How to Use Feedback

Jay is fresh from Unpub 3 where he took a few of his new prototypes to test with a flood of designers and gamers alike. He’s also been participating in the PPP program. Therefore, Jay’s input on gathering and using testing feedback is useful and should be read!

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

You’re more likely to be struck by lightning twice than you are to design a flawless game without any playtesting. Yet, figuring out how to improve your game after a playtesting session is often a mystery. How can you turn your playtesters’ nebulous comments, insane ideas, and bad advice into useful feedback? I’ll share a few tricks with you and I hope you’ll share yours in the comments.

Ask the Right Questions

“Yeah, that was pretty good.”

The first piece of useless feedback every designer hears is the patronizing reassurance that your game isn’t 100% crap. You ask, “What did you think?” or “How did you like it?” and 99/100 people will answer the same way. What they’re really saying is “It wasn’t good enough. I can imagine a worse way to spend as much time, but it involves fire and shackles. I can’t tell you exactly how bad it was because I was taught if I can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

While you will get more pointed feedback from your peers in the industry who know what you need to hear, and you must seek that level of feedback out at some point, you need the perspective of real players first. If you want more useful responses, you have to ask better questions. Crap in, crap out.

Be as specific as you can. If you’re aware of any points that might be less than perfect, call them out and ask for opinions. “What did you think of mechanic X? Was it fun? Balanced? Confusing? In-Theme?” Once players realize you know there might be a problem, they’re no longer the messenger and are more willing to discuss it.

There are other staple questions that can lead to more useful information. “Was the game too long?” “How much would you pay for this?” “Who do you think would enjoy this?” There’s a subtle difference between these questions and the following: “Was anything confusing?” “Would you buy this?” “Was the game too hard?” Take a moment and think about why the first three might be good and the last three might not.

“Was the game too long?” Unlike “Did you like the pacing?”, this question acknowledges that the game might be too long. Answering “a bit” doesn’t make the respondent a villain, it lets them confirm your line of reasoning. More on what that answer means soon.

“Would you buy this?” is a binary and personal decision. The player only has two answers to give; one of which will be a lie and the other will hurt your feelings.

“How much would you pay for this?” gives them a scale to grade on, the upper and lower bounds of which are not clearly defined, so whatever they answer can’t be interpreted as an insult. Even though ‘you’ is the same word, this question feels more like an abstract question where the ‘you’ is more of a general ‘one.’ I might not buy your game for $40, but I know people who would. Note that this question is less to help you set a price point and more as a secret gauge for how good your game is.

“Was anything confusing?” is an attack. Your player hears “Are you too stupid to play this game?” They will always answer ‘no,’ unless they made a bad play during the game and would rather pawn off responsibility for it to the game. A better question is “Where can I improve rules or game text to be more clear?” Or “Can anyone word this better?” Or “Did scoring seem cumbersome?”

“Was the game too hard?” Also an attack:. “Was the game too hard for you?” Instead ask, “What felt imbalanced?” or “The game is meant to be a challenge. Do you think I should increase or decrease [some element]?”

“Who do you think would enjoy this?” allows the player to give you a positive response without committing themselves to a lie about how much they hate your game. They might say “hardcore gamers” which tells you the game is too complicated or “kids” which tells you it’s too simple or luck-based. If they say “my play group back home” you can do a little dance inside.

Under the Veil

Very few of the comments your testers give you will be directly applicable in tweaking your design, but all of it is useful data. Your job is to interpret what they’re saying (the hard part) and decide how to use that information (the other hard part).

“The game was too long.”

Your player(s) weren’t engaged the whole time. While we all prefer short games, that’s a learned defense mechanism against bad games. No one who enjoys Cards Against Humanity minds playing for two hours straight or D&D for four or more hours. A game is only too long when it’s boring.

The more players there are in your turn-based game, the longer a player has to wait before her next turn comes around again. If the game isn’t highly interactive, all of that time is boring. Try to make turns shorter by giving players less to do and preventing analysis-paralysis by limiting their options. Try to keep players engaged when it’s not their turn by giving them stuff to do out of turn, or making sure they care desperately how the current player takes his turn.

If a player feels overwhelmed or doesn’t get the game, they will tune out. “I don’t know how to improve my score/position because I don’t understand everything” leads almost instantly to “I don’t care. Please let me stop.” You probably need to simplify your game. Consider making a basic/introductory game or improving your initial presentation, but probably, you need to simplify your game.

If a player feels they can no longer win the game, or that there’s so much luck that their choices don’t matter, they will disengage and want to escape. Make sure that you have an appropriate amount of luck in your game for the length and gravity of the game (they’re inversely proportional) and that the amount of work a player has to do to take their turn (analyze the situation, make a decision, move pieces around) doesn’t exceed the impact of their choice on the game. It’s fine if your game is mostly luck, provided it’s short, light-hearted and easy.

“I didn’t like this mechanic.”

Many comments mean very different things depending on who said them and the context. You have to be reading your players throughout the game so that you will know how they mean what they say afterward. Honestly, you shouldn’t even need to ask “did you like the game?” If your players were laughing and smiling, they definitely did* and if they were checking their watches or nodding off, they definitely didn’t.

*Good company can make a game the same way bad company can ruin a game, but you can tell how much of the fun was just friends joking with each other as if they weren’t playing at all.

If a player lost the game because he misplayed or because another player leveraged a mechanic against them well, “I didn’t like this mechanic” often just means “I didn’t get this mechanic” or “I lost to this mechanic and I don’t like losing.” If they play again (good luck with that) and have the same opinion, consider upgrading them from ‘sore loser’ to ‘onto something.’

If a casual player hates your mechanic, it’s probably too novel/complicated for him. Reconsider your audience, or simplify your game.

