Josh and I Discuss Collaboration in Design

lets-work-together

Hello! This is part of our weekly series about Wozzle. You can find more posts on this design by choosing the “Wozzle” tag in the Blog section.

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

Introduction

Josh and I have been working on Wozzle collaboratively for months. We’re so pleased with this initial experience we have even begun working on other designs (yes, plural). Josh lives in Seattle, WA, and I live in San Francisco, CA, so we had to figure out how to design together over distance. Thankfully, it’s easier than dating over distance.

We wanted to write about our experiences with collaborative design, our relationship, tools, and processes as we thought it would be interesting for other designers.

Vision.

Grant: I’m surprised we’ve never had a conflict of vision. That always seems to be the death of any design partnership. Perhaps it has to do with our origin story? Josh came in as an enthusiastic developer and before too long it was clear we were partners. I guess he just knew, “signing up,” what the game was and he agreed with that?

Josh: It helps a lot that it started a solo design. From the beginning, I think the vision for the game was pretty clear, and it hasn’t strayed from that original vision much. The mechanics have changed a lot, but it’s still recognizable as the same basic game. It also helps that I’ve been the developer on several designs in the past, and have tried to find ways to work with other designers. What got me into the project was the essential appeal of the core idea, and since I’ve been happy with that idea, it’s made it easy to stick to improving the game.

I think it also helps that we’re both apt to use persuasion as our primary tool in interactions. At no point have either of us ever tried to resort to any kind of coercion to get our way. The dynamic is one of trying to convince the other that something is a good idea, which is a good intellectual exercise and keeps conflict to a minimum.

Grant: Yeah, the persuasion note is a good point. It ultimately feels like we’re pitching to each other. Which I think is good, because if it makes it past that first hurdle, and not all ideas do, it must be at least somewhat better. Right? Right?

Josh has done a lot of professional development work with GMT Games and that can’t be overlooked. And, it should be noted, on way bigger games. I remember when Josh first started helping me on Brigade’s rules and I thought he had an evil knack for finding every problem in a rules document.

Let’s talk about our communication methods.

Grant: Fundamentally, our relationship exists in 3 places: through comments in our Rules and brainstorm documents, using Google Drive, through Gmail conversations, and via Google Talk instant messenger. We’ve been very dedicated to having up to date, central documentation. Our rules are always current. I think that helps keep us rooted so we always know what we’re discussing.

Josh: I think working in technology, like we both do, really helps us out here. We’re both comfortable with these sorts of digital tools and have no trouble with a conversation distributed across several channels like this. Having it all be available and searchable at all times of course is really important.

A useful working habit here as well is that we’ve gotten pretty good about responses in a timely fashion. Not necessarily instantly, if we have stuff going on, but most documents, changes, suggestions, and other pieces of correspondence usually get a look within a day or so. That keeps thoughts fairly fresh and keeps the number of confusing “didn’t we already discuss that” conversations to a minimum.

Grant: Come to think of it, this is a reason some of my past tries with collaboration have failed. We have a similar work schedule and ability to spend time on the project. It doesn’t help if one person works on it daily and the other only has time to do it weekly.

We also both work as managers with teams ranging from 5 to hundreds of people. I can’t help but think that’s made us generally good at written communication. It’s important to be precise and concise when using written things to discuss design or anything really.

Josh: Essentially, forcing ourselves to have all of our thoughts written down between each other has made the translation into actual user-facing rules a much easier transition. No video chats! We’re working in what is essentially a written medium, so writing should be more than enough for our collaboration as well. I only know what Grant sounds like because of his gameplay videos. He hasn’t the foggiest what I sound like (but will at some point).

Grant: I enjoy the mystery.

One thing I think has helped us a great deal is our weekend schedules. Josh is never around his computer on the weekends. He is out and about with the kids, etc. I’m sometimes glued to my computer, other times also bumbling about with my dog. I think we’ve done some of our most creative work over these weekends. I remember the weekend we switched to the new deck format and came up with Arcana we had a 90+ email thread. Just short quips and notes back and forth from our smart phones.

I’m not sure if it’s exactly something others could engineer, but I think having that “away time” to think in brief has been very useful for us.

Josh: Yeah, I spent most of that weekend at a BBQ or at the park, watching my kids run around, typing stuff on my phone. I can’t really emphasize enough how important being able to usefully contribute on my phone is. It really does help that you’re able to translate some of my more scattered thoughts into a more permanent document on these sorts of occasions.

Grant: Some of our best brainstorms have been triggered by quick throwaway notes. Just a short sentence with the base question. That “fire and forget” lets the other person do a little imagination their end and, as you discuss it, you meet somewhere in the middle.

Josh: We should show the email where I started floating the idea of a tarot-inspired special suit. Looking at it, it’s downright incoherent, but it got the wheels spinning, so it did the job.

Grant: I remember it made zero sense, but Josh was really into it. I think I asked in 2 or 3 replies, “Okay, but what are you talking about?” We’ve gotten better at prefacing nutty ideas with “this is nuts” or “Just tossing this out,” and also setting up for things that actually matter. I knew Josh was trying to get to something important with the Tarot, and he was.

One thing I think has been both a challenge and a sign of our maturity is that there are times when one of us has a really stupid idea, but within that is a kernel of genius. Upon reading it, the first instinct is “no this is dumb.” But, in most cases, we’ve said: “go on, explain what you’re talking about.”

Letting the other person get the idea off their chest and past the knee-jerk has led to great stuff. It’s hard to do but you really have to actually discuss every idea until it’s clear it’s awful or good. It has to have time to breathe.

Granted, there was this one idea Josh had that I just did not like. I couldn’t get over it. I can’t even remember what it was specifically, but I compared it to Fluxx and felt really terrible afterwards. It was a dire insult.

Josh: Yeah, that one hurt. I’m still smarting. It was some spell idea way back that involved some crazy rearrangement of the table. Maybe some endgame condition.

Oh! It was my idea for a “0” Arcana card. I think it allowed an upgrade on your hand. Some half-baked thing.

Grant: Funny enough, we actually have the upgrade card IN the game, just not with the 0. So I guess we both did a Fluxx-ish thing?

Josh: If one goes back far enough, they’ll find me beating the drum for that idea a long, long time ago. Grant rightly resisted it in a bunch of its more lame iterations until it finally found fruit. Again, a sign that there are very few ideas that are so bad as to be worthless.

But at any rate, there has to be a lack of fear in any kind of creative collaboration. When I’ve had one of my brainwaves, the reaction cannot be “that’s stupid, you’re stupid, and you should feel bad” even if that might be the truth. Some of those ideas really have been rotten to the core, but a number of them have led to a useful conversation and some nice features. Even ideas where one of says “I know this is crazy…” are still worth having. A certain unfiltered brainstorming feel should be maintained at all times.

I’m not sure how often it’s happened on Grant’s end, but there have been very, very few things where I’ve just been totally repelled by an idea out of the gate. I might think one was kind of daft, but it doesn’t hurt to talk about those.

Grant: Well, a good thing in design, solo or otherwise, is to ultimately think about the end result. Sure, the method to achieve it might be silly. But, if the end result behind it is solid and it improves the experience? Well, then you have a great talking point. If you know where you’re going, you can identify the right steps to get there.

With Arcana for example, Josh said that it would be cool to have special cards, based on Tarot, that let players do neat things from their hand. That seemed like a good idea to add a significant element to the game. Now, it was a bit far out in that it added a lot of complexity to the game, but it was the right complexity and we had to discuss it.

I think the right way to go about it, which we more or less do, is say:

  • Here is the high level idea
  • Here is the problem it’s trying to solve or the opportunity we can take advantage of
  • This is how it fits

It’s then on your design partner to seek understanding first, before anything, THEN begin to discuss, evolve, and debate. Always make sure you critique from a standpoint of understanding. A phrase I’ve used often is: “can you elaborate further.”

Josh: That’s probably because I have more of a habit of dashing off a half-formed thought and then filling it in later.

There have been a few explorations that led nowhere, and most of those have been because they didn’t really fulfill a mission. It was experimentation for the sake of it, but it didn’t really serve a goal for the design, so it led nowhere. I’m thinking here particularly about some of the thinking about scoring systems, although that might still turn into some interesting variants.

Grant: I think we can provide cool variants for Wozzle for years.

Josh: That Arcana path came from a thought experiment, which has been a handy tool during the project. Essentially, we imagined what it would look like to pitch the game to a few publishers, and what they might think about the project and what we’d have to change. The end result isn’t necessarily where we thought it would have gone, but Grant proposed the idea of thinking about it and it spawned a useful discussion.

Source Control.

Grant: I think source control is really important. Having one person who actually makes the changes seems to have helped us keep things straight. In our current setup for Wozzle, I actually update the documents, Josh comments. However, on our other projects, there are some things Josh has the “lead” on and others where I have the “lead.” Basically, it keeps things sane and prevents them from getting out of control. You don’t want to have to worry about the “right” version or what you both agreed upon.

Josh: I’ve been a little surprised at how un-restricted that setup has felt. At first, I was itching to just make some of the changes directly to the rules document, figuring that would be more efficient. But it’s just not, at least for a game of this size. Putting my proposed changes in comments allows us to have a discussion (if one is warranted) or at least lets Grant see those changes before they go in. It means he doesn’t have to worry about looking at a diff to see what has changed between two revisions of the rules.

One area that I wish we had a better tool on is around cards. Currently, I have to just send my comments on card wording in an email. That works, but it’s out of context, and it’s not as easy for me to do quick reviews of that text.

Grant: The card stuff IS a bit slow. I don’t mind doing the card work and it’s very quick for me now. But, you don’t have an easy way to comment and it really helps seeing it on the card. I wish Google Drive had a graphics program that actually let you make stuff you can use. As it stands now, Drawing is basically good for mock-ups and not much else.

