The Dominant Player Problem

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve been designing a co-op game for a short while now. Typically when I design a game, I’m also writing about the game. As soon as I wrote that I was working on a cooperative design, I learned that people are really excited about co-op and they are obsessed with the dominant player issue. Honestly, it’s an almost hyperbolic piece of rhetoric. It reminds me of the bickering jabs made by liberals and conservatives during the presidential campaign.

But is it an issue?

The dominant player issue is reportedly the case where one player dominates the play experience and ruins the game. This one player tells everyone how to play, forces everyone to follow his or her lead, and generally scars everyone for life. I can’t really fathom the prison camp in which you first played Pandemic with the dreaded Inmate 42219. It sounds like a horrible place!

I don’t really believe this issue is such a widespread problem to warrant a mention in every co-op design discussion I’ve had. Furthermore, I don’t think it should be the focus of any design as I don’t think it can be solved. In this post, I discuss (ramble) about cooperative design and the table elements that emerge. Some of it is purely my opinion, some of it is social commentary, and some of it may help you with your own cooperative design.

Firstly, and most importantly, don’t play with horrible people. I have a really great group of board game friends that run the gamut of tastes and preferences. Not everyone likes everything, but we typically have a good time. None of us are AP (i.e. suffer from analysis paralysis), nor do we have any sore losers. When we play cooperative games, we also have a good time. Everyone is contributing, shouting, making suggestions, and playing the game. If you play with bad people, your tabletop experience will be less fun. This may be why I avoid cons that are primarily random people playing games. I just don’t want to run the risk of exposure. Don’t waste your early design brainstorms trying to compensate for humanity’s worst members. If they lack social skills, your game won’t fix this.

Secondly, cooperative games are designed to be social and collaborative experiences. People are supposed to chime in to collectively solve the problem. People are supposed to suggest things and voice their opinions. If you don’t like this, then don’t play cooperative games. They may not be for you! Have you thought that instead of going after this dominant bogeyman that the issue is more that you don’t want people invading your play space? It’s fine if you don’t like that. I understand!

Cooperative games are difficult. You’re fighting a cruel, emotionless mechanic that seeks nothing but your destruction. The hope, is that the combined brain power of the group and a little luck will win the day. If you create a cooperative game whose sole purpose is to eliminate the dominant player problem, you may be making a game that isn’t collaborative at all. Be careful how far down this road you travel! People play collaborative games because this seek an experience in which they work together in a team.

One of the reasons people perceive the dominant player problem is that there is almost never a time when all players are of equal skill. How often do you play games where everyone is exactly the same skill level? I played a great deal of Forbidden Island for a month or two last year and I was almost always teaching new players. I didn’t want to be a jerk and tell everyone how to play. Therefore, I would pay attention to my teammates and watch for their confusion. For example, if a teammate wasn’t sure what to do on his turn, I would walk him through his options. For example, I’d say:

  • Here is our goal (quick reminder)
  • You are closest to the Red Treasure, so perhaps you could go there?
  • We need to protect our path to the landing site, so perhaps you could shore up?
  • You have the chopper card, so perhaps you could fly your teammate to this spot?
  • And so forth.

Basically, I would use my experience to break down the options. If they asked my opinion, I would provide it, as well as reasons for why I thought it was the right path. YOU have this special ability and should use it, or we know this piece of the island will be drawn next. Basically, if you are very experienced with the game, that’s fine! Don’t shy from it, but use it to be a teacher, not a bully. Use it to guide and instruct. After all, in playing a game you’re just wasting time together. The sooner they learn, the more fun it is for them. Encourage discussion!

This last point leads me to my next one. People don’t like to lose. It’s just human nature! But, people especially don’t like their bad decisions to be the reason for everyone else’s defeat! This is where cooperative games can truly shine. Help each other, voice opinions, and create noise. This way, everyone is a solution and everyone is a problem. Succeed together, fail together. You’re only as slow as your worst member, so make sure they feel included and helped.

Finally, always remember to give every player their space. Make sure there is a portion of the game they own. What does this mean? It could be as simple as a hand of cards. Or, a class. Pandemic is wonderful in that every player is unique. Every player does something better than everyone else and is therefore essential and special. Let players place things on the board and make a visible, tactile impact with their decisions. We’re all in this together, but can I help?

