How to Teach Your Game


Post by: Jay Treat

While few teachers get the respect or compensation that would support this claim, teaching isn’t easy and it’s not something most people can do well without some training. And yet, you can’t get people to play games with you—or sell your game design—if you can’t teach them how to play it. The good news is, unlike flying a plane, teaching isn’t an all-or-nothing skill and you can teach even if you’re not an expert. The bad news is, teaching a game poorly falls somewhere between boring and frustrating, which reduces the chances those players will let you teach them more games in the future. And certainly doesn’t qualify as putting your best foot forward when trying to impress a publisher.

I can help.

Teaching, like so many things, is all about empathy. The more you can put yourself in your students’ shoes, the better you can teach them. It’s all about knowing what they could understand, what they do understand, and what questions they’re keeping to themselves. If you know all of that, you’ll know what to explain next and, if you know your students, how best to explain it.

I wrote about a few methods to become more empathetic that I recommend you check out before continuing. Some of them are pretty out-there, but these methods are directly applicable to other aspects of game design, and life in general:

  • Compartmentalization
  • Self-Assimilation

You might also check out Games to Play to Become a Better Game Designer, a geeklist with several entries that will help you become more empathetic, and thus, a better teacher.

As with everything, there’s no one right way to teach. Duh. What I share now is my method, what makes sense to me, and what seems to work in my experience.

Start at the Top

Starting with details, in medias res, is disorienting. It can be a powerful tool for storytelling, but the point of teaching a game is understanding, so we want to start from a bird’s eye view. What is this game about? “It’s a trick-taking game with spies” and “It’s a cooperative game where players are trying to escape a crumbling space station under attack from aliens” are good starts. “You’re bidding not to take numbers” is not.

The first two take advantage of things the players already know to jump-start the process. Players know what trick-taking games are, and they know what spies are, and they’re already starting to imagine the combination and building expectations. If what you tell them next fits those expectations, you’re going to see a lot of nodding heads and the rest will come fairly easily.

I’ve had more than a few games explained to me that made no sense until the teacher was finished and someone asked, “Wait, is this game… cooperative?” Men assume unknown people are male, people assume the “Spot” you’re talking about is a dog, and gamers assume your game is competitive. It’s what makes a game different that you need to call out immediately, because everything you leave out or save for later will be filled in with default assumptions until you do, and that can seriously throw people off the scent.

No Thanks! is a game where players are trying to keep their scores as low as possible by guessing what the breaking point is for each number card that goes around. You spend a limited personal supply of chips to avoid taking a number, but eventually you’ll run out of chips and be forced to take whatever comes your way. The only way to get more chips is to take a number card (all of which are bad, but some are much worse than others). Each turn, you’re evaluating whether you’d rather pass on a card or suck it up and take it now to improve your future standing. In essence, “You’re bidding not to take numbers…” but that statement only makes sense now that you’ve got the big picture.

Get to the Heart of it

You’ve got the very high-level concept of the game in place. Players are looking at the game components and starting to predict how they relate to that, how they might be used, what kinds of things they’re going to get to do. Now is when you hook them. Give them the heart of the game. Tell them what makes the game tick; how they’re going to be spending the next hour.

“Each player shares one of the six factions vying for control of the city with another player. Each round, you’ll have to work with one of your opponents in order to score. You’ll deploy agents from all the factions, trying to play the ones that are good for you when they’re best for you, and the ones that are bad for you, when they’re least bad. Scheming, collusion and manipulation are your bread and butter.”

“The space station has been messed up after the alien ship neutralized it with their lasers. We’re trying to navigate the twisted wreckage while we look for the escape teleporter. We’ll need to open these tech modules to find it, and our Mechanic and Engineer will be patching the station up to form rooms so that we can access them. We’ve got to be quick, though, because one of the station’s systems fails every turn and aliens are boarding from these four locations. The Marine is the only one that can fight them back. And its up to the Smuggler to go outside in her space suit to access the modules we don’t have time to rearrange. We’ve got to work together or we’re all doomed, and so are our families back on Earth.”

What’s the Point

Explain the goal. If it’s simply to earn the most points, say that. It may be obvious, but it’s too quick not to say when the alternative is confusion.

With all these high-level items laid out, you can explain turn structure, the component lexicon, and any other must-know items in whatever order feels natural.

Turn Structure

Assuming players take turns (if it’s real-time, you should’ve mentioned that in the introduction), are there rounds and phases? Is there a strict phase structure, or can players do different things at different times? Overview the whole structure before detailing any one part.

“We take turns individually until someone wins. On your turn, you can research, build, or research and build.”

“Each round will have three phases. The first phase is upkeep where we all move our bits along this track. Next is the action phase, where we’ll each take one of three actions in turn order. Finally we resolve conflicts. If the game hasn’t ended, we start a new round.”

Notice how I don’t describe the individual actions just yet. Think of it as if you were looking at a map of america on the computer, and it’s loading in via nine chunks in a 3×3 grid. Would you rather see Alaska load in full detail first, down to the smallest roads and such before you see Montana or Oregon, or would you rather see the country’s full outline and all the states first before you start to see more and more details as they load? You might prefer the former if you already understand the layout of the country and are looking for the path between Skagway and Victoria BC, but players learning a new game don’t have that layout in their heads yet, nor would they even know to look for the game’s Skagway at this point.

Component Lexicon

There are a few games whose pieces are so few or so self-explanatory, you don’t need to explain what they are, but most games require a little show and tell. “These cubes are resources, the meeples are workers, the red number on the cards is ‘power’ and these three symbols indicate whether the card’s animal, vegetable or mineral.” For games with a large dictionary of symbols, like Race for the Galaxy, what each and every symbol means is the last thing you want to teach your players, but you still want to give them the basics. “Each card can be played for its cost or discarded to pay the cost of another card. The hex shows how many victory points it’s worth in play. Down the left side are abilities that will trigger during different phases of each round.”

For Dominion: “These are victory point cards which you’ll earn during the game and will determine the winner at the end. These are action cards; you can only play one action each turn normally. These are gold cards which you can combine to buy new cards. All of them have a cost, here, and an effect/value here.”

The Rest

Once the only layer left is the nitty-gritty details, share them.

Or don’t, depending on how nitty and/or gritty they are.


Abstract games are harder to learn because all the rules are new, and will seem arbitrary at first. Games with a strong theme (more specifically, games whose theme is integrated seamlessly into the rules) are easier to learn because you’re not learning new things, you’re just mapping old things together. If humans move 1 space each turn, but horses move 2 spaces, players will remember that because they already know that horses are faster. Dissonance will make learning even harder than arbitrary rules: Humans are size 3, but faeries are size 5… makes no sense; everyone knows faeries are smaller than humans!

While teaching a game, the rules and theme are already in place, and you have no control over how resonant they are, but you can capitalize on resonance to help you teach. Why can’t monsters heal while occupying Tokyo? Obviously they’re on full-rampage and there’s no time to sit and relax for a while. If you offer that bit of flavor, that window into the game-world, while explaining this seemingly arbitrary exception, more players will understand and remember it.

Omit Details

Sometimes a friend asks if you’ve heard from Bob Shmacky and you’re like, “Who’s Bob Shmacky?” and he responds, “You know. Bob!” And then you instantly know he’s talking about your mutual friend, Bob. If he had just said ‘Bob’ in the first place, there would have been no confusion, but the extra detail triggered your brain to expect him to be talking about someone new.

You may be tempted to explain a detail that’s relevant to what you’re talking about now to get it out of the way. Perhaps you’re explaining the flow of the game from setup, to the round and turn structure to the end of the game, all chronologically. While there are players who refuse to start playing a game until they know every rule, no matter how small, most players would rather start as soon as they have the gist, expecting for the rules they just heard to “click” once they’ve taken a turn or so. You can reiterate how things work as they come up in the game and then explain the little details and exceptions. Most people need hands-on practice to internalize a concept, and most need some amount of repetition of explanation. This method does both.

