A Smidge of Orb

ODST

Post by: Grant Rodiek

The majority of my development brain is focused on Hocus Poker right now. The revision is testing very strongly and we (me and Josh) think we’ll be able to bring a very pretty version to Board Game Geek Con in November. I spent the past week or so revising the graphics files for Sol Rising and it’s being printed now by Print Play Games. I hope to have a really nice version to show to potential publishers at BGG as well. Other than 2 scenarios, I consider that game largely pitch ready.

That leaves me some free time to work on the next game, which I’ve been doing for some time. My process for a while now has revolved around a long period of contemplation and thought, followed by early rules and design documentation, then prototyping. It’s slow, but it tends to lead to higher quality output sooner.

I want to talk about my new game at a high level. Few details, as those can be distracting. I’ve spent a month or two thinking about its mechanics and the overall experience. I’m deep into the rules and I’ve begun designing content for a first prototype. I’d like to think I’ll have a lightly tested version for BGG Con.

For now, I’m calling it Orb. Purely a placeholder name. Try to figure out what Orb stands for before the end of the post. Your prize is, of course, nothing.

I’ve noted before that my new games are often driven by things I’ve learned, things I’m sick of, and things I’m excited about from my immediate predecessor. After York, I wanted to make a game thematic game that involved dice and scenarios. In this case, moving on from Sol Rising, I’m still interested in science fiction, but I want to leave the confines of a starship and get back to the dirt. I’ve never made a game focused on infantry, so that’s appealing. I want to avoid scenario design and, though I’m not removing dice, I want to bring in richer card play that was absent from Sol.

I knew I wanted to focus on a smaller, more tactical experience. Sol Rising is about fleet command and York is about running a war at the operational level. I wanted to focus on the exploits of a small number of soldiers.

My starting point: Science fiction. Infantry. Tactics.

I started to think about the things in this sector that really excite me and the fictional inspiration was just overwhelming. I LOVE the ODSTs (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers) from the Halo universe (picture at the top). They are the best humanity has to offer, up to the Spartans, that is.

They launch from these small pod capsules and explode onto the ground, directly into the thick of battle. It looks awesome and I plan to have a drop pod mechanic in the game.

POD

ODST Drop Pod View

There are also the Jump Troops of Charlie Company from one of my favorite cartoons, Exo Squad. These guys would also get into confined pods strapped to exo-suits (like the one Matt Damon wore in Elysium) and would drop into hostile zones on asteriods.

Jump_troopers

Jump-troop

I love drop ships. Futuristic versions of the Chinook or Black Hawk, heavily laden with elite troopers, exiting the belly of a carrier or troop transport in orbit. You see cool ones in Aliens, Halo, Starship Troopers, and other great fiction.

SciFi-Dropship

Sci Fi. Infantry. Tactics. Drop ships. 

I’m also deeply enamored of Special Forces, both in our current time and in the science fiction I read. There’s something very exciting about highly trained, highly disciplined soldiers who execute their jobs against great odds successfully. I realized this also gave me a great opportunity for a deeply asymmetrical game. A few elite soldiers, no wait, drop troopers, who would need to complete a difficult task against a larger, but less elite force.

Drop Troopers versus Regulars. Assault versus defense. Roles. Already in the design I’m accomplishing this with new tuning variables on how combat is resolved, actions unique to different parties (in general, the drop troopers tend to be more flexible), and objective differences. There’s also a heavy stealth angle for the drop troopers. They need to setup their assault, be patient, then hit with a massive hammer. Once the space poo hits the fan, they need to get out and get home.

This won’t just be two factions, but two different ways to play. This will be an asymmetrical game.

Sci Fi. Infantry. Tactics. Drop ships. Asymmetrical.

War games naturally lend themselves to scenarios. However, after 15 (and counting) Sol Rising scenarios, I’m tired of creating this content. It’s exhausting and requires a unique skill set and energy. Therefore, the need occurred to me to create a dynamic scenario system. By this, I mean I design the framework and content by which the scenarios are created when you play as a part of the experience.

Keep in mind, I will be testing a single framework and content set for the foreseeable future, much like I did with Sol Rising, to verify all of the other mechanics. But, phase 2 will dive more deeply into dynamic scenarios. My current high level thinking is that players will grab cards from a small set for things like terrain (planet type), position (forward operating base, random patrol, heavy base), objectives (rescue hostage, destroy artillery), and any variations (weather, rules of engagement restrictions).

The map and resources available to players will be derived from this setup.

Sci Fi. Infantry. Tactics. Drop ships. Asymmetrical. Dynamic scenarios. 

Those are the top items, but there are a few more things I’m working on. I recognize that asymmetrical games have a high degree of a learning curve and one way in which I’d live to curb that is by making the game VERY card driven. I’m planning on a tight, small set of core rules, with few exceptions, and putting almost all of the content onto the cards. Yes, this will make the cards more complex, but I’d rather the rules be IN their hands instead of in their head.

One example relates to the various roles of the special forces units. You don’t need to remember what a sniper can do versus and explosives expert. You’ll have a card to do so. Similarly, if the scenario generator tells you to place a machine gun nest, you don’t need to know what that entails. You just add the cards it tells you and they’ll contain the rules.

That’s all for now. I’ll potentially talk about more specifics as I vet them and feel comfortable doing so. For now, I wanted to talk about the theme, experience, and high level goals in the hopes that some of you are interested. Enjoy your day!

Patching York

photo

New player boards, new battle board, simple, ink friendly cards.

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I haven’t worked on York much lately. I crunched hard a few months ago piecing it together and finalizing it to make a nice Print on Demand version. Then, I had a wild idea and contacted a publisher who would be a grand slam for the game. We’re talking Hail Mary pass. Dream publisher. I met the publisher at GenCon, showed York, and it went well.

Now, I’ve been given feedback (after 4 plays in just a few weeks!) that the game is a bit too narrow. It lacks strategic variety and replayability. This is feedback I’ve received in a variety of ways, but as it’s coming from THE publisher, it’s the most important feedback.

I emailed a brain trust of pals and asked them at a high level what they thought. I didn’t share my ideas, I just said “what do you think?” If you’re curious, I pinged and heard back from Chevee Dodd, Ed Marriott, Matt Worden, and Mark Wallace. I picked these chaps because of their diverse tastes, I thought they’d have time to respond, and they’ve played the most recent build of the game. If you look at the list above, these are guys who veer wildly with a preference towards hardcore euros, trashy games, simple mechanical games, and more.

I also bugged folks from my long-term test group here in SF, guys who have played 20+ games.

The key takeaway was this: the game is too tight. It’s so tightly wound that players can’t do different things. I, as the designer, put a death grip on the players’ decisions.

The solution, as I processed this, was obvious. I gave everyone a .22 caliber pistol. What they needed is one of those automatic shotgun thingers. By and large, I haven’t changed the game’s mechanics. I’ve basically just revised the tuning. That’s a good takeaway. Sometimes you have a good foundation — you just need to tweak the digits.

If you’re curious, I’m listing my “patch notes” below. Jeremy Commandeur invited me to a really coolprototype event that I’ll be attending tomorrow night in San Jose. I could have dabbled with this for weeks, but instead, I got to it and have a revised game in only 3 days. I love deadlines.

We’ll see how it goes and if it’s the right step.

Patch Notes

Tuning Tweaks: These are basically just number changes, but I think they’ll make a big difference.

  • Players start with 5 Units (up from 3) – Do interesting things more quickly.
  • Players hold up to 7 cards (up from 5) – Play more cards and do more.
  • Players have a pool of 20 Units (up from 15).
  • There is no longer a Reinforce or Draw Card phase. These used to be free, obvious, non-choices. Now, they are Actions you take (or don’t take). To compensate, the Action phase now gives all players 5 Actions (up from 3).
  • As a result of the above bullet, there are now 4 Phases (fewer): Determine Turn Order, Actions, Battles, Upkeep. Less accounting, more playing.
  • During Upkeep, you only get +3 cards. Which means you’ll need to take draw card actions during the game as an Action.
  • Draw card now gives you +2 cards OR +3 if you control a city. I’m experimenting with more meaningful map-related decisions. There could be more, but I’m starting here.
  • Player decks increased to 30 cards (up from 25).
  • Cards in player decks now range up to 4 and 5 (they used to be only 3). In general, there are more higher number cards in your decks.
  • As an experiment, the 5 card can only be played in combat (icon to remind you).
  • Strategic Victory cards are now worth 4 points (down from 5) to encourage more territory and battle conquest.
  • Battles now reward 2 points immediately (same) but no longer reduce a player’s Unit pool. I want there to be less fear of defeat. Basically, more carrot, less stick.