Josh: Even just annotated screen shots might help. Actually, maybe I should try Skitch?

Grant: That looks nice. I’d be fine with that. You could theoretically take the PDF and just write over it, yeah?

Josh: I think so, yes. I’ll give it a try as we work on new Arcana suits.

Another area where things have worked out well is bringing some disciplines from our day jobs back into the project. I’ve worked on a simple simulator for us to use to evaluate changes, while Grant has been doing much of the project management. That division of responsibilities has worked well here.

Grant: That simulator has been fascinating and so useful. It’s helped us do some quick, gut check simulation (or hundreds of thousands of simulations) on probabilities. It really helped identify the Crossways, which we may have tossed out without data to back us up.

In my day job I’m a producer on a very large team. My job often consists of tracking items in spreadsheets, talking to developers about issues, sending emails, hosting meetings. Doing projects like this lets me use those skills, but in some ways it gives me a chance to do things like I wish I could at work.

Windmills.

Grant: Something we’ve taken turns on lately is asking really tough, vague questions of the project. Asking how we can go to the next level, typically when we’ve just hit a nice smooth point after solving the previous problem. I’m curious how you feel about some of these when you get an email from me that says something like, “how can we make Wozzle more like a game Gamewright would publish?”

Josh: Those have been great. I think it’s easy to get complacent in a design. You’ve played it a bunch, your friends all seem to enjoy it, folks who are friendly to you are encouraging, and you start thinking that it’s pretty locked up. Having another designer there to ask questions, to keep the team restless, has been handy.

I think we could have stopped a month and a half ago and had a game that people would have enjoyed. It would have been a perfectly good, solid game. If it was just one of us alone on the project, it might very well have stopped at that point. But the continual questions have kept us honest, kept us focused on which are the worst parts of the game at any moment. “What if?” has been a great start to many of these conversations.

Grant: I definitely hit that point working on York by myself. I distilled it to this one precise thing. But, it clearly wasn’t ready at that point. Without a partnership it would have lingered.

Josh: What about content? I feel like it’s been much, much easier to fill out our needed content in this project than other, similar projects. I’ve been struggling on some of my solo projects to generate everything, but that hasn’t been much of an issue here.

Grant: I feel like we were born for the content here. I’m an action card fiend. Farmageddon has actions, York has Tactics, Sol Rising has 55 Unique ships. As a designer I’m obsessed with them.  This was just sorta my deal. And you are a poker expert and dear god have 3000 games. You know every poker variant and then some. I just think we have the skills needed to think of ways to manipulate cards.

Perhaps it’s also just the simplicity of the premise? Wozzle doesn’t really have much theme. If you’re making a card for your dungeon crawler it has to be rooted to the experience mechanically and thematically. For Wozzle, our only gate is answering the questions:

  1. Is this fun?
  2. Does it fit our game?

Josh: It did feel like, at times, we’d sort of reached the limits of design space for spells. I sometimes thought that there were only so many ways you could manipulate the cards within our rules set, and that we’d more or reached the limit of the good ideas. I was wrong, happily, as we were able to break into some new ground in a couple different ways by manipulating the costs of things.

But that’s again an area that I might not have broken into on my own. I might have seen the diminishing returns on spells and thought that the space was pretty much used up.

Grant: We go in cycles, for sure. I think we use a key term, exhaust it, then move on like barbarians to the next idea. We used to never do stuff with discard, now it’s here and there. We fully explored show, interaction, theft. I definitely think it helped, whether we intended to or not, to explore each one in a focused manner. But, yeah, I’m surprised we kept coming up with ideas. I remember after we cut spell 4 or 5 (now on 23+) thinking how I hoped we didn’t have to come up with too many more.

Graphics and Key Terms

Grant: The other thing that helped is we established a graphic design early. We knew we wanted big, chubby text and we worked really hard to identify key terms. That gave us not only a language to use between ourselves, but helped us frame the box, so to speak, on card content. That was a place you really helped, identifying key terms and forcing us to use them better.

Perhaps that’s another good bullet: identify key terms and a language for your project. It’ll frame the discussion.

Josh: It’s such a programmer thing. I think of a game term as nothing more than a macro, a subroutine. The game says “Add”, but in reality that expands into an entire sentence. My day job has me thinking in those terms all day long, where I can re-factor and pull things out, so it’s natural for me to extend that discipline in my hobbies. But it has been a solid area of collaboration, having a set of agreed upon terms and a sort of implicit working language. It’s made it possible for us to both think in Wozzle terms, which is useful.

Here’s another place where I think having two people on the design helps, which is that it gives a safety net. It’s unlikely that we’re going to accidentally screw up the design, because there’s another person there who understands things just as well. In order to drive off a cliff, we have to both not be paying attention

Grant: I think another benefit of remote collaborative design is that we have two core groups with whom to test. I have about 10 people that have played the game at last 5+ times each. But, my core group is different than yours. They have different tastes, preferences, and play styles. In a way, it’s like I’m blind testing for you and vice versa.

Josh: That’s a great point. I’ve got a core group of a half-dozen or so people that I’ve been gaming with on a weekly (or more!) basis for 18 years. These are folks that play huge, long games with me as well as a bunch of smaller games. It’s a pretty picky, analytical group, which is great for a lot of things but can sometimes get down in the weeds. Having another core group balance that out has been really handy.

Key Points to Summarize

  • Make sure you both agree to the goal of the design.
  • Take advantage of good software to work together. There’s no excuse.
  • Use careful source control so that changes don’t get lost in the mix-up.
  • Always discuss ideas from a point of understanding. Make sure you understand before you say “no.”
  • Challenge each other, to keep the design moving forward. Even if it seems stupid, ask “what if”
  • Create a glossary of terms to frame the discussion.

If you have specific questions we didn’t address, ask them below! We tried to pursue this topic conversationally, so at times we meander or jump from point to point. Apologies!

FreeStarter Interviews Grant Rodiek

Freestarter

Four friends recently launched a project called FreeStarter. Why? To give away free games and thank the awesome board game community for being awesome. We also wanted to help you get to know us better. This is the final of four interviews, one with each of us. Today? We’re talking to me, Grant Rodiek. Matt Worden, Chevee Dodd, and AJ Porfirio are also in the conversation.

To learn about the contest, click here! To enter, send an email to grant@hyperbolegames.com, tell us which contest you want, and follow us on Twitter!

Matt: I’ve known Mr. Rodiek for almost 2 whole years, which allows me to have an inside knowledge of just about nothing of him. So, this is my chance to get into those deep, dark places and poke around a bit.

Grant, any chance you could share a picture of Peaches with us?  I know you’re normally pretty shy about your Corgi, but I’ve heard through the grapevine that she’s somewhat cute. Your thoughts?

AJ: Ah, good plan Matt. Soften him up with a Peaches question.

peachy

Grant: Peaches is my adorable, bossy 3 year old Welsh Corgi. When I’m not at work, she’s my constant companion. A lot of my creative exercises are conducted while walking Peaches at the park. I love her dearly.

Matt: (Okay. Now that that’s out of the way, Grant won’t be wondering when he’d get an opening to show off his favorite daddy’s girl.)

Can you give us a little background?  You know, everything else in your life up to this point.  You have 280 characters: GO!

Grant: I’m 29, male, and I live in San Francisco with my girlfriend, Beth, and our corgi, Peaches. I’m a professional digital game developer and serious board game design hobbyist. I’ve published/self-published two games so far, write my blog (if you’re reading this, you’re here!) and would like to one day publish games.

Matt: I’ve heard people call you “the Farmaggedon guy” … why?

Grant: Farmageddon is my first published design. It was published last year by 5th Street Games and in less than a year has sold through its first print run and won a Parent’s Choice Award. We’ve been very fortunate. The second print run was just ordered and I very much hope it continues to be well received. I try to promote it constantly, so if you follow me on Twitter, you’re probably aware of it.

The first expansion for Farmageddon, Livestocked & Loaded, is coming out this year. Plus, other Farmageddon things…

AJ: I’m looking forward to adding animals into the mix when we play Farmageddon!

Matt: (Quick note-to-self about AJ wanting to “add animals into the mix”.)  So Grant, I’ve also heard people call you “Grand” … but I really don’t want to see your answer as to why.

Grant: Typo? From those less Grand?

Matt: Sorry, but I need to sidetrack: Why is it that you showed up late at the JW on the last night of last year’s GenCon and then proceeded to buy all of us shots?

Grant: Because last year at GenCon I worked from 8pm to midnight nightly testing Battle for York. I was late because I tested with the most analysis-paralysis group in history and they took 2.5 hours to play my 60 minute game. It was epic. I bought shots because I’m a giving soul and I want everyone to consume the delicious nectar of GenCon.

AJ: Oh man I wish I saved our text conversation from that playtest. That was hilarious.

Grant: AJ and I were texting to each other while watching these poor guys decide, re-decide, debate, re-debate, every decision in the game.

Matt: Mmmm … nectar …elven-served nectar is the best, I hear. Anyhoo … have you ever put a single-use card into any of your designs?  (I won’t believe you even if you prove that you have.)

Grant: Yes! The General in Battle for York has a singular purpose! But typically, no. Many designers have favorite mechanics and one of mine is multi-use cards. For example:

  • Crop Cards in Farmageddon can be planted, used as fertilizer, or discarded to activate Action cards.
  • All cards in York (except the General, Saboteur, and Tactician) can be played to place reinforcements or activate special powers.

Things are changing though. All the action cards in Blockade are single-use and very simple. Then again, my other new game returns to multi-use cards. I’m like a broken record.

Chevee: I’m all over this. Adding multiple uses to cards gives you another decision layer without increasing components. I also hate those games where you have a hand full of useless cards.

