Book Review: The Martian General’s Daughter

Review by: Grant Rodiek

You can read my review policy here. 

I’ve been reading a great deal of fiction lately, much of it quite excellent. The books I read typically have a huge influence on my designs. This past weekend I finished The Martian General’s Daughter by Theodore Judson and it left me rather disappointed. So much so, that I thought I’d review it.

Based a few hundred years into the future of our world, most of the world is under the control of the Pan-Polarian Empire. The Imperial capital is Garden City, which seems to be modern day Mexico City.The fringes of the empire near China and India are constantly rebelling, which keeps the army busy. Meanwhile, Garden City is largely a corrupt high society of yes-men and political and economic profiteers.

There are three very important things about the world you must know:

  • The emperor dies very early and his sociopath son, the Concerned One, becomes the ruler of Pan-Polaria.
  • There is a metal plague that is never explained (and doesn’t need to be). This plague destroys metal and is essentially disintegrating modern technology, such as planes and computers. Yet it seems to leave guns, swords, and coins alone… Basically, it’s a device to drive the decay of the physical world (alongside the moral world).
  • The entire world, society, and characters parallel the decline of Ancient Rome.

The story is narrated by Justa Black, the bastard daughter of General Peter Black. He commands an army on the frontier. Justa’s narration bounces between two settings: General Black with his soldiers on the frontier and General Black recalled to Garden City by the emperor. The characters are very briefly on Mars, for no apparent reason other than (I think?) the title of the book. They could have replaced Mars with Wyoming and it wouldn’t have altered the story.

When the General is with his army, you basically learn that he is a tough, but fair soldier of the old guard. He is very black and white and very much the sergeant he used to be.

When the General is in Garden City, the author paints, then re-paints, then paints once again just how much of a sociopath the new Emperor is and how low society has fallen. The Emperor, who demands he be called the Concerned One, fills his days with acts of sexual deviance, by slaughtering exotic animals and gladiators in an arena, and by murdering anyone he deems a political rival.

General Black’s role is that he’s a simpleton obsessed with doing his duty, even for the wrong cause. The Emperor repeatedly summons him to help with a small task, which Black carries out successfully, then returns to the frontier.


The Martian General’s Daughter just failed to deliver in so many ways. None of the characters show any development, breadth, or shades of gray. The Concerned One (the Emperor) is a pure sociopath who is clearly insane and deviant. He has no redeeming qualities. Every time the emperor enters a scene it is to:

  • Slaughter creatures in a coliseum
  • Be sexually deviant
  • Talk like a narcissistic and insane person

On this last point, at one point the emperor becomes obsessed with the story of Huck Finn. The tie-in was so bizarre and disconnected that it really hindered the story.

Justa is barely a character, so I’m not sure why she’s needed as a narrator. She doesn’t modify or influence the story in any way, which to me really felt like a missed opportunity. Many of my favorite stories really leverage the personality of the storyteller, so using a human that is essentially a mouthpiece just falls flat. General Black is the old soldier doing his duty. The schemers are schemers and generally people are good or just there or just awful.

Furthermore, nothing really happens in the book. Well, let me re-phrase that. Nothing new happens in the book. The author is clearly fascinated by the decline of Ancient Rome, which I admit is a premise worthy of exploration. But, when the emperors all have Roman names, with the coliseum, and the orgies, and the rebelling entities on the frontier, and so forth, the author is just rehashing well-worn ground. I know what happened in Rome, which meant I knew what would happen in this book. Nothing new was revealed to me.

The metal plague is an interesting, though inconsistently applied device, that I would have liked to have seen more of. It’s a very creative, very science-fiction notion that was basically used to repeatedly say “hey, the world is falling apart!” I’d happily read a book about a colony on Mars, stricken with a plague that is destroying the equipment that keeps them alive. That would be an amazing story that would also match the title.

Frankly, I found the parallels to ancient Rome so heavy handed that I couldn’t really enjoy the historical influence. If you know me, you know how hard that was for me to write. At some point in the book I expected a character to say aloud, “you would have thought we’d have learned from ancient Rome, yet here we are, repeating the mistakes 2500 years later in an identical fashion.” Rome should have influenced the story, not be the story.

Finally, alternating chapters of the book bounce tween the “present” of the story and past events. I’m not exactly sure why the author does this, as there are no interesting twists applied to take advantage of the dual time-perspective and frankly, any surprises he could have wielded are precluded by the fact you know the General lives and succeeds.

Here’s an example: There’s a meeting between the General and our deranged emperor. The author seems to want you to worry about whether the emperor will murder the General, much like his two other victims mere pages before.  The problem is, as the meeting is in the past, I know the general will get by just fine. All tension is removed.

In Conclusion: If you’re not clear about my opinion of the book, let me rectify that here. Pass on The Martian General’s Daughter. The story isn’t exciting, the characters lack depth, and the historical influence is stifling.

This was my first book review. Thoughts? 