If a hardcore player hates your mechanic, it’s probably too old/shallow for her. Reconsider your audience, or look for a unique twist to cast a new light on this classic mechanic. If you weren’t aware the mechanic was old, ask for at least two games that use it and go play them. Also, play more games. Musicians don’t not listen to music. Boxers don’t not watch boxing.

If an industry peer hates your mechanic, ask them why. They could fall into any of the above categories, but if not, they probably have a really good reason and whether you agree or not, you need to understand their reason.

“There’s too much luck.”

Funny how you almost never hear the opposite. The reason is that in a game with luck, players can blame their loss on something other than themselves; in a game with no luck, your only recourse is to blame the game balance or complexity; it is a rare player that acknowledges their own mistakes.

That said, there’s probably too much luck. We game designers love our dice and cards and rarely do the math to see exactly how much impact they have on the game. It’s okay, that’s what playtesting is for. Just don’t be afraid to make some big tweaks (always start with big tweaks and iterate your way down to small tweaks—it’ll save you time, guaranteed). Editor’s Note: Famous video game designer Sid Meier of Civilization fame has a classic rule for tuning: double it, or cut it in half. I’ve been using this for years and it has served me well.

Games need variance in order to create suspense, so don’t remove all the luck. Just make sure players can’t invest more work into the game than you can guarantee they will be rewarded for. Again, shorter and easier games can have more luck, but longer and harder games can’t. Think of a bell-curve. If your game is 5 minutes, it’s okay if the more skilled player only wins 60% of the time, but if your game is 5 hours, it’s not okay if the player who played best doesn’t win at least 95% of the time.

Note that luck and skill are not opposite ends of a single axis. There are games with low luck and low skill (Tic Tac Toe) and games with high luck and high skill (Poker). One does not preclude the other. There are also vastly different sorts of variance. That’s a whole other article, but consider for one example the difference between Candy Land and To Court the King. Candy Land’s dice decide who wins the game, while To Court the King’s dice usually just push toward one strategy or another.

“Have you considered X?”

Players will suggest ways to change your game or things to add. Especially industry peers. Some of these suggestions will be so dumb, you have to lock off the part of your brain that heard them so it doesn’t infect what’s left. Some of these will be so brilliant, they turn your game from “ehhh” to “yeahhh.” You have to listen to these suggestions and even harder, you have to consider them.

Suggestions like these are to be treated like a brainstorm. No matter how bad they sounds, you must not criticize or dismiss them, or it will be the last suggestion you get from that playtester. You can either write them down and promise to think about them later (which you should actually do) or talk them through on the spot. Make sure you understand both the core concept of the proposal as well as the reason the suggester thinks it might improve the game. Often, his solution will be unusable, but the problem he’s trying to solve will be a very real problem that you need to address.

This actually tends to be the easiest way to tease out a problem from your testers. “What would you change/add/remove?” will often lead to terrible ideas that pinpoint with laser accuracy a deficiency in your game. For example, “I would make separate cards for cowboys’ horses” :: “You haven’t integrated the Western theme enough.” And “eliminate the bidding step” :: “the bidding is unoriginal and doesn’t really impact the game.”

Remember that no one understands your design or your vision as well as you do. Just because Richard Garfield would add powers to your character cards, doesn’t mean you should. But if you don’t understand exactly why he suggested that (the game’s too simple) and exactly why you shouldn’t (your audience is the elderly), then you need to find out.

Is there another comment you’ve gotten you’re not sure how to interpret? Let’s discuss it in the comments.

What Next

You’ve got your feedback. You think you know what it means. How should you change your game? Try all of it—one at a time. So many of man’s greatest achievements have come from accidents or from crazy ideas that someone wouldn’t give up on. Don’t let your instinct throw away an idea because it doesn’t sound helpful. If you don’t know exactly how that would work out in every possible situation, you owe it to yourself to find out. Most of what you try won’t improve the game, but everything will improve your understanding of the game.

Design is an exploration. You are entering an unknown reality where you don’t even know the rules of physics. You can only discover the boundaries by pushing ahead in a direction until you hit a wall. The more you push, the better intuition you have of what’s possible and what’s not, but if you stop pushing when you find something good, you’ll never know if you missed a secret passage to something vastly better.

Design with the intention of failing, or you’ll never have the perspective at the end to know if you’ve truly succeeded or merely stopped designing.**

That said, don’t try everything at once. If you try three changes at the same time, and the game improves, how do you know if all three helped or if one helped a lot and the other two held it back. If the game worsens, how do you know all three changes were bad? More importantly, how do you understand how each change impacts your game and what that means about your game? Editor’s Note: The scientific method will treat you well.

You don’t have to prototype every change. Most games and most changes have to playtested with other humans to see their true impact, but sometimes you can do that without making new playing pieces. Just tell the players X is Y this time. Some changes you can eliminate socratically: What if players could pay $10 to the bank to roll an extra die in Monopoly? They wouldn’t bother in the early game, and would know exactly when to use it in the late game. Does the mid-game matter? Do you want players paying marginal amounts to the bank to completely bypass their opponents’ hotel chains? You have to be really careful with this type of thought because it’s ridiculously easy to miss important details and still be 100% certain your right. If you are going to skip this test, at least run it by another player to see if they agree with your conclusion.

**How do you know when you’re done? If you blind playtest the game with at least three new groups of your target audience and they all love it, and you can’t find any way to make the game better (without making it worse), you’re probably done.

Multiple Paths

You’ll often reach a fork in the road. Perhaps your game is half-way between a party game for gamers and a fun party activity for non-gamers. You have to go one way or the other because the split won’t please anyone, but how do you choose? This is the other other hard part.