Ask for Questions

The surest way to make sure no one asks you questions, and that at least some of your students remain confused about something, is to imply that only stupid people would need to ask questions. That sounds like something you’d have to actively do and easy to avoid, but just the opposite is true. If you don’t explicitly ask for questions, or if you tie questions to misunderstanding, or if you look at a specific person when you ask, you’re doing it. Try to phrase it in a way that suggests of course there are questions. “What did I miss?” “Can I clarify anything?” “I went through combat pretty quickly. Was anything unclear?”

An Example

From start to finish, here’s how I might explain The Last Planet.

The Last Planet is a tactical tile-laying game with a StarCraft theme. Each player is one of three alien races that just discovered the last inhabitable planet in their war-ravaged galaxy. You will establish your presence on this planet by building outward from your starting base. Each tile represents a structure or unit you can build. They have a cost to build and you can only build a tile if it fits against a piece you already have. These worker units will help you gather resources from these natural resource areas, so that you can build your army and conquer the planet.

On your turn, you’ll gather resources first, then adjust or advance any number of tile chains, and finally resolve combat. In the first phase, take one mineral for each base you own, and then each of your workers can take any resource from a natural resource area it’s touching.

A ‘chain’ is one or more tiles in a line, not counting your base. In the second phase, you can adjust the outermost unit of each chain by rotating it against the next piece. You can advance a chain by buying a new tile that fits and placing it at the end of the chain (and you can create new chains by attaching it to your base). You can also advance a chain by picking up the unit at the start of the chain and placing it at the end, but that breaks the chain from the base which means you can’t buy new tiles at the end of that chain unless it’s reconnected to your base.

When you’re done moving your units, we’ll resolve conflicts in groups. Choose any group of enemy units that overlap your own to handle first. The effects of combat are simultaneous, but the order you resolve dice rolls in could affect your choices. Choose one of your units and decide which of its attack dice you’re rolling against the enemy units its touching. Then your opponent will do the same and so on, until every unit in the group has attacked. For each die result against a unit that matches its defense, it takes one damage. Remove each unit that’s taken as much damage as it has defense.

You win when all your opponents’ bases are destroyed. You may concede at any time; remove all your pieces from play when you do.


I’m pretty sure it’s harder to teach how to teach games than to teach games, so I’m confident there must be questions. What do I need to explain differently or in more detail? Did I skip something important? Do you smell contradictions I can try to clear up?

How do you teach games? I’m sure my perspective is neither the only perspective, nor the best. I hope you’ll share yours below for the benefit of the other readers.

Contest: Game Classic Remix

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I had an idea in my head for days and I really wanted to do something with it. On a whim (okay, I was bored in a meeting), I Tweeted the idea. The response was surprisingly positive.

I love design competitions and thanks to the response, I’m going to host my first one. Welcome to the Game Classic Remix!

Here is your challenge at a high level: Select a classic game and using only its components, design a new game. Watch a video if you hate reading!

Let’s walk through this with some detail.

Classic Game: I mean a game that everyone has played. Games that are ubiquitous and a part of our child hood. I mean games like RiskMonopoly, Stratego, Uno, Diplomacy, Life, Battleship, Clue, Go, and more. If Parker Brothers had something to do with it, it’s probably classic. I’ll also allow games that are simply ancient and from a different time.

Only Its Components: You can only use the components that ship with the game. You DO NOT need to use all of its components, but you cannot suddenly add a new board or introduce dice to Stratego. This is a limitation and a part of the challenge. Now, there are some clarifications.

Some of these games have multiple versions and have changed. For example, you can swap out the plastic soldiers seen in current editions of Risk and instead use more generic colored cubes. In Monopoly, you can ignore the bowler hat and battleship in lieu of colored pawns. The key is, remain within the intent of the component.

I had someone ask if he could use 6 coins for an Uno remix and to that I say sure. I strongly emphasize you stick with the core, but if you need a token or two to mark something, then go ahead.

Design a New Game: The task is not to create Monopoly with a twist or the shorter version of Risk. You are to make a new game. In the terms of the PC modding community, you’re crafting a total conversion. Remove the parts, switch them up, and send out an entirely new Billion Dollar Man.

Here is a little bit of fine print.

  1. The game must be playable in 60 minutes or less. I’m going to play these over lunch at work. They need to be brief!
  2. If you use a relatively common classic, I’ll have a copy. You will only need to deliver a set of basic rules so that I can assemble and play the game. By relatively common classic, I mean the games you can get at Target for $15. If you pull out something crazy, you’ll need to mail me a copy. You will NOT be judged on the quality of your rules. They need to be legible and they need to make sense, but we won’t ding you here.
  3. The game can be a solo game, competitive game, or cooperative game. I have no limits or restrictions on player numbers, though I’d ask you not to push 8 or so players unless your game is amazing. If you’re curious, my group is often 4-5 players.
  4. Your entry is due October 1st. This gives you two months and shouldn’t interfere with your GenCon crunching. My guess is that, like me, you’ve been busting your butt to get your games ready for GenCon. I see this competition as a fun brain teaser leading into the winter for your post-GenCon needs.
  5. I will play every submission at least once. If I receive 3 entries, it’ll be relatively easy to judge. I’m hoping for 10-15 (or more!). If that’s the case, we’ll play everything once, pick our favorites, then focus on the best. I’ll be playing with my typical groups who have a broad range of personalities. We like Euros, trashy games, story games, take-that, and more. There’s somebody in my group for your game. We’re pretty low-key and not terribly snobby.
  6. If you have a question, my is always a few clicks away!

A note on the due date: Feel free to submit your idea sooner. In fact, this is VERY much appreciated as it means we can start testing the games. I just don’t want to lose entrants with a strict time frame.

How will we judge the winner? A few basic qualities. Firstly, does the game meet the guidelines set above? Secondly, is the game FUN? This is the most important aspect. Thirdly, how much does the game blow our minds? This is what really excites me. When someone sits in front of a game of Risk, they have decades of expectations, nostalgia, memories, rage, and more. What happens when we sit down and you flip all of this? That’s your challenge. Blow our minds and make something fun.

What happens if you win? Firstly, fame and glory will be yours! We shall celebrate you in the community and you can add this great victory to your resume. I wouldn’t be surprised if a chart topping pop song is created to immortalize you.

Secondly, I’ll work with you to develop the game. I’ll help you improve the rules, I’ll offer some graphics support, and I’ll generally do what I can to make it better (with you). Then I’ll send you a copy of your game from The Game Crafter or Print and Play Productions. It’s a small gesture, but it’ll be on me. You’re free to discard my assistance. I think I do some things well and can offer you assistance, but you can tell me to “pack sand” if you’re not interested.

We’ll also swap in some new art from and such to avoid legal issues. Plus, a new design deserves a new coat of paint! You will still own the design entirely. If you want to sell it on TGC, develop it further, pitch it, or Kickstart it, that’s your choice to make.

Here’s my really big idea that may or may not happen: If we have enough good ideas using the same game (ex: 5 people who make something using Risk), we can create a multi-game super pack. How cool would that be? 5 designers, 1 purchase? We’ll tuck that aside as we see how things develop.

What do I need from you? Nothing, at least not now. HOWEVER, if you intend to participate, let me know. Comments, an email, and Twitter are all valid ways to go about this. I’d love to see that this is actually going to go somewhere. I, for one, will be participating. My current idea is to use Risk, but I have some neat ideas for Monopoly as well. I love Stratego but worry the lack of components is a tinge inflexible for a new design.

So, you in? You with me? Let’s do this classy-like.

