Designing for Joy

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Please keep in mind that the below piece, largely based on a single game, is NOT a review. I’ve played it only twice. As a designer I was inspired by our experience last night and I’ve spent the past few hours thinking about how I can attempt to bake that experience into my own designs. So, please take this anecdotal reference as such, not my hyperbolic and premature review. 

Four of my friends came over last night for pizza, wine, and the first chapter of Mice and MysticsIn case you’re not familiar, this is the latest release from Plaid Hat Games. It is a highly story and scenario driven cooperative adventure that features minis, custom dice, cards, beautiful illustrations, and tons of boards with which you explore the castle…as humans changed to mice.

If I had to summarize it, it’s a simplified tactical combat game, like Heroscape, that’s cooperative and scenario driven.

Designers design for different purposes  Some purely for self-fulfillment (i.e. I don’t care if this gets published), others for mechanics, others for theme, and some do it to appeal to a specific demographic. Some designers want to create a brain puzzler and some just want a dice fest. While playing Mice and Mystics last night, I was reminded that one of the most powerful emotions and experiences we can craft as designers is joy.


Simple, pure, smile and laughter inducing pleasure. At times we can get so caught up in chasing the mechanics or the theme or the whatever that we forget that we’ve been given the opportunity to be Willy Wonka in a Chocolate Factory of our own creation.

If joy is a desired outcome, how do we sew the seeds to make it a reality? I think there are some obvious, tangible mechanics and themes we can look to for inspiration.

Classics include dice, or a mechanism by which the possible outcomes are understood but not precisely known. Probability is comfortable and uncertainty builds tension, surprise, and thrilling moments.  In our game last night, we missed 9 sequential 50/50 rolls in a row. This is absurdly improbable! This almost cost us the game and there was no mechanism by which to mitigate this. In many games this would be infuriating. We almost became frustrated, but at some point we collaboratively developed an attitude of c’est la vie and it became a point of laughter and tension with every roll. And when it was finally hit? Exuberance!

Another solid tool for us is humor. You often see the best writers weave humor into even the most serious of stories. It’s a wonderful thing. One can obtain this through funny card art (Farmageddon, Munchkin), take-that mechanics (schadenfreude can be rather enjoyable), or a generally silly premise. The rules for Scallywags explicitly state you should read the cards with a pirate’s emphasis. But, without prompting, my friends quickly jump into these roles and before long we sound like idiots of the Caribbean.

Let’s not forget the humor of Dixit, Apples to Apples, and Cards Against Humanity. Even boring people can be funny if you give them the chance.

I’m not entirely sure Mice and Mystics sought to be a funny game, but we, being horrid adult males, turned it into one. For one, I read every story moment with awful Cockney, Scottish  and Monty Python-esque “accents” and one character’s name in particular became a recurring crude joke. I’ll just say his name is Maginos and leave it at that. Big moments like the cat chasing us were, despite the circumstances, rather entertaining. And every time my friend paid the cheese to use his special ability and STILL missed we laughed.

How can your game latch onto such a thing? I’ll try to approach this with a practical and personal example. How can my area-control strategy game Empire embrace such a concept? It’s pretty important as the game is fairly dry!

If I quickly think about it, there are quite a few little details and embellishments I can make to provide players a canvas for mischief. Or at least a more interesting war.

  • The factions have names. One in particular, the Yorkan Clans, always causes a smile as it’s a weird word to say. Can I lean into that more without going into full-on Harry Potter vibe?
  • The Tactics in game that have more dramatic, active names evoke a response from my playtesters. The player who plays “Dig In!” often shouts and slams his cards down with confidence. Not so with the player who plays “Encirclement.” Fun verbs > boring verbs?
  • One playtester suggested I add phrases, like “Come and Take It” or the rebel yell to the faction boards to help people get into character.
  • I should spend a little time creating characters. When you play the General, should it be “General,” or “Sir Lord Marshal Haversham, Order of the Bath?” And I could name a weak Infantry Unit (in Empire simply a card with an Infantry symbol with a 1 as opposed to a 2 or 3) as the Yorkan Militia, or Yorkan Volunteers. People will draw that card and think “Ugh, not the militia!” instead of “Oh I see a 1.”

Beyond the tangible tweaks, the obvious things that just seem to be widely accept best practices, how do we approach the pursuit of joy from a philosophical level? After all, there are some things that just work, but less because of something we can point to or write speeches about, but a certain je ne sais quoi (I’m finished with the French).