Have I glossed over this issue? Shed new light on the issue? Pointed out how you need a new game group? Share your thoughts below!

The Music that Moves Me

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Fresh Air is an outstanding interview program that airs daily on my NPR station. The host, Terry Gross, interviews writers, comedians, musicians, politicians, scientists — anyone really — and rarely lets me down. Yesterday she interviewed Stephen Colbert, a person I greatly admire, about his love of music.

I also consider myself a huge fan of music (aren’t we all?) and I started thinking about the songs that inspire me. Inspiration comes in many forms and I don’t expect this to be the last column of this sort. Here are a few songs that cause a stir within me, excite me, and get me to think when I hear them. Click the song titles to listen to the songs on YouTube.

What are yours?

“3’s & 7’s” by Queens of the Stone Age

When I hear this song I immediately look for an El Camino so I can slide across the hood. Even though I drive a Honda Civic, if this song hits the radio, I’m trying to jump it General Lee style.  I may live in San Francisco, but deep down I’m a country soul and this song never ceases to thrill me. This song is about adventure, daring, recklessness, and fun. This is a song for fighting, kissing the girl, and child-like wonder.

“No Leaf Clover” by Metallica

I’ve never cared much for metal, but I love Metallica. Almost everything they do is epic, but it wasn’t until I heard their S&M album, a live performance alongside the San Francisco Symphonic Orchestra, that they absolutely clicked. There’s something about the beautiful smoothness of the orchestra paired with the hard rock that is just awesome. This song has great build up, great momentum, and an amazing and heroic finish. This is a song about difficult decisions and rising to the occasion. This song makes me want to create champions for whom to cheer.

“Einstein on the Beach” by Philip Glass

You may hate the repetition of Philip Glass, but there’s something about it that just rocks my skull. This song is an amazing love song. I don’t fully understand it in the way I don’t really understand physics and the way the world works. This song is beautiful and it makes me want to create beautiful worlds and environment. Much in the same way viewing Avatar the first time was a journey of exploration, I want to create something for players that evokes a similar feeling of “oh my god, wow!” This song does that for me.

“Stella was a diver and she was always down” by Interpol

This is a song of sadness for me. Why? That’s a story and a memory for me. This song is about loneliness, longing, sadness, and mistakes. This is about lost potential and missed opportunities. To me this means exploration, solitude, failure, and hope. How does this manifest itself into a game? Who knows?

“This Modern Love” by Bloc Party

This is a song about love and hope. It’s a happy song, a song for walking through the woods or being with your favorite person on an otherwise empty mountain. This sound bounces and pulses with life and excitement. It always makes me think of Beth and it always makes me smile. This song brings about some of the best human emotions, which makes it a good thing to think about when designing.

“Foreplay” by Boston


“Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

The first time I heard this song was when I saw Wayne’s World in theaters. I’m pretty sure that’s the case for many people my age. When the guitar bridge starts, it’s time to head bang. This is an incredible song by an incredible band that to me means epic fun. It’s bigger than life, hyperbolic, and way overblown. If Hyperbole Games had a theme song, this would be a strong contender. To me, this song is about a certain level of wild, unbridled emotion and energy. It’s ridiculous and I want it played at my funeral. And the birth of my children.

What are the songs that get you going? 

Posted in Blog | Tagged audio, colbert, fresh air, , inspiration, music, rock, songs | 2 Replies

Benefits of the Board

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A friend Tweeted about designing a game with a board and I immediately began thinking about what it means to include a board with your game. I recently went from Farmageddon (cards only) to Empire of York (Cards, Board, Player Reference Boards) and it was a big step up as far as design challenge.

This led me to think about the benefits of the board, the downsides, and the features one should lean into when designing with a board. As it’s been a fairly slow few weeks, this seemed like a good topic for a column.

One of the best advantages of having a board is that it’s a great platform with which to present information and reinforce rules. Arguably the biggest advantage digital games have over print games is that digital games can strictly enforce the game’s rules (If pressing a button isn’t allowed, you can’t press it!) and calculate all math needed. Forcing players to remember rules and conduct all calculations mentally are big reasons board games are so imposing for new players.