Good Theme

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Theme in board games is arguably the most misunderstood and conversational topics in our design space. Ignoring the “theme versus mechanics” approach to design argument, many designers, myself included, are constantly flustered and left head scratching when someone says one game is so thematic, yet another is soulless and empty. Or worse, the dreaded “the theme is pasted on” comment.

What does it mean for a game to be thematic? What are the components or decisions one needs to make to ensure he or she avoids the label of “abstract?” I have some ideas and after I share them, I’m curious to know what you think.

Your game should be a theme that people like. People love to joke “add zombies” when commenting on theme. And they are right.

In my experience, when someone says “this game has great theme,” what they are really saying is “This game happens to have a theme I enjoy.” I designed York from the ground up with Napoleonic Warfare guiding every decision. I know this time-period isn’t for everyone, but I feel it’s thematic.

One of my testers once told me the game was “rather abstract.” I had multiple phone calls with him discussing this, trying to get at the root of the problem. Eventually, I found out he just didn’t like the Napoleonic stuff. For a few months the game became the science fiction game Dawn Sector. Changing nothing other than the background story (i.e. instead of a civil war on a Russia-like continent it is factions fighting over a new planet), he suddenly said “great theme!”

People like Cthuhlu, zombies, mechs, super heroes and orcs. If you’re going for theme, if that is a goal, consider using a theme that is widely recognized as something theme-oriented people love. I’ll tell you right now, I’m the only person who considers York thematic as a Napoleonic game and that’s because I’ve read extensively on both the history and fiction of the time. It’s thematic to me. Were it zombies? My game would be more thematic. It’s science.

Have great art. I believe strongly that great art is essential for any game, but having great art strengthens a player’s thematic resonance with a game. Board games can and should present players with a story of sorts that is interactive. Imagery helps fill the pages of that story in your players’ heads.

Look at games like Mice and Mystics. There is so much art and it is so good that it just reinforces the thematic nature of the game. Your cards, board, box, and rules are all opportunities to begin the story that your players will experience.

Make sure your art is detailed. Create scenes, characters, and moments. For example, look at the detail on the soldier below, illustrated by John Ariosa. Look at his wrapped shoes and tattered cloak. Look at his beard with dabs of gray. Look at his eyes, on the verge of tears, and creases in his face. This guy has been through the ringer. He has a story.


Another game with outstanding art is Gubs from Gamewright. This game tells a story with every card.

On the other hand, here’s a card from Ginkopolis. Beautiful, but it’s just a building. I’m not sure what its story is or why I should care.

Games with theme have great art filled with great characters and moments.

Mechanics exist for a fictional reason. This is difficult to do, and may lead to a fiddly experience, but your mechanics should exist for a fictional reason. They need to be rooted in some sort of fiction or reality (if you’re creating a simulation). This might be a subtle difference.

  • Thematically bad: Players lose 1 coin every round to make the game harder.
  • Thematically good: Players lose 1 coin to pay rent every round. It costs money to live in NYC and create art.

That’s a lazy, quickly thrown together example but perhaps you get my point?

Sometimes this is something you handle in the conceptual stage of a game. Sometimes it is merely a layer you add while refining how to present the experience. Sometimes, for the sake of the experience, you need to create mechanics that may not be as fictionally rooted.

For example, I created a rule in York where players could not build forts on city tiles. This was needed for the fun of the game. However, it’s a bit strange fictionally. If not a fort, couldn’t militants fortify a street in a city? It happens in Les Miserable, right?

There are also cases where a mechanic exists for a fictional reason but the way in which you implement it causes some thematic disconnect. Again, in York, the guerrilla faction has the ability to essentially move units across the map rapidly. This is an abstraction of cave networks seen in places like Afghanistan and Vietnam, but also, it’s an abstraction of the notion that guerrilla militants are always where you least expect them. I think the effect is fictionally sound, but the step-by-step implementation is definitely off-putting to some. “Why can these guys teleport?” testers ask. Le sigh!

Here’s how I tend to go about this question for my games. I consider the setting, the actions someone in that setting would take, then I try to think of the simplest and most mechanically interesting way that could be presented. It’s a bit of a hybrid that I think serves me well, but also won’t earn me either thematic praise or thematic slams. I think I tend to fall in the middle?

It’s a slider. If you create something more for the story, you’ll probably earn more theme points. If you create something more for the mechanics, you’ll probably be less thematic. The goal is to hit the sweet spot of something that’s thematic, but also fun to play and easy to learn.

Give players a clearly established character or point of view. Make it clear through your rules/introduction and also the decisions a player makes that they are a character in the world. Give them a reasonable point of view.

In Ginkgopolis I’m apparently a city builder, but nothing about the minute to minute mechanics really reinforces this. It isn’t a great thematic connection.

But, in Farmageddon, I think it’s clear that every player is a farmer. Plant crops, harvest crops, screw with your neighbors. In Memoir ’44 you feel like a captain guiding your men. In Mice and Mystics you are one of the characters fighting through the story. In Modern Art, you are an art collector trying to profit from buying and selling works. I think Modern Art is actually really thematic, but it isn’t a “fun” theme and its art is a tinge dry, but man, you feel like an art buyer.

Give players a point of view that’s relevant, that’s backed up by the actions you give the player, and makes sense.

Use fun components. People love to rail against miniatures, but they work. So do custom dice, custom cut meeples, and anything remotely 3 Dimensional for your board (see: King of Tokyo). The more you can get away from bland cubes, the more toy-like an experience, the greater your chance for a thematic game.

I will argue that people who tend to be thematically oriented are also component fiends. Look at Fantasy Flight’s core consumer and you know what I’m talking about. Their production values are off the charts and they don’t release anything that’s remotely abstract.

Plaid Hat Games also takes their components and theme very seriously. Look at Mice and Mystics or City of Remnants. Tons of custom dice, miniatures, glorious art, and more.

If you take your theme seriously, be prepared for a bump in MSRP. Experiment with cool components. Find ways to go beyond the cube. One potential publisher for York suggested we use punchboard squares to represent units. For one, it helps on the price somewhat, but secondly, with every square we can draw the Unit. Think about how thematic and cool Smallworld is visually.

Here’s the Summary: Thematic games look great, are full of design elements driven by the setting and story more than mechanics and are typically about a theme loved by people who love theme.

What do you think?

Free Kickstarter Advice


Post by: Grant Rodiek

Kickstarter controversy is just silly lately. There are a handful of new consulting companies you can pay to help you with your campaign. Interestingly enough, I’ve watched a few of their own projects fail. So much for expertise? You have the $122,000 case of fraud where the guy just isn’t going to deliver the product. You have the boast of making a game for only $999! Plus, of course, the Kickstarter and established brand presence.

This all tickles me.

In light of all this, I thought I’d offer some free advice in a few forms. My own personal observations, but also, I’d like to point you in the direction of some good data.

First, some links.

  • Read the Stonemaier Blog’s Kickstarter Lessons. All of them.
  • Go to Kickstarter and review the projects.
  • Go to the Most Funded projects and see what they did well.
  • Listen to Funding the Dream. Even 10 episodes will give you a spectrum of ideas.
  • Talk to your grandfather or parents for a little common sense.

The elements that comprise a successful Kickstarter campaign or product are not closely guarded secrets of the NSA. They don’t require a doctorate in economics to fully grasp. Really, you need to PAY ATTENTION and observe the world around you. People have been selling goods and services for thousands of years. Think about the companies you like and emulate them.

Kickstarter is a petri dish of success, failure, and out of this world success. It is FREE to observe and watch. I’ve been watching Kickstarter for years and I have learned a few things just by paying attention.

It’s not hard to learn these things. It just takes time and a keen eye.

If you want to be successful, here are some good standards to which to adhere.

Here are two of the most important things for initial sales, i.e. Kickstarter. Opinion alert!