There is something about Mice and Mystics that made coming to the table and sitting down just really enjoyable. It’s something that games that are arguably better mechanically, or arguably better from a game sense, often seem to lack. It is easy to point to mice being cute, miniatures being awesome, and the well-crafted stories all being primary factors. I’m also a really big fan of Plaid Hat, but honestly nobody else in my group shares this fanboyism so it’s not entirely that. Maybe it’s the art by John Ariosa that everyone kept praising?

All I know is, I will be spending the next few days improving Empire in ways that make it a richer, more vibrant, and exciting experience for a group of friends without compromising its mechanics. For Innie, my new design that’s being fleshed out, I’ll take a step back and re-examine my current assumptions in light of potential opportunities to do the same from the beginning. The value in doing so seems quite obvious.

If I can help someone create a moment, a story, or a time to remember, doesn’t that supersede the value of just making a good game? I think so.

What are some games that provide the je ne sais quoi for you and your group? Where do I make the wrong assumptions? Let’s discuss, shall we?

Games I Loved in 2012

Post by: Grant Rodiek

It is quite common (and enjoyed) for bloggers to write about the best games of the year, or their recommended holiday purchases. I’m not quite qualified to do either, nor did I play enough 2012 games to really feel comfortable filling a list.

However, I did play a great number of games this year, many new to me, and I want to share some of my favorites. Some of these will be old, some new, and perhaps you can use them to steer your holiday purchases if you’re so inclined.

Here, in no particular order, are the games I loved in 2012.

1812: The Invasion of Canada

This medium weight area control war game has been a big inspiration for me as a designer this year and really well received every time it’s hit the table. The game is incredibly easy to learn, infuses variety for its factions very simply through simple custom dice modification and easy-to-use cards, and features really compelling team play.

If you grew up playing Risk, but are over it, give 1812 a look. It plays quickly, doesn’t feel random, and has some great choices throughout. This is a great game!

King of Tokyo

I’ve played this game extensively. It plays super quickly, is an absolute laugh-riot, and yet has many great decisions. The art and presentation of the game is absolutely beautiful and every component exemplifies what is special about board games. I have already purchased the expansion and frankly, you should have this game.

Almost all my friends have bought this game as a result of my initial copy — you won’t go wrong.

Summoner Wars

This is the game that built Plaid Hat Games. I’ve played about 80 games on my iPhone and a handful of games on my physical copy. I wrote about it in an earlier post as well. Basically, this is an outstanding 2 player tactical battle game that has the best elements of Magic without all the complexity. It’s smooth, full of variety, and allows for great “ah ha!” moments.

Easily a favorite game of mine for years to come.


Making a return from my 2011 favorites list is Ascension. I still don’t own a physical copy (I should), but I’ve played over 500 games on my iPhone and just can’t seem to grow tired of it. Sure, there are times when I set it down for a month or so, but then I return and fall in love again. The game has amazing variety, great pacing, and is just so damn fun.

Keep in mind it isn’t much fun with more than 2 players, but honestly I’m not sure I’ll ever grow tired of this game.

Ascending Empires

I feel a little cruel listing this game as it’s almost impossible to find these days, but Ascending Empires is outstanding. It plays quickly and is packed full of good strategy. Players briskly take a single action every turn as they build their empire, research technologies, and flick their ships across the galaxy to do battle. Oh, yeah, there’s a dexterity element in flicking your ships. Don’t let that turn you off! This is still a strategy game, but with a twist. If you can find it, get it.

The Speicherstadt and Kaispeicher

This may be the perfect game. It can be played over lunch, is incredibly easy to explain, scales beautifully, and is really just an outstanding example of brilliant Euro design. Feld is a master and this is a great offering.

The game is an auction game, but unlike many Knizia style auctions, you place workers to bid and up-bid your opponents in a very tightly contested battle of supply and demand. The core game is beautifully simple and the difficult to find expansion really ratchets it up a notch. One of the best integrated expansions I’ve seen, Kaispeicher adds a little craziness and potentcy to what is an otherwise incredibly distilled experience. Don’t let the terrible title or boring theme steer you away, this is a very interactive, outstanding experience.

Risk Legacy

This game has been really special for me this year. Unlike most of my games, we created a steady group of 5 of us to play through the campaign (approximately 15 games) and enjoy it together. In my opinion, the experience has been absurdly special and memorable.

At its core the game is Risk. Battles resolve the same, reinforcements are added almost identically…it’s Risk. But, unlike Risk, the games end in anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours (depends on where you are in the campaign) and there are a few twists added. But, the beginning is just the tip of this faux nostalgic iceberg.