Therefore, USE the board to help with these things. Graphics on the board can reinforce the rules for players. You can detail the potential actions for players, you can remind them when and what to score, and you can remind them whose turn it is. These seem like small, obvious things, but they improve a player’s experience immensely. The easier you make learning and playing a game for your players, the more fun they will have.

You can overwhelm players with information. Or, you may think that because it’s all out, it allows you to add more to the game. No! One of my biggest problems with Seasons is that the game is chock full of information and it overwhelms people constantly. Time after time I have put this game on the table to watch people’s faces melt. Use the board to present info, leverage it, but don’t go overboard.

Game boards naturally allow you to introduce spatial relationships into your game. If you have a map, you can have distance traveled or territory control. You can observe the location of armies. And so forth! You also give players a chance to shape this space and have permanence. In a game like Vinhos, the board might literally be a massive reference board.

Or, you can use the board to let players place houses (Monopoly or Kingdom Builder), move massive Armies (Risk or Axis and Allies) and so forth. People love to own things, to see their kingdoms before them, and to move physical pieces and tokens. Boards really let you do this in a way a simple card game really doesn’t.

Board games tend to have more public information. After all, there’s a board, in the middle of the table, with a lot of visible and public…information. If bluffing and trickery is for you, then be sure to have cards or some way to hide things. Public information is good and allows players to make informed decisions. However, public information can also lend itself to analysis paralysis. For some players, the more information they have means the deeper their analysis. They will think longer and consider every outcome and possibility. Therefore, your task is to present information that’s needed, but do so in a simple and easily digestible fashion. Also, find ways to condense these decisions. Really, this is an argument for scoping and focusing your design appropriately.

Games with boards are more expensive. The board is a very expensive component to manufacture. Furthermore, it presents a significant piece of graphic design and illustrator work. In addition to laying out cards, rules, etc. you must now lay out the main board and then fill it with pretty pictures. As a designer this may not quite be a concern for you, but it will be a concern for your publisher who must foot the bill. Make sure you take great advantage of the board to justify the cost.

Boards are also not very portable. The come in bigger boxes and weigh more. They take up more space on the table and may intimidate more casual gamers. Furthermore, people without a great deal of time my think twice before pulling out a game with a board because the time to setup is greater. Every step of the way you must remember your target audience, how they are playing, and when they are playing. If you’re making a really light, incredibly casual game intended for a lunch break or late night session, a board may be more than you desire. Is there another component that’ll solve the trick?

What else should one consider when pondering board versus no board? What did I miss?

Co-operative Headache

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to work…

Personality Disorders

Post by: Grant Rodiek

If you mention cooperative game design, people come out of the woods to mention that they like co-op, but hate playing with bossy people. Fixing this is the El Dorado of games, apparently. How do you fix the dominant player problem in cooperative games?

Honestly, I think the answer is, “You can’t.” Actually, on second thought my answer is “Don’t play with jerks.” This goes for all games, not just cooperative games. But, that isn’t a very satisfying answer. It wasn’t my goal with my sci-fi cooperative game to fix the dominant player issue, but one of my initial ideas has turned into something that might act as a solution.

Basically, instead of hiding from the problem, I’m going to lean right into it. But, more on that in a second.

I wrote a little about my co-op game on this previous post. But, the quick refresher is that you’re going to be on a team of space explorers discovering new planets for human colonization. One of my first ideas for the game was to have Traits for your characters, as in personality/emotional traits.

I’ve been a developer of The Sims games for the majority of my 7 year career, so to say The Sims is an influence on my design efforts is an understatement. One of my favorite features from The Sims 3 was Traits. The Sims is much less about being a game and much more about being a platform with which to play stories. Marketing would kill me for saying this, but really it’s a massive digital dollhouse.

I try to be unique with my designs, at least in one or two ways. So many cooperative games have classes. It’s fairly standard by now. Classes more or less dictate what you will be doing. If you aren’t leveraging your class, you tend to fail. I thought Traits would be interesting more as a modifier on how you conduct or choose your actions. You’re thinking, “Snore, traits are in every RPG ever, Grant.” Yes, they are. You can also see them in recent games like the Kickstarter hit (and hopefully post-KS hit) Story Realms.