Posted in Reviews | Tagged alt-future, ancient rome, book, fiction, martian general's daughter, , rome, | 2 Replies

Risk 2: Risk Harder: Son of Risk

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I spent $30 at Target last night buying Risk: Battlefield: Rogue, a poorly named, poorly marketed, poorly manufactured tie in to Electronic Art’s massive first-person shooter property. I barely found out about the game. I work at EA and didn’t hear about it, it wasn’t on Amazon, it wasn’t on Target’s site, and it wasn’t on Hasbro’s site. Hell, the BGG entry doesn’t even have a proper cover photo, but is a photo taken by someone in a warehouse or something.

This all sounds like a really bad idea, but I’m not going to lie — I’m really excited. Of the board games I played before my current, modern outlook into the non-Hasbro games, Risk was my favorite. Yes, it takes too long. Yes, you might get screwed really early. But, the game is pure and it tells stories of betrayal, defying great odds, or merely conquering the world after a quiet, yet massive build up in Japan.

This post isn’t a defense of Risk.  I did that for Monopoly and see no need to re-theme that article. Instead, I want to briefly touch on what Risk: Battlefield: Rogue offers and the sheer potential and coolness, as a designer, of modifying such classics.

Who are you, you Rogue!

This new Risk features a lot of really compelling elements.

  • Six double sided modular boards (like those in Mice and Mystics). More scenarios and more sandboxy.
  • 4 sets of really neat soldier minis, of which there are 4 sculpts: Assault, Engineer, Sniper, and Support. If I hate the game, I’ll use them for a proto!
  • A pile of custom dice! What’s really neat is that there is the standard attack and defense die, but also upgraded attack and defense die for use when you have a tank, or are attacking from cover. This is a really neat way to represent a unit’s power or superior position.
  • There are helicopters and tanks.
  • There are special powers you can draft mid-game.
  • Before every battle, combatants play up to 3 of their cards face-down. This introduces some luck mitigation and hand management to the mix.
  • You draw more cards based on your territory holdings.
  • The game has 3 tiers of difficulty, so that it works with really base-level gamers, or more advanced folks like myself.
  • Every class of soldier slightly augments your capabilities. Recon (snipers) let you shoot farther. Engineers heal your tanks. Assault soldiers can hit and run.

I’ve only read the rules, but there is a lot of really neat stuff here, all built onto the a.) choose how to move and b.) choose where to attack simplicity of Risk. Best case, I just added a fun game built on an engine I love. Worst case? I just received a ton of ideas on how to make a classic better. The balance and scenario design might just be atrocious.

Note: The components are generally sub-par. The box lid was stickered on all 4 sides and I ripped off the label somewhat just getting it open. The dice are indented blank dice with stickers, like the ones I buy for prototypes. The cards feature no art and are bare bones graphic design with some really simple icons. The minis are really slick, and the cardboard is fine (punchboard is mostly punchboard), but the components, especially coming from a company as big as Hasbro, are a tinge budget.

Why Risk Still Matters?

Risk has some really simple elements that build great experiences. Attackers roll more dice, but lose in the tie. Keep attacking? Push your luck? There’s also the entire social game. Remember that first time when you were a child and your friend said “Hey — if you leave me alone in Africa, I’ll not push into North America.” You felt clever. Granted, less so when that same friend punched you with 20 soldiers in a betrayal that would surely repeat itself for years to come.

Instead of raging against Risk, perhaps the goal should be to steal some of these elements and revise them in a better, more modern engine?

Some of my favorite games are clearly inspired by Risk. The excellent 1812: The Invasion of Canada and 1775: Rebellion take pushing dudes on a map, teamwork, and knowing how hard to push in an attack and just make the entire package more interesting, more strategic, and perhaps most importantly, shorter!

The designers and Academy really did some smart things, such as adding custom, symbol based dice instead of the numbered pips. They put little tweaks (based on the faction) into the dice rolls, and added slight variability in the cards. They also varied the classic, well-understood movement mechanic in ways that are very clear to players.

Risk spawned Risk Legacy, which hopefully is just the tip of the iceberg in a fantastic and long-lived legacy genre. One of the designers just announced Seafall in cahoots with Plaid Hat Games. Think for a moment how this designer took a few classic mechanics, even the classic map, and built a game with memory and history, a game that grows and organically changes.

One of the reasons I created the Classic Game Re-Mix Design Challenge (which ends Tuesday) was to see how people design within very strict constraints, their own nostalgia, and the expectations of thousands, to make something fresh and cool.

Risk Legacy does that. I think Risk: Battlefield: Rogue might do it. 1812 does it as well.

Finding the completely unique, original idea is like finding a unicorn. Well, not that hard — it’s actually possible to create a unique idea. But if you’ve designed for a while, you know how long you can stare at a wall fruitlessly with your favorite album just looping endlessly. It’s difficult. Instead of sitting still, you may find a spark and learn something by re-envisioning a classic. Perhaps not even to sell, but just as an exercise to get your mind going.

Be that classic Risk, or Scrabble, or Euchre, don’t overlook the benefit of letting something else give you a head start so you can focus on creating something unique and special. Not always, but sometimes.


Post by: Grant Rodiek

I haven’t written many theoretical/philosophical posts lately, but I realized that I’ve modified my design habits in the past few months and therein lay a topic worthy of discussion. Note: I fear I committed a grammatical atrocity in the previous sentence. 