Firstly, during the games, and at the end of every game, the board permanently evolves. Cities are added, fortresses are placed, and more. And, as you hit certain conditions, you open up packets that add entirely new mechanics, new rules, and permanently alter the board further. We’ve really had some “holy crap!,” crazy-cliffhanger style moments that have been super enjoyable. If you can get a group of friends together every few weeks, you shouldn’t miss this.


I bought this game for research — I’m designing some cooperative games and I wanted to see how this well-known designer handled a player versus game design. It was also cheap and I heard it was good. I was dubious as playing a board game solo is, frankly, just sad.

Well, this game is amazing. It is beautifully streamlined and silky smooth. There is no accounting or any such nonsense. You just play and play and before you know it, you’re playing a fourth game. The game is very difficult, but very rewarding and logical. It’s a deckbuilder in which winning earns you new cards and losing allows you to permanently remove cards to cull and improve your deck. It has a strong push your luck element and is really all about probability. This is a lovely game!

Alien Frontiers

This is another game that was on my 2011 favorites list. I still really enjoy it and it has always been enjoyed by new players, so I want to bring it back. Alien Frontiers is a dice rolling worker placement game. You roll a set of up to 6 dice and assign them to various stations around the planet to receive actions and benefits.

It’s a relatively simple premise that’s full of order of effect, combination filled gameplay. It’s a bit of a puzzle to solve the problem first and it has just enough randomness to have tension and excitement. I was a bit disappointed in the expansion for the game and probably won’t play it much. But, the original game is outstanding and delightful. You should pick up a copy!


This game rocketed up the top games of all time list on BGG. Many have been leery of it, fearing hype and unnecessary acclaim. However, after 2 plays (about 6 hours of gaming) I think this is a fantastic game worthy of everyone’s attention. The designer has distilled the typical 8 hour epic space odyssey into something more manageable. The game’s mechanics are incredibly intuitive, shockingly so, and the variety that comes about as a result of the research draws, galaxy formation, and races chosen allows for a different game every time.

This is an epic game that isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s also very expensive and takes time to play. A lot of time. But, if you are so inclined and have the right group, I think you’ll really enjoy this game.

Games I didn’t get to play so far but desperately want to: Shogun, Vinhos, Twilight Struggle, and Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel. I own all of these and have read the rule books, multiple times, for all of them. Alas, they sit un-played on my shelves. Shame!

Games I played but not enough to add to this list: Castles of Burgundy, Mice and Mystics, Memoir ’44. I only played Castles a single time, but that play was sufficient to purchase my own copy. Unfortunately the game is fairly meaty for some of my game friends, so I haven’t managed a second play. Mice and Mystics was quite enjoyable, but I’ve only played it solo once and I don’t feel that is sufficient. Finally, I bought THREE additional expansions for Memoir ’44 this year. Though I’ve played the base game several times, the expansions, including the out-of-print Air Pack remain completely unplayed. What is wrong with me!

Do you agree or disagree with anything on my list? Do you have anything to add? What should I have on here? Let’s discuss!

Posted in Blog | Tagged 2012, favorite games, , games of the year, holiday guide | 4 Replies

Breaking the Tie

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A few friends on Twitter recently began a short debate regarding tying in a game. More specifically, what should the designer do (if anything) to reduce the chances of a tie. Furthermore, they pondered whether ties are bad in the first place, and what a reasonable tie breaker is.

I was prompted to throw my thoughts into this rather gentle ring, so I am doing so via the blog.

This is a bit of a difficult argument to enter as I don’t have a great deal of experience with tie breakers. I rarely encounter them in the games I play and the games I’ve designed haven’t needed to rely on them too heavily. I’ve heard of player’s using the tie breaker for Farmageddon, but I’ve never personally used it. In various stages I think we’ve had ties in Empire, but they too are somewhat rare.

I have used a tie breaker a few times in Alien Frontiers, a game that scores very tightly. In these instances, the player who usually lost the tie felt a bit cheated. The tie breaker, if I recall correctly, is having the most Alien Tech cards. Catching up here while also landing colonies and stalling an opponent isn’t really possible.

I’ll argue, therefore, that games are better when they do not result in a tie. A clear, decisive win by a single player or entity is the best outcome. How does one go about designing a game that tends to not result in a tie?

There are a few possibilities. Most obviously is to create a game that features elimination. One cannot tie if he no longer exists! Another is to create a finish line or objective, i.e. the first player to accomplish a goal wins.

Another possibility is to fill your game with multiple ways in which to earn points of varying quantities. For example, every round every player can earn points based on a certain metric. The point values assigned can differ based on superior performance.