Matt: You’re providing a copy of Farmageddon and Battle for York as part of our freestarter giveaways. Anything else you want to add-in here about the former? And what can you tell us about the latter?

pic1239471_md

Grant: Farmageddon is a light take-that for 2-4 players that plays in about a half hour. A few things help it stand out from other take-thats. For one, the take-thattery/aggression is constant and evenly distributed. It happens every turn and is a part of the strategy. By this, I mean you don’t go a round or two then get screwed. You know it’s going to happen so you plan against it.

Also, you only get to play two Action cards, which limits the amount of things that can happen and also generate a lot of combo driven play. I think it’s really fun discovering new combos and choices for different scenarios.

Board

Battle for York is an area control/war game that plays with 2-4 players in an hour or less. The game is entirely action and card driven — no dice. I tried to make something different than the typical war games in the market, which tend to be highly complex, lengthy simulations between only 2 players. Another cool aspect is that the game features 4 asymmetric factions as well as a generic tutorial faction to help players learn the game.

The game requires “thoughtful aggression.” You can’t sit and wait. You need to take territory, win battles, and carefully manage your hand of cards to have the right balance of units on the ground and special tactics. I self-published Farmageddon, then it took off. I’m hoping the same happens for York.

Matt: York is really my sort of game. Not sure I’ll ever win, but I will enjoy every play. You had me at “Y–”!  (Farmageddon is okay too, I guess. Even if the stupid pre-5th Street version out-sold Jump Gate on TheGameCrafter.)

Chevee: I like York a lot. I can see my group playing it regularly. I also never see myself winning against them.

Matt: So if Chevee and I were to play a 2-player game … would both of us lose? We may need to figure this out the proper way! What ever happened to my all-time favorite design of yours, Up Your Missouri?

Grant: Frontier Scoundrels, aka Up Your Missouri was a semi-cooperative (bad, avoid at all costs) game based on Lewis, Clark, and 2 other fictional explorers. After about 10 tests I scrapped it. It was just a highly random, meandering, no decision, pile of junk. I didn’t see how to salvage it so I dropped it and went elsewhere. I have about 6 of these per year.

Matt: I think I love it even a little bit more now …  *sigh*

AJ: Can I have the time that I spent rule reviewing that game back? I kid, I kid.

Chevee: Was this before my time or is my memory that terrible?

Matt: It was before York and his first try at Poor Abby. Lasted about 2 months I think. I liked it, so he crumpled it up and threw it away.

In my eyes, you can be extremely self-critical … not so much of yourself, but of your designs and things that you create.  You seem to have a very tight, quick loop of assessment and determination of whether something works or doesn’t.  Where does that come from?

Grant: If I had to pin it on something I’d say my training at work paired with my personality of impatience. I’m a producer/designer at work, traditionally on large teams. From time to time I’ve had to make a lot of quick decisions and assess things so we can keep moving and make progress. I’ve always looked to decisive people as well. I think one of my best strengths and weaknesses is haste. It gets me in trouble and helps me succeed at the same time. I’m critical because I want to make really good things. Anybody can just put stuff out there and I want to be good. It’s a really difficult road and I’m not sure how it’s going yet.

Matt: “Anybody can just put stuff out there …”  Hey, that’s what I do!!  “… and I want to be good.” … oh, I see the difference.

Chevee: It’s two entirely different methodologies that lead to the same point. Grant likes to think and think and think before spending real time and money making something and Matt and I prefer to just make things and figure it out as we go along. I have convinced Grant to try his hand at the “Chevee Method” of design recently… in fact, I think Blockade started that way?

Grant: Molly’s Last Hope was Chevee Method. Blockade is pure me.

Matt: You are also very open in your design work, sharing a ton of information about your thoughts, processes, steps you’ve taken, results you’ve expected vs. what you’ve actually gotten, etc.  Do you find this is helpful to you in your game design work?  Is it helpful to you in other ways?

Grant: It is helpful for me in that I’m always thinking about how to present my ideas and share them. I have to position them such that people care and can digest the information. Something many designers fail to do is ask “How will players learn this? How will players first experience this? What is the best way to teach this?”

Another way is that I think it helps me build awareness for my games. I’m a relative nobody. [ed: Matt – we can’t all be The Beast] I’ve never published a game “for real,” I have a single published design… I’m a minnow in a big pond. I don’t quite have the presence yet to just put something out there and have people care. So, by sharing it openly, I hope I build some of that trust and presence so that long term, people do care.

Chevee: I appreciate the openness and it’s one of the things that pulled me into this community. I like reading about other peoples trials and tribulations, even if they are a “nobody” because there is always something to be learned, even from newbies.

Matt: Who do you learn from and what are the most important knowledge bits or habits you’ve gained over the past two years?

Grant: I learn from the games I play. I’m highly influenced by what I consume as a player. I learn by watching others — I love to watch Kickstarter projects and other publishers. If I cannot learn by doing (yet), I can learn by what others are doing. I also learn a great deal at work and then try to apply it to my hobby exercises.

Some things I’ve learned include: The ability to test and iterate on my designs. I know how to get what I need from testers and keep improving my games. I’ve grown much stronger in writing rules. Finally, I’m able to get my designs to a “good place” much more quickly.

Matt: Besides the multi-use-cards mentioned earlier, what are your other go-to mechanics?  Can you specifically respond to the ideas of randomness and everyone’s  favorite: chit pulling?

Grant: I personally don’t enjoy a great deal of randomness in my games, though what random means is different for everyone. For example, games like Arkham Horror or Talisman seem utterly boring to me. But, I absolutely don’t mind dice rolls for resolving combat, like in Summoner Wars or Memoir ‘44. Personally, I like making decisions against probability. I always like having options.

Randomness and luck are excellent tools for variance, which is how I try to use them. Others use it more to create unexpected moment. That has its place, but that’s less how I tend to use it.

Mechanics I love — in general, cards. I love having a hand of options and deciding how to use them. Lately, I’m obsessed with weird components, like blocks, and figuring out how to incorporate them. I also love social mechanics. I need to create a game with them.

Chit pulling is a really neat mechanic that I haven’t factored in properly yet for a personal design. Maybe soon?

Chevee: Everyone should be required to design a chit pulling game. MOAR CHITS!

Matt: You really, really, really like to playtest your games.  So much so that you even created a network of playtester “ penpals” to help other designers get their designs blind tested by other experienced folks.  What benefits do you normally get out of a high level of playtesting?

Grant: How much I love my games matters a lot less than how much others love my games. And, unlike Chevee, I actually like my games (I kill the ones I don’t). Playtesting helps reveal favorite mechanics that need to be tweaked or removed. Playtesting helps you refine your experience and improve rules and accessibility. Playtesting proves how well your graphic design supports the games.

A design, without testing, is just a hypothesis. Playtesting for me is the scientific aspect that refines the art and creative stuff.

Chevee: Hey now! I like at least one of the games I’ve designed! You have a mysterious ability to keep enjoying your projects after you are done with them… I can’t do that.

Matt: What new games are you working on right now?

Blockade

Grant: I’m working on a tactical (and tactile!) fleet battle game tentatively called Blockade. Players have Jenga-like blocks that have lasers and weak points on them. Players arrange the blocks in formations to hide their weak spots, but also potentially bring fewer weapons to bear. The game is highly tactile, distilled, and uses a fun dice mechanic. It also has a big story written against.

I also started a second new design for which I have really big hopes. I’m not talking about it yet.

Matt: You say that you would like to become a publisher at some point. How do you see that unfolding? What sort of game(s) do you see Hyperbole Games logos on?

Grant: There are so many chances to screw up when you publish a game. I’d hate to do this with someone else’s game for my first outing. So, I need to design a game that I think is a.) amazing and b.) I can produce fantastically. Once I have that, if my personal funding is relatively happy, I’ll finally create my Hyperbole Games LLC and release the game.

Without a doubt, Hyperbole games will play in 60 minutes or less. Ideally 45 minutes or less. They’ll target the masses far more than the hardcore niche. So, more Ticket to Ride than Terra Mystica. I’m seeking games with fun components, $40 or less MSRP, and ones that can support a gorgeous presentation. Gameplay wise, I’m looking for games that are clever. Clever is a word I really like.

Matt: Each of these interviews has had some advice given. I’m curious as to the advice you would give to how designers should prepare for playtests and how they should gather feedback during and after play from the testers.

Grant: Know the goals you have for your game. Know what you’re trying to create. For example, for Battle for York, my goals were:

  • 2-4 players
  • 60 minutes or less
  • No dice. Low luck, in general.
  • Conflict driven, war-style game
  • No player elimination.
  • Players are never “out” of the game. You can always win.

Everyone has ideas for how to make your game better. Everyone knows the game they want to play. If you don’t know what you want, you’ll meander all over the place with feedback. If you know what you want, you’ll be able to process the feedback and use it to improve your game.

Chevee: I’d like to highlight that last sentence: “improve your game.” There comes a point in life when you have to accept the fact that you can’t please everyone… and that heavily applies to game design. Make your game the way you want it. That doesn’t mean that you turn away all advice and criticism, but you need to keep the focus on making something you want to play. If the advice helps get you there, awesome.

Obligatory Promotional Section

Freestarter Giveaway Contest

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We were all chatting the other day (Grant, AJ, Matt, and Chevee). We noted how we all met through the design community, have all made millions of dollars*, and all have almost 1000 Twitter followers (except Chevee, but he’s bad at math and 400 is close).

We wanted to celebrate this and share some of our games with the awesome Twitter, Facebook, and otherwise game community.

This week we’re hosting our FreeStarter Game Design Community Group Hug Giveway. Or, FGDCGHG for short. Each of us are giving away 2 games for two different drawings.