Then, my idea evolved. My friend Eric with Games and Grub asked me the inevitable “How are you fixing the dominant player problem.” I ignored it first, but then I began thinking about it. It began to stew.

Then, I started writing a list of Traits in my notebook for a brainstorm. The first one I wrote was Hot-Headed. Then it hit me. What if being a hot-head wasn’t just some token flavor with a thematic gameplay tie in? What if you had to be a hot-head? Or the geek? Or the overly logical guy? Or the loyal friend? What if that IS the game?

I then began to think about how simple, deep, and rich the gameplay of The Resistance is. Really, it’s all about players acting out their roles in this small, quick, easily understood story. So, I ask you to think about my Personalities less as a D&D modifier and more of a social construct for a new game.  A tall order, I know.

Think about your favorite stories. Why do we still talk about Aliens, or Firefly? Why do we attend conventions to hear the actors speak? Yes, the action was cool, but most importantly, we loved the characters, how they overcame their worst habits, and how they are somehow at their best when they are most themselves. I want to try to abstract this into a game.

At the beginning of every game every player will be given a Personality. Perhaps randomly, perhaps pre-set based on the scenario. This information will be contained on a card that will succinctly explain who they are.

The game will be built around this so it isn’t just tacked on encouragement. This will be a core feature. Hopefully next post I can discuss the board design, equipment, and traits further. I plan for this to be my game’s killer feature, its special sauce, or as my marketing department says, “the X.”

Thoughts? Interesting? Snooze?

Pull the Chit (Together)

Post by: Grant Rodiek

This post is going to be quite wayward, so let me plot a course for everyone.

  1. I’m going to explain what chit pulling is.
  2. I’m going to explain my obsession with chit pulling.
  3. I’m going to give you a bit of insight into the direction of my new co-op game.
  4. I’m going to explain where chit pulling factors in.

One: What is chit pulling?

While Googling for an image, I found this very succinct and clear explanation of Chit Pulling. You should read it. The gist is this — typically, when you would otherwise roll a die or draw a card to resolve an action or determine an event in a game, you instead pull a chit (basically, a game token of some sort) out of a bag or box. This provides game information or tells you what you need to do. The best thing about chit pulling is that, unlike dice rolls, they have “memory.” If you put 10 chits in a bag and pull them out, each one is permanently pulled, so you  as a designer can craft an arc and guaranteed things to occur.

Two: So, what’s with the chit pull obsession?

Now, let’s go over why this is something I obsess over. Back at GenCon I met Chevee Dodd, friend, Twitter user, and designer of Scallywags. You should know that Scallywags is almost entirely a chit pull game (very clever mechanic). Chevee sat with me while I tested Empire in the first exposure playtest hall. He noticed how I bristled when someone complained about the random turn order mechanic I had then and still have in the game.

Chevee is what is known as a troll on the Internet. He latches onto human sadness, pulls out a stick, and pokes. Then pokes again.

The reason I bristled at the suggestion is that random turn order was the result of about 6 other mechanics and, unlike every other mechanic I tried, it fixed problems and improved the game. Random turn order did two things for Empire:

  1. Greatly simplified the rules. Random turn order is about 8 words to explain.
  2. Greatly encouraged the player behavior I desired, which was calculated risk taking, low analysis paralysis, and no camping/turtling.

What I’ve observed is that some people hate random turn order. Before they try it, after they try it, no matter what, they hate the implementation. When I explained the reason for the random turn order based on playtest data and my design goals and the tester still said “Yeah, well, I don’t like random,” Chevee latched onto this and began poking me. His recommendation was that I create an elaborate chit pulling system where players fill a bag with tokens that are pulled to determine turn order over time. This blew my mind!

It was way complicated, unnecessary, and was now just an overly complicated form of random. Chevee knew this, but he kept aggravating me. This has become an inside joke and now we frequently discuss chit pull constantly.

Three: What’s the new co-op game? 

Something that greatly interests me is the notion of building things. Building, by its very nature, is a more nurturing action (as opposed to conflict and destruction) and I think this fits naturally within a cooperative game environment.