Sometimes, you have to go back to your original vision for the game. If you set out to make the fastest, lightest tactical wargame ever and you have the chance to instead make a meatier game that really stands on its own, maybe you should stick with your vision and complete your original goal. Put your thumb in the page of this choose-your-own-adventure, because you can always go back and explore the other path when you finish this one.

Sometimes, I’m thinking most of the time, you have to forget where you were coming from and listen to what the game wants to be. Like carving stone, of course you have to start with a plan in mind but you might get half way there and just see something else waiting to be revealed. Something better. It’s rare that the act of executing one game idea doesn’t lead me to discover something different, something a little more natural and unique. Unlike carving stone, you can always undo a change and go back to what worked better.

Ultimately the decision is yours and yours alone to make, but remember that you can always ask friends and peers for their opinion. The value of another perspective is immeasurable.

Calm Down

As a parting note, I wanted to touch briefly on designer ego. It’s impossible not to be invested in your game. It’s your baby and if you aren’t invested in it, it’s going to be trash and you’re wasting the playtesters’ time. What you have to learn to do, though, is to divorce the quality of your game in its current state from your self-confidence as a designer. A bad playtest doesn’t make you a bad designer. It doesn’t even make the game bad, because your game isn’t finished. It just means you’ve learned something and found a way to make your game better.

The only way to be a bad designer is to release only bad games, and the only way to do that is to ignore your playtesters when they tell you what’s wrong with your game. Or to not playtest.

Learning from 7 Wonders

Post by: Grant Rodiek

7 Wonders is an outstanding game. The game plays with up to 7 players in as short of a playing time as 30 minutes! It scales fantastically down to 3 and even has a 2 player variant. The Board Game Geek community seems to agree.

  • #13 Board Game
  • #14 Strategy Game
  • #1 Family Game

This last one makes me think for a moment. Family Game means something different to me than 7 Wonders, but still, holy smokes. 7 Wonders has a great deal to teach us as designers, but the lessons may not always be ones to emulate. Or at least, they may force us to consider some things in our own designs.

A few disclaimers! I love 7 Wonders. It’s one of the first games I bought and I’ve played it 12 times (which is pretty good considering how scattered I can be!). I think it’s brilliant and worth every accolade and sales. This article was prompted because I taught the game to 9 new players this weekend in two different social settings. I observed where the game can cause confusion or fall short, at least initially, and I saw an opportunity to write about it further. In addition, the game is so popular and so widely understood that it is the perfect target for such an article. If I did this for nobody would care OR get my references. Here, we can have a discussion.

No Clear Path from the Outset: At the beginning of the game, I tell people that having the most points will win them the game. I explain the first few cards and give them a hint of what’s coming (but not too much as their minds are already full). We then start.

Everyone always asks “well, what do I want?” I tell them resources are a good start. They don’t exist in Round 3 and they’ll need to build things with them. “Well, what resources do I want?” I show them their Wonder requirements as a good start. I tell them to look at their neighbors as they can trade with them. I tell them diversity or focus are both options.

Then they see Military, and Blue Cards, and Yellow cards that help them but they aren’t sure how, and science? Oh god the science!

It became clear to me that there isn’t a clearly good thing to do from the beginning. There aren’t correct decisions. Well, not a few correct decisions, but multiple potentially correct decisions. The game is an optimization game and one with several paths to victory. Plus, your path may change mid-game to something else based on the decisions of your opponents or the cards available. This is what makes the game outstanding and sticky. This is why people play it over and over again. But, this makes the game very difficult to play the first few times.

Recent favorite Coloretto has a very clear goal. Get several cards in only 3 colors. Monopoly is simple. Get money. Money is earned by property and hotels. Risk tells players to conquer territory. Magic: The GatheringMemoir ’44, and Summoner Wars tell you to defeat your opponent.

The lesson? Find a way to give your players a clear path towards victory. Design your content in the early rounds to give them a comfortable foundation before you open the path too widely. Create primary ways of scoring and secondary ways of scoring. The primary ways can be more obvious and clear, the secondary ways more subtle and known to the advanced players. Give players a goal to accomplish.

After explaining your game to new players, leave them with the sense that they generally know how to win. I felt like with 7 Wonders I told my friends they needed to fly, but didn’t give them wings. Next Week, on Lifetime Home Video.

Too Many Different Methods of Scoring: This is a bit of a continuation of the point directly above this one. There are several ways to score points in 7 Wonders and all of them are unique. These are:

  • Blue cards give victory points printed onto the card.
  • Building stages of your wonders gives you points.
  • At the end, you get 1 point for every 3 gold.
  • Purple and Yellow cards give you points based on the state of your civilization and/or your neighbors’.
  • Green cards, science, give you 7 points for every set of 3 symbols. In addition, you square the number of a single symbol you have. A two-fer!
  • You can earn or lose points at the end of every round based on the military score of your civilization or your neighbors.

So, yes. That’s 6 ways I’ve identified just now and I may have missed one or two or listed one incorrectly. What that means is that in addition to learning how to play the game, players must learn all the ways in which they can score. Not only are the ways numerous, but almost all of them are different and, aside from the blue cards, require more than simple addition.

This problem is complicated further by the fact that points are earned in different ways at different times. Military is at the end of a round. Most yellow cards that score don’t emerge until the final round and all purple cards don’t emerge until the final round. My friends would ask “why do I get this card?” I’d say it might give them points. “How?” Well, a card might give you points for it.


The lesson? Be careful with how many methods of scoring you introduce into your game. Think carefully before varying the ways in which these methods are scored. And finally, try your best to streamline the times of scoring. All at the end, all during, or something more consistent. It will greatly help your players. Finally, be careful about introducing cards that only emerge late in the game that will come seemingly out of left field for first-time players.