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The Serious Gamer Drawing: The entrant who wins this will receive free copies of:

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If I’m Going Down by AJ Porfirio

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Space Mission by Matt Worden

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Battle for York by Grant Rodiek

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Tuesday Night Tanks by Chevee Dodd

The Casual Gamer Drawing: The entrant who wins this will receive free copies of:

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Tessen Classic designed by Cardboard Edison and published by Van Ryder Games

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Dicey Curves by Matt Worden

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Farmageddon by Grant Rodiek

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Scallywags by Chevee Dodd

Entering the contest is easy. Follow these 2 Steps!

1. Follow each of us on Twitter:

AJ Porfirio

Matt Worden

Grant Rodiek

Chevee Dodd

2. Email Grant at grant@hyperbolegames.com. Tell him which drawing you wish to enter: Serious or Casual. Unfortunately, due to costs, ONLY contestants in the United States can win. It simply costs too much to mail 4 games from 4 people to Europe or the rest of the world. We realize this is lame.

Otherwise? Cross your fingers and hope we draw your name.

We hope you love our games and have as much fun playing them as we had designing them. If you’re attending GenCon in August, hit us up! We’ll all be there, probably together, probably playing games. We’ll be posting conversations between the four of us all week if you want to learn more about us or our games. But reading? Totally not required to win free stuff.

Good luck and thanks for making this community awesome.

Grant, AJ, Chevee, and Matt

*not true

Jamey and Grant Discuss Everything (Pt 2)

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If you missed Part 1, read it here. Euphoria is live on Kickstarter and already funded!

A discussion with Jamey Stegmaier and Grant Rodiek (bold)

Euphoria is your new game, live on Kickstarter now. What is Euphoria? What do we need to know?

Jamey: Euphoria is a dystopian-themed worker-placement game set in the not-so-distant future. Each player is trying to grab control of the dystopia using worker dice and recruits with special abilities. Play time is 15 minutes per player, and the cost to back 1 copy is $49 (shipping and customs included to the US, Canada, and the European Union).

Why this theme? What excites you about it? Why do you think it’s exciting for others?

Jamey: I LOVE dystopian fiction. Ready Player One, The Hunger Games, Oryx and Crake, Wool, Pure, and classics like Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World. I love the sense of discovery as I read dystopian fiction: How does the new world work? Why did it end up this way? I find it easy to get immersed in dystopian worlds because they aren’t that different from our own. A lot of them take controversial issues from the modern day and exaggerate them. And I really like that the protagonist in dystopian fiction is up against all odds, and yet he/she truly does have the power to change the world. In Euphoria, you are that protagonist.

I’m honestly not quite sure if others find dystopias as exciting as I do. From a gaming perspective, it’s not on the level of sci-fi as 4x space-themed games, but it’s also geekier than a wine-making game. I’m curious to see how people respond to it.

What are a few of your favorite dystopian novels?

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I loved the Hunger Game series and read them all in about 4 days. I read Fahrenheit and 1984 in high school but don’t remember them too well. My favorite is probably the Avery Cates series by Jeff Sommers, which I read last year. It focuses on an assassin, Avery Cates. The first book is The Electric Church and is highly recommended.

Jamey: I just requested a Kindle sample to check it out. Thanks for the recommendation.

What was your inspiration? What did you set out to create?

Jamey: I had a few different inspirations. One was the dystopian theme as I described above. Another was dice. I love rolling dice, but I like games with less than 20% luck, so I wanted to find a way to incorporate dice in a low-luck way. Alien Frontiers and Kingsburg provided some early inspirations in that area. Also, the flow of the game was really important for me. I wanted to make a game that didn’t have rounds or phases, one that fluidly moved from one player to the next. I wanted to make a game where you didn’t have to calculate a new first player every round. And as a bonus, when you eliminate rounds and phases, a game that could easily last over 2 hours averages around an hour instead. I want to play games multiple times on game nights, so that was part of my goal.

Your KS page proudly boasts 60+ blind playtesters. How did you gather these people? What was your process?

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Jamey: I am very, very fortunate that many Viticulture backers were willing to playtest print-and-play versions of Euphoria. I put out a call to playtesters in an e-mail, and they responded in droves. After many months of development in St. Louis, I had my artist and designer make the game board (the board art is needed to make sense of the game), and I uploaded the PnP to dropbox. I asked all playtesters to play it at least twice (or not at all), because in my opinion it’s nearly impossible to get a true feel for a game while you’re learning to play instead of playing to win. After the original blind playtest, I revised the game based on the feedback and posted the revised version for a second round. Then a third round. That may sound fast, but when you have 60+ people blind playtesting your game and you’re playtesting the results in the meantime, it doesn’t take long to figure things out. What is your playtest process like?

I’m fortunate in that I work at a game company, so I’m surrounded by peers who love games, are very sharp when it comes to game design, and who aren’t afraid to give me honest feedback. I often schedule lunch sessions (I design games that are 60 min or less) for 2-4 people, set it up, then watch people play.

I also try to attend events like Gencon and Protospiel where I gain access to a lot of new people really quickly. Another favorite trick of mine is to play with people who aren’t gamers to figure out ways to improve usability and accessibility for the game. For example, if my girlfriend isn’t confused, then gamers really shouldn’t be confused.

Finally, I try to put the games in my PPP blind playtesting program. I’ve tried the PNP route, but if the game is beyond a certain size, most people won’t bother (I don’t blame them). My future games will be much simpler than York, so perhaps PNP will become more viable?

Jamey: I was pleasantly surprised that so many people were willing to print and play a full color game with so many components. And that’s great that you’re surrounded by people at your company who are willing to play your games. I like the tip to playtest games with non-gamers.

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Tell me about your “dice faces represent knowledge” mechanic. How did that come about? How did it evolve?

Jamey: Great question. This brings me way back to why I decided that dice needed to be the workers. In a dystopia, the more knowledge people have about their society, the more likely they are to run away. That’s a common ingredient in almost every dystopia, so I knew I needed to capture it in Euphoria. Dice were an easy call there: The numbers on the dice would represent worker knowledge. So in the original version, all of your workers started with 1 knowledge, and if they ever got up to 6, you lost the worker because they knew too much. However, it wasn’t all that fun, especially since there was no dice rolling in the game–rather, the dice simply served as a way to track knowledge. I went through lots of iterations to figure out how dice rolling could be exciting without being too lucky, and still factor in knowledge. The end result is that your individual worker knowledge matters when placing workers. There isn’t a single spot on the board that limits you based on the number on your worker die. But your recruits make an impact there. For example, the Wastelander faction wants its workers to have high knowledge. They’re all about researching and memorializing the old world. So many of the Wastelander recruits give you a bonus if your worker has the highest knowledge of any worker on a certain area on the board.

The idea of your worker knowledge getting too high and workers escaping also made it into the final game, but in a different way than the original version. Individual worker knowledge doesn’t matter, but collective worker knowledge does. You start out with two workers, and every time you roll your workers, you look at them and add up their knowledge. If it is 18 or higher, one of your workers runs away. You can mitigate that using the knowledge track, which lets you reduce collective knowledge…but the same track can also increase your knowledge. So it serves as a check and balance for players who want to go after more workers.

You mentioned the Wastelander faction. Does your game have different factions? Can you explain these in greater depth? What does it mean to be a faction in Euphoria?

Jamey: Sure, the game has three different factions (and it might have four if we meet a certain stretch goal), each of which is physically separated from one another. The Euphorians live in a city called Euphoria where the buildings are slathered in gold…at least, the buildings where the elite live. Everyone else lives below them, working long days on the generator, where they produce electricity on giant hamster wheels to support the lavish lifestyles of the elite. The Euphorians hypocritically claim to value equality, so Euphorian recruits often give you bonuses if your workers interact with workers of equivalent knowledge.

The Wastelanders are those that were unprotected when the old world ended. They are survivors to the core, and they have the scars to prove it. They’ve rebuilt their society using the remnants of the past, sculpting a city from trash and clay. They covet the relics of the past, and thus Wastelander recruits–especially those with high knowledge–specialize in acquiring artifact cards.

The Subterrans are the final faction. They anticipated the apocalypse and dug deep underground to avoid it. There they found an underground winter untainted by the chemicals in the air and an abundance of stone to build a new subterranean empire. The Subterran overlords like to keep their people in the dark–literally and figuratively–and thus they give you bonuses when your workers have lower knowledge than other workers.

How do players choose their factions? Your game plays with 2-5 (6 with a Stretch Goal). How do you dole out factions?

Jamey: Players don’t exactly choose their factions–rather, they choose their recruits, and the allegiances of the recruits impacts you. So at the beginning of the game, each player is dealt four random recruit cards. They pick two and discard the others forever. They then reveal one of the recruits–that is their active recruit. You only get to use the bonuses of your active recruit. The other recruit remains hidden until you or other players unlock all recruits of that faction.

Neat! It’s organically woven into the experience. It sounds very dynamic, which I like. Tell me about the player interaction. How can I affect you?

Jamey: There are a few different ways you can affect me. The most common way is on the temporary use action spaces, which are all over the board. If you place a worker on one of those action spaces and I want to place a worker there, I can do so, but it bumps you off the board. That lets you delay the use of one of your turns to retrieve your workers from the board. I’ve found that the mechanic works really well because it’s fun to get bumped off the board, but you never feel blocked from a space that you really need to use.

The second way is the commodity-gathering areas. These are areas where collective worker knowledge affects what you receive when you place worker there. They all follow the same pattern: If the total knowledge of all dice on the Generator is between 1 and 4 after you place your worker there, you get 1 energy and 1 Euphorian allegiance point. If it’s between 5 and 8, you get 1 energy and you lose 1 knowledge on the knowledge track (as mentioned above, that’s a good thing). And if the total is 9+, you get 2 energy and you gain a knowledge on the knowledge track. The thematic idea there is that the more workers that pile on, the more energy they’re producing on the generator, but because there are so many there, they’re going to exchange information with each other. I’ve found that this mechanic scales really well for any number of players.