I’m also a lover of science fiction. It’s a territory I haven’t explored yet (at least not seriously) and it provides a lot of advantages for me as a designer. Firstly, science fiction lets me create my own universe and world that is both believable and unique. If you develop a game based on reality or history, you are constrained by that.  This even hinders fantasy fictions as fantasy is essentially medieval concepts merged with magic and creatures. Science fiction also gives me a hall pass to create fun technology and gadgets.

So many co-ops seem to revolve around you surviving a disaster or solving a problem before disaster strikes.

  • Pandemic challenges you to save the planet from disease.
  • Flash Point challenges you to save a family before their home burns.
  • Red November challenges you to keep a submarine afloat until rescue arrives.

Keeping in line with my desire to focus on creation, I’m going to lean more towards “accomplish a goal before time runs out.” Less about dying from the disaster, more about doing what you need to do by a deadline. We’ll see if I’m just splitting semantic hairs here.

The idea for my game is that you and your friends are one of hundreds of elite teams being dispatched to prepare alien worlds for incoming mass colonization. You are survey teams, scientists, engineers, and more. Instead of using the class-based mechanic seen in games like Pandemic, players will pick a Trait and Equipment at the start of the game. I may be a Clumsy guy with a Comm Setup. This equipment will snap into the robots, vehicles, and cool hi-tech equipment you’d expect a team like this to use.

Why “hundreds of elite teams?” This is my fictional reasoning to explain how, when you fail and lose a game, the world isn’t over! After all, you’re just one of hundreds. I aim to create worlds with unique qualities so that you can survive on Arrakis, or Pandora, or Hoth, or Endor, and many of our favorite planets from fiction. I don’t want to make military style conflict a focus of the game. I don’t want humanoid aliens to factor in, though there will certainly be alien flora and fauna. But, there should be danger and there will be conflict. I just see this as a universe primarily filled with humans and their robots. Think Dune instead of Star Trek.

I see players working together to build up their bases, splitting up to explore and accomplish distant goals, and coming together to solve disasters. I hope some games begin with a calm landing, or a crash landing, or a hot drop from an orbiting ship.

Four: How will this game use chit pulling? 

Cooperative games tend to be highly random with spiking difficulty. My favorite cooperative game, Pandemic, does a good job of having random draws that are predictable. If you’re paying attention, you can make good decisions against the probability. However, games like the Lord of the Rings Living Card Game have dramatically unfair card draws. You may have to draw four creatures and all four of them are massive, nigh invulnerable dragons. There isn’t a way to mitigate or predict this.

Flash Point spreads the fires based on dice rolls. Again, based on what’s on the board, you can make decisions about what you need to do based on what could happen. I prefer predictability and managing probability. This is why I intend to do a chit pulling system that is very similar to Pandemic.

I’m still trying to figure out how I’m going to do this, but the current thinking is that every player has his own chit bag. There might also be a central Mission chit bag, i.e. the world. At the beginning of the game, you’ll add chits to your bag based on your Traits and Equipment. Chits will be added based on the scenario goals (if I have scenarios) and the planet will add chits. Chits will be pulled over time as you explore. Chits will be pulled as you take actions. Chits will be added as you build things, then removed as you use these things. Some chits will be good, some bad, some disastrous. You’ll ultimately know what’s in the bag, so you’ll know what could happen.

This is all hypothetical. I have no concrete examples yet, no prototype, no rules. I just know I like the idea of you building a world and solving problems as you go.

As a final note, you’ll notice I said very little about player synergy, which is so core for a good co-op. I’m juggling designs for player synergy, player actions, and the game system against which the players struggle. This is my first co-op, so trust that I’ll do some stupid things as I stumble through this.

Thoughts, questions, feedback?

1901 Mechanic Introduction: Reinforcement and Morale

Post by: Grant Rodiek

As I design and draft the rules for 1901: Invasion of America, I’d like to slowly introduce and explain the new mechanics. The first mechanics I’m excited about are Reinforcements and Morale. As a teaser, some of the future mechanic articles will be:

  • Creating synergy between the Navy and the Army players (it’s a team game, with each teammate focusing on Navy or Army).
  • Leader-based Action system and evolving the Actions.
  • Designing the new map and how fictional (Empire) differs from historical.
  • Evolving from one-off Battles and Tactics to more strategic maneuvers and behaviors.
  • Victory conditions. 1901 won’t be an area control game.

