A Brief “History” Lesson

Post by: Grant Rodiek

In junior high, high school, and even college history courses, we spend the majority of our time covering the pivotal events in history. For US History in particular, these include the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Cold War, then a final whimper of a chapter that covers the space shuttle and Reagan. As students, there’s a lot we miss if we don’t go snooping down a Wikipedia wormhole of goodness.

This is a post about what I think my new design project will be. Livestocked and Loaded (expansion to Farmageddon) is developing very well and is in testing. Empire of York will still be play tested, but not as intensely for a short while. I’ve submitted it to a publisher and I am going to sit tight as I wait to hear back from them. This leaves me room and energy for a new project.

I’ve always been fascinated by Borg’s Command and Color system. It’s been used in so many games to overall critical and consumer acclaim. You can play the American Civil War, World War II, ancient Rome, or even Robots with his system. I’ve spent months designing and testing a great little system that’s currently used in Empire and I’d like to use it again. That wasn’t necessarily my intent, but now that I have an idea for it, it is!

The world is a very interesting place in 1901. I’m going to lay out some tidbits to quickly paint the picture.

  • Towards the end of 1898, the United States routes Spain in the Spanish-American War to take control of the Philippines  Guam, Puerto Rico, Cuba, etc. The US is now an imperial power on the world stage.
  • In late 1901, an anarchist kills William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States. His Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt, becomes president.
  • For about 2 years, 8 nations fight Chinese nationalists in the Boxer Rebellion. These nations include Great Britain, Imperial Germany, and the United States of America.

Soldiers of the 8 Nations

  • For about 3 years, ending in 1902, the United States devotes about 100,000 troops to put down an insurrection in its newly acquired territory of the Philippines.
  • For a few months at the end of 1902, naval forces of Great Britain and the Imperial German Navy blockade Venezuela to collect a debt. Roosevelt, worried they have more long term ambitions, invokes the Monroe Doctrine and sends a large fleet south to hold the European Allies in check.
  • The Imperial German Navy, led by Admiral Tirpitz, grows rapidly and in 1901 is the second largest navy in the world. However, they are a distant second to Great Britain.
  • The Imperial German Army, after decades of training and guidance under military geniuses such as Helmuth von Moltke and Alfred von Schlieffen is the finest in Europe, arguably the world.

As you can see, there is no singular global conflict, but the world is in turmoil. The Great Powers are rapidly building navies, acquiring colonies, and carefully eyeing one another for weakness. Much like the Civil War spent decades brewing into a hot conflict, the factors that led to World War I were decades in the making.

I was reading Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris the other night. Incredible trilogy, you should read it. To denote the seriousness of the Venezuelan Blockade (mentioned above), Morris briefly noted that a war between Imperial Germany and America in 1902 was so incredibly close to happening that it’s astounding nobody ever really talks about it. Much of the diplomatic communication was conducted secretly, without writing (to preserve the “honor” of the Germans), so history didn’t find out about it until much later.

But, the fact is, we were days, if not hours, from a war with Germany. In 1902. In fact, detailed invasion plans of New York City have been found in Germany. The General Staff under von Schlieffen took their Kaiser’s intentions so seriously they had a plan to invade American soil.

I thought, “wouldn’t this make an incredible game?” What if Germany invaded America? Alternate history is quite interesting to me. In fact, the what if question of history is one of my favorite aspects. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought this was a good idea. Robert Conroy has already written 1901, a book about the German invasion of America. I’ve read about a third of it already and it’s quite good (and confirms much of my early research). I want to thank Kevin O’Gorman for telling me about the book after I noted my desire to make this game. So helpful!

My new game will be about a German invasion of America. One team will control the German invading Army and the Imperial Navy. The opposing team will control the hastily built American Army (as noted above, most of the Army was fighting in the Philippines or out west in old Indian Wars forts) and the dispatched American Navy.

New York City, site of the invasion

The game will be built upon the card system mechanic used in  Empire of York. However, whereas Empire focuses more on tactical battles, the use of the special “tactics” will be more strategic in nature. Reinforcements will not be a player controlled variable like they are in Empire, but will be dictated more by the history available to us. There will be a few theaters to the war, primarily the eastern seaboard (site of the land war), the Caribbean (location of American colonies and navy), and the north Atlantic (German troop convoys).

The German intent isn’t to conquer America, but to force us to relinquish our colonies and give them to her. Warfare of this time period was often not so much about conquest as it was dictating terms to the defeated. After all, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 lasted only 9 months and ended with the siege of Paris. Yet, the Germans did not control France as a result. As Clausewitz said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”

I’ve conducted a bit of research these past few days, but there’s much left to do. I have some initial ideas for tweaks tot he game systems to accommodation this new premise, but still, much to figure out. Nevertheless, I’m confident that this is a unique premise, a well-founded premise, and a good use of my game mechanic.

What do you think?