Between Battle for York and Blockade I shifted my approach and outlook. Regarding the outlook, I cast aside my desires to self-publish and instead decided to focus on getting published. With Farmageddon and York I produced and pitched mature games. Not final or without need for refinement, but I developed them extensively, tried to smooth out a million issues, and pitched them as such.

I found this method exhausting. I put a great deal of pressure on myself to get the game across the finish line (or a potential finish line) based on my own goals and instincts. This is difficult! I fear this also wasn’t aligned with my target audience’s desires, namely, publishers. (Many) publishers are looking for:

  • A game. They need to see the loop, the strategy, the foundation. They do not want a mere idea (Unless you’re awesome and established). The game can be a small percentage of the final product. You see that distinction?
  • A hook. They need to see why it’s unique and what is going to move the game off shelves. This can be thematic, mechanical, or presentation-based, but ideally, a little bit of all 3.

If you think about it, that’s all you can really discuss in a 15 minute pitch. The more details and junk you add to this foundation, the more you detract from the hook. You’re also creating more opportunities for them to not like your game. It’s like winning a (hypothetical sitcom) girl’s heart with your pickup line, and losing her as she learns more about you. Shut your mouth and dance already!

Therefore, for Blockade and Flipped and Draftaria, my goals are simpler: Build what I need to demonstrate the game. Build what I need to demonstrate the hook. Sprinkle in a spice or two to demonstrate where the game can go. But don’t cement these spices such that, if a publisher doesn’t like that direction, it’s a hindrance to obtaining a publication deal.

Let’s look at an example from Blockade to show you what I could have developed, but haven’t yet. These are the the things I haven’t yet done:

  • Ship equipment variations. There is no ECM, Shielding, Afterburners. Just guns.
  • Fleet Building. Without the above bullet, there’s no fleet and squadron building.
  • Sandbox Campaign mode.
  • Advanced firing mechanics, like focused fire.
  • Mid-scenario reinforcements.

All of that sounds really neat, and I desperately want to mess with them. But, I demonstrated restraint and focused. Instead, here are the things I HAVE built:

  • Turn taking/activation mechanic. This has gone through about 5 big iterations and I’m very happy with the current mechanic. 
  • Board design. About three iterations.
  • How to attack. Mostly minor tweaks.
  • How to maneuver. About three iterations.
  • How to change formations. About three iterations.
  • Action cards. Constant iteration.

This looks like a sad, underwhelming list, but it has helped me bring the game to speed rather quickly.

So far, the results have been very promising. I’m doing this now for Flipped. As my core is solid, I’m able to completely extricate mechanics and replace them with others. Why? Because everything is simpler. Tonight as we speak I’m re-designing my scoring model with something a bit crazier. Why? Because I’m able to do so and the game needs it.

Let’s use another game as an example. If you’re familiar with Memoir ’44, imagine if Richard Borg created a version of the game with:

  • Basic cards that indicated how many Units to activate and from what flank.
  • How to move.
  • How to attack with infantry.
  • One terrain type (let’s say forests).

You could see the game there, at least enough to say “let’s publish this.” You actually wouldn’t need any of the following features that shipped with the game to demonstrate the structure and hook of Memoir:

  • All terrain types.
  • All Unit types (Infantry/Artillery/Armor or any of the expansion one-offs).
  • Special movement cards that interrupt or do things other than indicate Units to activate.
  • Star-related ability cards and dice rolls.
  • Scenarios.

The hook of Memoir ’44 is that it’s a highly distilled game of maneuver and focusing fire by best utilizing cards that indicate the number of Units you can activate from the three flanks (left, center, right).

The result of this process has been really delightful for me. I’m getting my games “stood up” more quickly. I’m able to iterate on core, fundamental elements without having to balance within a highly complicated structure. If you need to re-size a cog and you have 15 cogs, that has cascading implications. If you have 3 cogs, it’s much easier.

One of the reasons tweaking the battle mechanic in York has always been so difficult is that it needed to be factored into things like turn order, number of actions, available general actions, available faction actions, scoring phases, and more. By reducing the number of variables, I’ve been able to make better improvements more easily.

My games are also easier to explain now, both to playtesters and publishers. If I’m emailing a contact, I can share a few images that provide the gist of the experience and save them the effort of combing through my lengthy rules document.  If you check out my picture walkthrough of Flipped, you’ll see what I mean. Or, maybe you’ll look at it and think I’m full of poorly designed stuffing.

This also means my games take less time to build. I don’t know about you, but laziness is sometimes a factor in my designs. Flipped was a very easy game to prototype, so I built it. Drafty Dungeon was a painful game to prototype, so I set it aside. By focusing on the core and foundation, you’ll set yourself up for less work. I know the real version of Draftaria will need a metric pile of cards. But, I can demonstrate the game’s core with a very small number. This isn’t how I made York or even Farmageddon and as a result, they took much longer to craft.

Here’s the takeaway. It’s not unique to me or this post, but it bears repeating.