In Empire, players had the option to discard cards at the start of every turn for the cards’ reinforcement values. This is the game’s core mechanic — do I use the card for Reinforcements or a powerful Tactic? Or, do I hold onto it for something in the future? This made sense in Empire, but I didn’t think it would make sense in 1901. Why? The new game is based closely on reality and is more of a simulation (though I’m cautious of using that term). It seemed strange that with a good draw the American Army could swell to huge numbers on the first turn. Or that the Germany Army, which has to transit across the Atlantic ocean, could suddenly triple in size.

The new game needed a new mechanic. Here’s the gist of what I’m thinking:

  • Players begin every game with a set number of Units. I’d like to add some variance on where they are placed (possibly player choice?).
  • The game will last a set number of Rounds (like Empire). This is both to control the length and flow of the game. I leaned on Rounds for Scoring in my previous game and I intend to lean on them again, but in a lot of new ways.
  • Reinforcements will be tuned to occur in a set amount at the start of every round. So, round 5 you may get 10 new Units. Note that this is ONLY for the Army. The Navy will not grow in size over the course of the game. This is a short war and naval ships take time to build, outfit, and crew.
  • The first phase of every round will be Reinforcements. Players will simultaneously add Units to a muster area.
  • The Reinforcement sum can be modified by Morale. If your Morale is good,  you’ll receive more Reinforcements. If it’s bad? Fewer. You can even LOSE Units already on the board!

This Morale component is really exciting for me. I hope it’s one of the key strategic components of the game. You’ll need to keep your Morale high and take risks to improve it, but also take risks to weaken your opponents’ Morale. Morale will be represented by a simple track on the board. If your Reinforcement for the round says 5 and you’re at 3 Morale, you’ll get 8 Units. Simple.

Morale is an abstraction of, well, Morale. Troops fight better when they are well-fed, believe victory is close, and believe in their mission and leaders. Troops fight poorly when hungry, abused, or in a foreign land for a bad cause. Morale can lead to outright troop loss with desertion, cowardice, and more.

Morale can be modified in a few ways. If you win a Battle, Morale increases. Lose a battle? Or get harassed from sabotage? Morale decreases. Staff Orders and Strategies (no longer Tactics) will directly affect Morale, so you will be forced to choose between killing Units off the board, or weakening Morale in the long term.

There can also be other environmental elements. For example, if the Americans sink a German convoy transporting German soldiers, that will hurt Morale. Technically, you’re outright killing/capturing troops. But, to keep this simple and streamlined, that will affect Morale.

I can also leverage leaders like the Kaiser or Theodore Roosevelt to inspire the troops and improve Morale. What if it was your strategy all along to weaken my Morale such that I waste and action using T. Roosevelt to boost Morale? Instead of, oh, forcing a treaty or something? Who knows!

In summary, as the game progresses your Army will grow. If your Morale is high, it’ll grow larger. If it’s low, it’ll grow more slowly, or decline. Managing your Morale and weakening your opponents’ will be a key component to the game and one of the biggest reasons to take risks to win the war.


Paper Route: Developing in Real Time

Chevee recently released his game Paper Route on The Game Crafter and as a free print-and-play download. I checked out the rules several times and, though I haven’t had a chance to download the PNP yet, the game looks excellent and my Twitter feed is abuzz with people saying “Paper Route is fun!” 

Post by: Chevee Dodd

It all started when Cyrus Kirby (@thefathergeek) challenged me on Twitter.

I happened to love Paper Boy also, so I was really intrigued by the challenge.  I had some initial thoughts and ideas, none of which were real-time or action based.  My first concept was a “scrolling” game where the board unfolds as you move down the street, but the more I worked on that idea, the more I realized the game would be long and drab.  What I wanted was to capture the frantic action of the arcade game and translate that, somehow, into a board game.

