is not easy to share my creative mistakes, but it has been rewarding.

I can’t guarantee that any of my future projects will be published in a traditional manner, but I can promise that they will be made available as print and play.  I design games for my enjoyment.  Though I would love to continue having publishing success, I cannot allow that desire to hamper my creative process. I don’t want to design games for money… but if my creative process develops something publishable, you can be certain I won’t say no!

The Story of Scallywags

I bumped into Chevee Dodd on Twitter. A few weeks ago, he approached me about writing about his upcoming game, Scallywags, on this site. I was a tinge apprehensive at first, as I didn’t know him that well and I don’t want Hyperbole Games to just be another PR platform. I inquired about his game and all apprehension immediately ran out the door.

Chevee’s game Scallywags was recently picked up by the outstanding publisher Gamewright. This is a huge accomplishment for any designer and it’s one I’d love to share at one point. Chevee asked me what to write and I told him to tell a story. One of my goals for Hyperbole is to showcase great work from other designers — this is great work. Grab a cup of coffee to read Part 1 of Chevee’s story. Part 2 will be posted on Friday.

Guest Post by: Chevee Dodd

Never give up. Rejection Is Part of the Process

In 1997 I found myself adrift in the gaming industry.  Like many gamers at that time, I discovered our hobby through Magic the Gathering.  I loved collectible card games, but I had not yet been introduced to eurogames.  Strictly through chance, I found myself in a position to travel with United States Playing Cards during the summer to demo the X-Files CCG at their convention booths.  Along the way, I discovered the German phenomena that was Settlers of Catan (which was not yet printed in English) as well as some excellent American games that were fighting for this new sector of the market. 

I met James Earnest at Origins that year. He had a single tiny table next to our booth and struggled to sell his games for most of the show.  Saturday, in open gaming, he showed up with a briefcase full of games and started demoing.  By noon on Sunday he had sold out of his product and was taking pre-orders for the next batch.  Jame’s games were quick, simple, and fun.  They didn’t offer a great deal of difficult decisions, but they kept players coming back for more.  I was inspired.  “I can design these games,” I told myself.

I vowed to make a game as I left Origins.  I took a box of my boss’ business cards and told him that I was going to design a game and draw the cards on the backs.  He laughed, but I was dead serious.  It took a week or so for me to find inspiration, but like so many of my ideas, it hit me quickly.  I had also discovered Lunch Money during Origins and I absolutely fell in love with its simplicity and interesting play decisions.  The problem at that time was that I primarily played two player games. I had found a goal: Make a game similar to Lunch Money, but for two players.  In a flurry of inspiration I completed the design in about a half hour.  When I say completed, I mean done.  The game has never changed from that first concept.  I spent an hour or so drawing each card. My friends and I still play it and laugh at the silliness of it today.

I know this anecdote has nothing to do with Scallywags directly, but I tell this story to make a point: this was the beginning of a very long journey for me.  A journey full of disappointments and rejections that eventually led to Scallywags.

I had designed a game and I thought it was good enough for publication.  So did my friends.  We had played it hundreds of times after all!  It had to be good!  The problem with the game was that it was one big inside joke.  The cards and flavor were all based on that summer convention season that only included myself, a close personal friend, and a bunch of guys from a company 400 miles away.  That’s no problem, though.  Right?  Any Knizia fan can tell you that slapping a theme on a game is easy!  And that is exactly what I did.  I slapped a few themes on the game and sent out some letters of introduction to various publishers.

Within a few weeks I received interest from a few publishers.  They asked to see my rules for the game.  Excitement was high!  I could write a pitch that interested people and surely that meant I could make games that they wanted to publish.  After some more waiting, I received requests for prototypes.  This was the big time, I was sure of it.  All I had to do was send off some prototypes and wait for the contracts to roll in.  That never happened.  I merely received some nice, informative rejection letters.  In some cases, I even received my prototypes back in the mail.  That’s a disheartening moment.  It’s like someone mailing back your discarded dream.

Luckily, I was still young.  Rejection just hardened my resolve to try harder.  I didn’t stop designing games and I didn’t stop trying to get published.  I learned a great deal from those first efforts.  I learned to be more selective in my choice of publisher.  I learned to refine my prototypes and make them as functional and presentable as possible.  Most of all, though, I learned to accept rejection.  It is a part of the process.

Everyone in every creative position faces rejection.  Authors, musicians, programmers, inventors, artists, photographers… the list goes on.  This process is no different for game designers.  Learning to let go of the emotional attachment you have with your work is a very hard lesson to learn.

It proved to be a lesson that I would have a difficult time accepting.  I was so jaded by rejections that I stopped trying to find a publisher in the traditional manner. I decided to explore a new territory, Print and Play.

Print and Play

The original inspiration for Scallywags came in 2008 during a family trip to the beach.  During that trip I read Treasure Island for the first time.  I was in a pirate mood and wanted to design something using coins.  Further inspiration came one evening while browsing BoardGameGeek.com.  I found a BGG user named Jeremiah Lee who had designed a neat little game called Zombie In My Pocket and posted it on BGG for everyone to consume.  For free.  I hadn’t encountered Print and Play before that point, but I was instantly awed by his success.  His game received significant traffic and it wasn’t long before other people started making custom sets with fancy graphics.  It was the ticket I had been looking for.  A way to share my games with the world without fighting through the publication process.

The actual design process for Scallywags was not all that dissimilar to my first game design from 10 years prior.  There was a flurry of inspiration, some quick math, and I immediately started working on the first prototype.  The game involves coins that only have their value printed on one side.  While that is not necessarily a unique component, I had an interesting mechanic to go with it.  What if the coins were shaken up and dumped on the table to land either face up or face down?