The third way is perhaps the most fun element of the game: Constructing markets. There are a bunch of different markets you can build in the game, but they’re placed face down during setup so no one knows what they are. Each construction site requires either 2 or 4 workers and specific resources to build the market, so you can attempt to build one alone, or you can collaborate with other players. When a market is complete, you flip it over to reveal what it does. Each market has a penalty on it that applies to each player who didn’t contribute to the construction. For example, the Registry of Personal Secrets affects Freedom of Privacy. If you didn’t help build it, for the rest of the game (unless you go out of your way to overcome the restriction), you have to play with all of your cards on the table for all to see. All of the markets are thematically tied to the dystopian theme, and some are harsher than others. So in building markets, you’re restricting what other players can do, causing them to think on their feet and pivot in their strategies.

The art, from what I can tell, is a very functional dystopia. Definitely Hunger Games or Fahrenheit-451. Your campaign talks about the apocalypse, which in my mind involves asteroids or nukes or alien invasion. Do you see your apocalypse more as the cataclysmic event that lead to the foundation of this dystopian society? How do you feel these two pair together? Walk me through your thoughts.

Jamey: Interesting question. I’m using the word “apocalypse” broadly–it’s more like a sweeping change that changes the world into a dystopia. Sometimes it’s caused by something cataclysmic like the examples you gave, but sometimes it’s just a change in world order. That’s one of the most interesting things about dystopias to me–the people in charge of the dystopia are doing what they think is necessary to prevent the world from collapsing again. Right and wrong aren’t black and white–they’re a mix of grey.

In the Euphoria campaign, we’re giving people the chance to help us decide the sweeping change that will create the world of Euphoria. I’m going to pit slightly outlandish apocalyptic scenarios against each other head-to-head via backer survey until only one remains. By the time you publish this, you should be able to see some of those scenarios–which one are you rooting for?

I voted for alien invasion and robot takeover. I’m not a fan of mutants and bipedal dolphins seems to diminish your fiction.

I know you’re an avid reader. What books did you read to prepare you for this game, if any?

Jamey: In addition to all the dystopian fiction I read, I consume a LOT of content about board games: reviews, blogs, podcasts, and videos are all part of my daily diet. I like reading many different takes on the same game, and I like hearing from designers like yourself to learn about your processes and insights. I know that I can’t play every game, so all of the amazing content out there serves to reinforce my existing knowledge of board game design and publishing. Do you have a go-to gaming blog, podcast, and/or YouTube channel?

There are two sites whose content I always consume: Shut Up & Sit Down and Drake’s Flames. I think the key reason I enjoy them so much is the humor and quality of their writing. SU&SD is founded by a few writers whose work I’ve been reading for quite some time. They are hilarious, but most importantly, instead of just walking me through the rules, they go over the experience of playing the game. Why it’s delightful, what makes it special.

I read Drake’s because he’s brief and inappropriate and funny.

I should listen to the Plaid Hat podcast because I’m obsessed with those guys. I’m a huge fan of their games and greatly inspired by their success.

What are your favorites? What am I missing?

Jamey: I 100% agree with those three recommendations. I would also add Board Game Reviews by Josh, iSlaytheDragon, The Opinionated Gamers blog, Metagames, The Little Metal Dog show, the Ludology podcast, the Long View podcast, Tom Vasel’s reviews reviews (I like his enthusiasm), Ryan Metzler’s reviews (he’s incredible good at explaining how to play a game in a short period of time), and Undead Viking’s video reviews (I like his side tangents). There are many more, but this list is already getting unwieldy.

I actually read Josh’s reviews sporadically. Did you know he was one of my first blind testers for Farmageddon? He gave me some frank, harsh feedback (privately) for the game that fundamentally guided me towards fixing it. I’m so thankful he did so.

Anything you wish to add?

Jamey: I think that’s it! Thank you so much for taking the time to create this interview. I’m happy to answer any questions your readers have–I look forward to the conversation.

If you have any follow up questions for Jamey, post them in the comments below! You can check out Euphoria’s Kickstarter page. $49 gets you the game shipped free to the US, Canada, or EU!

An Epic Crash of Fleets

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

I can’t help myself. I’m on a massive space binge lately. I changed Dawn Sector from faux-Napoleonic to sci-fi to broaden its appeal and give myself more flexibility on the design (plus I like sci-fi), but it wasn’t my intent to return to this theme again.

But, that’s precisely where I find myself. I took a step back recently and observed that when I start a new game, it’s often a direct response to the one I just finished (be it published, killed, or just finished). Farmageddon was light, silly, sometimes imbalanced, and I wanted to make a deeper strategy game. Dawn Sector emerged. Part of a reaction to an earlier build of Dawn Sector (now fixed) was that the pacing was off, so I created Molly’s Last Hope, which is lightning fast and simple. 

Now, after creating a euro-ish game in Dawn Sector, I have a hankering to make something less strategic, a bit more epic, and maybe a smidge trashy. Last week, a friend/peer/tester of Dawn Sector seemed…disappointed when after a battle (that he won) he wasn’t able to “dominate” his opponent. In the rules and mechanics of the game, he actually did: he won the battle, eliminated all of his units, and claimed a prisoner worth points at the end of the game. But, he wanted a massive critical shot. He wanted to roll 3 6s and see his enemy explode in defeat. He wanted to experience the lamentation of his foe’s women.

Dawn Sector won’t do that for certain mindsets, but I think my new idea will.

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My starting point was this: 2 players will each control a fleet and direct it to destroy their opponent’s fleet. The intent is that it’s fast, furious, and epic. One of my favorite things to do as a designer is take a big concept and distill it down to its core. I’m a big fan of abstraction and finding ways to give the players the general vibe for a bigger thing with a smaller component. For example, instead of having different types of units in Dawn Sector (i.e. cavalry, infantry), you merely have ways of using those units as if they were a unit type. I plan to do the same thing with this fleet game.

At a high level, currently, this game will do the following:

  • Have a rock/paper/scissors dice driven combat system where big ships fire differently than small ships and have different ways of taking damage.
  • Scenario driven.
  • Fast, with each battle taking a half hour or less.
  • Campaign driven. Players can return to a persistent campaign that will remember some previous choices. This isn’t Risk Legacy regarding permanence. But, there will be a story through which you can play.
  • There will be an ambush type mechanic (super simple).
  • There will be different type of ships built upon a very simple system. You won’t need to learn any different rules between ship types.
  • Players will share a set of Orders that give a set of ships priorities and bonuses to accomplish various tactical outcomes.
  • No map or measurements. Cards will specify the “nav points” at which ships can FIGHT.

First, let’s discuss my inspiration. I’ve been reading a lot of space opera the past few months, including:

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  • Leviathan Wakes: A dash of horror, a dash of detective noir, and a plausible near future. Great ships, characters, and they used our solar system.
  • The Honor Harrington Series (I linked the first book): This is a huge space opera spanning over a dozen books. The battles are highly detailed with lots of cleverness by many of the antagonists and protagonists (a big inspiration for my ambush mechanic). Plus, their technology and tactics evolve over the course of the war (an inspiration for capital ships versus fighters and so forth).
  • I just bought Dread Empire’s Fall: haven’t read yet but I’m excited!
  • And I’m always thinking about Old Man’s War. So so good.

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I’ve also been thinking about a few of my favorite games lately: Homeworld and Gratuitous Space Battles. Both of these fleet-based strategy games had a feature where you would order a squadron or set of units into a formation. For Homeworld it was a side feature that didn’t really matter (but I LOVED it) and for Gratuitous Space Battles it was more or less the game. For example, in Homeworld you could put a squadron of fighter bombers into sphere formation, where they position themselves around a target and pummel it. The plus side is that they aren’t moving, so they take it down quickly. The down side is that they aren’t moving, so they are highly susceptible to enemy fire.

This formed the basis for my first mechanic: formations. I wanted to avoid the “this ship shoots at this ship with this weapon” vibe. In fact, I didn’t really want you managing individual ships much at all, but, like an admiral, directing squadrons to execute maneuvers and do things.

Players will have an identical set of Orders, which will be cards, that will put a set of ships into a formation. This formation will give the ships a firing priority (i.e. target fighters first) and potentially a benefit (i.e. increased shields) or downside (i.e. can’t move).

Working from this point, I tried to figure out a combat system that would somewhat embrace the notion of a set of ships going at it. My first thought was: “what if all ships in range of each other just fire using a pool of dice?” That’s largely where I’m going! After players quickly issue orders, ships within range of the enemy will fire. They do this until they are destroyed, their enemies are destroyed, or they aren’t in range. Ships will be represented by cards which will indicate what dice and how many dice are rolled.

“What do you mean by what dice?” I’ll tell you! I wanted to avoid a few scenarios:

  1. Massive ships both fire a ton of dice and are super tanky. I didn’t want a player just flying a dreadnought into a mass of ships knowing that, based on probability, he’ll slowly but surely kill them all before they kill him.
  2. Tiny ships pulling off kill shots on Dreadnoughts. YES, the Deathstar was brought down by an X-Wing, but that was atrocious product design and typically, a fighter isn’t bringing down a capital ship. One of the most maddening things in Civilization III is watching a spearman kill a battleship. I want to avoid that.

I needed a rock/paper/scissors mechanic to make ships useful and balanced for what they are. Therefore, there are three types of dice: green d6, yellow d6, and red d6. Fighters will roll green dice, which are good against other fighters and lighter ships like destroyers. Battlecruisers, which are hefty but somewhat flexible, may fire one die of each color. They can go after Dreadnoughts with the red die and still hold back fighters with the green. A Dreadnought will only have red dice, which means it can pound other big ships, but will have a really difficult time swatting those gnat fighters.