Mechanic Tweaks

To make movement more fluid and faster, the mechanic has been changed.

  • Old: Move any number of Units form 1 Territory to any 1 adjacent territory.
  • New: Pick a territory. Move any number of Units in Territory to any number of adjacent territories OR move any number of units from adjacent territories to it into the territory.

Basically, you can spread out and gather your forces more quickly.

Forts are removed for the moment. I received some feedback on them that wasn’t conclusive. For now, after taking a move action, players may place a camp token.You can reinforce onto your camp (if the territory is uncontested) or HQ. Therefore, camps work mostly like forts, but do not provide a defensive bonus and can be moved.

Battles and Tactics Tweaks: I think the balance will be off, at best, for these. But, I think the mechanical change is a really strong one. I think it’s the right path.

The game doesn’t use dice, but it’s in need of some form of spectacular variance. Basically, it needs an “oh crap!” moment. Previously, the possibilities were pre-determined. If I play this tactic, it’ll do a precise thing. If you attack me with some number of Units, there is no way I can win. Also, all players used to have unique faction powers.

Now, everyone has the same 6 tactics: 3 defensive, 3 offensive. All of them now have a simpler activation cost (instead of 3 precise cards, it may just say “use any of this type” or “you need one of these, then whatever else you want). Furthermore, all of them can be “powered up.” For example, if you want, you can throw down 4 Artillery cards to do a massive artillery barrage. You can spend a great deal of infantry to flee and retreat some of your Units. This makes battle outcomes less expected and gives players a better choice — what are you willing to spend to win this battle? What do you think your opponent will use?

As a side note, the scouts, infantry, artillery, and cavalry are all used more thematically and intuitively now. It’s less of the abstract: One Horse Symbol + One Cannon Symbol equals arbitrary cube movement. Cannons explode, cavalry charges, and infantry dig in.

Oh! You both now simultaneously pick and reveal your tactics in secret. Evil, I know. The end result will be that battles have more unexpected, big, explosive moments, and as there will be more Units and some retreating, they won’t always be an all or nothing affair.

It’s mostly a UI change, but I also completely revised the battle board. The mechanic and end result is identical, but it’s significantly easier to learn now. I’ve done away with the 3 waves. Both players now have a front line (soldiers who will fight and die) and the reserves. Same thing, easier to learn.

One more tactics change is that you can now spend cards to power your Move action. You can spend Cavalry cards to increase your movement. More ways to spend your cards and it’s much simpler than my special maneuvers of old. Very similar experience, much simpler, and more choice. There are a few other simplifications around this, but you get the gist.

Something New: Events

I’m testing this Thursday as a way to introduce more variance, some neat, narrative style events, and generally, just to give players an “ooo what next!” every round. The idea is that at the start of every round an event card is drawn from a new deck. Let’s say there are 30. This event will add something to the board to change the state of things.

My goal is this: These add an opportunity. They are not a “whoever is on this space loses all of their units.” My two go-to examples are:

  • Spies have located an old imperial armory. Get here to get a bonus 3 Artillery card. If you think to the current conflict in Syria or even the Texas Revolution, these moments really matter.
  • The peasants have risen up in the cities. Add a neutral color of Units to the city spaces. You’ll need to deal with them.

Events will hopefully give players neat tools to use, an alternate way to earn points, and just throw a wrench in everyone’s perfectly laid plans. Note that I need to figure out a clever way to figure out where the Events land. I don’t want a card to always affect the same space.

Factions?

As I noted above, for now, Factions don’t exist. For the longest time York was purely an asymmetric faction game. Then, to make it more accessible, I introduced a generic, shared faction for players to learn when beginning to play. What I found is that it was actually still really fun. It didn’t feel like baby mode.

The factions have greatly hindered accessibility, have added a not fun learning curve to the game, and, due to how I implemented them, added a bit more AP than I’d like. For now, I’m doing away with them. I have ideas on how to bring them back, notably just the 1 passive attribute of every faction, which was really one of the most important parts anyways. We’ll see.

Regions

An idea I like (from Chevee) but won’t implement yet is the notion of territorial regions. A single territory is worth 1 point, but if you get all 3 of a region together it’s a +3. Chevee stole this from Risk (his words) and noted that it fixes the “eh, I’ll just go around and take this territory instead” vibe. I like this, but feel I need to dial back all the changes. I’ll hold this one in my pocket.

In conclusion

What do you think? Thoughts? Concerns? Thanks for reading!

Publishing Case Study: York

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Creative nerds everywhere want to be entrepreneurs. Thanks to Kickstarter, the Internet, and money growing on trees, it’s now relatively possible for these nerds to become entrepreneurs.

I am not a publisher, but I want to be. Badly. Yes, I self-published Farmageddon and yes I’m self-publishing Battle for York. The distinction I wish to make is that I did these as a creative exercise. I did these for myself. I believe a publisher creates games for the purpose of revenues and profits. A publisher does it to be a business. I did it for funsies. Now, that doesn’t mean a publisher doesn’t have fun and doesn’t love games, but to be successful, my games need to make money and I’m not quite there yet.

This article is intended as a case study to stir discussion and aid those interested in game publishing. I receive quite a few emails with questions about publishing and I do my best to answer them with what (little) I know. I’ve been taking notes for years and watching. This article will discuss the development I did to publish Battle for York, what I would have done differently if this were a real, profit-focused print run, and the marketing ideas I have for the game. In summary, you’re going to read about what I did, what I would have done, and some of my goofs.

Development: The Actual

Overall I’m quite pleased with the development of Battle for York. Some of my friends have told me that they tested their game a few times, a publisher signed it, then they were hands off for the next year’s worth of development. Well, I did that development. York was thoroughly tested over the course of a year with friends and co-workers, non-gamers, gamer gamers, random folks at GenCon 2012, folks at Protospiel Milwaukee, and a few folks in the Prototype Penpal Program.

Testing overall went through 3 main phases: mechanical, balance, and usability. The first phase focused primarily on making the game work. Getting it to an Alpha state. The second phase focused on making sure the game was fun and fair. Also, to ensure it’s fun to play 1, 5, 10, and 20 times (it is!). This phase is about getting it to a Beta state. The final phase was about making sure the game was as easy as possible to learn and play. It was about ensuring the reference boards and cards presented the information as well as possible. I haven’t done this for a game before and I found it insanely useful.

All told, the game has over 70 tests with dozens of people. It was tested extensively with 4 peers for the sake of deep, long-term balance testing. The rules have also been read, tweaked, and massaged for the entirety of this year. I write my rules at the beginning of the project for precisely this reason. I am reasonably confident my rules are good.

Development: The Potential

If this game had more of a development budget I would have done a few things differently. As it stands now, I had one local long-term test group and one blind long-term test group. I would have sent out copies to at least 2 more groups for long-term blind testing. This would have been invaluable for balance and accessibility. Plus, more word of mouth marketing.

I also would have tried to work out a testing moment with a prominent reviewer. Now, this might not have occurred — reviewers are busy and reluctant to do these things. I would have been willing to pay them for their services, services being 2-5 tests. I would do this in the hopes of getting a private, mock review. I would want to make sure it would go over well in the review circuit. Now, I cannot guarantee every reviewer would agree with the mock review, but testing with 1 or 2 is a good sample size. Hint: We do this all the time in the digital game space. It’s very useful.

Another change is that I would have begun stalking local FLGS to attempt to get some local word of mouth built. There are a few good stores near me: Gamescape in SF, End Game in Oakland, and Black Diamond Games in Concord. However, doing this takes time, gas money, and the stores need to be cool with me testing/shilling my game on their premises. This isn’t just a show up and rock it affair, so it would need some effort.

Finally, I would have hired a dedicated editor to examine my rules. I would not change the number of peers who examined them. Their service has been amazing and again, the rules are good. But, paying someone who is on the line to make it awesome is a good thing to do. This maxim is so true: you get what you pay for.

If you’re curious about the design side of Battle for York, ask questions, or check out this lengthy post I wrote on its origins and development.

Art: The Actual

I’m very pleased with the final art for Battle for York. The cards were illustrated by one of my favorite artists, John Ariosa. The work he created was amazing, working with him was fantastic, and overall I’m just thrilled. Here are some of his pieces:

General_Yellow

Cavalry_Blue

I wrote about working with artists earlier, but I’ll rehash some of the info. I spent a year thinking about the art for York and built not one, but two Pinterest boards for it: Theme 1 and Theme 2. I had a clear vision and that really helped things.