You can also create multiple paths go gain points. For example, in Empire, players earn a small amount of points for controlling territories throughout the game. At the end of the game, they earn a more significant number of points for winning battles. The most points can be earned by earning the Strategic Victories, which are earned for going deep on specific aspects of the strategy. Typically, players respond and react to one another and in a four player game, you see 1-2 players focus on battles, a player focus on territory, and a fourth player throwing a wrench in things.

One option is to limit the possibility for winning players. In general people don’t care for a runaway leader, especially when it’s painstakingly obvious. But, if you make the distribution of points such that it is very unlikely that more than one player can win, that helps. Just be sure to make this information hidden so everyone doesn’t check out.

As a final suggestion, you can create varied opportunities for players that are outside their control. In Farmageddon, the crop cards you draw are random. There are 4 basic crop types and 10 unique FrankenCrops. The first choice you must make every turn is what to plant. Players can’t control their point opportunities, but they can choose which opportunity to pursue based on its likelihood of success. Because these point values vary significantly (4/7/10/15) it leads to a very tight, but rarely tied experience.

But, and I think this isn’t terribly negotiable, unless it is impossible to tie your game, you need to create a tie breaker. Creating a tie breaker can be quite simple or complex depending on the number of “knobs” your game has to twist. If your game is incredibly streamlined and simple, it may be difficult to craft a compelling tie breaker mechanic.

I think it is of the utmost importance, both for simplicity and to reduce player frustration, to make the tie breaker both obvious and deeply integrated into the core experience. When the tie breaker must be referenced, none of the tied player should say “what?” when it’s revealed. Nobody should feel frustrated or cheated for not memorizing the rule book and knowing the tie breaker is a path that isn’t well-tread or obvious.

In fact, the tie breaker shouldn’t be something anyone has to think about. It should be as pre-baked as possible, like a delicious cupcake.

In Farmageddon, the tie goes to the player who has harvested the most crops. You must harvest crops to win in the first place, so if you’ve harvested more, that seems like a good way to denote the victor. In Empire, the first tie goes to the player with the most Units on the board. This is something players want to do regardless and fictionally, the player with the biggest army present should get the nod. The second tie goes to the player who has won the most battles. Again, fictionally, the player who has the best army should be favored.

A deeply integrated, intuitive, obvious tie breaker is essential. Don’t get clever in this instance. If people spend an hour on your game, don’t belittle their time, or leave a sour final impression, with a clunky and dissatisfying tie breaker. Be sure that the winner still feels like he or she earned it.

What are some of your favorite tie breakers? What are some of your least favorites? Which games tend to result in ties? And why?

Form Versus Function

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

I learned several valuable lessons at Metatopia a few weekends ago.

Firstly, there is no such thing as bed-time. You will be up late. Every night. And you will love it.

Secondly, making connections—the kind that lead to dream jobs—isn’t as hard as I thought. Basically, you just need to show up, be friendly, and be generous. There are tricks and nuances, of course, that’s true of everything. And, as with any attempt, you can’t succeed if you don’t try.

Thirdly is a theme that came up three times across three different games over the weekend. I tweeted about, but it’s worth discussing in-depth.

The Last Planet

I’ve hinted several times on Twitter that I’ve been working on a StarCraft deck-building game. I played Fantasy Flight’s StarCraft board game with some friends earlier this year and was reminded quite viscerally how painfully slow the game is. So I set out to make a StarCraft game that better captured the video game’s feel, primarily by playing faster. I somehow latched onto the idea of a DBG being an interesting expression of base development and built an intentionally very literal interpretation of the game. As expected, it worked but not particularly well. I intended to recreate it, but got distracted with other projects.

Last month, my friend Josh pushed me to pick it back up. I had one new idea to try before completely rebuilding it so I brought that to Metatopia. The fix helped, but was like a drop-in-the-bucket. It took easily 100 minutes before one player successfully attacked another. The game is too complex and has too many steps to accomplish by a complete order of magnitude. And that’s really not surprising: It’s a complex video game with millions of moving parts all being handled seamlessly by the computer. Take out that super-fast helper and it’s up to the players to handle everything. Even simplified as it was, it’s still preposterous.

Despite that massive problem, there is fun in the game and I have not given up. I will rebuild from scratch, divorcing myself from StarCraft and creating a new SciFi theme, not because I know I’ll never win the game rights, but because I can’t let the conceits of the video game dictate the paper game’s path. I know if I keep this exact theme that I will be distracted from the better possible game by what StarCraft has done and how.