Have great art. This is subjective, but presentation is what gets people window shopping. You need people to pull your product off the shelf, digital or otherwise. If you race for the bottom and hire the cheapest art student off Deviant Art who doesn’t understand anatomy, perspective, or colors, guess what? You don’t have great art. 

I won’t call out bad art here, but take a quick stroll through the projects that aren’t funding.

Have a great price. You need to sell at a price that is a great value to consumers. It is painfully simple to go to your FLGS or Amazon and compare your prototype, its components, and its play style to similar games. For Farmageddon, I looked at Gamewright’s collection of card driven games. Obviously we couldn’t beat their economies of scale, but we knew we had to be well under $20 to compete. For York, as a 60 minute game, I knew $50 was the upper limit, but $40 was ideal.

I hate to beat this horse, but Princes of the Dragon Throne cost too much in both iterations. Its first funding goal failed and its second one barely succeeded. Consider what your audience wants, compare yourself to the competition, and match it.

Side note: On Kickstarter, a great price typically includes free domestic shipping and a discount on MSRP. These are hard on your margins, but hey, that’s the ecosystem.

Once you nail these two basics, be sure to prepare properly in other areas.

Have several quotes to compare, then decide upon a manufacturer before you launch. There are so many good manufacturers. I have a list of about 25 companies that manufacture games entirely or build some portion of the process (boxes, dice, etc). It is unacceptable to launch a KS without knowing precisely what it will cost to manufacture 1000/2500/5000 copies of your game. Measure twice, cut once. Know who you’re taking to the dance and buy them a corsage. Metaphor.

To get a quote, you need to know:

  • All of your components. All of them.
  • The sizes and quality of all of your components.
  • The size of your box.
  • The size of your rules.

Ignoring miniatures and custom dice (which are outliers), game boards, cards, and rules will be very expensive. Punchboard is shockingly cheap. If there are ways to swap wooden tokens with punchboard, go for it. If you can reduce cards, do so.

One of the reasons York is so expensive is that I have a double sided game board and 108 cards.

Shame on you if you launch your game and don’t know precisely what it will cost.

Have all of your stretch goals designed and quoted. Guess what? Stretch Goals are a fundamental part of the current Kickstarter ecosystem. You may not raise enough to deliver a single one, but you better have 3-5 designed and ready. By designed, I mean if it is an expansion it is tested and fun. You know what your art will cost. You know what it’ll cost to incorporate the goal into 1000/2500/5000 copies. You know how it’ll affect shipping costs. Here’s a Hint: You shouldn’t make stretch goals that affect your shipping costs.

Adding a Stretch Goal should be as simple as adding an “x” to your spreadsheet.

Side note: Be sure your stretch goals enhance the product. They should not exist to complete the product. Backers will punish you with their absence if you make expected, standard things an add-on. Be ethical, be honest, be fair.

Know your shipping costs and understand fulfillment. Will your game fit into a small, medium, or large flat rate domestic package? Sweet. Shoot for that. International shipping is a whole other can of worms that I actually don’t know much about. I know some folks have done well using Amazon fulfillment in Europe, Asia, and the US.

I will advise a word of caution to signing with some companies who promise to just make fulfillment easy and fun. Check first what they are taking from your margins and look at their other work. If it sounds too good to be true, it just might be. If you really want to be a publisher, then put in the time to fully understand and succeed with shipping and fulfillment.

This aspect will kill your business if you screw up. If you’re curious why I’ve more or less walked away from the idea of playing publisher, this is one of the biggest reasons.

Make sure people know about your game and like it. Reviews are important for selling your game. Guess what? There are many people out there who refuse to buy a game until they see Tom Vasel (or another reviewer) explain it. That means you can’t ignore that!

But, reviews cost money and in some cases they won’t actually move units. Word of mouth is really the most powerful form and it’s the most difficult to build. Drive word of mouth by:

  • Sharing your rules
  • Creating preview videos on YouTube
  • Attending conventions and playing your game
  • Sending your prototypes to others, especially influential people
  • Release a PNP

Your mileage may vary. In my experience, none of those things really help  individually and never quickly. But, during Farmageddon’s Kickstarter campaign, we had podcasts talking about the game, random folks posting reviews on BGG from the PNP, plus a few hundred people who bought the POD version from The Game Crafter. It built a lot of honest buzz and really helped.

Notice how folks like Dice Hate Me go to every single convention in the north east to promote and play their games. If that dude sees a FLGS on his way to church he pulls over and puts Belle of the Ball on a table.

Summary: Don’t launch your project without reviews and word of mouth. Sure, add more throughout, but launch with it.

Share information on your game. This one is so easy to do.

  • Share rules
  • Share plenty of final game art
  • Share a gameplay video/tutorial
  • Bonus: Share a PNP. Nobody is going to steal from you. This shows confidence.

Finally, make a good game. I consider this to be the most important, but it isn’t for Kickstarter. THIS IS NOT A SLAM on the quality of Kickstarter games, but is a comment on what you’re doing on Kickstarter: pitching the game to thousands of customers in the hope they back you to get a copy of your game. Kickstarter is a month-long, interactive, evolving, two-way commercial. It’s a sales pitch in YOU and your game.


Make something great. If you make something great, your game will continue to sell off of Kickstarter and your next Kickstarter project will be even easier. If people really like you, it’ll be much simpler to share rules, share previews, and ask folks to PNP your game. A large number of people made the PNP and tested Euphoria, not because they knew anything about the game, but because they liked and believed in Stonemeier.

Making a good game is the best way to future proof your business.

I hope this is useful. Feel free to call me an idiot in the comments below!

Some ideas, some components

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m in a fun brainstorm phase lately that’s more or less throwing spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks. Semi-cooked spaghetti, obviously. Uncooked spaghetti just smashes and scatters.

I’m brainstorming to create two games, NorCal, and my new card game for my Skillshare class. I also bought a lot of neat components from a teacher’s school supply website. These three things combined have led to some neat ideas I thought I’d write about. Not for any purpose, merely that chatting about design is fun. Perhaps it gives you an idea which you in turn share with me?

Proof of purchase!

Note: If you’re interested in getting the component I talk about, click the section title to be linked to the store!

Fraction Dice

Check out all the amazing dice possibilities at the store! 

The fraction dice spoke to me when I was browsing the catalog. Ideas immediately began filtering into my tiny, tiny brain. A few of my ideas were:

  • The top number is the number of cards you take, with the bottom being the number of cards you draw. Ex: 1/3 means I draw 3 cards and pick one. 
  • Roll a set of them and combine 2 or 3 to create a whole number, or a different fraction. It’s a bit mathy, yes, and you’d need to make sure the fractions are compatible.
  • If you had a game with a bunch of cubes, such as an army, or workers, you could roll the dice to see, out of a set of workers (the bottom number), how many you do something with (the top number). This is similar to the cards idea. For example, you roll a set of fraction dice in a battle. If you have a large force, you only lose 1/12. But if you have a smaller force? Attrition is high at 3/4.
  • To take the combination idea further, you could combine dice over the course of multiple turns to see the progress of your crops or a building. You could even allocate them to multiple projects. For example, I’ll completely 75% of the building for this farm — it’s a high priority. But, my dockyard only needs 10%. It’s a lower priority. This would work somewhat like Alien Frontiers in that you assign the dice, but you’re assigning progress, not a binary output. This could work well for NorCal.

What would you do with fraction dice?

Dice Domes

I bought these with the hope they were pop-o-matic dice domes. I secretly knew that wasn’t the case, but hoped it would be so. These dice domes ARE convenient for a few reasons.

  • You can roll dice silently because the dice are foam!
  • You can roll a large number of dice without scattering around the table. This could be really useful for a component heavy game when you need to roll more than a single die and don’t want to “splash the counters.”
  • You can easily add and remove dice by removing the bottom of the container.