I also greatly scoped down the required assets to fit within my tiny budget and John’s time frame. Ultimately, I hired him to create 5 images, each done in 4 colors. I asked for characters with simple backgrounds, which also kept things within scope.

I also hired Robert Altbauer from the Cartographer’s Guild to illustrate a map for me. I discussed the project with 3 artists, but ultimately settled on Robert because of his style and experience, his demeanor, and his very reasonable quote. I had him create 2 maps: 3 player and a 2-4 player. These were based on drawings I created for the prototype — the layout was refined and complete. He made it pretty and created icons for it, including the Cities, Seaports, Forts, and Headquarters. You can see one of his maps with the board elements here:

Board_Top

I handled the graphic design duties for the project, which included icon sourcing and layout. For icons, I used Game-Icons.net and modified them as needed, usually just by simplifying the icon or modifying it to fit the aesthetics of the rest of the game. These icons are consistently created and provided free within the creative commons license, so I used them.

Because I was obtaining the icons and because my graphic skills are limited, the overall look and feel of the game is simple, clean, and modern. Here’s a card to demonstrate this point:

GreenInf

You can see one of every card on Facebook here. This style was shared throughout the game’s assets, including the game board, the rules booklet, the stickers, and the player boards.

All designers do some form of graphic design for their prototypes. This project has been very instructive to me both in how to do layouts and execute tricks in Photoshop. Experienced graphics folks will giggle at what I produced, but I did my best and I learned a great deal. I created dozens of iterations for the player boards, refined the rules dozens of times, and even experimented with the relatively simple board.

Never undervalue the importance of properly communicating elements to your players.

Art: The Goofs

I did two stupid things. One is something most publishers do, for better or worse, the other is just a goof of mine. Firstly, my game isn’t the most colorblind friendly. In testing I used colors that did not share a colorblindness spectrum, but for the final game I opted for color. The four player colors are yellow, blue (oops) and green, red (double oops). Were this a fully published game, I would probably do something more along the lines of green, yellow, black, and white. Maybe. I’m not sure and right now it’s not something I’ll change.

Fortunately, the cards and game boards are very color blind friendly in regards to the information presented. But, the game pieces are less so if you’re colorblind.

The second goof also has to do with color. I’ve always used red to indicate “offensive tactics” and blue to indicate “defensive tactics.” These items also have symbols, but the colors really drive it home. My prototype did not feature red. The final game does. Now, there are red and blue player colors AND I use these colors for offensive and defensive tactics. Doh! It’s not the end of the world, but it is lame and it’s something I’d address in a real version.

Art: The Potential

The game’s assets are ultimately not very consistent. I knew this going in, so this is less a learning for me and mostly something to do differently if this were a real publication effort. The key differences is that I would have added additional process and layers to it as well as hired a graphic designer.

I also would have hired the illustrator to craft more art. Instead of 5 cards with 4 colors each, I would have made the cards color agnostic and created a unique set of 5 cards for every faction. This would have quadrupled my costs, but also made the game more varied and exciting visually.

When creating the art, I hired the illustrator (John) and map artist (Robert) simultaneously. The cards have a very painterly style and the map looks like, well, a map. In a full printing, I would have hired the illustrator first. After he (or she) created a handful of assets, I would have then sought a map artist who could work within that style and remain consistent. Another option would be to have a graphic designer create a wireframe then simply have the artist do an aesthetic pass to make it look gorgeous and consistent.

I would have also hired a graphic designer to create icons, improve my layouts, and do an aesthetic pass on all UI. When I say improve my layouts, I say that because I would still create everything. I would mail the graphic designer a copy of the game with all my assets, have him (or her) learn to play it, then with his expertise, improve upon it. From there, he would make it beautiful. As the designer, I expect myself to know what my player’s need best. I expect the designer to know slightly more than me. Ish.

The mapmaker wouldn’t begin the map until he received an improved wireframe from the graphic designer. I sent the mapmaker a layout, but it wasn’t the final one. Granted, not much changed, but still, these things matter.

I would also retain the artist to do an aesthetic pass on the icons created/sourced by the graphic designer. If you look at what York actually has, it’s painterly and somewhat fuzzy illustrations (intentional) with clean, sharp icons. These would be merged and made consistent.

Stylistically, I would also direct my team to create something that fit the fiction better. Currently, the game is set in the 19th century with some decidedly 21st century styled lines. Clean clean clean. I’d like to see a parchment vibe, something that makes me think of the time period. Island Siege by Ape Games and graphic design by Daniel Solis did this well. Here is their player mat:

image-218917-full

In my mind, these are fairly obvious decisions based largely on time and money. Could York look better? Sure! But, the cost to do so isn’t worth the money I will make for it. To summarize my notes here:

  1. Hire a graphic designer
  2. Leapfrog between artists in order to maintain consistency
  3. Create a more appropriate aesthetic to match the theme

Marketing: The Actual

I didn’t do a very good job marketing Battle for York. Much of this have to do with me thinking  to myself, “it doesn’t matter much.” I like to develop my games openly and as a result folks may feel overwhelmed by the amount of information I share. At work, PR always guides us to have 2 or 3 points and stick to them. Market those 2-3 things precisely and repeatedly. With York, I posted about development (balance, UI, testing, mechanics, etc.) and shared everything as it became available. I should have shared things more sparingly.

If you notice with Blockade, I’m mostly teasing it via Twitter. I’ll write fewer posts and they’ll matter more. Of course, if you EVER want to know anything about my projects, email me. I’m an open book.

Another example is that when John was sending me assets one at a time, I simply shared them on Twitter. I believe there is a more effective and potent way to wield these beautiful surprises. In a proper campaign, I would have merged my Faction Previews with the art reveals. I also would have crafted a more elaborate fiction and story for each. There would have also been a video format. Just imagine how fun this would be!

The intent, would be to build hype and excitement for the theme and mechanics of York bolstered by gorgeous visuals and a well-crafted fiction.

I asked people, somewhat, for thumbs on BGG, but I don’t like spamming folks for what is ultimately an exercise in pageantry, and as a result I don’t have many thumbs. You have to ask for things!

Once I receive my copy of York, I’ll do a video unboxing to show the components and create a video tutorial to explain the game. I’ll also be sending a copy to a few reviewers. Finally, I’ll have it with me at GenCon to share and demo.

Marketing and Kickstarter: The Potential

I actually detailed some of the things I’d do differently above. So much for that format! The truth is, York is too big of a game for me to self-finance and I would have to run a Kickstarter campaign for it. Let’s discuss the Kickstarter I would have run. Before we get into Kickstarter…please don’t freak out. These are just my opinions. There is no right way. There is no single way. This is simply what I think would be my way based on my own experience with Farmageddon and a lot of observation.

Obviously, before the game launched, a handful of reviewers would have a nice prototype of the game in order to review and share. It blows my mind that some people still launch a game on Kickstarter without critical reviews to vouch for the game. This is a no no.

Before I launched on Kickstarter, all art assets would be final, all graphic design finished, and all rules final. I personally don’t like the “NOT FINAL” caveat. I’d self-finance this and say “boom, here’s the game. THIS is what you’ll receive.” It’s a personal choice and ultimately, everyone should do what they feel is best. This also helps you stick to your manufacturing schedule. Many KS projects still have to finish the game after KS.

I would share a PNP and also share a small number of copies with common BGG users to comment and discuss. This was very powerful for Farmageddon’s campaign and I feel sharing a PNP shows confidence. I would also take a note from Stonemaier Games and provide a money back guarantee. Now, before I did this, as mentioned at the very top, the game would be tested even more to fully relax me when giving this guarantee.

Stretch Goals are probably the thing I like least about the current Kickstarter ecosystem and it would definitely be a problem for me with York. I don’t like many of the extras for a few reasons:

  • The extras packed in can really increase the MSRP, which can hurt long-term sales.
  • I want to present and create the game as it’s meant to be. No more, no less.
  • They make publishing, an already difficult thing, a bit more wild and unpredictable.