I had never attempted to design a real-time game.  An even bigger challenge was that I had not played any real-time games either!  Because of my lack of understanding, I quickly dreamed up a system that I thought was going to be great!  There would be Houses and Obstacles.  These cards would have pictures of arcade controller buttons on them.  Each player would have a deck made up of button cards.  The players would simultaneously flip one card from the top of the House and Obstacle deck and then pick up their own decks and begin searching for the buttons printed on the House and Obstacle.  Once a player had found all the buttons, they would flip them over on the table.  The person to flip first would then score points assuming they didn’t mess up.  If they didn’t pull the correct set of buttons, they would lose a life.  This continued for 10 (or so) rounds and the person with the most points wins.  If you lost all three lives, game over for you.

Well, that’s a working game.  Done, right!?  No.  Not at all.  Just because the game “works” doesn’t mean it’s worth playing.  This game had exactly zero decisions which meant that the fastest player always won.  Remember me talking about never playing this type of game?  It showed here. BAD.  I had assumed that these types of games were entirely dexterity based.  So, the game worked.  There was no strategy, so there was nothing to break.  Nothing to tweak.  When that happens, there is no game.

At this point, I was personally out of ideas.  This is a direct limitation of me not being familiar with the type of game I am designing.  Some designers say that they don’t play other peoples games because they don’t want to inadvertently “borrow” ideas.  I don’t have that reservation.  I believe I can separate myself through game-play even though my mechanics may be familiar.  Does this mean I run out and buy up a bunch of games that are similar to what I am working on?  NO.  What it does mean is that I spent some time researching rule sets on the Internet, trying to see what makes them work.  I looked at games like Brawl and Falling from James Ernest, Icehouse, and Jab: Real Time Boxing, and even the classic card game Speed.  I found what I was missing: play options that required decisions.

There has to be decisions in a game.  If there’s not, we are just participating in an activity.  While that is fine, if that’s your sort of thing, it is not exactly interesting for a card game.  There needs to be multiple paths for each card played.  Should I play this to advance myself, or hinder my opponent?  Should I play this as a bluff or do I need it to better my position?  Can I take a hit, should I take a hit?  Will it help?  These are the decisions that turn an activity into a game.

The challenge for me was inserting these decisions into a game that had none, without ruining the frantic, arcade feeling.  Mashing buttons on an arcade stick is mostly mindless.  You are making split second decisions and using muscle memory to drive the action of the game.  You are processing things at high speed and that causes mistakes when something unexpected comes up.  Without decisions in my game, it was very improbable that you would make mistakes.  I had wrongfully assumed that speed was enough, because in a video game, it is.  When you are facing off against a human opponent, however, there needs to be a feedback loop.  Without graphics and on-screen action to clue you in on what’s going on, you have no way of determining if you are “winning” or not.  You need to be able to see what is happening on the table in order to react to it.  I needed to translate the visual feedback of arcade games onto the table.

Enter some awesome playtesters.

I have some really great playtesters that are very talented players and designers.  One tester had a really great idea: have multiple houses out at once and let the player decide which to go for.  This was exactly what I was looking for.  If I set out a line of houses, players have to complete multiple tasks simultaneously which brings some decisions into the game.  Because you can see what your opponent is working towards, you can decide where you want to play your cards.   Now you had to pay visual attention to your opponent’s plays as well as use pattern recognition and building skills to complete your own goals.

As soon as I switched to this system, I found the arcade action I was looking for.  Instead of searching the deck for some cards, you flip them over one at a time.  You have to stop at every card and make a decision where to play it or to discard it.  No take-backs.  Now you have five potential goals to choose from.  You can try to go for the ones with the highest points, or target only the houses your opponent is ignoring.  You can try to out-race your opponent on the houses they are playing on, completely invalidating the cards they have played there if you take it.  It’s fast, it’s furious, and you are prone to making mistakes.

A few rounds of playtesting proved to me that this was the way to go.  It actually did feel a bit like a frantic arcade game but also had great head-to-head appeal.  It still needed something a little extra.  Even with the five houses out, the faster player was heavily rewarded.  Now, this IS a dexterity game.  The faster player SHOULD win most often BUT, there needs to be hope for the slower guy.  With the system as it stood, you could steal a house from your opponent without completing it to mess with them.  This caused you to lose a life, but it could be strategically viable if you are behind.  While this was an interesting decision to make in-game, there needed to be another way.