It’s entirely possible the end result won’t be a DBG, but a real-time puzzle or who knows what.


After that, I saw some of my designer friends playing with an early game prototype. Kevin’s game has an awesome theme: The players are experimental test subjects of a mad scientist trying to escape his dark labyrinth before he kills them. The game starts with an interesting mechanic where you play cards to form the edge of the dungeon and your character moves like a magnet to cards that match your player color. Once you reach the inner dungeon, you instead lay dungeon tiles that dictate the directions you can move from that space. Because the dungeon is dark, you don’t decide how to orient the tiles, you just place them however you flip them.

This leaves the end-game entirely up to chance. It does fit the theme and really puts you in your character’s shoes. On the other hand, you’re suddenly not playing the game you started and probably not enjoying feeling your character’s frustration so personally. The reason for placing the tiles with a random orientation was to fit the theme of a dark dungeon, but it removes the fun from the game. My suggestion was to let players choose the tile’s orientation to improve the play, and then modify the theme to justify the change. Maybe the dungeon isn’t pitch-black or maybe the doctor gave them infrared vision as part of his experimentation. The former doesn’t really hurt the core theme and the latter fits it pretty well.

I know Kevin is working on this game because I saw a very nice graphical tease for it, so I’m eager to see what the next version brings.


The next day I joined what turned out to be a brainstorming session rather than a playtest. You might be pretty disappointed at such a thing elsewhere, but at Metatopia it was cool. Yeah, let’s bounce ideas off each other to help the designer—Jim—reach a good starting point. Honestly, that’s almost more fun for me than actually playing. The premise is that the players are corporations competing to alter a planet’s atmosphere so that it’s ready for colonization. Jim had the kernel of a pretty neat mechanic for this part of the game as well as a dice mechanism to determine player order and the amount of resources available each turn.

As we were proposing possible directions for the game, we occasionally hit a hard stop in the form of a pre-established theme. What if there’s a conflict with resident aliens? There are no aliens. How can we add variance to building placement? Wind. There’s no wind on Mars! There is on Venus. Are dice the best way to determine how much a player can do each turn? They represent the fickle budgets of your corporate overlords. (Note that one of those over-wrought preconceptions was mine, not the designer’s.)

Form vs Function

If you’ve read my earlier stuff, you know that I’m a huge advocate for theme in games. There are great games with no theme, but there are so many more great games with theme. Ultimately, a game can’t fire on all cylinders without an engaging theme. The flip-side is that you can make a game great through the theme alone, but it’s much more likely to be garbage without fun mechanics. And a thematic game can’t reach it’s greatest potential without awesome gameplay.

Some designers approach games from the bottom-up, completing the game by perfecting the gameplay and mechanics, and then finally pasting on whatever theme seems to fit best. Some approach design top-down, finding a neat theme and bringing it to life, going with whatever mechanics express that theme more fully. A lot of designers are versatile enough to use whichever technique feels right for a new game. I put it to you that none of these are ideal.

Integration through iteration is the holy grail. Start where you like, whether it’s bottom-up with a clever mechanic and some fun gameplay, or top-down with an engaging story and a gripping atmosphere. Just don’t go too far without switching hats. Even if you’re idea is still amorphous enough that you need a quick test to figure out where to go with it, you should already be imagining how to express your idea from the other side of the camp. After your first test, when you understand the basic game well enough to start the next step, shift your focus and ask how the theme could best serve the mechanics, and vice-versa. If something needs to change, change it. Kill your sacred cows or they will eat your game.

If you do this throughout the design process, the final result will be so tightly integrated that players won’t be able to imagine your mechanics with any other theme, nor will they wonder if the flavor could have been stronger with a few more/less dice.

A fantastic example to demonstrate this is Magic: The Gathering because the game has been remade so many times using every model we’ve discussed. A big part of what made the game take-off was the excellent fusion of flavor and mechanics in the original design. There were many years of bottom-up designs to follow where the designers were exploring mechanical possibilities and the theme suffered. Many years later, they let the creative team dictate the world and built the set around that, but the gameplay wasn’t satisfying. They rebooted the core set with Magic 2010 using a new strategy—the original one: Make cards that are fun to play and deeply resonant. It was a huge success and breathed new life into the game. They haven’t looked back since and they have done amazing things that just weren’t possible in the old model.