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!

Veni, Vidi, Viticulture

I’m a huge fan of wine. It’s my alcoholic beverage of choice and I’ve spent many many weekends driving around the vineyards of Napa Valley. I also own a home in Napa, so, yeah, I like wine. This immediately put Viticulture on the radar for me. After all, I bought Vinhos, a super complex, super lengthy game for which I haven’t even read the rules (after months) almost purely because of the premise.

I must admit, however, that Vinhos, Viticulture, and Viva Java have now made it very difficult for me to design a game about two of my favorite things: wine and coffee. I guess I’ll go back to war and Theodore Roosevelt.

When Jamey Stegmaier, the designer of Viticulture, approached me, I immediately knew I wanted to interview him. Read on to learn more about the game and its development!

HG: Introduce yourself. Who is Jamey Stegmaier?

JS: Indeed, who IS Jamey Stegmaier? I grew up in Virginia, designing and playing games in my free time, and I’ve lived in St. Louis for the last 13 years. I discovered Euro games about 8 years ago, which re-ignited my passion for game design. I have a pretty normal day job (I work at a non-profit), I co-founded a fiction publishing company a few years ago (my other passion is writing/publishing), I play soccer, and I have two cats. I’m also single, but I’m sure that has nothing to do with the cats.

HG: Tell us about Viticulture? At a high level, what do we need to know?

JS: In Viticulture, each player takes the role of a vineyard owner trying to create the top winery in Tuscany. It’s a 2-6 player worker-placement game that takes between 45-90 minutes to play (once you know how to play, games last just over an hour).

HG: Why did you pick the theme of wine making? 

JS: Two main reasons: One, the idea of owning a winery is highly romanticized. There’s something about bottling the fruits of the earth into a concoction of your own design that appeals to people, and I wanted to tap into that. Two, I wanted to create a game that could appeal to gamers and non-gamers alike.

I probably could have made a similar version of Viticulture with wizards, potions, and elixirs, but I would have excluded a huge number of people—many of whom probably have never tried a Euro-style game—who I think could really enjoy something that’s a little different than the standard fare you find in the average game closet.

HG: I own a home in Napa, so I’m partial to American varietals and wine growers. Why Tuscany? There are wine regions all over the world (Vinhos simulates the region in Portugal) and I’m curious as to why Tuscany was your top pick.

JS: I wish I could say that I have strong roots to the region, but really, it came down to Bordeaux and Tuscany, and Tuscany seemed slightly more romanticized than Bordeaux. Apologies to all of my French friends. It was very close.

HG: You advertise that your game loses some of the “cutthroatedness.” Why did you want this approach? How did you accomplish it?

JS: It really comes down to this: Despite our best hopes and intentions, we’ve all done something out of spite instead of reason in a game, and we’ve all had this done to us. It sucks, but it’s true. I think it’s a game designer’s responsibility to mitigate that potential for hostility in a game.

I accomplish that goal in Viticulture by simply not making such hostility possible. Each player has complete control over his/her vineyard mat—no one else can affect it at all. None of the cards in the game are attack cards. The only areas of conflict are the wake-up chart (determining player order) and choosing worker-selection actions, but we included a rule that says that if you can’t take an action (i.e., if you don’t have enough money to build a structure), you can’t select that action. Thus you can’t intentionally block someone simply to block them.

HG: Your game doesn’t feature dice and advertises low luck. Why was this important to you? How do you keep the game entertaining after multiple plays? Where’s the replayability factor? I have a war game in development that features no dice and one of the first things I had to resolve was preserving variability and replayability within this constraint.

JS: This is a great question, one that I pondered time after time during the development of the game (well, the second question. To the first question: I like choice more than I like luck when it comes to strategy games). In early versions of the game, there were only two options for variability and luck: vine cards and wine order cards. And it kept bugging me because it didn’t feel like there was enough variation.

But then we had a breakthrough: The visitor cards. In the game, players can invite skilled visitors to their vineyards in the summer and winter. Each of the 40 visitor cards is unique and offers bonuses that exceed the actions on the board (or they give you new ways to gain money or victory points). There is a little bit of luck in the draw, but they’re all good at different times.

Beyond that, every game—even every year within the game—feels different because of the order that everyone places workers and the different priorities of the players depending on the options available and their cards in hand. It’s not a game in which you can use the same strategy every time—you have to be nimble and flexible recognizing opportunities and capitalizing on them.

HG: 2-6 is a wide range of players! I often start at 2-5 and quickly go back to 2-4. What changes do you introduce to make the game scale? How difficult was this part of your design?

JS: That specific range was really important to me. The lower end of the range is obvious—when you’re trying to play a game, it’s the easiest to try to find one other player. Plus, I wanted a game that couples would enjoy playing. As for the upper end of the range, I wanted a game that 3 couples (or 2 couples, me, and a date who has no idea what she’s gotten herself into) can play.