Now, that last one could also be done by picking up a certain number of dice into your hand and rolling them. I get that. But, the domes have inspired a few ideas.

  • In a game like NorCal where you’re building structures, I thought the domes could represent the structure and the dice the output. For example, you have a tiny farm. You place a green dome on the map with a single die. This adds a layer to the map, is easy to see. When you activate the farm, you pick up the dome and shake it to see the output. If you upgrade the farm, you add more dice. The domes help you easily organize the components based on their location and output. You don’t need to worry about dice scattering or constantly rechecking what to roll. 
  • You could remove the dice and instead place cubes to indicate the number of people or items in storage or a city. This dome is a capital. It has N people.
  • You could remove the bottom and the dice and use the domes in a game about terraforming a planet like Mars. You place the domes on top of a token (i.e. cubes) to indicate “these people have air.” This could be fun in a Total Recall like situation. “Give theeese people ayur!”

Mechanically the dome hasn’t given me too many ideas, but presentation-wise it has my mind spinning. What can you think of for the domes, or domes with dice?


After York, I think of cubes as workers more than anything. In York, your units were your resource, as you needed them to win battles and hold territory. In one case, forts, you also needed them to build. For NorCal I thought about expanding this mechanic. For example, you require a number of cubes or spent cards to build something. A farm might cost 3. If you have 3 cubes at that location, you can place a fort. Or, if you have 1 Cube, but expend a card with the value of 2 (2+1 = 3), you can build. This creates a dynamic of logistics and maneuver (getting guys to the build site) versus spending cards that could be used elsewhere.

Would that be worker placement? Or…worker movement? Probably a stretch of that term as worker placement, to me, is beautifully simple. Place/remove a thing, get an output. This is move guys to do a thing. Maybe?

Have you thought of anything fun to do with cubes lately? Other than eat them, of course.

Eraser Dice

I love these. Holy smokes I love love love these. These dice are big, which is good because I was worried about smudging when I bought them. I think you could make a game with JUST these dice and a marker.

  • You create a dynamic Rory’s Story Cubes where you write the history of your story, through images, as you go. It could be about memories. Example, your house caught on fire. When you roll that, you mention something about it. Who knows?
  • You’re wizards! As you learn new spells and magic, you draw the symbols on the dice. You could then have cards in front of you to mark what the spells actually do.
  • As you build farms (like with NorCal or something) you add symbols to the dice. Be careful, as you have limited sides! Every player customizes the dice based on his current setup.
  • In the example above, instead of rolling the die, you shift it to a side to the next. So, there’s a spatial combo element of putting harvest after plant, otherwise you have inefficient twisting. It’s like a rondel in a sense, but based on a cube.
  • As your army grows in power, you write bigger numbers on the die. Oh, you have a great general? Turn that 1 into a 2. You added air support? Write a second 2 on the 2 face, so now you attack 2 Units at a 2 strength.

This is maybe my favorite component ever. After playing a great deal of Saint Malo the ideas are going nuts. I assure you, I’ll use these.

What would you do? Hell, what can’t you do!

Terrain Modifiers

Remember transparencies and overhead projectors in elementary school? When I saw these shapes, I started thinking about how those could work on a game board.

Imagine if you had shapes in different colors. If you create irrigation infrastructure, you can place a blue transparent shape on top of your farm land to improve its output. If you add a patrol, you can put a yellow one to indicate the effective radius. If bad guys are attacking, you can put a red circle to show the danger region.

These transparent shapes would give you an easy way to add texture and “states” to a game map without too much complexity. It would look cool, as if you were examining a heat map in a game like SimCity or Tropico on the PC (see above).

You could even have color wheel-like matching. For example, mix irrigation (blue) and sunlight (yellow) to naturally create green, which would be super fertile land.

What would you do with transparent shapes?

Final parting note! This collection of old Soviet board game images circulated the social space quite a bit. I love them and think the style would be great for NorCal. It’s a similar time period and the propaganda vibe is perfect for someone trying to carve out sanity in a harsh, new world.

Interview with Gil Hova

Gil Hova is an incredibly smart, outspoken, twice-published designer who is quite active in our online community. I recently played his second game, Battle Merchants, which is currently funding via Kickstarter. I thought this was a good time to interview him about Battle Merchants, game design, and more. This is a GREAT interview with many morsels — take the time to read it.

Bolded text is mine. 

Gil — Tell us about yourself. What do we need to know to truly know you?

I grew up playing video games like crazy, so I always wanted to be a video game designer. In my early twenties, I decided that if I was going to do this for real, I would start by designing board games, because I figured it was a “purer” form of game design. The plan was that I’d move onto video games once I designed my first board game. A simple plan, right?

So much for that plan. Designing board games meant playing board games, and I discovered that I loved board games much more than video games. They got me interacting with other people (something I wasn’t very good at doing at the time), and almost all of them emphasized strategy and tactics over twitch reflexes and muscle memory. I was hooked.

Your second design, Battle Merchants, is currently on Kickstarter trying to fund. Give us the essential details.

The game is about a war between a bunch of fantasy races (Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and Hobgoblins). You, as the player, don’t care who wins or who loses. You’re simply forging and selling their weapons, sometimes to both sides of the same battle. The richest player at the end of the game wins.

It’s a strategic game for 2-4 players, playable in 90 minutes. It boasts simple rules but tough decisions, and a much more interesting theme than most economic games.

What was your original inspiration for Battle Merchants? Where did you get the idea?

I’d always wanted to design a game about the military-industrial complex. Not in a preachy way (simply because I strongly believe that games should be Fun, and preachiness is Not Fun), but in a gleefully amoral way.

At the time, I had an auction game whose whole was much less than the sum of its parts. I decided to save its auction mechanism (which was kind of neat) and move it to this game. Of course, when it came time to trim things, that auction mechanism was the first thing to go!

It’s a good thing, too. Unusual auction mechanisms were really in 10 years ago, but I don’t think people are interested in that like they used to be. My friend Kevin Nunn points out that we’ve figured out other ways of distributing resources among competing players (drafting, worker placement), so auctions are just not as interesting as they used to be.

Did you consider other themes for Battle Merchants? Why did you choose fantasy, or was that not your choice?

The game was originally about building and selling war robots. I thought it was a fantastic theme, but themes are funny things. They’re the entry point to your game, so you have to make sure it fits your mechanisms. When people play a game about war robots, they expect laser beams and explosions. So when I asked people if they wanted to play my game about building and selling fighting robots, they’d answer, “Sure, I’d like to play your game about fighting robots.”

See the distinction? People would be confused at first, until they figured out that this was an economic game, not a wargame. Once I noticed the dissonance, I realized I had to do something.

I tried giving it a generic Euro city-building theme, which reinforced my conviction that I will never design a game with a generic Euro city-building theme if I can at all avoid it.*

I eventually settled on a mercantile fantasy setting, which is perfect. There’s lots of precedence for moneymaking in a fantasy world (consider the capitalistic subtext of your average dungeon crawl), so players know exactly what they’re in for when they sit down.

*There’s one important thing I should say here: a lot of Eurogames are about their mechanisms, not their themes. A game whose heart is an innovative, unusual mechanism should not have an innovative, unusual theme, unless the two are crazily tight. If you have an unusual mechanism mixed with an unusual theme, you’ll most likely get a game that’s distracting to play, because players don’t know whether they should immerse themselves in the game’s theme or try to figure out how best to exploit the innovative mechanism. In most games, those are two completely different lines of thinking. It’s like wearing neon with plaid. It’s distracting.

That’s why Dominion works, despite its bland theme. You’re focused on building your deck, and you can easily tear the theme away to focus on what the cards give you mechanically speaking.

What were some of the biggest problems you solved during its development? How did you do so?