Nevertheless, here are the stretch goals I had in mind for a Battle for York campaign:

  • Additional factions: York features four asymmetric factions. Manufacturing more is really just a matter of a player board and 25 cards, plus the art. I would design and test 2 more before the campaign so that adding them wouldn’t be a big deal.
  • Stories: I hired a writer to create two short stories for the current game. In hindsight, these would be awesome stretch goals. Craft stories for every faction that go beyond the “short story” limit.
  • Promo Cards: I created some of these for the current version (Tactician, Saboteur) and really like how they change up and in some ways, break the game. I think good promos are fun and I’d probably do a few of them for a KS campaign.
  • Custom Tokens: The game would largely use punchboard tokens to keep the game at a lower MSRP. However, for scoring and turn order tokens, I could have neat custom meeples created. Note: The current game uses all wooden components, so in that sense, it’s arguably nicer than the “real” version. This is probably the least likely goal I’d pursue.
  • Bag: To cut down on MSRP I’d remove the bag from the base set. But, as a stretch goal for backers, I could include the bag. Note: There’s a bag with the current version.
  • New Maps: The current maps are balanced and designed for straightforward gameplay and symmetry. I’d love to create weirder maps that shift the gameplay, add new mechanics, and really vary things. Adding new maps is simply a matter of adding more boards. Oh, wait…those are super expensive! Still, something I could “add” much like Days of Wonder did with the Memoir ’44 Winter/Desert board.

All of these would be estimated and quoted before the launch of the campaign. If my goals were hit, I’d simply reveal the next stretch goals. They would fit within my budget and I would not lose money. As a side note, I really like how Mercury Games Kickstarted The Guns of Gettysburg. They had a very upfront, honest policy regarding Stretch Goals.

My funding goal would probably be around the $10k-20k mark. I know that’s a big gap. The minimum number of copies is typically 1000 and 1500 (depending on the manufacturer), but I’d prefer to print at least 2000 as that’s where you begin to see price breaks. Margins improve here, but your investment greatly increases.

Ultimately, the number I decided would be based on the amount of money I’d be willing to put towards it.This was one of the reasons I didn’t KS York — It’s more of a niche game and I’m not sure it’s the one to put $10,000+ of my savings towards. I hope to design and publish that game (or sign someone else who does), but I’m not sure York is it.

I prefer Kickstarter projects with a few, simple backer levels. Typically:

  • Get the game for the US
  • Get the game for Canada/Europe
  • Get the game for somewhere else

Foreign backers would probably need to buy multiple copies to make it cost effective, but I haven’t gone deep enough into that to say for sure. My Kickstarter page would be simple with the following information:

  • KS video would largely be a 2 minute pitch. “This is why you should back.”
  • Page would detail components at a high level, link to reviews, share some of the art (cards, game board).
  • Page would give a quick glimpse into the world’s fiction.
  • Page would have a gameplay video. “This is how you play.”

The campaign would last for 30 or fewer days. I would be highly responsive and transparent for any questions ask (see the Farmageddon campaign for proof!). I sent several RFQs and settled on a manufacturer who would create a high quality game, was nice and reliable (from personal referrals), and could help me make the game at a $40 MSRP. I just didn’t pull the trigger.

Fulfillment and Post-KS Sales: The Potential

Fulfillment is a tricky subject. There are so many options and ways to do it. I know a few that I would NOT use. As for what I would use, I’m currently leaning towards doing it myself (if sales were low) or using Amazon fulfillment. Amazon could also help with shipping to European backers, again, if sales warranted such a thing.

In the short run I would rely heavily on Amazon’s storefront. Doing so gives me a place to store the games, a nice, safe, outstanding web store, and lets existing Amazon customers use their logins, their credit card info, and Prime status to get free shipping. Basically, I wouldn’t invest in my own Hyperbole Games storefront until sales warranted such a thing.

I would immediately begin the slow, challenging process of getting into the traditional distribution channels. There are a lot of great distributors and it would take time to build a great relationship with them. I would need to attend trade shows like GAMA and GenCon with some presence in order to do so. It is so key to be in FLGS to reach a mass audience. Once in an FLGS, my hope is that superior art and a very reasonable price would warrant a look from potential customers. Those two elements are so very key.

I would send the game to additional reviewers, especially ones with a large presence like The Dice Tower and some of the popular war game reviewers, like Marco Arnaudo. I would absolutely save some of these for after the KS campaign.

I would also begin creating expansions. I’m a huge proponent of the expansion driven business model. I love it as a consumer, a designer, and a publisher. As a consumer, it gives me more of a thing I love, but also, it’s my choice to do so. As a designer, I get to create content atop a foundation. Content is so much easier than mechanics! You also get to dream up and create less typical elements. With the base game, you want to cover your bases and hit as many people as possible. With an expansion? Go nuts. Finally, as a publisher you are able to drive additional revenue off the same IP. You can leverage existing art assets and branding. It’s also less risky to create a smaller expansion than yet another full game. Many of the most successful publishers utilize the stuffing out of this business model, including:

  • Days of Wonder: Ticket to Ride, Memoir ’44, Smallworld
  • Steve Jackson Games: Munchkin
  • Plaid Hat Games: Summoner Wars and hopefully Mice and Mystics
  • Mayfair: The Settles of Catan
  • Fantasy Flight Games: Almost everything they make. Lately, NetrunnerX-Wing, and older titles like Arkham Horror. 

Over time, the hope would be to build a small, core audience who continues to support the game’s expansions. In turn, I would support them with scenarios, PNP components, and the obvious rules support. Byron Collins of Collins Epic Wargames does a great job of supporting his community. So does Plaid Hat Games. I would like to emulate this.  This core of consumers would hopefully grow via word of mouth and eventually I’d be a millionaire. Or, I’d simply reprint and improve the game.

Ha.

Conclusion

This post is absurdly long! I apologize. This post covered:

  • Development: Actual versus Potential
  • Art Development: Actual versus Potential
  • Marketing: Actual
  • Marketing and Kickstarter: Potential
  • Post KS Sales: Very hypothetical potential

This post was fun for me to write and share, but most importantly, I want it to be useful and interesting for you. Were you looking for specific information not covered? Did I gloss over something? Please feel free to comment below. Or, email me your question at grant[at]hyperbolegames[dot]com.

Thanks for reading. I sent Battle for York to the printer last night and I am so very excited to hold it in my hands.

York Faction Preview: Royal Brigade

Cavalry_Blue

This is the third of four Faction Previews for my new game, Battle for York. You can learn about the game and the Imperial Army HERE. You can learn about the Republik Militia HERE

Post by: Grant Rodiek

So far we’ve discussed the defensive, highly disciplined Imperial Army and the nefarious, assassination prone Republik Militia. Means to an end, right? Today, we’re going to discuss the game’s second more conventional army, the Royal Brigade.

Fictionally, the Royal Brigade is a gathering of wealthy, powerful Yorkans who formed the aristocracy of the old Empire. They are used to immense power, influence, and wealth. They look down upon the peasantry and have little time for the ramblings of the Militia. After all, equality is silly. One should know their betters, right?

The Brigade seeks to instate a monarchy. Not an emperor, per se, but a king. A new nobility where title and rights are passed down through generations by blood and the powerful can closely guard the throne. This idea is not popular with the masses, so the Brigade intends to take it by the sword.

The aristocracy traditionally formed the cavalry units of the 18th and 19th century armies. Why walk hundreds of miles when you can ride a horse? It’s the way a gentleman fights, for sure. The Brigade was inspired by epic cavalry charges of history and story as well as the Wehrmacht’s Blitzkrieg tactics of World War II. I envisioned an army that outflanked, out rode, and encircled their enemy. I saw the Brigade as a blunt hammer of aggression that fully embodied the saying “the best defense is a good offense.”

The Brigade has one of my favorite offensive tactics: Encirclement. This ability is devastating and, when pulled off perfectly, is worth 6 points. Hint: That’s a lot. Typically, the victor in a battle claims one of the defeated player’s units. This permanently reduces that player’s unit pool by 1 and is worth 2 points. Encirclement lets the winner claim 3 defeated Units. That means the defeated player’s unit pool is reduced by 3 units!

Encirclement is difficult to execute. For one, it doesn’t give you any benefits towards winning the battle. You need to have a massive force, which means you don’t have Units holding territory. It also means the battle could be a blood bath, so you need to ensure winning with encirclement doesn’t hinder your future operations. Finally, you only get defeated Units, which means if your opponent manages to not lose more than 1 Unit, encirclement doesn’t do much for you.

The Brigade’s other offensive tactic is the thematic Outflank. This increases the number of enemy Units defeated in the first wave of battle. Essentially, it makes your attack more efficient. It isn’t devastating, but it’s relatively cheap to execute.