The scaling is key, though. Usually when you add extra players, the game takes much longer, and the flow is interrupted. Conversely, lots of games that are built for 3-4 players have a 2-player mode that feels quite different from a “normal” game because you have to add a ghost player or have each player play with two sets of pieces. I wanted to avoid both of those issues.

The solution that I discovered and honed is that the number of spaces available for each action scale depending on the number of players—1 space for 2 players, 2 spaces for 3-4 players, and 3 spaces for 5-6 players. It works remarkably well. There are always good options for you to choose, but you’re always left wanting as well. I know I’m enjoying a game when I always want a little more of everything.

HG: Many people see worker placement as something that’s overdone. I see people say this about every genre. Nonetheless, what steps did you take to ensure Viticulture is unique?

JS: Perhaps it’s just that I love the mechanic, or maybe it just makes sense to me. When you manage people in real life, you’re assigning different responsibilities to them. That translates really well to games for me (and it goes back to the power of choice instead of luck—as much as I love Dominion, what is the real-life equivalent to drawing 5 cards from your deck every turn? It works as a mechanic, but not as a translation of real life).

The answer to this question includes pretty much every facet of the game, so this video I recently created should help.

HG: Who is your ideal player for Viticulture? Who would LOVE this game?

JS: I think the ideal player is someone who fancies the idea of a vineyard in a box. They could be a gamer who will dive deep into the strategy of the game or a non-gamer who is dipping their toes into the world of strategy games. Either way, I think they’ll enjoy the game.

HG: What were some of the biggest problems you had to solve in developing Viticulture?

JS: I’ve playtested the game countless times over the past year and solved (hopefully) countless problems, so let me focus on one in particular. From very early on, the game was played in seasons, and one of the ways I separated the seasons was by a role of a specific die for that season. The die included 2 good things connected with that season that affected all players, or 2 bad things (drought, frost, etc) that affected all players.

The trouble was that the randomness provided by these dice caused way too much unpredictability in terms of tactics and strategy. You couldn’t plan ahead—or you could try, and it wouldn’t matter after the die was rolled—and it frustrated everyone. Even though seasonal unpredictability is realistic when running a vineyard, it simply doesn’t translate to smooth gameplay, so I removed the dice after a few months of testing.

HG: What games inspired you in designing Viticulture

JS: The big ones are Agricola, Fresco, and Stone Age. All three were a revelation when I played them. Viticulture uses a few of my favorite aspects from each of those games, fixes my least favorite aspects from them, and adds a lot of new stuff as well.

HG: Your KS campaign has some interesting marketing tactics. For example, getting additional likes, counting backers, not just money. How do you think this has worked so far? I must admit, I’m asking because I may want to steal these ideas.

JS: Steal away! The reaction to the Like-based stretch goals was mixed. My intention was to give people a way to support the project even if they didn’t want to spend money. However, the criticism I heard from a few people was that I was conning people into Liking something that they didn’t actually like. That wasn’t my intention, obviously, but that was the perception of a few people. That said, I’d do it again. I mean, even if someone only likes the video or the idea of the project, isn’t that worth contributing (and rewarding)? Plus, I like having stretch goals that can happen before you reach your funding goal. When you start out with $0, everything is a stretch. Last, my research of a bunch of similar games that had been successful on Kickstarter revealed that the average number of Likes between them was 519. So I figured that would be my goal. As of this writing, we’re at 444 Likes, and we’re also 124% funded.

HG: Do you see Viticulture as a one off, or do you hope to have more games? If the latter, what are some interesting areas you think should be explored?

JS: Oh, Stonemaier Games is far from done after this, my friend. If we have any profits after this campaign, we’re going to revert the money to our next game (and/or Viticulture expansions). Alan (the co-creator of Viticulture) has a concept he’s been brainstorming for over a year that we’re excited about. As for me, I have lots of mechanics I want to work with, but I haven’t settled on a theme. That’s usually how it starts for me—mechanics before theme. Is that how it is for you?

HG: I’m a bit of a combination of theme and mechanics. I love history. Love it. I obsess over it. Typically, I think of a historical setting or premise or event. I then immediately begin to design it so that I abstract that premise into a game. I suppose you could argue I start theme first, but I tend to focus on settings that allow for neat mechanics. Everything in Farmageddon is inspired by an actual farming habit or reality.

For example, with Empire of York I was fascinated with the heavy attrition of 19th century combat and how brilliant commanders found ways to win decisively despite the limitations of weaponry. I looked to the Franco-Prussian War and how the Germans won largely because they captured entire French armies (much like they would do again during the World War II blitz). As a result, some of my game’s first mechanics were tactics like encirclement or bombardment, favorites of the Prussians and Bonaparte, respectively.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Thanks so much for the opportunity, Grant. I really enjoyed these questions, and I look forward to hearing what your readers think. I’m happy to answer questions in the comments here or on our Facebook page, or people can e-mail me directly at . Thanks for your support for Viticulture!