  • Build the simplest implementation of your game.
  • Build with a focus to your hook.
  • Build with a focus to fun.
  • Don’t get caught up in the potential. Get caught up quickly in what’s real.

As you prove these small mechanics, you can layer on additional content, factor in more complexity, add asymmetry, and worry about replayability.

Think big, build small.


Flipped: The Blueprint Preview


Post by: Grant Rodiek

It’s a rainy Saturday here in San Francisco. I spent my morning updating the prototype for Flipped and I had an idea: why not create an image based preview that explains the game? Welcome to the Flipped Blueprint Preview!

Flipped is a euro-style game for 2-5 players. The game is meant to be played in 60 minutes or less and features worker placement, resource management, and a dash of area control. The player with the most points when the Property deck (30 cards) expires, wins.

The meat of the game revolves around assigning your crew to:

  • Buy Property
  • Improve Property
  • Woo Clients

Your crew is an abstraction of the money, time, and labor required to buy homes, fix them, add improvements, conduct real estate sales, and more.

Points are earned by flipping (i.e. selling) properties. You earn more points for adding improvements or catering the home to a client’s specifications. At the end, having flipped the most properties in a neighborhood awards a bonus.

The Legend


Crew Members




Home Inspections


Special Property Cards




Neighborhood Value



Home Improvements








Returning Crew


What do you think? Was this useful, clear, interesting, and informative? What did you find confusing? This was a bit of a content experiment, so I’d love your input. If you’re curious for more, I wrote some quick and dirty rules. Comments allowed in the document.

Posted in Games | Tagged few words, flipped, , pictures, preview, prototype, walkthrough | 13 Replies

Patching York


New player boards, new battle board, simple, ink friendly cards.

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I haven’t worked on York much lately. I crunched hard a few months ago piecing it together and finalizing it to make a nice Print on Demand version. Then, I had a wild idea and contacted a publisher who would be a grand slam for the game. We’re talking Hail Mary pass. Dream publisher. I met the publisher at GenCon, showed York, and it went well.

Now, I’ve been given feedback (after 4 plays in just a few weeks!) that the game is a bit too narrow. It lacks strategic variety and replayability. This is feedback I’ve received in a variety of ways, but as it’s coming from THE publisher, it’s the most important feedback.

I emailed a brain trust of pals and asked them at a high level what they thought. I didn’t share my ideas, I just said “what do you think?” If you’re curious, I pinged and heard back from Chevee Dodd, Ed Marriott, Matt Worden, and Mark Wallace. I picked these chaps because of their diverse tastes, I thought they’d have time to respond, and they’ve played the most recent build of the game. If you look at the list above, these are guys who veer wildly with a preference towards hardcore euros, trashy games, simple mechanical games, and more.

I also bugged folks from my long-term test group here in SF, guys who have played 20+ games.

The key takeaway was this: the game is too tight. It’s so tightly wound that players can’t do different things. I, as the designer, put a death grip on the players’ decisions.

The solution, as I processed this, was obvious. I gave everyone a .22 caliber pistol. What they needed is one of those automatic shotgun thingers. By and large, I haven’t changed the game’s mechanics. I’ve basically just revised the tuning. That’s a good takeaway. Sometimes you have a good foundation — you just need to tweak the digits.

If you’re curious, I’m listing my “patch notes” below. Jeremy Commandeur invited me to a really coolprototype event that I’ll be attending tomorrow night in San Jose. I could have dabbled with this for weeks, but instead, I got to it and have a revised game in only 3 days. I love deadlines.

We’ll see how it goes and if it’s the right step.

Patch Notes

Tuning Tweaks: These are basically just number changes, but I think they’ll make a big difference.

  • Players start with 5 Units (up from 3) – Do interesting things more quickly.
  • Players hold up to 7 cards (up from 5) – Play more cards and do more.
  • Players have a pool of 20 Units (up from 15).
  • There is no longer a Reinforce or Draw Card phase. These used to be free, obvious, non-choices. Now, they are Actions you take (or don’t take). To compensate, the Action phase now gives all players 5 Actions (up from 3).
  • As a result of the above bullet, there are now 4 Phases (fewer): Determine Turn Order, Actions, Battles, Upkeep. Less accounting, more playing.
  • During Upkeep, you only get +3 cards. Which means you’ll need to take draw card actions during the game as an Action.
  • Draw card now gives you +2 cards OR +3 if you control a city. I’m experimenting with more meaningful map-related decisions. There could be more, but I’m starting here.
  • Player decks increased to 30 cards (up from 25).
  • Cards in player decks now range up to 4 and 5 (they used to be only 3). In general, there are more higher number cards in your decks.
  • As an experiment, the 5 card can only be played in combat (icon to remind you).
  • Strategic Victory cards are now worth 4 points (down from 5) to encourage more territory and battle conquest.
  • Battles now reward 2 points immediately (same) but no longer reduce a player’s Unit pool. I want there to be less fear of defeat. Basically, more carrot, less stick.

Mechanic Tweaks

To make movement more fluid and faster, the mechanic has been changed.

  • Old: Move any number of Units form 1 Territory to any 1 adjacent territory.
  • New: Pick a territory. Move any number of Units in Territory to any number of adjacent territories OR move any number of units from adjacent territories to it into the territory.