StarCraft is a video game because it can’t be done as a board game. It can’t be done as a board game because it’s a video game. The Zerg are what they are because they play differently from the Terrans and Protoss. And they play so differently because they are the Zerg. These sound like poser-wise tautologies, but the point is that both sides were developed toward this state together and couldn’t have done otherwise. I can make a game that plays like StarCraft, but with a different theme or I can make a game with StarCraft’s theme but plays differently, but the vast differences in the media prevent me from making the same game. And ultimately, what would be the value in that if I succeeded? Why play StarCraft the board game, when you can play the same game with better graphics on your computer? That was the impetus for adding the deck-building-game conceit but I didn’t go far enough. DBGs don’t have a tech tree or, if they do, it’s nowhere near as deep, specific or complex as StarCraft’s.

My work on Intrigue (Editor’s Note: This is another game of Jay’s) is another interesting example. In theory, all I had to do to convert the theme from Fantasy war to Renaissance spycraft was to change some art and names. But where quests are perfect for Middle Earth, they make no sense in Venice. Scoring points by killing your enemies is natural in war, but would attract a bit too much heat in a political race. And where’s the scheming? Spies scheme! So I changed some mechanics to fit the new theme. Playtesting proved that the mechanics could be better, so I fixed them and then adjusted the theme to fit the new mechanics. Having agendas is great, but being invested in particular factions is good too. It’s a give and take where everybody wins in the end.

You have examples of successes and failures along these lines. Let’s hear them.

Adventures in Space!

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m designing three different games, all within a science fiction theme. Although I’m not actively pursuing this or worrying about it, it would be interesting to have 3 different stories and experiences within this one universe. But, we’re getting distracted.

Actually, humor me a minute. Was it not super compelling to discover Aliens and Firefly are within the same universe? I know. Right?

I know in my last post I wrote about space not appealing to me, but I’ve latched onto moments that I find very compelling personally and that has helped. I think that’s the key — instead of obsessing over massive premises, I’m focusing on little stories and experiences that really appeal to me. Now, I’m trying to abstract them into mechanics and overall games. Some of these include…

  • In movies like Alien and Aliens, after every horrible moment the survivors regroup and ask “Well, what do we do now?” I find this a very compelling sequence for my story-driven co-op game. WHAT NOW?

  • In Halo with ODST units (Orbital Drop Shock Troopers), Starship Troopers with the mobile infantry, and even just the good ‘ole 101st Airborne Division of World War II, I’m very drawn to the intensity and coolness of commandos dropping from the sky without warning to cause mayhem.
  • I love it in any movie when a starship just unleashes an unholy broadside against an opponent. The awful Wing Commander does this in its final scene. In the recent StarTrek it is awesome when the Enterprise jumps on top of the Romulan vessel with guns blazing. The ambush, the broadside — I love it.

The focus of this post is to discuss some of the early developments for one of my three games, but before I do that I thought I’d outline the three games very briefly.

Cooperative Game the First —  The Epic One: I went on a long, rainy run with a good friend and we hashed out a good scenario for a medium weight cooperative game. We have a beginning, middle, and end game with win and loss conditions. We have some neat mechanics. This will be a game about escaping from an oppressive empire to build a new home in secret. But, the empire is coming and they will find  you. It’s a matter of time and whether you’ll be prepared or not to survive. This will be a game with long-term planning and strategy, probability management, and a nail-biting finish.

This will use a chit-pull mechanic and some terrain/exploration elements (Eclipse) is an inspiration here. It will feature an expanding/collaborative tech tree and combat at the finale (perhaps throughout).

An inspiration for this game is the classic Relic game Homeworld, which is one of the finest RTS PC games of all time.

Cooperative Game the Second – The one driven by story (I first wrote about this one here). This is a game idea I cannot get out of my head. The original kernel for the idea was that great movies like Alien, Aliens, The Avengers, Firefly, and Star Trek are driven by the characters and their personalities. The coward, the smart ass, the genius, the hot head — the stories are interesting because of who they are and how they deal with things more so than what’s happening.

I’ve been trying to figure out ways of turning this into a mechanic and not a wannabe light RPG. I’ve gone to many places and I’ve been circling this for a long time. Some of my inspirations have been Apples to Apples and Dixit (yep), Dungeon Command (for the mechanic where they assign adjectives to characters and equipment, i.e. this is an Int ability you can assign to any guy with Int), DuranceMice and Mystics, The Resistance, and Friday.

The thing is, I don’t want any fuzziness. There should be clear rules, what I can and can’t do. But, I want people to be able to lean into the story if that makes sense. I want the rich social interaction of The Resistance. More on The Resistance, I think part of that game’s brilliance is that it takes 15 minutes and is fun if you lose or win. I don’t think Pandemic is nearly as fun if you lose. So, I’m going for that vibe. This is all fuzzy, and it is in my head. I’m working on it, I’m circling, and I’m closing in.