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?

Summoning Favoritism

It is only fair to note I stole this image off of Games & Grub’s review of this game. 

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m keen to remind folks that I’m not a reviewer and this isn’t a review site. However, from time to time, articles like this that are eerily close to reviews appear. I’ve played 75+ games of Plaid Hat Games’ Summoner Wars on iOS and a handful more on physical copies. After all that, I still love it and want to play it so much more. This is a great game and, if I may be so bold, my favorite game.

I think there’s value in breaking down what it is about the game that I love so much. The game embraces so many things that are core to my philosophical approach to design. I also think it is a brilliant game for a small publisher.

Simple: Lately, so many games impress me as a designer and delight me as a player for streamlining and focusing their designs. One of my goals for Empire was to make a strategy/war game without all the familiar trappings and complexity of these games. 1812 distills so many elements with simple dice symbols and focused rules. Summoner Wars does this wonderfully.

Firstly, every turn follows 6 simple steps that I can recite by memory.

  1. Draw
  2. Summon Units
  3. Play Events
  4. Move
  5. Attack
  6. Discard for Magic

This simple order makes learning the game easy. They avoid the pitfall of games that let you do things in any order or have really complicated steps. To move, move any 3 Units. How far? 2 spaces. To attack, you attack with any 3 Units. How? Well, they are either melee (adjacent) or range (up to 3 straight spaces). It’s so simple and demonstrated with very clear icons.

You also have a ridiculously simple and straightforward combat mechanic. Roll one D6 for every attack number on your Unit. Rolls of 3 and up are hits. That’s it. No defense or any of that.

By simplifying these elements, they can go deeper with other elements. Every Unit in the game has a special ability or behavior. Essentially, these merely break or manipulate the few core rules. They allow for additional movement, shooting through friendly units, moving enemy units, and more. This allows for combinations and tactics that let players feel clever and have really dynamic, exciting games. Plus, because the core rules are simple, learning these one-offs isn’t difficult or overwhelming.

Board games are really niche. Some of the things that keep them from grabbing new players are cumbersome and confusing rules. With Summoner Wars, Plaid Hat has made a GAMER’S GAME that isn’t exhausting or tedious. You have real heft and meat without having to be Alpha Nerd. It’s not surprising then that the game is so well regarded on Board Game Geek.

Plays Quickly: This feeds into my previous point, but it’s so important that I want to call attention to it. Yesterday, my friend and I played 2 games in 2 hours. My friend had never played before and neither of us had played any of the four factions we used. The next time we play, that hour will drop to a half hour. I can finish games on the iPhone in 15 minutes easily.

Summoner Wars respects my lack of time and plays well with my busy life. The few times when I do have many hours to play we can easily play several games. This lets us try new factions, new strategies, and generally have a great time with quick setup.

Allows for Player Creativity: The game does this most obviously with its Reinforcement packs. For $10 or less (depending on where you buy it), you can buy Reinforcement packs. These include new champion and common Units for 2 Factions PLUS the Mercenary faction (which can be played as a unique faction or mixed in with all other factions).

The game has very strict rules on what constitutes a deck. This might bother really hardcore Magic players. However, for me, it gives me a very finite box in which to be experimental. This simplifies things, makes it more accessible.  I love creating new decks and trying out new strategies. I love discovering synergies between common units and champions. I love finding killer strategies to counter my friends’ killer strategies, then tweaking again as they tweak.

The game also allows for creativity in how you play. The game begs you to be clever with how you place walls, the strategies you employ, and how you manipulate and wield your Units’ abilities. The game has a subtle bluffing element, rewards a good flank, and allows for spectacular finishes.

Infinitely replayable: You may counter this by noting one must spend money to have this level of replayability, but I have no such problem about continuing to pay. But, let’s set expansions aside for a moment.

For $20 you get two Factions that you can expand. For $40, you get SIX Factions and a really slick board, not to mention a huge box to accommodate many many cards. Both of these provide great value without another cent spent.

Let’s say you spend $15 (I spent $10 at my FLGS) to get a Reinforcement Pack. You now have cards to modify and tweak 2-3 Factions. There’s no CCG collection nonsense. You get everything in that pack. For $6 you can add an entirely new Faction.

There are so many combinations of content available for very reasonable prices. Even if you never buy anything more than the Master Set, by mixing any two of those six, changing your opponent, and changing how you play the factions, you can play for such a long time. Also, and this goes back to my first point, because the new Faction content largely involves slight modifications to the simple core rule set, it isn’t difficult to learn the new content.

Easy to learn, tough to master. Infinitely replayable.

Expandable: You may be thinking, “didn’t you just talk about this above?” Yes, I did. I’m not going to repeat myself. But, I am going to quickly note that I think the Summoner Wars’ business model is brilliant.