Basically, you can spread out and gather your forces more quickly.

Forts are removed for the moment. I received some feedback on them that wasn’t conclusive. For now, after taking a move action, players may place a camp token.You can reinforce onto your camp (if the territory is uncontested) or HQ. Therefore, camps work mostly like forts, but do not provide a defensive bonus and can be moved.

Battles and Tactics Tweaks: I think the balance will be off, at best, for these. But, I think the mechanical change is a really strong one. I think it’s the right path.

The game doesn’t use dice, but it’s in need of some form of spectacular variance. Basically, it needs an “oh crap!” moment. Previously, the possibilities were pre-determined. If I play this tactic, it’ll do a precise thing. If you attack me with some number of Units, there is no way I can win. Also, all players used to have unique faction powers.

Now, everyone has the same 6 tactics: 3 defensive, 3 offensive. All of them now have a simpler activation cost (instead of 3 precise cards, it may just say “use any of this type” or “you need one of these, then whatever else you want). Furthermore, all of them can be “powered up.” For example, if you want, you can throw down 4 Artillery cards to do a massive artillery barrage. You can spend a great deal of infantry to flee and retreat some of your Units. This makes battle outcomes less expected and gives players a better choice — what are you willing to spend to win this battle? What do you think your opponent will use?

As a side note, the scouts, infantry, artillery, and cavalry are all used more thematically and intuitively now. It’s less of the abstract: One Horse Symbol + One Cannon Symbol equals arbitrary cube movement. Cannons explode, cavalry charges, and infantry dig in.

Oh! You both now simultaneously pick and reveal your tactics in secret. Evil, I know. The end result will be that battles have more unexpected, big, explosive moments, and as there will be more Units and some retreating, they won’t always be an all or nothing affair.

It’s mostly a UI change, but I also completely revised the battle board. The mechanic and end result is identical, but it’s significantly easier to learn now. I’ve done away with the 3 waves. Both players now have a front line (soldiers who will fight and die) and the reserves. Same thing, easier to learn.

One more tactics change is that you can now spend cards to power your Move action. You can spend Cavalry cards to increase your movement. More ways to spend your cards and it’s much simpler than my special maneuvers of old. Very similar experience, much simpler, and more choice. There are a few other simplifications around this, but you get the gist.

Something New: Events

I’m testing this Thursday as a way to introduce more variance, some neat, narrative style events, and generally, just to give players an “ooo what next!” every round. The idea is that at the start of every round an event card is drawn from a new deck. Let’s say there are 30. This event will add something to the board to change the state of things.

My goal is this: These add an opportunity. They are not a “whoever is on this space loses all of their units.” My two go-to examples are:

  • Spies have located an old imperial armory. Get here to get a bonus 3 Artillery card. If you think to the current conflict in Syria or even the Texas Revolution, these moments really matter.
  • The peasants have risen up in the cities. Add a neutral color of Units to the city spaces. You’ll need to deal with them.

Events will hopefully give players neat tools to use, an alternate way to earn points, and just throw a wrench in everyone’s perfectly laid plans. Note that I need to figure out a clever way to figure out where the Events land. I don’t want a card to always affect the same space.


As I noted above, for now, Factions don’t exist. For the longest time York was purely an asymmetric faction game. Then, to make it more accessible, I introduced a generic, shared faction for players to learn when beginning to play. What I found is that it was actually still really fun. It didn’t feel like baby mode.

The factions have greatly hindered accessibility, have added a not fun learning curve to the game, and, due to how I implemented them, added a bit more AP than I’d like. For now, I’m doing away with them. I have ideas on how to bring them back, notably just the 1 passive attribute of every faction, which was really one of the most important parts anyways. We’ll see.


An idea I like (from Chevee) but won’t implement yet is the notion of territorial regions. A single territory is worth 1 point, but if you get all 3 of a region together it’s a +3. Chevee stole this from Risk (his words) and noted that it fixes the “eh, I’ll just go around and take this territory instead” vibe. I like this, but feel I need to dial back all the changes. I’ll hold this one in my pocket.

In conclusion

What do you think? Thoughts? Concerns? Thanks for reading!

Giving Feedback


Post by: Grant Rodiek

On this blog me and other writers have discussed how to use feedback, how to interpret feedback, what questions to ask of your testers, but never advice on how to give feedback. If you’re anything like me, you associate with other designers and you play many prototypes. As people who understand and love design, we can probably better our community (and quality of games) by giving better feedback. Or, at least providing it in a more useful fashion.

This list is based on my experiences at GenCon, Protospiel, and casual test sessions. It’s the result of pet peeves, great insights received, and things I’d like to see more of.

Save your perceptions until the end. I cannot properly express in words how frustrating it is to be told of a feature’s imbalance 2 turns into the game, or to see a more casual friend bow up just by looking at the number of pieces. “Oh, it’s too complicated! I won’t have fun.”

The thing is, your perception is useful. It really is. If you perceive an imbalance and that taints your enjoyment, that’s something I’ll need to try to address. If you think the game looks overwhelming, that matters because it may change my target demographic.