Competitive Game — This game was born out of 1901. That was a quick idea I had that I set aside and morphed into this. Both games were built upon the notion of team versus team, with each team being comprised of two different roles: Navy and Army. That has translated quite interestingly to the new premise. Now, it’s star fleet and ground units. More on that in a minute.

The fictional premise is that the big Confederation has lost a planet to a group of insurrectionists. The Confederation dispatches a fleet to put down this insurrection and retake the planet. You’ll have superior fire power and conventional weaponry versus an entrenched enemy who isn’t as well armed, but knows the terrain and will fight in a guerrilla fashion. My goal is for this to be a 30-45 minute game, 2-4 players.

Originally with 1901 I was really leery of creating another map and another board. It’s such a difficult thing to design. I tried to abstract this and move away from the typical map. I wanted something that allowed for spatial relationships, but I didn’t want a complex map. I thought about a grid of cards (thick card-stock ones like in Mr. Jack, yum!) laid out in a 3×3 or 4×4 setup. Cards will be incredibly distilled, simplified elements. This square has the communications station, which has a benefit. This one is a city. This one is a mountain. This one is a plain (i.e. nothing).

So, if the ground units are moving and fighting on this grid (let’s say orthogonal movement), where are the fleets? Well, ground units can only affect their surroundings in a limited way. But a star fleet, in orbit, should be able to affect a broad range of things. Basically, whatever is beneath them, right? I thought it would be quite simple if the fleets move on the outskirts of the grid and then affect the cards along that side of the grid. Along these outskirts there may be environmental hazards/objects like a star base or perhaps an asteroid belt.

Here’s a rough mockup. You can see the comm station, mountains, 2 cities, the artillery battery, airfield, some normal spaces, some blank spaces. You can see the confederation fleet on the bottom side looking at those bottom 4 squares. Meanwhile, the rebel fleet is hiding in the asteroid cluster.

These two forces, the fleets and the ground forces, are both fighting their own battles. However, it’s a deeply synergistic relationship. Both affect each other and must work towards a common goal. A decent comparison may be the Battle of Endor. There is a ground battle and one in space. But, whereas in that one it’s an order of operations issue, in my game I’m hoping for more fluidity.

What are some of these synergies? Well, here are a few examples I’ve brainstormed:

  • The fleet launches drop troops to the surface to be controlled by the ground commander.
  • The ground commander gains control of the artillery battery to harass the enemy fleet.
  • The ground commander lasers a target to guide the fleet’s bombers.
  • The fleet transports the ground troops quickly from one square to another.
  • The ground forces jam the enemy fleet, which allows your fleet partner to get into position.

And so forth.

Drafting is a big inspiration for me for the game. I really love the mechanic and I’m trying to incorporate it in slightly different ways. Player actions will largely be driven by their cards. Each round, teams will have a quick intra-team draft. This does a few things for the experience:

  • Each teammate gets individual agency in what he chooses for the overall strategy.
  • Good teams will see what they each drafted and try to build synergies.
  • This solves the issue of table-talk — instead of lots of whispering, which kills the flow, or no table talk, which is lame, you can draft, know what you both have, and work off each other’s hands.

Cards will have some dual use to them. I REALLY want to keep this simple (I don’t want people reading cards for hours like in Seasons), but I’d like players to think “should I take this or should I leave it for the fleet?” I imagine it’ll be a brief 10 card draft, each player gets 3 or 4 cards, some number are discarded. The idea is that experienced players will really begin to learn the subtlety of the decks and how to use things. Perhaps the decks will be set in phases so there are early game cards and late game cards. I want to keep it as simple as possible so we’ll see how it pans out.

Another way I wish to draft will be in that each round, players will draft the territories to which they play actions. If I draft the territory with the comm station, my teammate can then drop troops to it. You can’t. I drafted it, it belongs to my team.

Combat and resolution will be straightforward like in Empire or Smallworld. You’ll play abilities for distinct outputs, but your cards will modify them. Territory will also feed into this. For example, an action may become more potent if I have a specific territory. I’m hoping this is a matter of syncing up icons, i.e. “If you have this, use this output. Otherwise, this one.”

I think this simplicity can be quite compelling. It worked well in Empire as it was straightforward and had just a little bit of variability based on your opponent’s actions. One thing that came to mind, especially with drafting the territories to influence and affect, was “drafting with interruptions.” I don’t mean a counter-spell “ha ha” like in Magic, but you reacting to my decision to draft the territory. Perhaps you set an ambush? Perhaps you retreat? Perhaps you drop in troops to reinforce?