They get you into the door at a low price and provide a great value. 6 factions for $40 is very reasonable. Then, for those interested in doing so, they sell small expansions at a low cost. These expansions are a great value as they can work in any combination with the existing content of whatever base set you purchased.

Also, these expansions help Plaid Hat drive additional revenue without hugely increasing their costs. Printing new base games with new IP (like Mice and Mystics) is very expensive. Printing faction packs for dedicated fans? Not so much. Because Plaid Hat has carefully and consistently released new content for their fans, they have earned enough to print not one, but two big new games. That’s awesome!

I’ve love to release new factions for Empire. Granted, it needs to be finished and published, first. But, the business model set forth and demonstrated so successfully by Plaid Hat Games is one I’d love to emulate.

Do you agree or disagree? What’s your favorite game? What makes it your favorite? Care to write a companion post? Comment below!

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!).

Disorderly Conduct

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A fundamental question you must answer for your design is “what will a player do on his or her turn?” In most cases, players will have individual turns. Yes, there’s simultaneous play, like in Wonders, or there’s real time play, like in Paper Route, but generally most games have player turns.

There are typically three options to give a player on his or her turn:

  1. Give the player one Action. Ascending Empires does this beautifully.
  2. Give the player several Actions. These are done in a strict order. Dominion is a great example of this (Action, Buy, Clean).
  3. Give the player several Actions. These are done in any order. Alien FrontiersFarmageddon, and Empire belong here.

Let’s go through every option. There are good things and bad things about each. Here’s a bit of foreshadowing: I prefer option 3.

Give the player one Action: This is the cleanest of the three options. Essentially, you give the player a variety of choices, but they can only choose one. Ascending Empires is one of my favorite games and it does this perfectly.

You can build, move ships, research, recruit men, or mine. For many of these, you must meet the conditions before you can choose the Action, which further simplifies your decision. You could also argue Wonders does this as you select one card out of a fairly large hand.

One Action has a few VERY strong arguments in its favor. Firstly, the pacing of a game with this structure is typically fantastic. Taking only one Action means you can’t have any combinations (two is required), which greatly simplifies the decision and reduces analysis paralysis. Games with one Action are also simpler and more straightforward. They ask “what one thing do you want to do most this turn?”

Games that use this can also be presented very easily. You can use a tableau that shows the five options (Ascending Empires, Glory to Rome). Or, like Wonders, you tell the player “Pick one card” and they can just look to the cards.

There are some downsides to this mechanic. If not properly tuned, a game where you take one action at a time can feel plodding and tedious. You need to make actions decisive and “big” enough that the player doesn’t feel like he’s trying to drain the Titanic with a bucket. The one action should feel like a step, not a baby’s crawl.

The other issue is that by having one Action, you remove the ability for combinations. Yes, this is a plus, but it’s also a minus (depending on your point of view). In my experience, combos, even simple combos, are one of the best ways to let a player feel clever. Combos give players that “ah ha!” moment and with one Action you’ll need to deliver that elsewhere.

Give the player several, strictly ordered Actions: This is arguably one of the most common ways to let a player take his or her turn, and for good reason. As a designer, you can present the player with several options and far more flexibility, yet still give the player a comfortable and rigid structure.

One of the first things I learned in design is that players want to be told what to do. They find it comforting. No, I’m not saying people are sheep. But, nothing is more overwhelming than being told “do all of these things however you want!” Gah! Instead, you’re saying “Do all of these things, but step by step.”

Dominion is an absurdly popular game. A big reason for this is how accessible the game is. Yes, learning 10 new cards every game isn’t easy. But, knowing that on every turn you’re going to play an Action, Buy a card, and clean up your hand eases things along. ABC. ABC. ABC.

Designers should be careful with the number of steps. Yes, you can (and should) have a reference card that walks you through the steps. However, I’ve played some very simple games that had 6 steps on every player turn and, even though the order was strict, it was overwhelming.

Multiple actions with a strict order give the player a broad turn, let the game move along quickly, and do so within order and with a reasonable pace. Analysis paralysis isn’t too bad because players know they must do step 1, step 2, and step 3. It’s a routine and people like a routine. But, the downside is that combos may be more rigid and you limit the option for player creativity.

If you have a complex game and you’re trying to figure out how to simplify it, try testing the prototype with a strictly ordered turn system.

Give the player several Actions with no order: Be warned! Use this only at your peril, for it is fraught with all sorts of nonsense you must resolve.

With this system, you give the player an array of options and tell them that they can not only do many of them (if not all), but they can do them in any order, and sometimes multiple times. This immediately sets you back:

  1. Your game is now more prone to analysis paralysis players.
  2. Your game is more overwhelming and less accessible.

You will need to understand and accept this. It also means that you’ll need to scale back your complexity elsewhere and reduce other opportunities for players to stall and over-analyze.