3 Different Uses for Cards not Always Clear: This one surprised me, but nonetheless, it was a common point of confusion. In 7 Wonders you draft 1 card every round for one of three uses:

  • Discard for 3 Gold
  • Play it/build it for its purpose
  • Tuck it under your board to complete a single stage of your wonder.

The first two weren’t that difficult, but the third one confused the hell out of people. I had one friend simply not build his wonder because he couldn’t quite grasp the point. He’s not stupid, it just didn’t make sense to him so he gave up. And sadly (for me), he still won.

Another friend struggling with the concept at one point said he just didn’t draft a card. “You have to,” we said. I then repeated the rule and his eyes glazed over a bit. This same friend did an identical thing playing my new prototype Molly’s Last Hope. In MLH, you play a card every turn for one of 3 purposes:

  • Play it for its action
  • Discard to move a squad
  • Discard to move a fleet

I’ve even had people be confused by the Plant versus Fertilize mechanic with Crop cards in Farmageddon.

The Lesson? Players around the world are used to play a card for its action. You have a card, it does a thing, I play it to do the thing. Players are also used to discarding a card as an alternate. If you don’t want to use it, discard it for a less optimal path (usually). But the idea of discarding it for another action, something other than a trade? Be careful.

This won’t be immediately evident to players. In fact, it might be downright confusing. The takeaway is to use these alternate actions sparingly or to make them as cohesive and similar as possible. Perhaps bake them into a card’s action choices or even use another component. For example, what if 7 Wonders had these two for its discard choices:

  • Discard to take 3 Gold
  • Discard to place a Build token on one stage of your wonder.

Would that second one be less confusing? I’m not sure, but that’s my alternate suggestion.

Multi-Use, Multi-Timed Actions are Easily Overlooked: There are many cards in the later rounds that have an immediate action (i.e. acquire X gold per X things) and an end of game action (i.e. acquire X points per X things). These were constantly missed by folks, regardless of reminders, because the notion that multiple things would occur at different points in time just completely went over some heads. I had some people play the same type of card multiple times and at the end they’d say “Wait…do I get gold for these? Crap! I didn’t get any gold!”

The lesson? Be careful with actions that fire at multiple times. Be careful about using a very similar UI for the different actions. After all, other than knowing the rule, there’s nothing on the card that indicates “gold now, points later.” Casual gamers have a difficult time thinking about everything to which they’ve just been introduced. A game that forces them to consider the NOW and the LATER, especially when that LATER is uncertain, is difficult.

These are just a few of the things that popped up while playing 7 Wonders. Interestingly enough, everyone loved it after the first play and wanted to play again. Clearly the game is great! What examples did I miss? What lessons from other popular games should we consider?

Posted in Blog | Tagged 7 wonders game design, drafting, great game, | 12 Replies

Teeny Tiny Awesome Games

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Please tell me you’ve heard of Love Letter. Everyone is talking about it. The game features 16 cards, plays up to 4, and plays in about 20 minutes. It’s a micro-game and it has everyone in a flurry. It is this year’s “deckbuilder!” like craze in that everyone wants a piece of it. Perhaps for good reason?

I’ve been obsessed with designing a really simple card-only game for a month or so now. The reasoning is less Love Letter, which I haven’t yet played, but more that I want to do something simple that is purely within my control. It can be nerve-wracking and exhausting to chase a publisher. It’s also expensive to make a game as big as Empire or even Farmageddon look good with art. My hope is to create something simple and delightful then put it on and not worry about it further. From time to time we must control our own destiny or GO INSANE.

What makes a simple game good? Hell, what makes a simple game? I think this goes beyond components, though that is a key, uh, component of this equation. Here is what I believe defines a simple game (Note: Not a “micro-game,” which isn’t what I’m creating):

  • Cost: The game should be under $20, ideally at $15 or less. This is the no evaluation, let’s do it purchasing point for consumers.
  • Length of Play: The game should play in 30 minutes or less. It should have that “let’s play again!” quality. People can play this 2-3 times over lunch.
  • Learning Complexity: Rules should be a few pages at most. Explaining the game should be 5 minutes or less.
  • Components: Ideally one component, often cards (as they fit in a small box and fit that cost requirement nicely). The number of cards should be around 52 to 100. A few counters are fine, but should be avoided if possible.
  • Play Complexity: The pacing must be fast and the difficulty of a player’s decision must not be too hefty. A player’s turn should consist of 1, maybe 2 Actions. Do this OR this. Card text should be minimal at most.

Now, that shouldn’t be too difficult, right? Honestly, I think it’s one of the most difficult problems before us as designers. How can we create something deep, simple, and cheap? To be honest, Farmageddon doesn’t meet this criteria. Turns are too complex, cards are too complex, and there’s too much going on.

My target game is none other than the beautifully wondrous Coloretto. I bought this game for inspiration a week ago and have already played it 14 times. It’s outstanding and delightful. It cost $15 at my FLGS no less and has been enjoyed by all of my friends, gamers, non-gamers, and even my hyper critical girlfriend! I’ll save you the Google search. Go buy it. Go on. I’ll wait.

Coloretto has a very small number of card types.

  • 7 Color cards, literally only distinguished by their numbers. Zero text. Zero symbols.
  • Wild cards. Can be used as any color card.
  • +2 cards. Worth 2 points apiece at the end.
  • The Last Round card. When drawn…it’s the last round.

Furthermore, on your turn you have 2 choices:

  1. Draw and place a card in a row. Any row, you just can’t have more than 3.
  2. Claim a row and all of its cards. Once you claim a row, you’re out for the round. Everyone will get 1 row.