There were a lot of little problems that I solved. Removing the auction was one thing. And of course, fixing the theme was a big deal.

The game had a lot of positive feedback loops at first, so installing a bunch of negative feedback loops was important. A good example is the reward for selling to a race. Originally, players kept track of which race lost battles. That race would spend more for weapons in the next season. At the end of the game, you got a bonus if you had the most surviving weapons on the race least advanced in that track (in other words, the race that lost the fewest battles).

It was thematically good, especially when I put a downward curve if a race lost too many battles. But it was quite opaque. You couldn’t really tell who was going to get that endgame bonus, or even who was going to pay more money the next season. It was also difficult to keep track of. Players really didn’t like it.

I didn’t want to put in a system where players got a bonus from a race for selling to that race, because then players would just keep on selling to the same race, and that would be boring. That all changed when a player suggested that system, but with a limit of only one reward per race per season. Eureka, that was it! It was easy to grok, easy to plan for, and it still encouraged players to sell all over the board.

Who would love Battle Merchants? Who is this game meant for?

This is a middleweight economic game, so it’s in a lot of gamers’ sweet spots. Of course, people who like economic games will like it. But people who get bored when playing dry, spreadsheet-y games will like it, too. There’s a lot of interesting interaction, but not a lot of screw-you (which I hate in games), and it’s much quicker to teach than your average economic game. Finally, the fantasy theme is fun, and I think that’ll pull in people who like seeing a new spin on your average hack-and-slash thing.

I must say I was a little surprised that your game features so much interaction. The weapons I sell to the fighting armies can get destroyed by another player, which gains points. Thematically it’s not direct conflict per se, but mechanically it is. Do you see it that way?

It’s strange, because the armies are yours, and yet they’re not. You get reputation points by winning battles, and the player with the most reputation points gets a money bonus at the end of the game. But it’s still a game where the richest player wins, and you’ll make a lot of money from a sale, regardless of whether the weapon survives. So a player who sells a lot of cheap weapons that keep getting killed may beat a player who sells fewer high-quality weapons. I’ve worked hard to keep that balance.

There’s a bunch of cool implications here. A player who sells a lot of cheap weapons will see a lot of his weapons lose in battle… but that just creates new demand for those same weapons, which he can sell right back. Conversely, a player who sells a few nice weapons will have to create new demand elsewhere on the board, because his weapons lose so rarely, there won’t be as much demand for them!

So a good Battle Merchants player is a one who sees a profit where others see doom. If you make a big margin from a sale, you may not care whether or not that weapon survives the next battle. In fact, you may want it to lose, because you have the next sale queued up. I’ve dubbed this the “spamming” strategy.

On the other hand, maybe you are taking the “specialization” strategy of a few good weapons. If you can rush to get a bunch of good craft early on and not go broke doing it, you might be able to get a special bonus action early on. Nice weapons have a bigger built-in profit margin than a single regular weapon, so you should make more money on a single sale. It will take you longer to build that engine, though, and the spammers have the ability to make the game move faster than you’d like.

All this is to say that the interaction in Battle Merchants isn’t really direct. If one of your weapons leaves the board, you still have the money you made from its sale, so it’s not nearly as devastating as in a game with proper direct interaction.

Battle Merchants has quite a few layers to it. There’s the basic build and sell weapons. Then making better weapons in better places than your opponents. Then the cards, which are very powerful. Walk us through the development of this — I know from experience such a rich game doesn’t come about at once. 

Originally, when the game had an auction, everything was split into phases, like Power Grid. So everybody bid for turn order and power (Kingdom) cards first. Then everybody drew a craft card in the new turn order, then everybody built weapons, then everybody sold weapons.

The big change here when I removed the auction was to flatten out the turn, so now players could only choose one of those actions per turn. Upgrading Craft, drawing a Kingdom card, forging weapons, and selling a weapon are now different things you can do on your turn, and I’ve balanced those actions out so they’re attractive throughout most of the game.

The Kingdom cards took the longest to balance. They serve a few roles: they make spamming or specialization more interesting, they add an interesting decision point every turn, they make each player’s game path different, and since some of them give money to a player, they allow a player who can’t afford to forge weapons a way to become liquid again.

I haven’t had a chance to play 2 player, but I know you have a “dummy character” of sorts. Tell us about developing the two player variant. My new design features dummy characters throughout and I’d appreciate any insights, warnings, and more.

The dummy character is nicknamed Salesman Steve. In a 2-player game, he makes a sale to the board every time a player makes a sale to the board.

2-player games are very different than games with three or more players. First off, the game state doesn’t usually change a whole lot in a 2-player game. This is usually good because it leads to longer lookahead and therefore easier strategizing, but if it makes the game too incremental, it can get boring. This was the problem without Salesman Steve. It was too blah and predictable. Salesman Steve is not random, because his moves are always theoretically predictable. But sometimes your action may change what Salesman Steve will do, which gives the 2-player game some excitement.

Second, every action you take is a net benefit to you, because it either helps you or hurts the other player. If it does both, even better! In a game with more players, you’ll want an action that helps you most of the time, because that will distance you from all players equally. If you hurt Player A, you are not distancing yourself from Player B. That might be okay if Player B is far behind, but my point is that’s a consideration you simply don’t need to make in a 2-player game.

So you might be able to use Salesman Steve to your advantage. If you know he’s going to sell a weapon to the Orcs after your sale, and you know your sale will force Salesman Steve to take the last Battleaxe spot on the board, and your opponent has a Vorpal Battleaxe he’s trying to sell… well, you see where I’m going with this.

The rules for Kingdom cards and Craft cards are also different with two players. Taking a Kingdom card will cause a Craft card to get discarded, and vice-versa. This serves both purposes really well; it changes the game state enough to keep a 2-player game interesting, because otherwise, one player would take all the Kingdom cards and the other would take all the Craft cards and that would be dull. It also means that if you know a player really wants a certain Craft, you can take the corresponding Kingdom card and force the Craft to get discarded.

That mechanism wouldn’t work so well in a 3-player game, because you’d be screwing over the player to your left much more than the player to your right (“left/right binding”, as JC Lawrence called it). But in a 2-player game, it’s perfect.

At one point we discussed the concept of a round structure (i.e. a round has these 3 phases) versus a turn structure (i.e. players take turns in order until the game ends). Battle Merchants is very smooth and well paced due to the turn structure. Was it always this way? Do you have thoughts to share on round versus turn order?

I already discussed the transition from a round structure to a turn structure above. I’ll never say that one is objectively better than the other, but I will say that a turn structure generally offers a more interesting decision. That said, if your design is suffering from AP problems because players can’t figure out what to do next, you may want to consider a round structure.

You’re notorious for being somewhat anti-interaction in games on Twitter. Is that fair to say? Can you explain your point of view on this? What is good interaction in your mind? What is bad interaction?

Well, I’m glad I’m finally notorious for something! Well, look, it’s a personal preference. I’ll never say that direct interaction is bad game design, simply because too many people whose opinions I respect are fans of games with direct interaction. So I don’t think I’m “anti-interaction,” just a guy who prefers no direct interaction in his game.

Also, direct interaction in a 2-player game isn’t that big a deal, since a benefit to me and a loss to you are similar (assuming that either one advances the game state). So it’s really direct interaction in a 3+ player game that I really don’t like.

Look, we all love games because we love making our brains glow. My brain is glowing when it’s composing and executing a plan. “If I get these three resources here, and then these two other resources there, and then next turn I assemble this structure with it…” is my happy spot. If, the next turn, a player steals my three resources, or worse, destroys the structure I build with it, my brain is no longer glowing.