One of the hardest things for players to grasp with Farmageddon is that they can do things in any order. Every demo I have ever given is immediately broken up by a “how much can I plant?” or “When can I play Actions?” or “Can I plant again?” The game would be FAR simpler if I said this was the order:

  1. You must harvest if able.
  2. Plant (optional)
  3. Play Action card 1 (optional)
  4. Play Action card 2 (optional)
  5. Fertilize at least 1 time.

However, the game would be far less fun. Farmageddon isn’t a terribly deep game. It’s not a brain burner. But, over and over again I’ve seen the joy in people’s faces when they see they can plant, insure, and destroy a crop, then plant again to take up the field. Or, they can plant, steal a card, Bumper another crop, harvest, then not fertilize because they burned all their cards.

I made the choice that flexibility would vastly improve the game even at the expense of accessibility. It was a compromise I made and had to work for, but one I’ve never regretted.

A very similar game to Farmageddon is Gamewright’s The Big Fat Tomato Game. This game does many things like Farmageddon, but you must do everything in order. The game comes with reference cards to walk you through the 6 steps. It’s not a difficult or complex game, but my friends and I had to use the reference cards for the entire game. If I brought it out again, I’d still have to use the cards. Sometimes the confusion is just shifted to another place!

Order of operations allows for exciting combos and player creativity. If you have a game with cards, you’ll see players coming up with new combos that you hadn’t conceived. This has been the best part of developing Farmageddon and Empire for me. I personally love playing Alien Frontiers because every dice roll is a “holy crap look at all this cool stuff I can do!” moment.

Really, it all comes down to the game you’re trying to deliver. It is greatly determined by your target audience. If pace and simplicity are your priorities? Use One Action. If you need a bit more flexibility but want to hold players’ hands? Multiple structured Actions. If you want to enter the wild west and you’re ready to scale back elsewhere to let it happen? Give multiple action unstructured a chance.

Contribute to the discussion! Do you have other examples? Other pros and cons I failed to mention? Use the comments below.

The Empire PNP

Post by: Grant Rodiek

You can now, for free, download the Print-N-Play version of Empire of York to try. My hope is to gain far more testers than I could otherwise by releasing the PNP publicly. If even 3 people test it, that’s worth it.

You can access the PNP .zip file here. If you happen to use Board Game Geek, you can see my post in the designer’s forum here. I’d appreciate your thumbs!

There is also now a Vassal mod for the game thanks to Matt Worden. This lets you play Empire of York digitally over the internet. Keep in mind, the rules aren’t enforced like board games typically are on iPhone or the internet. You need to know the rules and play correctly. It is literally just a digital representation of the board game. If you’re interested in playing, .

If you have ANY feedback at all, please .

Thanks and good luck!

Posted in Games | Tagged empire of york, euro, free, pnp, strategy, test, | 1 Reply

Mars Needs Mechanics: An Interview with Ben Rosset

There’s a been a slight hum about Mars Needs Mechanics for a while now. It tested very well at UnPub and it was picked up by Nevermore Games. I had the pleasure of meeting the game’s designer, Ben Rosset, at GenCon AND playing the game with him and two other great guys. Immediately following the game, I asked Ben if he’d do an interview for my site. 

Mars Needs Mechanics is very simple, elegant, and clever. If you like economic games, you should read this interview.

HG: Hi! Introduce yourself.

BR: My name is Ben Rosset. I’m 31, born and raised in Chicago, and a lifetime gamer. I have fond memories of games of Boggle and Scrabble with my grandma at her kitchen table and, slightly less pleasant memories of being made fun of in high school for staying home on Saturday nights to play epic Axis & Allies games with my dad!

HG: Tell us about Mars Needs Mechanics. What do we need to know?

BR: It’s a 2-4 player medium weight strategy game that takes 45 minutes to play. At its heart, it’s an Economics game with a unique timing mechanism that I call the sales order line. This timing mechanism only allows players to control the prices of components indirectly, and players have to rely heavily on their read of their opponents’ intentions in order to time their own moves correctly.

HG: What were your original goals for the game?

BR: Originally, I wanted to make an easy-to-learn Economics game where players could only control the price of goods indirectly. I’m a big fan of Economics games, but I usually don’t think they are worth a 90 minute play time. So this game had to be quick to learn and quick to play. I went through several major iterations until I came up with the sales order line. Right away, I felt like I had something unique, and players who know the game have confirmed that. Mars Needs Mechanics takes about 5 to 10 minutes to learn and it’s a very accessible game. I’m lucky that I ended up right where I wanted to be with the game.

HG: What are some of your favorite economic games? 

BR: For Sale, by Stefan Dorra. Not sure if you can call it an “Economics Game.” It’s definitely a bidding game. It’s short, simple, and addictive. Mars Needs Mechanics is “heavier” than For Sale, but like For Sale it moves quickly.