This all builds into a simple scoring mechanic. You score your best 3 sets of color cards (their point values multiply based on how many you have). You lose points for any other sets outside of your best 3. Most points wins.

This game has been massively inspirational and as a result my design will be potentially derivative. But, it happens and my plan is to not copy Coloretto, but to learn from it, test, and emerge with something special of my own. There are a few key things I’m considering at the moment:

  • The importance of color. Deeply tying this property to all things, including scoring and how cards can be played.
  • Simple scoring, even simpler than Coloretto. Sum the numbers on your cards. That’s your score.
  • Simple actions, also baked into the color scheme mechanic. I’m a fan of Action driven games. See Farmageddon, Empire, Molly’s Last Hope. Without the complexity of combo play, this is greatly streamlined.
  • Up to 5 players. I’ve never designed a game for more than 4. I really want to include that 5th!
  • Cards only.

I have the outline for an initial design and mechanic. There’s some neat stuff that is definitely different from Coloretto. My hope is to build it out and self test to see how it goes. Look for updates here, as per usual.

What are some of your favorite simple or micro games? What games have inspired you lately? What are you working towards? Share below.

Posted in Blog | Tagged AEG, coloretto, , love letter, micro game, simple games, simplicity | 8 Replies

MLH: Testing and Iterating

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


First Pass Art for MLH

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I spent the majority of my Sunday and a bit of time on Saturday night making a complete pass for all the art for my new prototype, Molly’s Last Hope. I needed to put in so much effort for a few reasons.

  1. First and foremost, I’m making this game for a contest that’s due March 1. I don’t have time to NOT test the art as well.
  2. Because it’s a contest, I can’t use scribbles on index cards or borrow clip art. It needs to look respectable.
  3. Because I can’t draw, and funds are limited, I needed to work harder to find available art that worked.

Luckily, the internet is a fantastic place. I used two sites to help me source the art for my cards:

  • Game Icons
  • The Noun Project

Both of these sites provide hundreds of free, quality, and legal icons/symbols to use for games and other projects. I used them for the symbols, then worked with a friend, Chevee Dodd, to create backgrounds and provide other input. I’m not a great graphic designer and I need a lot of help using Photoshop.

Quick note on Photoshop: You can obtain a free and legal version of older Adobe products from their site here.

I’m really happy with the result of my work. Now, I just need to test it to ensure the game is great and worth submitting AND the art supports it. I thought I’d walk you through a handful of cards and dice symbols that I’ve created for the game.

Fleet Cards: Both players have one of these. This denotes where your Fleet is currently in Orbit, which determines what cards you can play and to what Territories. Below is the Insurrection Fleet. Note the black triangle in the corner. This is the symbol for “Fleet” for the Action cards. I put it here to provide a quick association for players.

Territory Cards: A grid of 9 of these form the Planet Board.

Battle Maps: On the backs of every Territory cards there is a Battle Map. When a Battle occurs on a Territory, players use the Battle Map to quickly build the site of the battle. The Battle Maps also indicate rule changes to provide variety. This is the map for the City (Territory Card at the top of the post).

Action Dice: In Battle, players roll 1-3 custom Action dice. These dice indicate the Actions, including Movement, Suppression, or Firing. Note the numbers in the bottom right corners — these are used both for Movement AND when initiating a Spider Drop (i.e. orbital paratroopers).

Combat Dice: When Firing on an enemy soldier, roll to see if you miss, Hit, or have a Critical Hit (for Cover).

Action Cards: On their turns, players will player or Discard an Action card. If they play the Action Card, they use the Action on the bottom of the card. If they discard it, they can move their Fleet once, or move one Squad on the Planet once. The first two cards are Confederation cards. The last one is for the Insurrection player.

Card Back: Finally, this is the back of the card.

I’m going to print out a copy and sleeve it around regular cards so I can begin testing the art. If it works? I’m going to put in the time to convert the cheap placeholder diagrams in my rules to use these more final ones. I’m most excited to use my beloved corgi-filled Hyperbole Games logo on the box.

Wish me luck! Thoughts?

Posted in Games | Tagged 2 player game, game icons, graphic design, , molly's last hope, noun project, tactics game | 3 Replies

Away to the Last Planet

Folks often stress the importance of mechanics and note that “presentation isn’t everything.” Rightfully so, but when a prototype like Jay Treat’s Lost Planet comes along, the presentation alone piqued my curiosity and more than once has gotten me to ask “what is that?” Jay kindly wrote this post to dive deeper into the game and I couldn’t be more excited. If the picture above doesn’t get you to ask for more details, you’re a boring gamer!

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

In November, I wrote about a StarCraft deck-building game that I’d brought to Metatopia and was a spectacular failure. I mentioned that I would continue to try to make a StarCraft-inspired tabletop game but that I wasn’t sure it would end up in the form of a card game. Something that kept coming back to me as I considered possibilities was trying to somehow capture the dexterity element of the video game, that is the ability to click quickly between units and command a large army across the map while continuing to develop your resource and unit production.

I enjoy flicking games like Crokinole and Elk Fest, and am excited about recent nerdy advances in the genre like Ascending Empires and Catacombs. Similarly, there’s great potential demonstrated by Micro Mutants (formerly X-Bugs). Ultimately, I decided that Micro Mutants is already practically StarCraft with a bug theme in place of space and far too good to warrant recreating. Flicking might still be an option, but my brief exploration of the idea hinted that it probably isn’t the right fit. The common conflict between precise flicking and hard flicking, combined with the need to evaluate a turn by the final result and not what may or may not have happened during the split-second the discs were ricocheting around is a bit of a turn-off.

I still wanted something very tactile, something that really takes advantage of the physical nature of the game and lets players get really hands-on with their zerglings and zealots. What if you could place units on the table and move them about in some intuitive manner? How do you handle how far a unit can move without the awkward rulers of so many miniature wargames (or the patented Attacktix system)?