One final thought on this: Stratego. It’s excellent. Stratego is a simple game of planning, memory, deduction, and bluffing. Reconnaissance will be important. Positioning the fleets to “scan” and learn more about the enemy can be vital. Really, I love the idea of a 4 way game of cat and mouse.

This is all just insight into where my mind’s at, what I’m trying to create, and how I work. If anything jumped out at you, good or bad, or you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

Stuck in Thought

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve been rather quiet lately, primarily because I don’t have much to say. I find that I have many opinions on process, theory, and practical design when I’m deeply involved in a project. After all, when I’m testing and developing the game I find all sorts of topics simply as a result of what I’m doing. However, right now, I’m not really working on anything. It’s not for a lack of trying!

I find it difficult to pursue multiple designs at once. Empire has been sent to a potential publisher, so I’m putting the current game in stasis as I’d rather respond to their feedback instead of push forward in a direction that may not be useful or desired. Even though I’m not working on Empire, it’s really dominating my thoughts. It’s my baby and it’s difficult to leave her on a bench while I go chase something else.

I spent some time working on a cooperative game and I simply couldn’t get it to materialize. Every time I thought of something useful I’d slam into a wall and I never really found a way to recover. I failed for a few pretty clear reasons:

  • Cooperative design is incredibly difficult. You must create compelling win and fail conditions, a relentless and compelling AI, cohesive player actions, and more.
  • I pursued a theme more for others than for myself. Several friends said “space is great!” So I pursued that. But, my heart wasn’t really into the idea. Make a game for yourself and you’ll be more successful. I should know better.
  • I obsessed over the theme to the point I couldn’t move forward. I kept thinking about all mechanics in light of the theme and it made it impossible to move forward. Typically I’m able to do this cohesively, but here I was stuck in theme world. One thing I might do is re-approach the design in the most theme-less  dry fashion. Literally create cards with numbers and generic actions. Can I create something there and re-approach it with a paint brush later?
  • I obsessed over simple components, and only simple components. It’s important to keep components in mind at all times, but doing so to the point you can’t even consider mechanics creatively due to component limitations is just bad design process. I do this because I want to self-publish a game. To do that, the game components need to be on the low cost end of the spectrum. But, if I can’t make a game in the first place, the components don’t matter!

Experienced designers know that even the biggest failures render gems of hope. For my cooperative game I thought of a neat way to use double-sided cards for terraforming. That may come about at some point. I spent a few weeks thinking heavily on chit-pulling. Nothing really great emerged, BUT it was a useful exercise just the same. I had a really interesting idea, inspired by my friend Ray Mazza’s book, to have an evolving ecosystem that was actually, potentially, quite simple.

Alas, I failed.

I shifted my thoughts back to 1901, my alternate history war game about an Imperial German invasion of America during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. I still love this idea, and may pursue it, but I’m encountering some issues with it as well. Primarily, I don’t think there’s enough breadth to the strategy. I can’t settle on conflict resolution mechanics and I find more and more I don’t want it to be anything like Empire. Why create the same game twice? I’m also not happy with the challenges presented by the map (the eastern seaboard), which plays a bit into the strategic breadth issue.

Again, my thoughts here have led to some interesting kernels of usefulness. I’m REALLY interested in asymmetrical teammates working cohesively against another team. In 1901 this was going to be naval and army versus a similar pairing. I find myself drawn back to the simplicity of cards, as opposed to boards, tableaus, cards, chits, and more. This has led to some really simple and interesting thoughts on map development. I’ve thought of a neat twist on drafting and how it can be used for a war game. I’ve also revisited a favorite theme…

I’m reluctant to talk about any of this in too much detail. Lately I have a tendency of saying “I have this great idea!” and it completely dwindles away minutes after I hit “publish” on the blog. Poor Abby, the cooperative game, 1901… Really, I want to get a prototype together, a set of rules written, and an initial test held as a basic proof of concept. Then I’ll start sharing. I can’t stand it when creative folks announce new projects every 30 seconds and never finish anything.

But, as a designer on Twitter reminded me, there’s the “rule of 10,” which is something along the lines of: For every 10 ideas you get a prototoype. For every 10 prototypes you get a game. For every 10 games you get one published.

This seems to be my path as of late and it has really led to a great deal of creative analysis, thought, and troubles. It’s time to put something together!

Where are you lately in your creative travels? Create anything amazing? Hit a wall?