What a ship fires will be clearly communicated with colored cubes on the card. Just tally a handful of cards and ROLL. Ships will have two sides: shielded and shields disabled. The requirement for disabling the shields will be indicated on the card (a set of hits based on colors), with a hit always being a 3+ regardless of color. Disabling the shields will require the entire shield be disabled at once in a single round.

Damaging the ship once the shield is down will be an easier requirement and you’ll simply mark the damage with a card every time the ships is damaged. Let’s say a Dreadnought has 3 hits, so with 3 cards it’s destroyed. Unlike shields, which are all or nothing, you can damage a ship one at a time every round (unless you blow it up in a single round).

In some cases (uncommon, I don’t want information overload), a damage card may convey a system failure. Engines down, laser batteries knocked out. Perhaps it is simply a critical shot worth 2 damage. There can also be amusing scenarios, where it causes the ship to drift. Perhaps it drifts into the enemy destroyer — not a zero sum gain. Or it drifts into your dreadnought — disaster! I hope this creates a little variety in how the battle resolves instead of just your standard countdown to battle.

This is more or less what Academy Games does with Conflict of Heroes. When squads take hits, they can be suppressed, pinned, and have other battlefield emotional effects conveyed. It’s really cool and really simple.

I think this dice system will let me do some cool things and simple variation. For example, a fighter bomber may share the same shields/damage as fighter, but it rolls yellow dice instead of green dice, which makes it more viable at taking down capital ships, but awful at taking down fighters.

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What about persistence and the campaign? I think this will be a part of the game’s “special sauce” that really makes it great. It’ll also be something I tackle much later once the combat mechanics work. My first priority is to design and balance the orders, basic ship types, and individual battle mechanics. Working on the campaign before that would be premature.

But. There will be a campaign that tells the story of two powerful star nations at war with one another. At the start, one of a handful of beginning scenarios will be chosen. Then, like a choose your own adventure novel, the results of the battle indicate the next scenario OR present a choice between scenarios. The idea is you can play a few over lunch, bookmark your page in the rules, then return to it later.

To do this I’ll need to create a simple universe with planets and existing military installations. Nothing crazy and overall simpler than a Memoir ’44 scenario (my game has fewer moving parts). I’m also figuring out which decisions will carry over between scenarios. The key, in my opinion, is focus. For example, losing a fighter squadron doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t affect things. BUT, losing a dreadnought? That’s important.

I was discussing the mechanic with a friend, and he suggested each player has a deck of ships. Scenarios will tell you what ships you can include (if you have them) and give you optional additions. As you lose key ships like dreadnoughts, you simply remove them from your deck and set them aside. Remember, this isn’t Risk Legacy. They won’t be ripped up! This gives a simple form of accounting instead of having to track things on a notepad. But, like in the Honor Harrington novels, as the war develops, so should your technology. If you can remove ships, theoretically you can also add them, yes? Perhaps you raid an enemy planet and steal their research secrets. This unlocks the fighter bomber, which you now add to your deck. Nothing crazy, but it’s fun and cool.

Scenarios will vary in a few ways:

  • Ships involved
  • Optional Ships: Instead of the typical “add 20 points worth of ships,” which can be inaccessible, I want to instead say “You can add this set, this set, or this set.” So, give a choice, but define the choices.
  • System layout, i.e. asteroid belts, nebulae, and other things to vary it.

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This post is growing a bit long, so I’ll cut it off here. I’m currently working on first pass rules and first pass content. My short term goal is to create a single scenario and begin proving the combat mechanic. Did anything interest you in this? Did anything sound awful? Chime in below!

MLH: Testing and Iterating

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve been writing quite a bit about Molly’s Last Hope lately because I’m working on it fervently. I have a tight deadline for the contest submission and I need to be cracking! Last night I was able to hold a really good test of the game with a friend/co-worker/professional graphics designer who has tested many of my games in the past. The test revealed quite a few things about the game, good and bad, that I’ll discuss now.

Before I get too far, here are the current rules to the game. Please note I’m still updating them per last night’s test and I haven’t updated the diagrams and examples to incorporate the new art that you can see in the image above.

The Pace of Battles: The biggest problem identified last night, as well as the easiest to address, was the pacing of the battles. Our first battle simply took too long and resulted in too many wasted turns due to misses. Firing on an enemy had a 50% chance of resulting in a hit if they weren’t in cover, but in cover it switches to a 33% chance and that was simply too low. I noticed that all of the terrain on the game provided defensive bonuses. The thing is, there is too much cover and defense slows the game down.

So, I switched my thinking to that of “the best defense is a good offense.” To speed up the game, cover now provides you with a tactical advantage: you may re-roll Action dice in hopes of getting better options. Towers give you a similar advantage in that you may re-roll a Miss in hopes of rolling a Hit.

I also found that one Action die per soldier was too slow. Sometimes you needed to race ahead with a soldier and shoot. Now, you can assign 2 Actions to a single soldier, but they cannot be the same Action.

Finally, I removed Flanking as it just didn’t work AND was too complex. I’ll find something better and simpler.

We incorporated these changes after the first battle and it greatly improved the game. I feel that battles are still missing something…special…but I’m going to let testing reveal what that thing is. Unless it comes to me in a moment of unforeseen clarity!

While discussing pace, the game took about 60 minutes plus a half hour of discussion and design. I’d like to get that down to 45 minutes, which I think is possible.

Battle Balance: The battles were balanced to be horribly in favor of the player with the most Units. This is good, as it means the player was making good strategic choices on the Planet Board with his cards. However, it also meant that battles were largely an exercise in probability. You knew who would win, it was just a matter of getting the hits.

In one case, my opponent made a few REALLY bad tactical errors where he attacked my clearly superior force with a hugely inferior force. He did this a few times! However, his thinking was soundly rooted in classic guerrilla tactics. He was willing to expend his few Units in hopes of killing some of mine. I want to allow such risks to be plausible.

Previously, players rolled 1 Action die for every 2 Soldiers. However, this means the player with 5 soldiers has 3 Actions versus the player with 2 soldiers having 1. Now, you always roll 3 dice. This gives you more variety, removes a fiddly rule (1 die per 2 soldiers), but still favors the player with more units. He has more flexibility and more folks to whom he can assign Actions.

Also, now that players always have 3 dice, I can incorporate more mechanics like rolling doubles and triples, which I believe is a simple and effective way to add something special to the battle.

Battle Map Complexity: Building the Battle Maps was, as I hoped, a quick and easy affair. We built every map in less than a minute and were ready to go. Other than a slight graphic design snafu it worked incredibly well. However, the alternate rules I added to the Battle Maps were a mixed bag. For one, all alternate victory conditions were wasted. They open up too many edge cases and were rarely actually factored into the battle.

My take away is to remove alternate win conditions AND simply make it such that they provide alternate rules and variations for the battle. These worked really well when they came into play.

Card Complexity: By and large my cards worked really well. I designed the game from the ground up to use a symbols only, text-free system. This was a fantastic constraint and has largely limited my cards to be simple and understandable. My friend had very few questions on what his cards meant. The questions he did have are easily tweaked.

However, I have 2 or 3 cards per faction that were just a bit fiddly and too difficult to use. By removing constraints like Orbit required for some of these, or varying the tuning slightly, I can greatly improve the flexibility of the system.

While we’re on the topic of cards, I need to slightly reduce the number of reinforcements that the Confederation can dispatch in a single play. They were a bit too powerful, but not too much so. Just a smidge.

Discard Overpower: Some cards can force an opponent to discard cards, which both screws up his turns (the cards are discarded at random) AND hastens the end of the game. The game ends when a player is unable to play a card. Previously, a player could discard one card per battle to change a miss to a hit. This was a bad mechanic for a few reasons:

  • It didn’t fit in. Players were focused on the dice and their soldiers and often forgot they could use a card.
  • It’s too powerful. Guaranteeing a hit? Wowza.
  • It’s doubly too powerful. Guaranteeing a hit AND hastening the game end? Yikes!

I removed this and will find something neat to modify battles elsewhere. It just won’t be here.

The submission date for the game, March 1st, is rapidly approaching. I’m really happy with how far Molly’s Last Hope has come so quickly. Though perhaps it hasn’t been that quick at all? I wrote about the game first at the start of December. In November I shared some of the early ideas. So, I suppose one could argue (me being that one) that months of good thought and a simple idea have pushed the actual execution phase forward very quickly? I hope that’s the case.

I hope to get this into the PPP very soon. Also, in case you missed it, I added a page for Molly’s Last Hope.

Thoughts?

Co-operative Headache

Post by: Grant Rodiek

This was a difficult weekend of game design. Or, what, I should say game flailing. Is that a thing? Because if it is, I did it.

I’ve never designed a cooperative game and as a result, there are things I seemingly need to learn from scratch, re-learn, or throwaway from the experiences I’ve picked up the past few years. I hate starting over, yet here I am. Hi Square One, I’m Grant.

The biggest issue is that whole cogs have been added to this machine. Typically for a competitive game I must conceive a goal, a conflict, and choices players make to achieve that goal and contribute to the conflict. However, with a cooperative game I must consider and design a few more significant elements, including:

  • How does the game actively try to hinder and stop the players from accomplishing their shared goal? I have to create an AI that is interesting for hundreds of games.
  • How can players work together in interesting ways to accomplish their goals? Synergy is key.
  • How do I create an interesting goal that feels fresh and not immediately solvable? This is less of a problem when you have a human opponent at the wheel. Now, the AI needs to do it. This is somewhat like bullet #1, I realize.

On top of this, I need clever mechanics (as always) so players feel like they are doing compelling things every game. You know, a unique game that isn’t a clone of every other game.

This weekend I just spun my wheels and quickly found myself stuck in the mud. Do I have pre-set planets, purely random planets, or various components that create the planet. What’s the goal? Is it the same on every planet, but it’s just more or less difficult based on the planet itself? I fluctuated on this topic for quite some time, especially as I could see the component list exploding. I really try to corral my components from the outset. I like an easy setup, a low cost, and, with all things, focus.