My solution was to create playing pieces with physical properties that defined as many of their characteristics as possible. Their length determines how quickly the unit moves and their ends are unique so that you can only build a zergling from a breeding pool… or another zergling. Since moving each piece every turn would be a pain, you can ‘advance’ a chain by adding a unit of the same type to the end of it, effectively replicating movement and replacement of the old unit.

I was aiming to keep things as simple as possible, so originally each unit just has a static number to represent its prowess in combat. When two or more enemy units overlap, they each deal their damage to each other. I think I’d been planning for damage to last between rounds at that time, which gets tricky when you advance a unit. Do you move the damage up the chain?

I did a Versus Self test and quickly learned that the game was deterministic. With nothing random, every game would play out exactly the same once players figured out the optimal setup. Different strategies would require different counter-strategies, but I’ve never been interested in recreating Chess.

I needed variance and added it in two places: The proportion of gas and minerals available at each resource site became a die roll; You can’t always rely on the same strategy since some require more minerals or more gas. I also added dice to combat.

Each unit attacks with so many dice (to show how effective an attacker it is) and requires higher or lower results to be damaged (to show how big/armored it is). I played this version against the skilled and patient Mr. Edwards of Board Game Reviews by Josh. It was much better and validated the direction I was going in. We identified a few hurdles in the game system and a whole lot of balance issues. For instance, air units were far too easy to build and invalidated any ground strategy that didn’t lean heavily on ranged units.

You can see Zerg and Protoss forces pictured above. I waited to work on the Terrans because I didn’t want to make any more pieces than I had to; these things take an unholy amount of work to make. That forces me to be more conservative with physical iteration on the game, something I’m usually quite liberal about. This test went well enough that I started the design (both game- and graphic-) for the Terrans.

But that night, I was kept up by concerns about the current dice system. While it’s possible to make tough units with weak attacks, vulnerable with weak, and tough with strong, an idiosyncracy of my solution (putting defense values on the dice images themselves) meant that I couldn’t make vulnerable units with strong attacks. There was also no distinction, other than numbers, between normal ground units and armored ones; something the video game makes a pretty big deal of, but I’d accepted as another abstraction from the original.

Except that it’s harder to make Rock-Paper-Scissors triangles of units when units are just big or small. So I kept thinking about simple ways to represent that until I realized that I could do it very easily with custom dice. Each unit is destroyed when hit with a number of a certain symbol: ground units would have an infantry symbol, armored units a tank symbol and air units an aircraft symbol. There would be four types of dice. Zerglings get green dice which are very good against ground units, potentially useful against armor and useless against air. Immortals would get red dice which are good against both ground and armor units. Photon Cannons would get blue dice which are good against air. And all the ranged units that can hit both ground and air units would get white dice which aren’t great against everything but are never useless.

Realizing your game needs custom dice isn’t ideal the week before a convention, but fortunately the game design community is full of awesome people like Grant and Jason who got my back. I’ll be stickering the morning of Unpub 3, but my game will also be at its (theoretical) best.

I’m excited to show Last Planet off and see if it stands up to more diverse opinion. It’s still very raw and will require months and months of iteration to balance, but so far it seems like I’m on the right path to make a legitimately tactile experience that may just do StarCraft’s theme justice.

What did you think about Lost Planet? Leave comments and ask questions below. 

Molly’s Last Hope

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I spent a few months “in the weeds” of brainstorming, design, and thought, not emerging with much more than frustration and a pile of bad ideas. A month ago I wrote about one of those ideas, Insurrection. The idea had some merits, but I hit a wall regarding the team mechanics and the combat mechanic and shelved it.

Fast forward a few weeks. I bought several sets of assorted wooden game pieces for about $2 apiece from the Fantasy Flight holiday sale. I also read Paddy Griffith’s Napoleonic Wargaming for Fun while stuck waiting for my car to be fixed.

I really wanted to make a table top tactics game.  I  also really wanted to make something with the wooden pieces, so I sat down at my kitchen table, grabbed some index cards, some dice, and just started…playing.

If you look on the top picture, you’ll see there’s no board or grid. Like a traditional table top game, I was using simple rulers to lay stuff out and players would place 1 inch wooden pieces (roads from Catan) to measure out their movement. Ultimately a friend said it was tedious, so I shifted to a simple hex grid using Heroscape pieces.

The game that emerged was a simple, squad level tactics game involving dice. Players would roll a number of d6, which would indicate how far the player could move, whether they could shoot, or suppress the enemy. The board only contained blank spaces and cover, the latter provided a slight advantage against being shot.

Because the tactics game used dice exclusively (i.e. public information), I was able to play against myself over and over. The result is that I slowly built upon these very basic concepts and iterated in a way that made sense. I added Flanking to improve your hit chances. I added the ability to charge an enemy to oust an opponent out of cover. I added a way for drop troops to enter the battle randomly. I also was able to quickly tweak and improve the basic probability of hits and things like that, which meant I was able to bring the game to a solid state without having to waste a friend/tester’s time.

At this point I had a quick, super distilled, dice-driven tactics game. It wasn’t meaty enough to be its own game, however, and I didn’t see much point, at least in this stage, of beefing it up on its own. It seemed to defeat the point and the world doesn’t need me to create a Memoir ’44 clone. I realized I needed more game, then thought back to Insurrection. My main problems with that game were the team mechanics and the missing battle mechanic. I had an idea to combine Insurrection’s meta-game, use this battle game for its battles, and remove the team elements.