This is where another tester influenced the game.  In fact, this player hadn’t even played the game yet, but came up with an awesome idea just from reading the rules!  An idea so perfect, that I added it directly into the game:  vandalism.  Just like the arcade game, you can vandalize houses.  Each player’s deck has four newspaper cards that are typically used to score obstacles.  Hit the dog with a paper, score 25 points… that sort of thing.  What if you could use these papers to vandalize a house, preventing EITHER player from scoring it?  Doing this removes the newspaper card from your deck permanently, but it is a great mechanic that provides you with another option to control the score without being too cumbersome.  That’s the whole point really.  The player should be making decisions, but these decisions should not be weighing the game down.  This is supposed to be an analog for arcade games, after all, and taking your time in an arcade game is the best way to lose!

After testing these two changes a few times… okay, MANY times… it was clear to me that this was the game I was going for.  I still had some minor tweaks to do to scoring and the button combinations printed on the cards, but that’s just balancing stuff.  That comes after the system is solid.  Going through this process really taught me a lot about not only real-time games, but myself as a designer.  I took on a project I was completely unfamiliar with that required me to think about game design from a whole new perspective… almost like designing a video game.  Giving the players decisions without allowing them time to think about those decisions was completely unfamiliar to me as a board game designer.  It was a real challenge that presented new problems I had not considered.  Typically, when I hit speed bumps like this, I collapse and give up.  I pushed through this time, and I think it turned out really great!  I hope I can keep up that momentum in future almost-failed designs!

1901 Rules Introduction

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I think it’s important to lay out the premise for my new war game. In order for it to make sense, be interesting, and compelling, I need to spend a little more time than usual setting the stage. Here’s my first draft. Thoughts? I’m currently calling the game 1901: Invasion of America.

At the beginning of the 20th century the world is filled with tension. The Great Powers of Europe and the upstart United States of America have begun a frantic arms-race of naval ship building to maintain control of their distant global territories. The arms race largely results in saber rattling and heated diplomacy, yet conflicts flare frequently around the globe.

In 1898, the United States and Spain fight a brief war that results in the United States taking hold of the former Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. In 1899, Chinese Nationalists incite the Boxer Rebellion, which causes 8 nations to form an alliance to bring a return to foreign domination of the Chinese homeland. In 1899, the British begin a long, bloody conflict to bring the Boers in line with their South African colonies.

These colonies are worth fighting for, or so the Great Powers think, for they provide distant resupply stations for their fleets, trading partners for goods, and most of all, prestige worthy of an empire. America is uncertain of her entry onto the global stage. Some of her leaders, such as Theodore Roosevelt, revel in the glory of empire. Yet, many within the country feel that America’s longstanding tradition of isolation should be continued.

Kaiser Wilhelm II of the German Empire is dissatisfied with Germany’s meager colonies. Germany’s standing army of 500,000 is the finest and most disciplined in the world and her fleet is second only to the British Empire’s (though, a distant second). Wilhelm, brash and full of Prussian confidence, believes America is ill-deserving of her newly won colonies and, most importantly, ill-prepared to defend them.

The Kaiser may be right. The American army, still not fully equipped for the 20th century, is deeply committed to ending the Filipino Insurrection in their newly acquired territory. The remains of the American army are on garrison duty in Cuba or on distant outposts in the American west watching over the long-subdued Native Americans. The American Navy, which is quickly modernizing, is also scattered and not yet prepared for a full-scale global conflict. Worst of all, William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States, is assassinated by an anarchist in early September of 1901. The young Theodore Roosevelt is now the President.

The Kaiser decides that his time to attack is now. He orders his General Staff to enact plans many thought purely hypothetical.

The date is October 1, 1901. Without warning, a fleet of the German Imperial Navy has entered New York harbor and has begun disembarking troops. It is the intent of the German Empire to hold the eastern seaboard hostage. The Kaiser’s demands are simple:

  • America must relinquish her colonies to the German Empire
  • America must relinquish her Navy to the German Empire

America has been invaded. Surprise favors the Germans, who are well-trained and finely armed. Will American resilience be sufficient to repel the invaders and forcefully defend her right to be a Great Power?

In 1901: Invasion of America, two teams of players will control the Imperial Germany Navy and Army invasion force and the American Navy and Army.