The Brigade’s defensive tactic is also closely tied to their thematic home atop a horse. Their Defensive Tactic is Fighting Withdrawal, which forces the attacker to lose a Unit AND the Brigade is able to retreat from the battle. The Brigade cannot win a battle using this, which means they won’t gain any prisoners (or points). But it does mean if you catch them off guard, they can spend a card to get out of a sticky situation. Unlike the defensive tactics of the other factions, this one’s relatively difficult to execute as it requires the uncommon cavalry card.

The Brigade’s Special Maneuver is Blitz. This is the meatiest of special maneuvers. Firstly, the player draws a card. This means more options for the round and could mean the difference between executing that big offensive tactic or not. Then, the player can take a Move action AND declare an attack. This is how the Brigade can quickly maneuver to the place you least want them to be very quickly. Think you’re safe? Think again. Horses move quickly across the plains of York.

Finally, the Brigade’s Special Ability greatly complements Blitz. Once per round, the Brigade may declare an attack from a territory adjacent to the battle. Typically, you must be in the territory with your opponent to attack. Essentially, this gives the Brigade a free move, but ONLY when used to declare an attack. Blitz paired with the Special Ability turns the Brigade into a nasty, springy opponent that shows up on your front door when you least want them to.

Maneuver is the key for the Brigade. Do you think you can handle them?

What do you think about the Brigade? What about the other factions? Tell me what you think!

York Faction Preview: Republik Militia

The Scout card

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Welcome to the second of four Faction previews for my upcoming game, Battle for York. You can read the first preview about the Imperial Army (and learn the basics of the game) here. You can also check out the game’s page on my site or BGG.

The Imperial Army are a highly disciplined, defense-oriented army that are known to dig in and make you force them out. They are very traditional and one could even say conventional.

This is not the case with the Republik Militia. The militia is one of the new political entities to form in the wake of the disintegration of the empire. Many of York’s neighbors have turned to more modern, representative forms of government. The militia also wants this. They seek a voice, an equal say regardless of one’s status in society, and hope to knock the crust off the old imperial regime.

The problem is, they are more ideological than practical and lack the training and equipment to stand toe-to-toe with the likes of the Imperial Army. If you recall the Minute Men during the American Revolution, they were often renowned for fleeing the battle after a single British volley (or was that a Mel Gibson movie?). Therefore, in the absence of a fantastic military contingent, the Republik Militia turns to alternate solutions to the problem.

To demonstrate their lack of battle expertise, the Militia is the only faction to not have two Offensive Tactics. However, they have two Special Maneuvers that are quite powerful.

The first is Assassination. If you cannot kill enough privates and corporals using an army, kill a General using an Assassin. Assassination can be used outside of battle to kill any 2 Units from any 2 territories. This can be shockingly annoying when used correctly.

The second special maneuver is arguably my favorite ability in the game: False Orders. False Orders let you move any 2 Units to any adjacent territories outside of battle. A good Militia player will use Assassination and False Orders to create easy battle scenarios and pit 2 other players against you. If you can’t stay and fight? Well, make them fight for you, then swoop in the pick off what’s left.

A quick tip: the Scout is a ridiculously important card for the Militia. Playing the Scout for Reinforcements is foolish!

Even in battle the Militia remains a wily, obnoxious force. Their Offensive Tactic, Diversionary Attack, lets you leave a battle you yourself instigated! There are a few reasons you might do this. For one, you might be able to win the battle, but after your opponent reveals his/her defensive tactic, it’s clear you won’t. Well, leave! You might also want to tie up a superior force of an opponent to keep them from going elsewhere.

The defensive tactic, Rally, gives good Militia players an incentive to spread their forces thin to take additional territory. Rally is played in battle and lets you bring up to 3 Units from adjacent territories into the battle territory. Your opponent will need to think about whether you’re willing to abandon other territories to win the current battle. Are you?

Finally, the Republik Militia has a very thematic and powerful Special Ability. During the Reinforcement phase, the Republik Militia player may place 3 of his new Units (these aren’t free Units) in a single, unoccupied territory. I call this Uprising and it was inspired by the effect of good propaganda inspiring civilians to arms. The Militia is fighting a guerrilla war of sorts and they can be anywhere at any time.

The Militia is a more advanced faction, but once you learn them you can put on an absolute clinic. I really love playing the Militia because they force you to play very differently from the others.

What do you think? Sound fun? Come back Wednesday to learn about the Royal Brigade.

Slight Side Note! All of the art for Battle for York is completed. Now, I’m on the home stretch putting the components together. I wanted to share a card, the board, and rules below for any input you have. Unfortunately I’m doing this myself, so I’m shooting for a clean, simple look. I just don’t have the chops to really go crazy here with graphic design.

Rules

BJkDZyHCMAAL-fV

Card

Card

Fun note: Although this is the appropriate layout (the position of things doesn’t change between cards), this actually isn’t the proper art for the Saboteur. I used the wrong picture when I saved it out quickly for this article. Whoops! Also, most cards have a symbol and a number, so again, there will be some differences if you’re curious.

Board

Board

York Faction Preview: Imperial Army

soldier

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Battle for York is still going through graphics production, but I wanted to create a short, four part series to illustrate the game’s four asymmetrical factions to give you a better idea of how the game plays.

Today’s preview focuses on the Imperial Army. However, before we do that, I want to give you a really brief summary of York’s gameplay so that these previews make sense.

Battle for York is an area control/war game that lasts for 6 rounds. At the end of these 6 rounds, the winner is determined, essentially, by the player with the most and/or best collection of territories and the most victories in battle. In York, you need to fight, and win fights, to ultimately be victorious.

Every round follows 3 primary steps: Reinforcement, Actions, Battles. Before I explain those, let me describe the cards. Every card has 2 simple properties: a number (1-3) and a symbol (infantry, cavalry, artillery, scout).

During reinforcements, every player may discard any number of his 5 cards to add Units to the board. If I discard 3 cards with a 1, 2, and 2 numbers, I’d get to add 5 Units. Players all have a finite pool of 15 Units. If all 15 are out, you can’t add more. This phase is very key: you’re deciding which cards you’ll save for special abilities and how many Units you need.

Actions are where the meat of the game takes place. In turn order, players will take 1 action at a time until all players take 3. There are 3 simple actions: Move, Declare an Attack, and Draw a Card. There are 2 slightly more complex actions: Build a Fort (add a Fort to the board with defensive/reinforcement bonuses), and Special Maneuver. Special Maneuvers are essentially very powerful cheats. Every Faction has a unique Special Maneuver. To activate one, you need to discard cards from your hand with matching symbols. For example, to activate one you may need to discard a Scout and Cavalry card. This is where the symbols come in.

Finally, players fight battles. There’s an attacker and defender, which dictates which battle tactics a player can use. Battle Tactics, like special maneuvers, are powerful abilities that require you to spend cards of the indicated symbols.

The winner claims a Unit token from the defeated player. This reduces the defeated player’s Unit pool AND grants the victor 2 points.

In a nutshell, choose how many Units to add to the board, choose how to position them, choose how to fight with them.

Now, let’s discuss the Imperial Army!

The Empire of York is an old nation that spans a large island continent. Think Australia, geographically, with an autocratic, Tsarist Russia like political entity. After centuries of misrule, the Imperial family has abdicated and fled with the few remaining assets of the treasury. Other than this, they aren’t a part of the story of York. We’re focusing on the present and the future, not so much the past.

This is why things are difficult for the Imperial Army. For centuries, they’ve been the aggressors of the emperor. They were used to conquer foreign lands to increase the size of the empire. They were used to repel invaders. They were also used to police the interior of the empire, especially with the dissident regions and upstarts.

The Imperial Army isn’t an evil or negative force. They are professional and disciplined and largely formed by members of the working class (see the gentleman at the top of this story). Civil war is raging and the Imperial Army seeks a return to normalcy, peace, and the way things were. They are open to change, but first, they want the war to end.

The Imperial Army was inspired by the British Army of the 18th and 19th centuries. They are highly disciplined veterans. Well armed, well led, and incredibly well-trained. You always read about the British troops never retreating in the American Revolutionary War and that sense of “Hooooold!” was the impetus for this faction.

Dig in!

Dig in!

They are very defense oriented and can often win battles when being attacked. Every faction has a unique Defensive Tactic. For the Imperials, it’s “Dig In.” When being attacked, the Imperial player can play a single Infantry card. His defensive power is increased by the reinforcement number on the card. If you play a card with a 3, rare, you can inflict massive casualties on the attacker.