But, what’s also important is how you feel at the end of the experience, or even just further along. For example, if you think the game is imbalanced from start to finish, that means one thing. If you thought something was imbalanced, but by the end felt that it wasn’t, that means another thing.

These little gut quirks can be distracting for the test, both for you and the designer. When you get a knee jerk, take a note of it, check it at the end of the game, and bring it up with all the information.

My favorite example of this is random turn order in York. Without fail, someone goes “ugh random turn order that breaks everything!” Then they play for an hour and find that they don’t really care (often). I’ve had people cry over the imbalance of a single Fleet card in Blockade, only to watch them devastate their opponent the very next turn.

Therefore: Note your gut reaction. Think on it. Provide input later based on the result.

Be aware of the current state of graphical presentation. Many prototypes look like garbage. Yes, there’s a healthy (and interesting) debate about how nice a prototype should look. My stance is typically to focus on functionality and simple icons to represent actions in a less abstract manner.

It’s not unreasonable for you to ask at the outset: What sort of feedback are you looking for in regards to the graphic design and presentation? The designer’s answer can greatly focus your thoughts.

In my experience, it’s very frustrating to be told my typeface choice lacks theme when I’m on an early prototype. On the other hand, it’s very useful to be told the current layout makes a player think an action means one thing when it really means another.

Good things to point out are:

  • Whether you need a reference card to remind you of actions
  • Where text lacks clarity or supports multiple interpretations
  • Where diagrams could be added to improve understanding

When I took York to Gencon 2012, I found that the layout of my player boards did not properly highlight or organize important information. The round track didn’t remind people of scoring, and the score reference didn’t tell them how or when to score things. Getting feedback on this was monstrously useful.

Basically: Ask what to look for in regards to graphics. If it’s time to nitpick fonts and the size of the icon, fantastic. But more likely, you’ll need to help the designer improve functionality.

Share a little bit about who you are. I’m fairly decent at reading people, but often times, before I can properly evaluate your feedback, it helps to know who YOU are. This is a weird fuzzy point, but addressing it is a good way to give the designer an anchor point. Some things to tell them:

  • A few of your favorite games. This tells me what you think about Euros versus Ameritrash, luck versus skill, complexity, game length, theme choices/interests.
  • What you look for in a game, or, why you play games. Some people seek the aggression of war, or engine building, or thorough, long-term analysis and optimization. Or, seeking exploits. Some people just want story.
  • Some of your least favorite games. It helps knowing what experiences or mechanics really rub you the wrong way.

At GenCon 2013, my friend Cole tested his game Aphelion with a group of random guys on Wednesday night. Aphelion is greatly influenced by Talisman, so it was really useful to hear: “Hey, we love Talisman. This has a Talisman vibe we really enjoy.” He knew they were arguably his target audience.

Conversely, if I were testing Blockade, a game about direct conflict and lots of dice rolls, and honestly, not an intense amount of deep strategy, my design friend Gil Hova would probably hate every part of it. I need to understand his point of view to properly evaluate his input.

Help the designer understand your point of view. Where possible, remove the cuneiform from the conversation.

Give the why. It’s really simple. If you like something, or don’t, the more explanation as to why you feel that way, the better. Remember, your feedback will hopefully spurn action items for the designer to improve the game. If you just say “I strongly dislike this mechanic,” we’re suddenly at a 4 way stop with no clue as to how we should turn.

This is an extension of who you are, as the why might vary from player to player and be influenced by your perception. But, provide the designer with additional, colorful input on why something did or didn’t work for you.

Feel free to discuss the high level experience. Often, folks focus on the minutiae, which is useful as a designer may have a particular trouble spot or may ask for advice on improving a specific aspect. But, it’s shockingly useful when someone comments on the overall experience of the game.

At GenCon 2012, some folks whose opinion I greatly respect told me that York‘s biggest issues were bad pacing and shoddy presentation. The game was slower and more confusing than it needed to be. That insight drove some of my best iterations on the game.

Recently, many peers noted that York is just too tightly wound. The tuning is unforgiving and there’s just not enough flexibility. Again, this has driven a lot of good, useful changes.

Far too often people discuss the tiny details. This is very useful and appreciated. But, don’t forget to take a step back and discuss high level things about the overall experience and vibe of the game.

Flippin’ Friday


Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve been working in my spare time in the evenings on building Flipped. This is a game I’m actively working and designing. It’s real and will happen. Unlike much I discuss on this blog. I’d put a smiley face emoticon there, but it pains me to do so.

I’m excited about this game. It’s good to do something completely different. It makes me a better designer and forces my brain to do things in new ways.

I created Flipped based on the name, which just popped into my head. It’s about flipping homes, or more broadly (and optimistically), urban renewal. Your team (and others like you) have been hired by the city to revitalize the neighborhoods to stir a new age of growth and prosperity.

Homes will be represented on the board with 1 inch square punchboard tokens. One side, a decrepit home, the other a rebuilt, beautiful place to live. My hope is that as the game progresses, the board is transformed from a dire state to something lovely.

Starting point...