Power Grid. Just a great game. I wish I could play it more.

I’m going to surprise you, I hope, and pull out a game here that I used to play as a kid with my dad and brother, Ticker Tape. I gotta be honest, at this point I don’t remember much about it, I probably haven’t played it in 15 years. But as a kid, I remember wanting to play it over and over again.

HG: What were some of the most difficult problems to solve with the game? How did you get from point A to B?

BR: Once I came up with the sales order line, the rest of the game fell into place quite quickly. From there, I knew I had a simple, fun game, but I wanted it to be just a little bit heavier, more strategic. Adding to the game in a way where the sales order line retained its importance was the difficult task. I had a few ideas before the game got picked up by Nevermore, and then Bryan and I went to work reviewing my ideas and coming up with more. The game today, as it will be sold on Kickstarter, is pretty much the same game I had when Nevermore first played it. We’ve just added 9 “mechanisms” to the game which players can build, tear down, and rebuild, to give them small but useful abilities during play. The cool thing about the system is that you only use 4 or 5 mechanisms in a game, and with 9 different mechanisms in the box, that translates to over 100 different unique combinations of mechanisms, which really helps with replay value, even though replay value was not our immediate concern.

HG: One thing I loved about the game was how quickly it moved. Buy, buy, buy, finished. Was it always this crisp?

BR: It was, once I came up with the sales order line. Before that, no. Not even close. In fact, during the first playtest in my first iteration of the game, players needed calculators, as the scores (unintentionally) got into the hundreds of thousands! “Well, that didn’t work,” I said. Mars Needs Mechanics was one of those games that took a little while to come together. Once I found the sales order line, I completely tore down the game, and rebuilt it completely specifically around the sales order line. After that, it just flowed!

HG: Your game ties its components and board layout together so well. How did you get it to this point? Can you tell us about the process here?

BR: I have to give Bryan Fischer, the artist, credit for this one. He’s really done an amazing job, and made the game come to life. The feedback on the art has been incredible. Bryan’s a good designer, but he’s also got a really bright future ahead of him doing art and layout for board games.

HG: What is your favorite part of the game?

BR: My favorite part of the game, from the designer’s point of view, is that moment when a new player realizes how the sales order line work. They get this expression on their face, like a light bulb just went off, and a little sneaky smile in the corner of their mouth, and I know they get it. It can take players about half the game to “get it”. Once they do, it’s awesome to watch them play.

HG: The game was originally not a steampunk themed title, right? Tell us about this transition.

BR: I’m not shy about admitting that theme isn’t my strong suit. I’m a mechanics first designer. Often when I start to design a new game, I get an idea for an interesting mechanic or gameplay variant, and I set out to design that. I’ll usually just use a “placeholder” theme for the game until I get the mechanics of the game where I want them, and then I’ll mindfully choose a theme. It was this way with Mars Needs Mechanics. Originally, it was just called “The Market”, and it had a Middle Eastern Bazaar theme. That was the placeholder. Once I got the mechanics of the game finished, we turned to theme, and Mars Needs Mechanics was born.

HG: Do you have any development advice for other designers? How to test, how to pitch to publishers, and more?

BR: Oh yes. My first words of advice are just “get the game on the table.” So many people tell me they would love to be a game designer, and that they have good ideas, but they don’t know if the game will be any good or how to test it. I ask them, “Have you printed it out and played it?” And they say no, but they’ve been working on the rules for a couple months.

You can tweak the rules forever, but it’s meaningless unless you print the game and play it. A single playtest will give you more feedback than a month reading and re-reading your rules to see if they make sense. In terms of pitching a game to publishers, you’ve got to go to conventions. That’s where it’s at. You can write emails to publishers for a year with very little to show for it, but if you go to a convention, even a small one like PrezCon, you can get your game in front of a half dozen publishers in a weekend. It’s well worth the cost of a convention pass to go.

HG: Is there anything you’d like to add?

BR: The videos that we shot for the Kickstarter campaign are awesome. They were done by my good friend Justin Schauble, a professional video editor. I can’t wait to see them up on our BGG page and on Kickstarter. I’d also like to give a big thank you to Labyrinth Game Shop in Washington, DC. They’ve been really supportive of me, and they even let us shoot one of the Kickstarter videos in their store.

Mars Needs Mechanics is trying to raise money for a print run on Kickstarter now. If interested, take a look.

Imperial Iteration

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I haven’t received my updated prototype of Empire Reborn from The Game Crafter yet, but that hasn’t stopped me from working on it. I’ve had many helpful people provide feedback, as well as a gamer named Adam Goodmurphy who has been testing the game in the woods of Canada. Everyone’s feedback has been excellent and the subtle changes to the game this week have been significant.

Slimming the Deck: There have been a few non-military cards in the decks for quite some time. Cards like the Diplomat, Fortress, Fog of War, and others have been added and cut to bolster the deck for Tactics and things like that. Furthermore, I wanted to have them to make it such that players didn’t always have good cards, i.e. sometimes your hand isn’t ideal.