The Imperials can also be powerful on the attack, but they lack subtlety. Their weaker offensive tactic is charge. This can, fictionally, scare 2 enemy Units out of the battle territory. They’re still alive, but they won’t factor into the current battle. Or, my personal favorite, bombard. This artillery barrage eliminates 3 Units outright. This is an expensive, but essential tactic for taking a fort from the enemy.

Finally, the Imperial Army can quickly surprise their enemy using the Double Time special maneuver. Like a disciplined army on the march, the Imperials can be where you least expect them very quickly. Double Time allows the Imperial player to take 2 move actions AND move into a battle territory. Typically, once a battle is declared, it’s essentially locked. With Double Time, the Imperial player can tip the scales in his favor.

Finally finally — every faction has a “special ability,” a passive factor that changes how they play. For the Imperial Army, their “discipline” theme inspired me to give them more efficient card use. The Imperial player can use a single card for BOTH Reinforcement AND a Tactic every round. Typically, a card can be used for one of these things, but not both. If properly used, this can really tip the scales in the Imperial player’s favor.

What do you think? Anything you care to know about the Imperial Army? They are defensive, blunt, and direct. They use tactics honed over the centuries. Discipline, after all, leaves little room for innovation.

Look for a faction preview on the Republik Militia next week. They are wily, manipulative jerks with a cause.

Protospieling Dawn Sector

Protospiel

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I attended my first Protospiel this past weekend in Milwaukee. I spent 3 days hanging out with good friends, playing my game, Dawn Sector, and playing many of their outstanding prototypes. Originally, I planned on writing a post about their games, but I don’t think I can do it properly. Sure, I can share photos, but ultimately I don’t think it’s right to discuss someone else’s in-progress prototype in so public a forum as the internet. I don’t want to pass any judgement or opinions that could in any way hinder their game’s progress.

If I played your game at Protospiel, I’d love to have you write a guest post on this blog or if you’d like we could conduct a quick interview.

Instead, I’m going to write about Dawn Sector. I conducted 5 tests of the game: 3 with the generic faction and 2 with the real factions. Overall I think it was well-received and people seemed to enjoy it. However, I’m going to make two modest to big changes to the game that I think will really get me on the home stretch.

Draw Draw Draw: The first major change is the addition of a fifth turn Action — Draw a Card. For a long time the actions have been as follows:

  • Move
  • Build Fort
  • Declare Battle
  • Use a Spec Ops (essentially a really powerful action for which you spend cards)

Players could also pass, though this was never a good option (if you’re playing well) and if you passed on the first or second action round, you’d lose all remaining Actions. I really wanted to avoid players passing to force an opponent to blink. The Mexican stand off isn’t fun in most cases.

However, in a few instances, especially towards the end of the game, things often became quite tense and the game can come down to a single Action. Players would often be conflicted and some would simply pass to avoid making too gross an error. I didn’t like this, but I didn’t have a solution and it wasn’t so much of a problem that I was really worried.

In the very first test of the con I was given the suggestion to allow a Draw Card action. “Wow,” I thought immediately. That is a damn good idea. I added the action for every subsequent test and it was indeed a damn good idea. Drawing a card opens up the game in a variety of ways:

  • If you have a particularly bad hand or a hand that ALMOST gives you what you need, you can spend an Action to draw. 
  • It provides a moment of tension. Players NEED a card. When a really clutch draw occurred (i.e. they need a cavalry and drew one), it felt good.
  • It gives players a way to “pass” without passing. As a result, I’m removing the option to pass.

This can’t really be exploited as you still need to discard down to 5 cards before the end of a round. Basically, you can’t spend a round stockpiling only to have a crazy subsequent round. Plus, it is often still not the best idea to pass. Good players will learn when to hold or discard cards at the end of a round. The Draw Card will ultimately fill a nice hole but won’t be a crutch or a game breaker.

It’s a really great idea and attribution for it goes to Mr. Brett Myers of Nanuk fame. (Stay tuned for some of Brett’s upcoming games. One was presented to me and I was able to play another. Both were beautiful, tight, and well designed games.)

DS_Boards_Proto_Generic

Withdraw Withdraw Withdraw: Before I explain the second major change, I want to discuss an idea that was presented that I considered and ultimately rejected. Ryan Metzler of the Dice Tower played in the first test. He suggested I add a “Remove Troops from Board” action.

Initially this seemed compelling. For the many of you who haven’t played Dawn Sector, you should know a few things. Firstly, every player has a finite until pool of 15 Units. At the beginning of each round (6 total), you may spend cards to add these Units to the board. Units are only removed as a result of battle (i.e. casualties), at which point they can be re-added via reinforcement.

Ryan felt like he was in a bad predicament. His units were spread about and he wanted to be able to remove them to add back via the next reinforcement phase. This seemed fine enough, until I thought through it.

For one, the action would be highly inefficient and therefore only useful for this in the direst of circumstances. You’d have to pull units off in order to add them back next round? That’s not really useful. Secondly, this greatly rewarded bad play (sorry Ryan) and would give people a crutch for getting lost in the wilds. Furthermore, the game already provides ways by which you can sync units back up, including faction abilities (like Double Time in Ryan’s game) and the spaceports, which let you move to any territory bordering the edge of the map.

Finally, they’d break the game. Imagine a scenario: I carefully build up units and maneuver them to attack you. Perhaps this round, perhaps the next. You see this, realize you’ll lose the battle, and withdrawal your troops. Now, I just wasted an entire round of maneuvering and you got away with only one action! Why would people not do this every time?

I honestly felt like the game didn’t need this and furthermore it’s not worth adding many other rules or tweaking many other things to allow it. If you aren’t too reckless, your units shouldn’t get too far astray. And if that happens? You still have ways to recover.

The Single Decker: Now, for the final significant change as a result of Protospiel. Yes, I’m tweaking some tuning, but this is the second big one. Currently, every faction uses a unique deck. All decks are comprised of cards with the same 5 Symbols (Infantry, Cavalry, Artillery, Specialist, Commander) with numbers ranging from 1-3. All of the decks have a very similar level of potential reinforcements. However, the distribution of the card types (i.e. cavalry versus infantry) differs. Originally this was for thematic and balance purposes. For example, the Brigade should have a lot of mech cavalry, whereas the Militia has the most specialists.

Alas, over time this has added a layer of fiddliness that isn’t necessary. For one, all decks have cards with the same five symbols, but not all factions use every symbol. Without a fail, one new player asks “why do I have this card?” It’s a good question for which I don’t have a good answer. Furthermore, more serious players have to relearn and re-examine the subtly (and sometimes significantly) different distributions when they change factions. Instead of just learning new abilities, they have to also learn the deck.

This is a bit of oversight on my part. Now, all factions will use an identical deck of cards. Faction abilities will still be triggered differently based on the approximate difficulty of the ability and, where possible, along thematic reasoning. But, players will now be able to move between the games with the same deck of cards.

I fully believe this can be done and the system can be tuned. However, I think there will be some subtle balance issues that will take time to suss out.

In conclusion: If you played Dawn Sector at Protospiel I really appreciate it. By observing you and discussing the game with you I learned much. I shall improve Dawn Sector and hopefully make her even more appealing for a publisher.

I’m almost finished tweaking the revised player board and I have a first pass take on the new deck distribution. Now, I must apply that distribution with new tuning for the faction abilities. Following that, I’ll reprint all the cards.

My next step after that is updating the rule book with these changes AND introducing my “director’s commentary.” If you want to know what I intended with a feature or why I implemented something as I did, this should be a fun read.

Finally, I’m building a prototype copy for Jay Treat. He’s offered to do some long-term balance testing for me. I look forward to having him as a testing partner.

Thoughts?

Dawn Sector: Origin Story

Header

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I write about my games often, so much, that I often think “oh that would make a good blog post” before I even finish updating my prototype. It’s a useful way for me to put my thoughts down. However, I write as if you’ve been following along from the beginning and, like Lost, the reality is it’s not fun to try to jump in at the middle. I thought it would be useful to describe what Dawn Sector is as well as discuss the decisions I’ve made to get it to this point.

Note: If you go to my blog section and search for “Dawn Sector” or “Empire” or “Field Marshals” or “General Staff” you’ll find all sorts of posts. 

Why did I make this game? I’ve always loved war games. I played a lot of Risk as a child. In college my roommate and I played Stratego constantly and our senior year Heroscape dominated our weekends. Some of my favorite games now (that I’m really into board games) are Memoir ’44ShogunSummoner Wars, Risk Legacy, and 1812: The Invasion of Canada.