Starting point…

...ending point.

…ending point.

My goal for the game is that it supports 2-5 players in 60 minutes or less. 45 minutes is my sweet spot, so I’m really pushing for that. I think the game will be more complex than Ticket to Ride, but not by to much. The game will be turn-based. I’m not using a round based structure in the hopes of reducing complexity and rules, streamlining the experience, and focusing on brisk pacing.

Players will take one action on their turn from a pool of three: Buy one of the 4 homes available for sale, improve a home, or flip/sell a home. I think I’ll need a fourth “release valve” interaction, but for now, this is it.

Homes are represented by a deck of simple cards which are shuffled at the start of the game. Four will be drawn and are available for purchase. As a home is purchased, a new card is drawn and placed on the board. Cards are simple and contain the following information:

  • Neighborhood. This is currently A, B, C, or D, but in a final version I envision a symbol with a color, like Beach District or Inner City. 
  • Number. This is to indicate the space number. So, A3 is the third house in A neighborhood. Fictionally, this is the address.
  • Cost. This is the cost to acquire/fix the house sufficiently to sell. See below.
  • Improvement possibilities. Just an empty circle (which is the shape of the improvement tokens).

Early on I was troubled by the amount of math in the game. Players had to manage outflow of cash, inflow of cash, and various multipliers. It made me sick to my stomach and I came to a compromise that I think will work well, at least initially. Every player will have a crew of 3 cubes. Buying a home will cost 1-3 cubes, which are returned at the start of your next turn (1 per job site). The abstraction is that this is your team and there is minimum work required for every home you purchase. Some homes require more work. The fiction is that you are “paying” them and by using them, you expend a resource. But this way, you don’t need to manage money going both ways.

The other benefit is that I’m still throttling players. If you don’t have sufficient cubes, you cannot obtain more homes. I’m trying to figure out how players can obtain more cubes to increase their crew. My current thinking is that players remove 1 cube per home/work site at the start of their turn, so a home that costs 3 will take 3 turns to return all cubes. I’m also thinking that a player can buy multiple homes on their turn as long as they belong to the same neighborhood.

Some cards will have a symbol that causes the card on the end of the buy row to leave the market permanently. This will have a negative impact on the neighborhood value. This exists to push the game along and remind players “Hey, if you want something, you might want to get it now!”

As homes are improved (or left decrepit), the neighborhood’s value will change. This is conveyed with a simple graphic. A marker will move up and down this track. Small circles are just progress, but big circles are a threshold with an actual price change. I don’t know fully how this will work yet, but essentially, players will be driving up the value with small purchases in order to make their big investments bigger payouts.


Another idea I’m experimenting with is that neighborhoods can impact the value of others. The idea of a synergistic city appeals to me and I want to try to do this simply. For example, the low value neighborhood, if left to rot, will hinder the nicer neighborhoods near it. Go deep on a single neighborhood at your peril — you are not an island!

As a way to incorporate variance and the unexpected, there will be municipal events (better name pending). These are the four 2 inch square spaces on the board. There are 4 cards in the deck — an A, B, C, and D. You then pull the top tile from the municipal stack and place it on that letter’s space. These will be things like a new school, which is good! Or an increase in crime, which is bad! Or a new metro, which helps with hiring contractors and such. The idea is to simply vary the rules of the game as it progresses. These should never hose someone. They will never be “every player loses 3 cards.” I want to make that clear. The goal is that they provide new opportunities and force players to be reactive and think on their toes.

I’ve distilled home improvements into 4 simple items, each represented simply by a colored token at the moment. The categories are: Landscaping, Painting, Electrical, and Layout. These are ranked in order of complexity/cost. The general idea is that you can hire contractors (a limited and shared resource) to do this work, which will increase the value of the homes. Furthermore, players will have hidden clients that have certain requirements.

The action a player will take is to hire the contractor for a job and pay the cost. The contractor is now not available. When finished, the player places the token on the circle space on the house card. If sold, the house will bring in more than a house without the upgrade.

The game ends when the deck of homes runs out. The winner will be the player who contributed to the city the most and made the most money. Some combination of those, I think.

The game at a high level is this: You get one action per turn and must decide what you want the most. Players will be competing to buy homes, acquire new clients (also in the home row), increase the value of neighborhoods in which they are invested, hire limited contractors, and take advantage of the municipal events.

My hope is to refine the choices  and content such that there is great tension (not stressful). I want this contractor so I can sell this home…but man I don’t want Bob next to me to get 3 more houses in this neighborhood next turn. Gah!

I don’t really know what the game’s hook is yet, which is bad, but it’s my first euro and I really just need to make it right now. Mechanically, the game involves:

  • Area Influence: Modify the value of homes in a neighborhood and nearby neighborhoods.
  • Resource Management: I have limited workers, money, and there are opportunity costs for taking one action versus another.
  • Hidden Goals: We have clients that are unique and private to us.

The game is less becoming an economics game, but frankly, I didn’t want to make Power Grid.