What do players do on their turns? Or do they have turns? I toyed with an odd mix of simultaneous decision, followed by individual turns, then back, and…nothing connected. I spent hours on this until I realized I hadn’t even picked a goal for the game. What’s the point of figuring out what players are doing if you don’t know the why?

Really, this is a massive chicken and egg issue. But, I’m not familiar with this egg. And this chicken is acting really squirrely. Is he a squirrel? Gah!

I’m figuring it out, actually. I’m telling you about my failures, but not the interesting things I’ve discovered. I want to be careful about talking too much about things I’d like to see in the game before they actually get there. I’ve already talked about Personality, Chit pulling, and some other high level things. I need to shut up and make them all work first.

Back to work…

Building Towards the Target

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Design pal Jesse Catron prompted me to write about designing a game towards a target audience. What components, themes, complexity levels, and marketing tactics should you use to reach your game’s target audience? Challenge accepted!

This is a difficult topic for to me to make decisive statements towards. I have never published a game, though I have had a board game published and I’ve been on the development team of many many digital products in the marketplace today. But, I consider myself a keen observer and a decent listener. Just because I haven’t done it doesn’t mean all of us cannot learn from those who have.

Defining the Target Grouups

For the sake of brevity, I’m going to address two market extremes: Casual consumers and Core consumers. I’m painting with a broad brush, which I think is reasonable as this is not a dissertation, but a theoretical exercise.

I define casual consumers as people who play games to pass the time, do not want to spend a great deal of time or money on games, tend to adhere to word of mouth for recommendations, and purchase most games from larger retailers (Target, Walmart, Barnes and Noble, Amazon).

Companies that serve this demographic well are Gamewright, Hasbro, 5th Street Games. Towards the outside leaning towards core would be companies like Days of Wonder and WizKids.

I define core consumers as people who play games with purpose. They gain satisfaction from victory, the challenge presented, and the camaraderie of the table. This is their primary hobby and they spend money as such. They listen to reviews, use hobbyist sites for information (Board Game Geek, Boardgaming.com, Twitter, Facebook), and purchase games from local hobby game stores and sites like Cool Stuff Inc., Funagain.com, and Amazon.

Companies that serve this demographic well are Plaid Hat Games, Z-Man Games, GMT, and every German publisher ever. I’d argue that Plaid Hat, like Days of Wonder, sits comfortably in the middle.

Component Considerations: Good casual components should help players quickly connect the dots on how to play the game. Dice are immediately obvious and well understood. Casual games should have fewer components as heft and a pile of pieces can be quite intimidating. Casual games should use simple iconography or as little text as possible as reading seems burdensome and for some will feel like work. A side effect of reading is that people’s heads will be down, reading, not up for players to make eye contact and engage with one another.

Good casual components should also look fun. Scallywags by Gamewright comes with a huge, awesome pile of gold pirate doubloons. The Big Fat Tomato Game, also by Gamewright, has little spongy tomatoes, big plastic tomato baskets, and huge hefty six-sided dice. King of Tokyo by Iello has awesome custom dice, big monster cut outs, and transparent green energy cubes. People should look at your game and think subconsciously “I want to touch that.” Oh, and have amazing art.

Never forget that many casual players are very used to Risk and Monopoly. These games provide a sense of ownership (my territory, my army, my property) and use dice as a central element.

Core consumers share some of these characteristics. After all, board gamers love stuff. There are differences. Core consumers will lift your box to gauge its heft and weight. More is better. Core consumers may be leery of dice, or more leery, as it might be an omen of a highly random experience. Core consumers are less concerned about cards filled with text and are perfectly fine with a pile of punch board counters.

Core consumers like tableaus, reference cards, and lots of information. They want to know the card distribution and every side rule. If possible, core consumers also want miniatures. This often isn’t practical, but hey, we’re not limiting ourselves with reality for this post.

Seasons is a game box filled with fun, inviting stuff for more core consumers. Eclipse is wonderful and its components are magical. Don’t get me going on Mice and Mystics. These first two games will terrify more casual consumers — I’ve watched it happen. The last one listed hopes to attract them soon. We’ll see how it goes!

Thematic Considerations: Theme is a difficult one to nail down for either consumers. People of all types LOVE zombies. Just look at Zombie Dice (casual) and ZPocalypse (core). It’s cool to knock zombie games (I’ve done it, rudely), but it’s a mistake to overlook something so beloved by so many.

Orcs and spaceships are always a good path to take. Sometimes, combine them. Honestly, with proper art and mechanic design you can make farming the #2 game of all time (core), or a silly fracas (casual).

There are some general rules of thumb. For casual, focus on art and themes, or presentations of themes, that steer clear of violence and gore. Craft art that’s more silly, less serious. Make it very gender neutral, which is something you can do through a wide array of actions. Hire a real graphic designer — they’ll help. Avoid things that are too rooted in reality. Casual players don’t want to be reminded of war, famine, history, and things that are eerily similar to work.

For core, you can be more serious, darker (sometimes go way dark), and violent. You can use pictures of British Soldiers from a precise regiment or and orc carrying the head of a poor, defeated human.

Complexity Considerations: I feel like this goes closely hand in hand with my components comment. But, I’ll quickly go over a few points. Dave Chalker, designer of Get Bit, commented on Twitter that casual gamers find the rules for Fluxx overwhelming. You scoff, but it’s true. You’d be surprised just how often questions are asked of me about Farmageddon. Questions about content that I thought was straightforward.

With a casual game, it’s all about simplicity. Keep it simple, keep the game quick, keep it focused. Pick one mechanic and make sure the game ends in a half hour or less. Never forget that casual games are designed to appeal to people who play Texas Hold ‘Em Poker, UnoMonopoly, Dominoes, Go Fish. You can never test too much and you should never make an assumption.

For core gamers? Well, go nuts. But, be warned. I sincerely believe that with the Internet, Kickstarter, growing traditional publishers, Table Top, and more, a time of great growth for our hobby is upon us. Yes, you can make the four hour brain killer. And frankly, you should. There needs to be something for everyone. But, if you go too far off the deep end of complexity, you may overlook a huge, eager audience of new gamers. People who may get their hands dirty with Munchkin and then move on to YOUR game. How cool would that be?

Marketing Considerations: Casual consumers are way more price conscious than core consumers. By this, I mean anything over $20 will cause a casual consumer to pause at the point of purchase. Core consumers are also price conscious, but their point of pause may be far higher. Hell, I am personally only limited by personal budget and a guilty feeling if I spend too much money on games.

Casual consumers don’t use Board Game Geek. They don’t care about Board Game Geek. To get to them, you need to be on retail shelves (difficult), build word of mouth (slow), and get them onto a mailing list (slow). Core consumers know all about the Geek, review sites, friends and forums, and will actively seek new content to add to their shelves. They will also buy more if they hear the word of mouth, see it on a big retailer’s shelf, or happen to be on your mailing list.

Casual consumers are way more likely to gravitate towards a company’s brand/logo than remember a designer. Core consumers are more likely to care about the designer. Casual consumers will provide face-to-face word of mouth, whereas core consumers will post ratings on the Geek, Tweet, and use social media to excitedly recommend your game to others.

Both groups greatly respect good value, treating customers well, and being consistent. The Golden Rule will carry you far where marketing is concerned. Be good to others and make great products. Consumers will treat you well in return.

Where are my assumptions off? Did I make any points that resonated? Where does your game fall? Comment below!

Balance Testing

I wrote a post earlier on Faction Design. This new post is similar, but not quite the same. I’ve also written about Testing your game.

Post by: Grant Rodiek

The development of Empire has been such a fruitful experience, both in that I feel I’ve made my second good game (Farmageddon being the first) and that I’ve learned an absurd amount, especially about designing more complicated games. I honestly believe I test games well — I take in feedback, I know what questions to ask, and I know what to look for in a test. But, thanks to Empire, I’m now learning a great deal about testing for balance.

I have some quick tips for things to consider when testing for balance. These tips are especially important when dealing with a game with asymmetrical properties. In my case, asymmetrical Army factions, each with unique capabilities.

Take notes throughout, but act upon the final result. The ideal test environment is one in which you, the designer, are merely an observer. This lets you watch human expressions and listen for deeper meaning into the commentary. You should be taking notes the entire time. For the sake of balance testing, you should note people’s favorite abilities. You should note the ones that cause the most excitement and “holy crap!” type exclamations.

For Empire, Encirclement (Royal Brigade Offensive Tactic) and Bombardment (Imperial Army Offensive Tactic) always cause the “holy crap!” Form Up (Yorkan Staff Order) and False Orders (Republik Militia Staff Order) cause “oh noes!” from the victims and observers. However, the player executing the tactic is grinning like a jackal.

Over time, however, I notice that some Tactics are used more often than I’d like. Tactics and abilities seem to be overpowered and unfair. People start to whine and complain. My notes start to get more dramatic.

  • Cut this ability in half.
  • Reduce reinforcements by 3
  • Make this only do this one thing instead of 2

But, then the game ends and I examine the final score. The player who seemed to have the runaway ability only won by 2 against 2 of the 3 opponents. Heck, the first and last player only had a spread of 6 points. Clearly, my big, dramatic fears were unfounded. Plus, this “runaway faction” was third place in the previous game. My solution? Slightly tweak the ability to use the Tactic to make it slightly more difficult.

You need to get the full story and fully examine the facts before you dramatically re-tune something. If you change course mid-game you will deny yourself some really useful data. Take notes throughout, don’t decide until the end of the test. Measure twice, cut once.

If you’re curious, here are the two tiny changes I’m making to Empire as a result of this week’s tests.