I wanted to create something like these games, but I wanted it to be my own. I challenged myself to create a war-like game that would satisfy the following very high level requirements:

  • Plays with more than 2 OR MORE players. So many war games are 2 player only.
  • Plays in an hour or less. People don’t have time to recreate the entire Franco-Prussian War in real time. I like to distill and design for people with less time.
  • No dice. What! Madness. Dice are a staple of combat resolution and are featured prominently in all but 2 games above.And in Shogun, the battle tower acts as a randomizing element. I wanted to be different.

I picked a general time period, the mid to late 19th century, and set to work.

What is Dawn Sector now? Before I go down the path of what this game was and how it came to be, I thought I’d root you in the present, very far-along version of the game.

Dawn Sector is an area-control war game for 2-4 players set in an original science fiction universe. It plays in about an hour over the course of 6 rounds. During these rounds players will choose from a short list of simple actions (move, declare battle, etc.) and use their limited hand of 5 cards for 1 of 2 things: Reinforcements or played in sets to activate powerful abilities.

As you can see from the (no art yet) prototype card below, the cards are basically as simple as poker cards. You play the card for the number for Reinforcements (add 2 Units in the below example) or with a defined set of symbols (i.e. 2 Infantry and an Artillery) for Tactics.

Inf2-2

The game is faction-based with 5 factions currently: 4 unique and 1 generic faction to help people learn the game. Oh, and there are wooden cubes. Did you get shivers? I did. The game is low-luck and is outcomes are overwhelmingly determined by player actions.

Defining the Mechanics: At the outset of the game I had my 3 goals listed at the beginning as well as the core idea for my reinforcements versus tactics idea. That was there from the beginning and, content aside, has remained largely unchanged.

The individual pieces that have been the most challenging for me as I designed this game are:

  • Map Design: Oh god why?
  • Scoring: How do you win the game?
  • The Battle System: How do you create variance and unexpected outcomes without dice?
  • Factions and Tactics: What does it mean to be a faction?
  • Pacing: How do I keep the game moving?

As you can see with the image at the top, I have gone through so many iterations with the map. This was a completely new challenge for me as a designer and I cannot tell you how many weekends I have spent staring at a pile of shapes.

There are several challenges that present themselves. How many spaces do you have? Keep in mind, this varies based on the number of players you have (I started with 6!) and needs to be big enough that you aren’t constantly fighting, but not so big that you are never fighting. If you squint and look at the numbers below, you can see I had player starting points everywhere (some poor guys in the middle) and cities (the stars) scattered haphazardly as well.

board1

In the map below here I had fewer players (down to 4) but for some reason had a body of water in the center. I actually had 2-3 variants with different bodies of water. After a handful of tests a friend noted that if I wanted conflict, it didn’t make sense to fill the center with useless territories and put the valuable territories on the outside. People will just spread. Ah ha!

Board2

I refined this one a bit and took it to GenCon where I tested 12 times. It largely worked, but there needed to be a little more space (i.e. more territories) and it needed to be balanced. Because unfortunately, it favored a few starting positions.

board2.5

board2.6

Eventually, I came to this map below. You’ll notice both purple and red starting icons — I was still trying to have a single board work for 2, 3, and 4 players. I also had varied rules to compensate for this and ultimately, I decided to create a single double-sided board: 2/4 players on one side and 3 players on the other. This increased my components (and gave me another map to design), but ultimately meant the rules were identical for every player variation.

large-square-mat

Here are what I believe to be the final boards (layout wise, not art). I haven’t changed them in months and they seem to work very well.

GameBoard_2-4

GameBoard_3

Now, let’s discuss scoring. In many war games, especially 2 player ones, the game is over when the opponent is eliminated or an objective is taken. This is fine with 2 players but doesn’t work at all with 4 players. I wanted to avoid the back and forth king of the hill feeling of traditional Risk and I refused to have player elimination. How then, could I keep up to 4 players entertained until the end of the game?

I had a few other goals. I like it when players feel like they can win up until the very end. I’ve seen friends check out when they feel like an earlier decision doomed them. I also wanted players to fight often, multiple times in fact. So many games build up for one single fight that determines the game. I wanted many fights and I didn’t want a single loss to hinder you forever.

For better or worse, some of these ideas emerged as I tested. The first test gave victory to the first player to capture an enemy headquarters. It ended in about 20 minutes when one player managed to carry out his throat shot first. Not very compelling with such a singular goal. I began thinking about other ways to score:

  • Holding territory
  • Holding special territory (what was originally a resource tile is now the city)
  • Bonus points for placing forts
  • Completing a randomly dealt secret objective
  • Winning battles

Some of these were fairly obvious (holding territory) and were streamlined over time to be very simple: normal territory is worth 1 point, cities are worth 3 points. Forts provide no additional bonuses. I then had to figure out how often players scored. If you wait until the end for a single scoring moment, players just build up and eye each other. “Camping” ensues. I think camping is boring. On the other hand, if you have scoring more frequently players never get a chance to pull off a multi-round scheme. Eventually, I settled on 2 scoring rounds: the mid point and the end. This gave players time to try things, build up, and make mistakes without a.) sitting idle the entire game and b.) feeling like they had only one chance.

The randomly dealt secret objectives were always neat and simple. The gave players a goal. However, it seemed that most people “solved” them too early and felt like they didn’t have anything else to do (perception is a pain!). Furthermore, it was incredibly difficult to balance them to be equal. I came up with the strategic victory solution. Every game, 4 of the 8 cards are randomly chosen. The player who satisfies the strategic victory at the end gets a point bonus. Over time 4 was whittled down to 3 per game and now 2 per game. It gives players a long-term strategy but also isn’t overwhelming.

Finally, I toyed with letting players earn points through battle victories. After all, I wanted a game where people were fighting. Typically, in a game like Shogun, you fight to move an enemy off the territory that scores. But, it’s very possible to never fight and merely stare at each other. I wanted battles! Therefore, I gave players an incentive: 3 points. But, how to track it? I had a good idea. If you win a battle, you permanently claim 1 of the Units your opponent lost in the battle. This is now a double edged incentive: you get points and your opponent permanently loses 1 of his Units. In Dawn Sector, your unit pool is finite (15 Units). This makes losing a battle painful but, to fit with my goals above, not decisive. If you lose 6 battles? You probably won’t win. But, if you’re smart about your choices this won’t happen. Over time I changed this to 2 points per Prisoner, the current name.

Games usually score relatively closely, with high scoring games placing the leader at around 30 points.

Now, let’s discuss the battle system. My thinking was that without dice, my battles would be a less varied affair. But, if every battle is the same is the same, this quickly grows tiring. However, I wanted player choices to dominate the outcome of events. If you positioned your units well, chose your cards correctly, and played the right tactic, you should win.

I began with a basic attrition system, inspired by 19th century combat: for every 3 units in the battle, every player loses 1 Unit. This lasted far longer than it should have! At one point a tester suggested I forego the math and find a new way to determine casualties. I settled on the following: Every player loses 1 Unit each in 3 waves. The player with the most units at the end wins. It removed the math problem and gives an almost identical final result.

“Okay,” you’re saying, “biggest number wins?” Not exactly. The tactics were powers that you could activate to change the state of things. Destroy X enemy units, move Y enemy Units out of the battle, increase your opponent’s rate of loss — things like this. Initially, only the attacker played a Tactic. This meant battles were always a foregone conclusion and merely an exercise in efficiency. Why would someone attack another player if he would lose?

I introduced the defensive tactic. These gave the defender a chance to switch things up. I decided that the defender would get the chance to play his tactic first, followed by the attacker playing an offensive tactic. This worked…somewhat. The problem was that the defensive tactics were both too weak AND too expensive to activate. A little tuning fixed things right up! I made the decision that all defensive tactics would cost a single card to activate and would be potential game changers.

However, the attacker was still able to respond with his offensive tactic and, as HE declared the battle, one could argue he knew what he was getting into. This system has led to a bit of bluffing and really supports the tight hand-management required to win. How many Units do you really need to add during reinforcement? Where do you think you might battle this round? And how many times? And against whom? All of this factors into the seemingly simple choice of which cards to play for reinforcements at the beginning of a round.

What about Factions and Tactics? For quite some time the game featured a single faction shared by every player. There was a smattering of 8 very diverse and non-coherent tactics. I personally liked the variety but noticed people would focus on just one or two they liked and sticked to them. I also noticed the game needed a little more variance. Without dice to change battles, and with all the tactics being shared, the game felt a little stale.