Again, in a 2-player game, that’s not a problem. I grumble and growl, but I know that my opponent did that because it helped her. But it becomes a problem in a 3+ player game, because you have to choose the player who gets screwed over, and then it becomes a matter of meta-gaming and table talk. Some people like this, because it provides a natural balance to a runaway leader, but I don’t like it because a) it shifts the burden of handicapping to the players, which might mean one player would have to “fall on the grenade” to benefit everyone else who isn’t in the lead, and b) it discourages a player from getting out to an early lead, which I don’t find interesting. I believe that if a player does much better than everyone else early in a game, he should be rewarded with a big lead. Why penalize him? Better to focus that the game has no fallaway trailers (opposite of a runaway leader), so that everyone else has a chance to be competitive for the rest of the game

Of course, the reason this is an aesthetic choice is that for a lot of people, that sort of interaction makes their brains glow. Fair enough, that’s why those games are out there! But to me, if you ever repeatedly say “don’t go after me, go after her, she’s the real threat” while playing a game, then that’s a game I will probably avoid.

So for me, good interaction…

  • is reasonably predictable.
  • doesn’t completely undo what the attacked player did.
  • advances the game state.
  • makes the game more interesting for everyone.

One last thought on this: I’ve grown to dislike the term “multi-player solitaire.” Just because a game doesn’t allow you to destroy an opponent’s assets doesn’t make it MPS. I taught Race for the Galaxy to a friend the other day. That’s a game with very subtle interaction, and it seems like MPS to a new player. But knowing how to parasite your opponents’ actions separates the good players from the bad. You must pay attention to your opponents in that game if you’re going to play with the best.

To my knowledge, the only family of games that are truly MPS are games in the Take It Easy family (Take It Easy, Take It To the Limit, Cities, etc.). In those games, your opponents’ actions do literally nothing to influence your actions. And they’re still a ton of fun.

What are some of your favorite games? Why?

I like games that reward planning, but that don’t require a Chess- or Bridge-like time investment to master. I also like really innovative, unusual mechanisms.

One of my favorite games is Space Dealer, recently redesigned and re-released as Time ‘n’ Space. It’s a real-time game where players use hourglasses to perform their actions. Once their hourglasses finish, their action is complete. The game is played to a 30-minute soundtrack. When the soundtrack is over, so is the game.

I love the game because it forces players to think across two threads. You’ll want your first hourglass to do one set of actions, but your second to do another. No other game makes me think that way, and I love it.

Other games? I’ve played a lot of Ascension, and I think it’s the current cream of the crop in terms of deckbuilders (or as I like to call the genre, LDBs – “Like Dominion, But…”). I don’t think I can fairly say that Ascension is better than Dominion, because I think Dominion is an incredible design that I wish I’d made, and there’s no Ascension without Dominion. But I will never turn down a game of Ascension at this point.

Navegador and Trajan are also two recent games that have floated my boat, so to speak. Galaxy Trucker and Agricola as well.

What’s your favorite game lately? Something that you’ve discovered or just played recently?

My favorite game from Essen 2012 is Terra Mystica. Its replayability and depth are superlative. There’s just enough space for you to plan ahead, but just enough interaction to keep things tense. It’s an amazing, wonderful design.

Tzolk’in is also fantastic, and was my favorite Essen 2012 game until Terra Mystica came along. Myrmes and Copycat were also outstanding. Myrmes reminds me of Princes of Florence with its careful strategy and extremely limited number of turns. Copycat uses the primary mechanisms of three popular games, and yet feels nothing at all like those games.

Can you tell us about Prime Time? This is your new prototype, yes?

Remember that auction mechanism I built Battle Merchants around, and then removed from the game? I wanted to give it one more chance, so I put it in a new design. I originally had no theme for it (its working title was MacGuffin Market), but eventually put in a theme about TV networks acquiring programming.

Here’s the funny part: eventually, my playtesters told me that the auction wasn’t pulling its weight. Sure enough, I pulled the auction out recently, and it seems to have improved the game. So that’s two games that have rejected the auction like a bad donor organ!

I’d like to set Prime Time in the early eighties, when cable programming was just starting to catch on. It’s more thematic, it keeps the game from getting dated, and it gives me the opportunity to make each show a parody of a popular eighties show. I think that would be fun.

You’re active in the New York City comedy scene, is that correct? Tell us about it!

I started taking sketch comedy writing classes in January of 2012, and I’ve met a lot of awesome people! I am probably going to slow down on the comedy front for the next few months, because I feel like I need to design more games.

Do you ever see your comedy and game design crossing paths, or do these occupy separate areas of your brain? I find all my interests constantly merging, personally.

It’s funny, I wanted to try out sketch writing because I wanted an outlet that was less iterative and mathematical than game design. Of course, sketch writing turned out to be iterative (lots of redrafts and tweaking) and mathematical (a good sketch heightens its absurdity), so a lot of it felt familiar!

You’ve had Prolix published by Z-Man and now Battle Merchants with Minion. Do you have any advice to share with the other designers?

If you’re a new designer, I urge you: don’t overvalue your ideas. Ideas are worthless; no one cares about your idea. No one publishes an idea, no one plays an idea. We play finished games, not ideas. To go from an idea to a finished game is an enormous amount of sweat and work.

So: it’s not enough to think of a great idea for a game. Playtest it like crazy, and be merciless slicing off parts of the game that don’t work. You owe your original idea nothing. If it ends up that your game is totally different than your original idea, that’s okay, as long as it’s fun.

Don’t be afraid to share your idea with other people. No one’s interested in stealing ideas. There’s so little money in board games, relatively speaking, that people who want to steal stuff go to arenas where they can steal something worth money, like finance.

Some other tips:

* Be careful when springing a raw, new design on other players. It’s probably not going to be very fun. Try to playtest these early iterations with other game designers, or your most patient/easily bribed friends.

* Don’t spend too much time on the physical appearance of an early-stage game. It is going to change a lot. Why spend a day on a card’s layout, when your next playtest may tell you that you don’t need the cards in the first place?

* When you are 80% done with the game, you are halfway there. The remaining 20% – going from a decent game to a fun game – is the other half of the work. Plan accordingly.

Thanks so much for giving me a place to speak, Grant!

My pleasure! Check out Battle Merchants on Kickstarter today!

Project NorCal

San Francisco’s Crissy Field in the 1920s

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I want to write about my new game idea to share with you. I’m sure you, frequent blog reader, are laughing as you recount the times I write about new ideas that quickly die, then the follow up “creativity is hard” posts. Yes, yes, but it’s my process. My girlfriend doesn’t want to hear about my brainstorms, so I’m going to bug you instead.

First, an update.

I’ve had this idea stewing for a while, but had other priorities. I needed to finish York, which is now here but needs a few hours of graphic design before I can sell it (to do after I write this). I needed to get Blockade to a healthy place and send it out for blind testing. I feel it’s ready for GenCon, finally. By “ready for GenCon,” I mean the core is solid and I’m comfortable showing it to publishers and testing it with folks at the convention. This game won’t happen if I don’t find a publisher, so I’m hitting the brakes on development. If someone isn’t interested at this point, it may not happen and I need to not go insane smoothing over every screw. Finally, I needed to create a game for my class on game design. That’s ready now as well, and seeing as how I cannot talk about it here, I can work on something else.

  • Battle for York Video Preview
  • Blockade Video Preview
  • Class on Game Design, use code “D20SIDED” to get 50% off.

The Summary.

This post is long. Here’s the “tldr” of things. I’m creating a 2 player game based in post-apocalyptic 1930s northern California where the Spanish Flu wiped out most of civilization and a zombie-like species emerged. The game will not be a war-game, but seeks to create a dynamic world and conflict where two players are building and protecting their small pockets of humanity. The game won’t be grotesque, nor will it be Ameritrashy.

Now, the idea.

Two of my favorite video games of all time are Fallout 3 and EVE Online. Both of them are incredibly open experiences that put the player in the middle of a lonely, yet surprisingly populated wasteland. No, space isn’t the same as post-nuclear apocalypse Earth, but there are some systems that are empty, deadly, and just as barren.