  • Form Up Staff Order now requires a Fog + Cavalry card to activate. Previously, it was Fog + any card.
  • Double Time Staff Order now states: Take two Mobilize Actions. You can Mobilize into a battle territory. (Bold text is the change.)

Good balance isn’t just fairness, but an approximately equal set of choices. One thing you need to adjust for is imbalance. If Faction A has a 10 magnitude ability and Faction B has a 6 magnitude ability, you need to bring those into approximate parity with each other. However, once you move past this, you need to make sure that players see value in all of their options. You need to ensure that different options are useful in every game so that dominant strategies or repetitive choices foul the experience.

In Empire, every player has 4 unique abilities (Offensive Tactics, Defensive Tactics, Staff Orders) and one Army specific attribute. My intent was not just that these are options and privileges, but dictates to how you should play. For example, the Cave Goblins in Summoner Wars are flimsy but numerous. You should augment your strategy accordingly. In Empire, if you are turtling with the Yorkans, you’re playing incorrectly.

So, the task for me is to make sure that players feel they have good options with which to execute a winning strategy. Furthermore, they need to feel that they have multiple good options in a variety of situations. If you see a player using Ability C over and over again instead of Abilities A, B, and D, you should ask a few questions:

  • Is Ability C too powerful?
  • Are abilities A, B, and D under powered?
  • Are the abilities explained (rules text) in a way that makes them appear less valuable?
  • If I were to list a strategy example, would that make it more enticing?
  • Could this be an art thing? I.e. giant laser looks WAY more fun than radar dish?

Most importantly, you should ask the tester! “Hey, why are you only using Ability C?” Perception is everything in a game. Make sure your game is presented such that a player’s perception is that he has a full toolbox full of awesome choices.

Always keep your design goals in mind. This is a fundamental rule that I consider sacred. This is important for design, testing, balance testing, pitching to publishers. Always keep your goals in mind. You should balance your game such that is balanced and fair, but ONLY if that’s your intent. If you want the game to be subtle, don’t throw in the gigantic mega-bomb. If you want lots of combos, don’t make your turn structure rigid. When balancing your game, always check your new changes against your philosophical approach to the game.

Test with the same data before making changes. Even if something appears REALLY broken, you need to test the same game with NO changes many times before making changes. This is the scientific method and it’s crucial. GenCon was incredibly useful because I tested the same version of Empire 12 times over 4 days. Had I been home I would have been tempted to change it every time. But, being away from a computer and my prototype materials I had to run with it. What did I learn?

Well, I knew precisely what needed to change. I also knew that the game was mostly balanced. I had scores from 12 games with 40 or so players. The evidence was clear.

When you’re testing a game for its mechanics, you can change the game fairly frequently. Why? Well, broken is broken. When you’re testing balance, you need to factor in things like:

  • Player skill
  • Player familiarity with the game
  • Player familiarity with the faction
  • Player personality (aggressive versus passive versus erratic versus etc)

On Monday, I was worried the Militia was too powerful. On Tuesday, they took last place. On Monday, the player who played the Militia had played them 4 times previously. He knew them like an old friend. On Tuesday, I had 4 entirely new players play every faction. Is the Militia perfectly balanced? I don’t know, but I know they aren’t wildly imbalanced.

In an ideal world, I would have 4 equally skilled players playing the game 5 times with the same factions. That can’t always happen, but I can try to steer my test sessions towards that.

Balance testing cannot truly begin until the mechanics are completed. Some may disagree with me here, but this has been my experience with both Farmageddon and Empire. Early Farmageddon had problems with 2 player rules, how many cards people could play, how much Fertilizer to use, etc. But, once those elements were finalized I spent months and months just revising the Action cards.

I began designing my war game in January (it was called General Staff back then). I’ve been testing the prototype since April. It has taken pretty much all of those 5 months (about 30 tests) to bring the mechanics within 90% of what I think are final. Now, a future publisher (fingers crossed!) may disagree and we’ll cross that bridge, but I think the mechanics are mostly finished. Without an incredibly firm foundation, you cannot properly evaluate the balance of your game. It’s practically impossible.

Why? Faction balance requires you evaluate the abilities for all player scaling, different player personalities, different starting positions and spatial relationships, and more. If you’re trying to evaluate balance, which is a tiny, subtle thing, you need NOTHING else to be shifting. Otherwise, how you can really know if the ability is imbalanced? Was it the imbalance? Or was it imbalanced because the mechanic upon which it was built was poor?

This post went on a bit long for a Friday afternoon. Was this useful? Any interesting tidbits? Any advice of your own to share?

Disorderly Conduct Part 2

In case you missed part 1, you can read it here. A friend and design peer suggested I write a part 2 that covers the impact on simultaneous turn taking and private versus public information. Here it is!

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Simultaneous turn taking is not to be taken lightly. I have only briefly dabbled with it early in the development of Empire. The idea was bad and only partially simultaneous. Players would decide what to do at the same time, but the execution would be sequential. Nevertheless, I feel I’m up to the task of providing some quick analysis and suggestions.

Simultaneous turn taking is the optimal place for perfect pacing. Wonders is a 7 player game that plays in a blistering half hour. It almost takes longer to setup the game or tally the score! Simultaneous gameplay also flips the traditional notion of reaction versus dictating terms to other players. Let me elaborate.

Typically, the first player can either claim a scarce resource, which denies it from others, or take an action to which other players must respond. Players with initiative can therefore dictate terms to others. However, players who go last have the opportunity to react. They may get resources at a lower cost, take the road less traveled, or take advantage of a flank. This is a key element of Empire and other war games like 1812: The Invasion of Canada. With simultaneous turns, you lose this element, but at the same time you force players to take an educated step in the dark. What do YOU want? What does your opponent want? How can you stop them?

Ca$h ‘n Gun$ is a game full of simultaneous choices. So is The Resistance. The simultaneous actions in this game provide great tension and enjoyment. Holy crap you’re going to shoot him? What! You didn’t vote for my mission? Whereas in Wonders your neighbors’ choices rarely raise an eyebrow, the sudden, jolting nature of the actions in other games can be thrilling.

With simultaneous actions, you want to be careful to not harry and rush some players. With group think, most people will make a choice and be ready to “go go go.” But, the group can only move as fast as its slowest or most analytical member. This means you run the risk of greatly frustrating the speedy players (who get bored and pull out smart phones) or the more thoughtful player (who is flustered and frustrated). There are ways to mitigate this!

Reducing the amount of text on a card greatly helps here. If players need to read a large amount of text, you then throw slow readers into the group of slower-minded players. A focus on icons or really simple functionality (like all 3 games mentioned above) greatly help here. Find a way to simplify actions during the game or break them into pieces. As you play 7 Wonders, the number of cards in your hand are reduced. The cards you can play are reduced. And your strategy is more focused. With Ca$h ‘n Gun$ you begin to notice who is in the lead, who is dead, and you have fewer bullets. 
Pros for Simultaneous Action
  • Best pacing possible!
  • It’s a thrill ride as the great reveal occurs!
  • Reduced AP potential — there is less information to which one can react.

Cons for Simultaneous Action

  • You lose react versus dictate gameplay.
  • Less information to make decisions.
  • Speedy players are impatient. Slower players are flustered.
  • There is a greater burden on the designer to simplify content and cards.

Private versus public information is something I should have considered for this discussion. Alas, my pal Eric was required to bring it to my attention. I love cards. They are easily my favorite game component. One of the primary reasons for this is that cards allow for private information.

There are a few things you may not have considered when deciding how to factor private versus public information into your design. When I tested Empire at GenCon this lesson was brought home to me. Players all have 3 pieces of information they must consider at all times:

  1. Their hand of cards. These are very simple, but a player still has 5 of them.
  2. The status on the board. Unit positions, fortresses, scoring, etc.
  3. Their options on their Reference boards. Cards are used for these.

I watched player after player frantically look at their cards, then the board, then cards, then reference boards, then cards, then cards, and so forth. It was exhausting for me and my players. Some of this can’t be avoided. Some of it, however, is greatly resolved by improving the presentation on a player’s reference board. Now, actions are broken into sections based on a phase. Players can look at their hand and the pertinent section of their reference board. This should greatly reduce the amount of eye strain and analysis paralysis.

To summarize: reduce the number of places a player must look. Try to focus the vast majority of your action into one place.

Another thing to consider is the social impact of private versus public information. Board games are special because they bring players together for true, honest socialization. The more private information you force players to consume, the more time players will  tend to be head down, reading card text. This is time not spent talking trash, drinking wine, and telling jokes.

Public information lends itself greatly to group think (in co-op games) and analysis paralysis in more competitive games. To solve the former, more and more co-op games give players private hands of cards lately (see: The Lord of the Rings: The Living Card Game) to prevent obnoxious group think. “This is my hand…it’s my choice.”

For the latter, there isn’t much you can do with certain personality types. One group of my testers for Empire at GenCon debated literally every decision of every player for every turn of every round. The game took them 2.5 hours! If you force players to roll dice (randomness) or flip a card (unpredictable element), they’ll move on at some point. After all, luck is luck.

One more comment on private information is that players love having a secret. It lets them feel special and devious. When a player’s turn comes around and he is able to reveal his trick, there’s an adrenaline rush for him. There’s also enjoyment and surprise from the others. Many will argue, however, that they hate surprises in games. Some people crave perfect or near perfect information. “No random!” they cry. I don’t agree with this school, but it’s key to note.

Pros for Private Information

  • Players love having a secret in their hands. Players love hearing a secret.
  • Reduces group think.

Pros for Public Information

  • Players focus on a common focal point.
  • Players have a greater opportunity to socialize as they look up from their cards.
  • Fewer surprises appeal to some players.

You should be wary of…

  • Spreading information to too many places. Eye and neck strain abounds.
  • Too much text on cards.

What are your thoughts? Did I miss anything? As always, please join the conversation (or write a guest column!).