I decided to create factions. My first four factions were inspired by classic military archetypes:

  • Highly disciplined defensive warfare
  • Highly mobile, blitzkrieg style offensive warfare
  • The hit and run tactics of the guerrillas
  • The irregular and atypical tactics of a rebellion. Assassination and more.

I divided up the 8 current tactics along these lines, created new ones, and gave every faction a passive special ability that didn’t require cards to activate. This made every faction very distinct and different. You couldn’t stand toe to toe with the big boys when commanding the guerrillas, but the defensive army also couldn’t chase them very well.

Aside from some early game-breaking balance issues that were so bad they were easily fixed, I’ve never looked back from the faction-based gameplay. However, I recently added a generic faction for players to use when learning the game. A friend noted that the game was difficult to learn because you needed to both learn the game AND the factions. Now, it’s just the game to start. When you’re ready? Upgrade to the factions mode by flipping your player boards over.

The final high level mechanic I’d like to discuss is pacing. Pacing was my biggest problem and top concern for a long time. It’s a very difficult problem to solve. Is it your fault if people are taking too long to make decisions? Maybe. In my case, yes.

A few things led to the constant analysis paralysis in my game. The biggest is that players would get a single turn every round and during that turn, they would need to reinforce and take 2 sequential actions (including any battles). If you went first, 3 other players would then take their turns. This meant the first player would have to take 2 actions that didn’t screw him up for the next 6 actions. This was still difficult for the second and third players to do. Then, the fourth player had to choose how best to maximize his turn based on what the other 3 players did. That assumes he didn’t get battled 4 times and left with zero units.

It was just too much to consider.

A few things broke this up. The first step was breaking the battle phase and the action phase apart. In the action phase, players merely declared that a battle would take place, locking the chosen territory in time (until the following phase). This restricted the amount of things one needed to consider and also created an interesting concept of battles occurring in order (which opened up some subtle strategies).

Recently, I introduced what will probably be the most important change for the duration of the project. Instead of the one turn per round, 2 actions per turn system described above, players never take more than a single action on their turn. Now, players all reinforce sequentially then take one action sequentially. Players take 3 actions per round in total instead of just two previously. By having 18 total actions throughout the game, players aren’t so constricted and are able to take more ambitious gambles. There is also more reactionary gameplay, which is necessary sometimes. It has fundamentally improved the game so much that I’m astounded I didn’t do it over the summer.

There are some other miscellaneous tidbits. Turn order used to be determined by 20 chits numbered 1-20. It was this stupid deduction type game that was just cumbersome and not interesting. I’ve experimented with several ways of determining turn order and ultimately settled on one that is both simple and provides light variance. I’ve subtly tweaked decks to change total possible reinforcements, symbol distribution, and more.

I’ve also changed my player boards several times (pictured below).

If you have any questions or comments on Dawn Sector I’d love to hear them. If you made it this far you’re a true friend. Sorry I wrote at such length!

Here are some player boards! Check out the evolution.

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Dawn Sector: Battle Board

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

In my previous post from just a few hours ago, I wrote about how playing with my non-gamer friends gave me valuable insight on making my game more accessible for others. Not by changing the design, but by modifying the layout and presentation.

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I mentioned that the old player boards (shown just above) had too much information, specifically shared information that could theoretically be removed from the player boards to make them simpler and placed elsewhere.

One of these pieces of information is the “Battle Order” shown in the middle of the old board. But, where would I put it? (New player boards just below this):

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This will come off as obvious and potentially stupid, but the more things you ask your players to memorize in a game, the longer it will take them to learn the rules. Even if you show them everything, they’ll just gloss over things, misinterpret things, or focus on what they DO understand just so they don’t feel stupid.

Up until now, one of the things I forced players to remember was the resolution phase of the battle. Three waves are fought in which each combatant loses up to 3 soldiers, 1 per wave. This honestly isn’t THAT complicated, but, it IS something to remember. My friend told me that he had trouble remembering the three. It was just too much and his cup of things to learn was overflowing.

I then had a thought. I remembered the Axis and Allies battle board, which I haven’t seen in years. Players didn’t need to memorize what different units did. They just piled them on the appropriate side and rolled dice and checked the board.

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I knew this was the key for me. One of the best things about designing games for the digital space is that you have calculations running in the background. Not for print games! So, with that in mind, and Axis and Allies as inspiration, I’m trying to set it up so players can just put their pieces down and let it move them along. Here it is (first pass):

BattleBoard

I’ll walk you through what you’re seeing.

  • Sides for both the Attacker and Defender, color coded, and facing the player.
  • Instructions on the 4 steps on either side for both players.
  • Icons that match the abilities on a player’s board, so he can more easily map “oh, I can play this because this is me, the defender.”
  • The first 3 boxes indicate the first 3 cubes of either player’s armies. If there is one on both sides, both players lose these units (indicated by the X), then move right.
  • Big boxes for anything in addition to the 3 waves.
  • A reminder for the attacker that if the BLUE defender has a fort (in blue), he loses 2 additional Units for that first wave.

The rules will be updated to teach the player’s to use these boards. My sincere hope is that players use these boards for their first 3 or so plays of the game. Afterwards, they just do it all in their heads like I’ve been doing for the past 9 months.

Thoughts? This has been a productive Sunday so far. The cards, player boards (with tutorial faction), and now the battle board have all been designed, printed, cut, and sleeved. Next up? The game board itself. After that? Updating the rules to reflect the new graphics, theme, and to use the new components.

Thanks ahead of time for your feedback.

Dawn Sector: Player Boards

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Post by: Grant Rodiek

I think I’m going to use Dawn Sector as the new name instead of Empire. If that rubs you the wrong way, please tell me!

The focus of 3 of my 4 tests this week were accessibility. I deliberately sought out 4 people who don’t really play board games and in some cases, just don’t like them. The purpose of this was NOT to find out how to make my game for them. Frankly, it isn’t and I don’t think I need to compromise the design of this gamer’s game for people who won’t buy it anyways.

However, by testing with absolute board game novices I was able to play the game through the lens of their confusion. I was able to see what made the game difficult to learn, where the strategy wasn’t clear, and how I can present the game better so that the people who WILL buy my game enjoy it more.

The tests were amazingly fruitful.

I’ve spent my weekend and will probably spend the majority of this week integrating all of the feedback. The time has come to discard my old Game Crafter prototype. The interface and layout is far out of date, a handful of things have been tweaked too far, and I need to integrate the new theme (sci fi). One of the biggest changes, which is the focus of this post, are the new player boards. You can see the new one at the top.

For reference, as I walk through the changes, here is the old one (for the same faction):

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My best feedback came from a friend who, like me, has worked in the digital game industry as a designer for 8 years. He’s an expert on usability and presenting information to the player. He also finds games as big as Dawn Sector just too big for his tastes. Perfect.

Based on the old board above, he had this feedback:

Input 1: I mix the player’s unique abilities all over. However, there is a lot of info that everyone needs (round order, possible actions). Why not move that stuff to a central location and make it so my board only shows the unique stuff for me?

Solution: Round Order will now be put on the main game board. All Tactics and Staff Orders (and the special ability) are synced to the left side. The Battle Order information will now be contained on its own battle board (future post). I also put a minor call out on the special ability to say just that so nobody assumes it’s flavor text.

Input 2: There is a lot of text. I’d love a way to easily reference things.

Solution: Every tactic and staff order (now Spec Ops) will have a euro-game style diagram that explains at a high level what will happen. I think this is a good hybrid of pure Euro that has only symbols (that require print aids or memorization) and Ameritrash style which is just years of text. My hope is that you can now scan the image, get an idea for what will happen, then check the text for the fine print.

Input 3: The color coding is helpful, but it needs to be even more obvious.

Solution: Actions will now have a category symbol. You’ll notice that Offensive, Defensive, and Spec Ops tactics now have symbols for them. These will be integrated throughout the other player aids (especially the battle board). You also see sharper, more useful icons for the basic player actions. I want to help players connect the dots as easily as possible.

I now need to propagate these changes forward for the other 3 factions. Plus, probably the biggest change, the new fifth faction. But, this faction isn’t a unique, special one. No, they are going to be a generic Tutorial Faction. They will use a combination of abilities from the other four factions. Like Eclipse, every player board will have this generic faction on the opposite side. My friend noted that it was very difficult to both learn the game AND the faction gameplay. If people can use the tutorial faction for the first few games, they can then easily step into the advanced faction driven game.

What a great idea! I’m very excited about these changes.

Thoughts? Input? Back to Photoshop I go.