Insurrection had a few elements I really enjoyed. The map was a randomized grid of simple territory cards. But, instead of needing to memorize or read rules for the territories, I baked the functionality into the cards. For example, I can’t drop orbital troopers onto the Mountain or Forest territories. This info was just listed on the cards with a simple icon. This gave me territory gameplay without forcing players to memorize the rules of every territory like one must do in games like Memoir ’44. 

Insurrection also had a nifty mechanic regarding fleets orbiting this grid, which enhanced or restricted the cards you could play. Ultimately, the territories and orbit rules were smoothly incorporated to make card play varied and interesting.

Therefore, I fused the battle system with Insurrection. I realized I could create varied battle map layouts. When players fight over a territory, they flip the territory card to see the battle map layout. They then quickly build this on the battle board (takes less than a minute) and fight it out to resolve the combat.

Below you can see the 3×3 grid of territory cards on the left with a battle setup on the right.

To me, this presented an interesting combination of features. On one side, players have a more strategic game of quick card play. Players play cards to move their units, land new units, shift their fleets, and hinder their opponent’s efforts. Then, when a battle takes place, players quickly build a simple map and fight to resolve the actions. Every battle can have a unique and thematic layout as well as objectives based on the site. For example, assaulting a command center could and should play out differently than a quick skirmish in the forest.

Aside from my own tests against myself, I’ve only tested the game a single time so far. My friend really enjoyed the premise of the mechanics and we had fun playing a few rounds. I made some easy tweaks as a result of the test and I’m ready for a second test. My hope is to develop the game sufficiently in the next few months to enter it into The Game Crafter’s Map Builder Design Challenge in March. The requirement is that you have some form of dynamic or randomized map and this game has a few.

Beyond that, who knows? This game is more of a personal project, an itch I wanted to scratch. Whereas I wanted a publisher for Farmageddon and Empire from the start, here I mostly want to make a neat tactics game. If it leads somewhere, awesome! I also hope to enter it into the PPP once the design is stabilized and solid.

For now, I would love your input and feedback. What do you think about the concept and the ideas? You can read a full set of rules here and all are allowed to comment. The rules are still new, but I have created rough diagrams and examples for most concepts and have had 3 proofreaders.

Thoughts? Thanks for reading!

Design with Purpose

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Every idea sounds great in your head, but as soon as pen hits paper and a prototype is formed, the game is just missing something. It’s not what you wanted or it isn’t what you promised your testers. Where do you get off the track?

The reality is, the game as it existed in your head was less about the nuts and bolts of the mechanics, but more about the experience, the setting, and the feeling. Granted, I can’t speak on behalf of your mind, but this is often how mine works. I think about the feelings of my players, the tension, the laughter, and the epic moments. I think about the vibe the game provides and from this I derive purpose.

Many folks constantly debate the theme versus mechanics method of design origination, but I often pick a premise or a feeling and I try to create mechanics and a theme that support that. I created Farmageddon to be light, relatively easy to learn, and something that caused people to laugh. Laughter was more important than strategy. Laughter was the purpose. With Empire I wanted a light to medium weight strategy game with an interesting battle mechanic. Whenever I received feedback regarding its supporting mechanics, I always weighed them against the battle. How does this modify the battle? The battle was my purpose.

Designing with purpose is something you must do. Focus is one of the key elements of great designers, and focusing towards a greater goal is essential for success. I review a lot of rules and designers for my peers and quite often you see a conflict between what the designer hopes to accomplish and what their game is actually doing.

The designer will tell me that he is trying to create a deep, strategic game, yet his game is a real-time dice drafting festival. Deeply strategic and real time greatly conflict. If his goal is deep and strategic, if that’s his purpose, then the mechanics must be adjusted. The phrase “know thyself” somewhat comes into play as you need to be honest with yourself about your true goals and hopes for the project.

To progress in the right direction, you can ask yourself some basic, generic questions, as well as ones more catered to your project.

  • Who do I want to play this game? Age, gender, and gamer skill should all be considered. Cost is also a factor. Don’t expect parents to pay $60 for a children’s game!
  • Why will people play this game? What hole does it fill in someone’s collection? What niche can you fill?
  • When will people play this game? Is this a lunch game? An all day game fest? Something to play after dinner at a Christmas party?

The above questions are rather basic. They’ll let you get a feel for things like number of players, complexity of components, length of gameplay, difficulty of setup, and other things that might be listed on your box.

Your game will also need questions specifically for it.

  • How will people react to events in your game? Will they laugh? Will it cause them to think, analyze, and ponder? Will there be a great tension?
  • How interactive is your experience? Is the game purely social with accusations and bluffing? Can people steal from each other or declare attacks? Or is it a game of friendly trading? Perhaps it’s one of sly resource manipulation  or completely a multiplayer solitaire affair? You need to know how you want your players interacting with each other as this should guide almost every decision you make!
  • How much luck will your game feature? Should luck determine the victor or just influence his decisions? Should there be no luck? If so, is everything public, or is the game’s variance driven by player behavior (i.e. dynamic markets, auctions, accusations)?

If you take the time to answer these questions, you should also diligently adhere to the answers unless your answers change. If you want a low luck experience, don’t add dice. Or, don’t add dice that can’t be mitigated at the very least. If you want low interactivity, don’t make trading a core element of your game.

Measure twice, cut once! Sit back and think about what you hope to accomplish with your game. Create an experience with the right components, elements, and vibe such that everything supports this premise. Design purposefully and you may find your games arrive at a solid state more quickly with less fluff and more fun.

What questions do you ask yourself at the outset of a project? What helps you focus? What are some of your common distractions or hold ups?

Within Your Reach

Post by: Grant Rodiek

If your mother was anything like mine, you may have heard the phrase: “Don’t worry about what they are doing. Worry about what you’re doing!” We tend to over think and overreach towards the things outside our control instead of focusing on what we CAN control.