I thought that would be a neat way to randomize point distribution so that not all information was perfectly available.  I had already decided that players were trying to amass the most gold, now I just needed to figure out a way to distribute the coins to the players.  That’s where cards come in.  Going back to some of the fun take-that mechanics of James Earnest’s Cheapass Games, I wanted to have players taking coins and giving coins from this central pile.  Players would be able to look at face down coins and hand them to opponents, or take the risk and snatch up face down coins for themselves without looking first.  There’d be cards that would let you steal opponent’s coins and cards that let you trade.

A little bit of math helped me work out how many coins there would be of each value as well as how many of each of the eight different cards would appear in the deck.  This is the part of designing that I really love.  I’m not a mathematician or statistician.  I’m not even really all that smart.  However, I love breaking games down and analyzing the related probabilities.  It is exceptionally rewarding when it is my own game.  I only spent about an hour working through the specifics of the coins and cards.  I was already in love with the game and wasted no time starting on the artwork.

Now, I can draw some cartoon characters, but I’m no artist.  The good news is that this was a goofy game and my little characters were a perfect fit.  I was so sure that this game was going to be good I didn’t even playtest it before the art was done.  The first time I presented the game to my regular group, I had a full color printing of the cards and slick wooden coins that I stamped with a custom rubber stamp.  In fact, the components never changed from that fist playtest through submitting to BGG and the publisher.  Sure, some rules changed, but the components worked well together and my math turned out to be pretty solid.

The game was titled Doubloons! at this time.  I had wanted to call it Loot, but I learned that there was already a game titled Loot that just happened to be about pirates and their treasure.  I picked a new name and submitted it to BoardGameGeek.  I remember waiting for it to be approved.  It took days, but felt like weeks.

Meanwhile, I refined the files a bit and tidied things up for printing.  I used business cards for prototyping because they are generally the same size and shuffle easily.  With the advent of printable business cards, I didn’t see any reason to do anything differently.  The card files were formatted to be printed on punchable business cards and I reduced the rules to a single page.

I was ready for BGG fame.  I was certain that I had picked a theme and a specific set of mechanics that would appeal to a broad range of BGGers and soon I would be swamped with fan mail.  That almost happened!

Thank you for reading Part 1 of Chevee Dodd’s story! Come back Friday to read Part 2. 

For Love of the Tale

Cole Medeiros is the cunning designer responsible for Gubs, published by Gamewright. I’d explain why I used the word cunning, but it’s an inside joke. I’ve only known Cole for less than a year, but he’s become one of my best friends. He’s full of strange ideas and wondrous, is relentlessly in pursuit of creating something fun, and is always looking for ways to stretch himself creatively. Cole is a good designer.

Cole has helped me with so many of my designs and I hope this is but one of many columns he’ll write for Hyperbole Games. Cunning. As a side note, after you finish reading Cole’s guest column, check out this excellent TED talk on creating a great story.

Guest Column by: Cole Medeiros (Gubcards.com)

My passion is story and that is exactly how I came to find myself playing games. I love a good story. Everyone does. Humans communicate primarily through stories and almost all entertainment we enjoy the most revolves around an unfolding series of events. What will happen next? Who will win the game? Wait and see…

My favorite board games are the ones that tell stories. Off the top of my head I think of Star Trek: Fleet Captains, Warhammer Quest, Magic Realmand Twilight Imperium. Every time I’ve played any of these games the random cards and combinations of rules have dredged from the depths of my imagination a tale worth telling. One worth talking about long after it returns to the shelf. ‘Remember that time when…’ is a common phrase among my gamer friends, because we like to make memories out of these plastic bits and colorful cardboard.

For me a great board game is like a magical story generator. It has a bunch of moving parts, wheels, and cogs, like some mystical machine which grinds up your decisions and spits out a narrative. A good story connects people together. I like board games because I like that feeling of connection. I don’t game with someone who I wouldn’t enjoy getting a beer with. I want to push pieces around with friends around the table and laughter in the air.

A few things I’ve learned about story and board games:

1) Not everyone can appreciate a good story in a game. Some people are in it to win it and if they feel some random but epic event unraveled their carefully woven plan, they toss the game aside as a failure. Me, I once battled solo through an entire Warhammer Quest dungeon only to have my best warrior slip off a bridge and fall into a pit of lava. The culprit? Rolling two 1s in a row. I could not stop laughing.

2) Story does not mean flavor text. Actually, too much flavor can get in the way. Sometimes a card with just a picture and a game stat can spark so much more of the imagination. Magic Realm (which is an older game) has the most bland bits I’ve ever seen. For example, a treasure site called ‘The Pool’ is simply a chit with text on one side. But because of the amazing mechanics (and I would argue the lack of embellishment), my imagination goes wild, revealing a treacherous lake filled with a slimy guardian and glittering with unknown treasures.

3) All this being said, good story does not mean bad mechanics. No, a perfect game melds them together flawlessly, with story that fits with the mechanics so well it seems almost like a mnemonic device for remembering the rule’s specifics.

For some time now I’ve been working on a game which functions as a co-op RPG without a game master. I struggled for a while trying to force a ton of unique story elements into each card and each encounter. Then I realized something: it was completely unneeded. All I needed to do was make sure that the basic concepts fit together logically, and players would make their own stories. Random decks can accomplish this if they are assigned and designed correctly.

I draw three cards: Asteroid Field, Pirate, Damaged Engines. Suddenly I have a story! While traveling through an asteroid belt a stray rock struck my engines, damaging them, and making manuevering difficult. Which wouldn’t be a problem except it seems pirates are about to take advantage of the situation. If I survive the battle, it will be a nice epic little episode generated completely at random…