I love the danger, the freedom, the number of decisions, but also, the sense that I can build something that’s mine within the experience. I also love how the world moves. In Fallout 3 there is a complex simulator filled with quests and creature behaviors. In EVE, the world is alive due to the player community.

I want to create a game with a world that feels alive. I want to create a game where you’re building things that affect the world. I want to create a game that feels dangerous and sometimes out of control. I want to create a game where the world is at its beginning.


Our world hasn’t really been dangerous and uncharted since Lewis and Clark.That’s a gross overstatement, but it’s been a long time. Furthermore, history is a difficult nut to crack (too many restrictions for me) and also, the technology of that time period is boring. One of the reasons Fallout, The Walking Dead, EVE, and other post apocalyptic media is fun is that you get the wildness of Lewis and Clark, but also really cool guns and monsters.

I think it’s safe to say zombies are both overdone but also really awesome. People love them and there are all sorts of psychological and fictional reasons they help make a great story for so many people. I don’t want zombies, but I do want something that is monstrous, dangerous, and is unreasonable. You can’t sign a treaty with zombies. They won’t stop.

I want something zombie-like that is unpredictable, ridiculously dangerous, and not fully understood. I want to create my own apocalypse, which is dangerous and arguably foolish as people like zombies because they like the familiar. This is true of a lot of product design. Still, a part of the fun of creativity is doing something new. Aside from new mechanics, I want new zombies.

The not-so roaring ’20s

History is always a fantastic place where I find inspiration. I didn’t want my game to be set in current times, so I began counting backwards until I found something I could use to both create the apocalypse and create an interesting game. Around 1918 I remembered something quite fun — the Spanish Flu pandemic. Just after World War I ended, a flu pandemic wrecked the world and killed approximately 3-5% of the world’s population. 10-20% who contracted the disease died, and current estimates put the body count from 50-100 million. This is on top of the almost 40 million who died fighting the war itself.

Europe is devastated by war and there is a disease spreading like wild fire around the globe. All this needs is a fictional kick!

The flu is, and always will be a problem. Part of the reason is that it evolves so rapidly that we can never quite pin it down. You also hear scientists issue dire warnings about over-use of vaccines and preventative drugs, lest the current flu grow even deadlier. In the world of my game, desperate scientists introduce a premature vaccine. It is given to thousands, many of whom die, but more remain and evolve. The Inoculated become something deadly, sinister, aggressive, and no longer human. Panic ensues as the disease and roving bands of the Inoculated sweep across Europe and the world.

These are my zombies and the world of 1920 is my technology base. It’s really important to note I don’t seek a Walking Dead aesthetic. This game won’t be gory or grotesque. It just doesn’t appeal to me. Like a true marketing genius, I’m making a zombie game that won’t appease zombie fans or non-zombie fans.

The Survivors

The Inoculated are the antagonists for this game, but not player entities. With them, I need heroes for my players to control, as well as a location. For the latter, I intend to use northern California, specifically the Bay Area, as the setting for the game. The region is beautiful and geographically diverse, which makes it fantastic for a game about exploring and reclaiming the wilds.

In this two player game, I have two protagonists that players will control.

As the Inoculated and disease sweep across Europe, President Coolidge instructs the navy to reconfigure the aircraft carrier Langley into an ark of sorts. The plan is to send a few hundred Americans out to sea on this enormous ship. For 10 years they will survive, planting crops on the deck, and avoiding contact with the mainland. Then, they are to return and reclaim California. I thought it might be fun to make Harry Truman, then an army Captain returning from France, the leader of this expedition. I’m sure he’ll receive a token promotion to solidify his command. Fun fact, he was also a farmer.

Imagine the scene — just as the fires of chaos are reaching San Francisco, the Langley, now the USS Noah, escapes through the fog banks into the Pacific. Then, 10 years later, it returns to an eerily quiet and now overgrown San Francisco.

I need a second group of protagonists. For that, I’m using General Pancho Villa. He’s another great figure from history who is perfect for this story. Controversial, romanticized, and well known.  While Truman is surviving the Pacific on the USS Noah, Villa and his Division del Norte ride north into the United States, now just as lawless as the rest of the world, and survive in the cold Rockies. The Rockies are a difficult place for the Inoculated to survive, but eventually, Villa brings his survivors west to California, where the wildlife and temperate climate make a permanent home seem possible.

Fun fact: Villa was assassinated in 1923. In my fiction, he lives on.

Northern California

Briefly on the topic of northern California. In the 1920s, the area would be populated, but not the dense metropolis it is now. You don’t have the Bay or Golden Gate bridges connecting the regions. Alcatraz is still a military prison holdover from the Civil War. You have Muir Woods, Yosemite, sparse wine country, mountains, and the coastline making this a beautiful region.

The time period also allows for balloons, air planes, early tanks, farming machines, semi-modern construction techniques, and more. There won’t be lasers, but there also won’t be poor dudes with muskets, either.


One of my biggest goals is to create a non-player entity, the Inoculated, that is interesting and NOT tedious. This is a challenge I’ve set for myself. Basically, I’m designing an AI for them. I have some ideas I think will work. The Inoculated cannot win the game, only you can. They will act to throw a wrench in your plans, but also, create opportunities.

I’ve deliberately set the game to be 2 player, because it means I have more freedoms with the map and the level of complexity. When you need to think about what 3 other players are doing, things get really difficult. When you only need to work against another human, I can pack in a little more without overwhelming folks. This is a lesson from Battle for York. The map I envision won’t be symmetrical, like York, but full of opportunities and problems. The Inoculated will also be moving about. There won’t be factions, like there were in York, but your place on the map might guide your initial choices much like a faction would.

One of the game’s primary mechanics will be building things like forts, dockyards, farms, and other elements of a growing civilization. Building forts was one of my favorite elements of York because it made the game very dynamic in such a simple way. I want to do more of that. I have a neat idea for how the buildings will be made that is an iteration upon York. I’m also playing around with rondels, tied to the buildings, to provide players with alternate choices. It’s a mechanic I’ve had in my head for a while that I think has a home here. Basically, build something, get a new rondel. If you have more things, you have more choices. Be careful, though, as these buildings can be destroyed by the Inoculated or stolen by your opponent.

This will not be a war game or battle game, but there will still be conflict of the military sort. It’ll be less about pitched battles, but more about states of conflict, such as patrols, trying to protect yourselves against known and unknown enemies, and the toll it takes on your other pursuits. This is not a game about cavalry charges, but one of patrolling the woods when the woods are full of terrible things.

I have some goofy component ideas. One involves string, as well as the rondels noted above. I’m trying not to make these silly and gimmicky. Remember above when I said there will be states of conflict? Imagine you placed a circle around the town where the Inoculated are known to be living. That’s how you track the status. Perhaps a convoy is moving from one point to another and you place a short, straight string to indicate the route. I realize that sounds fiddly and it might be, but I’m trying to think about how to have a dynamic world with these elements and how to track them easily. It’s something to play with and I’m going to let my mind goof off for a bit.

Cards, so far, will be an element of the game. They will power the choices you take, so to speak. I’ll need some sort of randomizer for conflict resolution. I’ll probably begin with a simple d6 mechanic.

Finally, I want to vary the precise state of the map at the beginning of each game. What if sometimes there IS a bridge? What if sometimes there’s a roving band of humans and one of the Inoculated? What if the woods were burned to the ground and now it’s empty fields? It’s something to play with that I think is fun.

At 2000 words this has gone on far too long. Hopefully something mentioned is interesting to you. If not, no worries. If this succeeds, I’ll be writing about it for a while. If it fails? It’ll disappear into the woods, just like the Inoculated.