The thing is, this annoys players and that’s not good, even if the design serves a purpose. Plus, players only have 6 rounds in the game now, so having a crummy hand just bites. This is just one of those cases where I was either lying to myself or I had bigger issues to resolve. Well, the big issues are going away and it’s time for things like this to be solved. Mr. Goodmurphy was the final pusher.

Now, the Diplomat and Imperial Guard cards are cut from every deck. Players now have Infantry, Cavalry, and Artillery cards of varying distributions. Everyone has 3 Fog of Wars, which don’t provide Reinforcements, but are now used for Tactics/Staff Orders for every player. Finally, the functionality of the General and Imperial Guard cards is now merged onto the General. Players can play the new general card to either draw 2 cards OR play it instead of a single card for a Tactic or Staff Order. The General card used to be an obvious choice. You just did it. Now, you have to choose how to use it and when.

In summary, decks are comprised of 5 types of cards now, not 7. There are no “dead” cards, players have more Reinforcements, and decks are still distributed such that Tactics can’t always be done. This should make for a much tighter and more enjoyable game.

Boards: I haven’t even received my new quad board yet, but I already hate how everything is shoved onto a single side. There are too many icons, which confuse and muddy the play space. “Wait, is this seaport for 3 players? Ah, dang.” It’s just lame.

Furthermore, Mr. Goodmurphy noted that the map wasn’t quite working in 3 player. It’s just too sparse. For the longest time, I’ve tried to do everything with one board in order to save the cost of a double sided board. For better or worse, it’s what the game needs, so I bit that off and designed 3 total maps. Well, 2ish. Another reason for this is that there  was a half page of rules for the 2 player version. In the future I can release it as a variant, as it plays fine. But, it adds a layer of complexity to the experience and clutters the rules.

The back side of the board will feature a 3 player map. The main side will feature the 4 player map with some territories as “mountains,” or for now, brown spaces. In 2 player, the custom rules have been eliminated and players simply won’t use the mountain spaces. It’ll be a tighter map that otherwise plays identically to every other variant.

Battle: Probably the most significant change of the post-GenCon tweaks was that battles were still declared during a player’s turn, but not resolved until the subsequent phase. After one test (again, Mr. Goodmurphy), one of my fears has come to light. Players who go last in the turn have such a huge advantage to change the state of the battle that players never declare attacks in the earlier turns.

This is bad.

I thought of a few things, but the simplest, and most similar to the previous design (which worked, but was too slow), is to essentially freeze the zone. Mostly. In the tested rules, players could not abandon a territory in which a battle was declared, but they could move additional Units into it. Now, players cannot add OR remove Units using Mobilize. This does, however, mean players can still use Staff Orders, Tactics, and Special Abilities to get out of dodge. This will allow for some manipulation, but by and large the territory will be frozen. I am confident this will be mostly right.

Cover Ideas: I am very hopeful that I’ll find a publisher for Empire. But, when I don’t have play tests and iterations to dwell upon, I find myself thinking about other details. Things like manufacturers, box sizes, rules layouts, and other things typically left to a publisher. Also, cover art. I found a few images that appealed to me. They were inspired by old military propaganda art.

For this top one, imagine the game were called Empire of York (who knows what the name will be?). Underneath, an officer dressed in the Imperial Army uniform (to be illustrated) calls out to you — “Save the Empire!” 

I also liked this piece, mostly for the style and silhouettes.

This one is good reference as it’s actually from the approximate time period of the game.

More Art Inspiration: A friend made me aware of N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle. I quickly found a few Wyeth pieces I love. They have a great sense of action, glory, and look so incredibly epic. He also does cool things with colors and lighting I really appreciate. The pieces below are 3 of my favorites.

I would love to hire Brett Bean to take things like this and make them his own. Or really just do whatever he wants. I just need rifles in there somewhere. Maybe a saber?

You can check out all the art I’ve gathered so far as reference material here on Pinterest.

Print-And-Play Version: I don’t have much hope for many folks actually printing it out and assembling it, but I think in a week or so I’ll be able to release a Print and Play version. Folks will need to print the board and reference boards (easy), the cards (100), and gather some pieces from existing games (if you have Risk you’re 99% there).

If even 3 people play it this way and give me feedback, it’s worth it. We’ll see how interested the BGG community is!

I’m really pleased watching this game come together. I think the map will need a bit more smoothing (curse the map), Tactics a little more tweaking, but I’m very confident the game is very solid at this point. Lots of “beta” testing and development ahead of me.

Updated rules for everything are here. Note that these may soon be out of date! The latest rules are always on the Empire Reborn game page.

I really appreciate the continued help of Chevee Dodd, John Burns, Adam Goodmurphy, and Nolan Lichti.