That’s the silly side of human nature — chasing what we can’t manipulate instead of firmly gripping what we can. In discussing this with a friend, we realized there was a simple blog post to be had. After all, so much of our time as designers is spent fretting over publisher feedback, play tester feedback, reviews, BGG comments/ratings, and more. It’ll kill you if you let it.

As a designer, your first and only task is to focus on the things over which you have direct control. Not everyone will like your game, as people have opinions, tastes, and preferences. But, reasonable players, who are the only ones with whom we shall concern ourselves, will appreciate a basic average of quality and craftsmanship. Your goal should be that the worst review you get says “It’s a good game, just not for me.”

The question then is “What can I as a designer control?” For a moment, let’s pretend the publisher won’t change every little detail. And for some designers, who use Print-On-Demand and Kickstarter self-publishing methods, this is an accurate assumption as YOU are the publisher.

Things firmly under your control include:

Game Length: One of the first decisions you should make is about the length of game you’re targeting. This is a front of box detail that will greatly dictate who buys your game and when it’s played. Aside from absurd analysis paralysis folks, this is under your control with the game’s end condition, length and complexity of player turns, overall complexity of decision making, and more.

Quality of Rules: The rules are a publisher’s, player’s, and reviewer’s first exposure to your game. It is the foundation of their entire experience. If your rules are poorly written, poorly laid out, and of insufficient quality for explanation, you are unlikely to have happy players. Take the time to proofread, test, and iterate. You control this. If you have confusing elements, fiddly exceptions, or pockets of “whaaa?” step back, refine the mechanic, and try again.

Theme: The quality of your theme is very much within your power as a designer in a few ways. Firstly, the quality of its integration. Does it fit, or did you just tack-on steam punk to make it more marketable? Do the art, text, and components reinforce the premise of your game? Also, is the theme appropriate for your audience? If you’re targeting a broad gender neutral market or a younger audience, half-naked females (I hate this cliche) aren’t appropriate.

Theme is most assuredly a preference. Some prefer elves to space marines. BUT. How appropriate and well-suited it is executed is in your court.

Number of Supported Players: One of the first questions a designer must answer is “how many people will play this game?” Although it is tempting to expand what you say the number of players is, you need to do what’s right for the product and your customers.  2-6 players looks way more marketable on a box label, but if 3-5 is correct, you need to say 3-5.

In addition to your honesty, it’s also within your power to do the design work to make your intentions a well-executed reality. Modifying the rules and content to support that extreme player number is a pain, but you never want a review to ding you for bad player numbers.

Art and Layout: As noted above, art is purely suspect. However, there is a quality bar that you can avoid, namely, does it resemble a piece of work made by a child using MS Paint? The layout of your board, cards, and rules is also very controllable. You can prove that it works through testing and iteration. Furthermore, there are best practices like using clean, easy to read typefaces, using a sufficient font size (6 point font is a no), avoiding distracting or aggravating colors, and putting things together in a way that lends itself to how people read and process information.

If all else fails, blatantly lean on the best layout work of some of the well-established publishers. If you know a game has a great card layout, use it. Start from there.

Mental Accounting Required: One of the things most designers overlook, especially on initial prototypes, is that players can only account for so many things. If they are holding 5 cards, each with 6 pieces of information, and must examine a board, and a reference board, and dice, and 6 opponents, their heads will explode. Focus your design such that the key elements towards making decisions are the ones in play. Strip away the rest.

Things firmly outside your control include:

One’s appreciation or fondness for your mechanic: Some players hate deckbuilding games. Or dice, or randomness at all for that matter. Take-that can be hugely controversial and some people absolutely despise direct interaction between players. But, for all those examples I listed, there are more people who love them. Hell, there are people who love Monopoly and the original Risk. Do your best to focus on those who might love your game, not those who absolutely won’t.

Empire has random turn order. This will probably be noted in every review of the game. But, those who play it find it’s not a problem and that it works for the game. So it goes.

Bad Players: You simply cannot count on player skill. If you create a game that has strategy, depth, and at times complex decisions, some people will simply play your game badly. For example, Trajan hurt my skull and I’m not really inclined to play it again. Between the mancala bowl puzzle and the broad range of choices, I couldn’t quite make heads or tails of things. The game isn’t bad, it just wasn’t for me. I was bad at the game.

One of the things that was most difficult to balance for Empire is that some factions are less obvious and straightforward. Skilled players had a fair and balanced experience. Poor players would be trounced by the more straightforward factions. You can deliberately choose to widen or narrow the skill requirement, but at the end of the day, some will simply play poorly…and many will curse you for their mistakes.

A Group of Random Players: If you’ve attended a board game convention and played with a random assortment of people, you may notice the game experience varies wildly than when you play with close friends. For better or worse, this will affect everyone’s opinion of your game and you can’t quite control that.

For example, I played a very interactive, take-that game at KublaCon. It was a 6 player game with me and one other solo player, then a boyfriend/girlfriend couple and a father/son duo. The game quickly became tedious and not fun because the two couples played as a team, so I was a solo player versus two combined factions. It wasn’t fun or fair and I don’t look on the game experience fondly.

On the opposite side, I notice when playing Farmageddon at GenCon that some children ALWAYS pick on their sibling or their parents. They aren’t playing “to win” per se, but they are playing for schadenfreude and the poking often accompanied with families. This didn’t ruin a parent’s experience — they are used to it! But some siblings grew VERY angry. When asked if they want to play my game again, I would wager many would shout “No!”

Your game simply might falter in a convention demo or at a random game night. It happens.

Did I pick all the right elements? Did I miss something? Do you disagree with me? Let’s chat in the comments.