Thematically the game has been very well received. Seconds after saying the name and saying “You’re improving homes,” people go “Oh yeah! Cool.” People get it and connect to it. Presentation wise, I’m thinking the board might resemble a blueprint and over the course of the game, a beautiful and colorful city comes to live. It can go from drab and decrepit to colorful and nice.

I’m rambling.

What do you think?

Scenarius Testus


Post by: Grant Rodiek

Blockade fared well at GenCon. My goal was to bring forth a nice core rule set to demonstrate maneuvering, combat, and my nifty little formation mechanic. I think this went well. But, I heard repeatedly that players want more variety. They wanted to see new objectives, variant means of setup, and so forth. Since then, I’ve also been asked to consider alternate ship and fleet building options.

Well, you’re in luck. Scenarios were planned from the beginning! In this post, I’d like to discuss scenario design at a high level in the hopes the thoughts are useful to other designers. I’ll be using examples from games like Memoir ’44, Robinson Crusoe, Mice and Mystics, and Blockade.

Quick links:

  • Rules for Blockade
  • Campaign book for Blockade (Story and 3 Scenarios)

Note: The rules don’t yet incorporate my card-based presentation idea mentioned here. However, some scenarios tell you to “draw the reference card.” I hope that isn’t too confusing.

Scenarios exist to provide structured and planned variety in a game. Scenarios can easily add spice to an intentionally simple core design that might otherwise lack replayability. Much of the complexity in York, a game without scenarios, is to allow for flexibility so that not every game is the same. Alternate goals, faction abilities, dynamic fort placement — all of these help make different plays unique. Were it scenario driven, the core could perhaps be simpler.

Scenarios can also provide a framework for telling a story, which is something you’ll see more and more of in games.

To satisfy these goals, here are some of the components of good scenario design:

Scenarios provide new goals. One of the best ways to vary a combat driven game is to shift the goal from “destroy everything” to something else. Starcraft II does this masterfully. Yes, in every mission you’re going to be building bases, commanding units, and engaging in combat. But, why you do that changes almost every time. Some of my favorite Memoir ’44 missions force me to capture an objective or protect something. Yes, I’m still fighting, but I’m doing so with a purpose other than annihilation.

In Mice and Mystics, sometimes I need to fight specific monsters, or take specific actions (like Search) in certain rooms. Am I still mostly fighting as I move through the level? Yes, but now I also have something else to do.


Every scenario in Robinson Crusoe gives the player a new goal, which is often an entirely new mechanic. These are cleverly given their own boards to visually reinforce what needs to be done. I have only played this once, but I think it’ll be a good teacher for me.

So far in Blockade, most of my missions end when a point total is reached by one of the teams. Points are primarily earned by destroying the opponent, but I’ve introduced alternate methods to distract you, like defenseless merchant ships you can destroy (and escort), or precious cargo containers that you can board and steal.

Good goals should present a new experience without forcing me to re-learn the mechanics. Things I’ve learned in one scenario should transfer to another, but how I use this knowledge can shift.

Scenarios twist the rules. Scenarios in many ways are like cards — they let you break the rules within reason. Memoir ’44 does this in a few brilliant ways:

  • Players defending in a surprise attack begin with fewer cards to represent the commander being surprised and having fewer options.
  • Soviet players must select their move one turn in advance to represent the commissars restricting the freedom of battlefield commanders and generally obstructing the victory.
  • Winter rules make some terrain types deadly, when in summer, no such rules exist.


These rules need to be introduced lightly and sparingly. At most, 1-2 per scenario. Remember, the player shouldn’t have to revisit your rule booklet every time a new scenario is played. Bend the rules, twist them. Don’t erase them and start from scratch.

In one Blockade mission, I allow the Martian ships to escape from a pre-defined jump point. To do so, they must hit a difficult roll. That’s it.

Good scenarios give me a new way to experience the core I love without hurting my head or confusing me.

Scenarios change a player’s tool set. Military games do this really well. In new scenarios you can define:

  • The number of units a player has available
  • The type of Units a player has available
  • The location and setup of these units on the board

Blockade uses all of these, because it just makes sense. Fantasy games like Mice and Mystics alter the enemies you fight or the members in your party.

You can also change the actions available to a player. Perhaps a lieutenant in this situation can order a squad to use smoke grenades, which isn’t always available. This way you limit and customize a player’s actions to add variety within reason, but don’t overwhelm them with 50 actions available always.

In Robinson Crusoe, different scenarios change the tools (literally, like rope) available to you. This means you don’t just use knife, traps, and chemistry every scenario. You have to branch out!

Good scenarios give the players a new toy to play with. Something exciting that sparks their imagination. Good scenarios force players to get out of their comfort zone and pursue a different tactic.

Scenarios change the scenery. Scenarios are a great opportunity to transport players to a new part of the world you’ve created. With just a few boards and hex tokens, I can fight on any battlefield in the world in Memoir ’44. Similarly, Robinson Crusoe adds volcanoes, or Mice and Mystics moves me from the guard room to the courtyard.

In Blockade, I’m dealing with space, so I can’t just add trees. However, I CAN introduce asteroid belts, debris fields, space stations, defensive lasers, planets, and anything else you’ve seen in Star Wars. This can easily be done with a handful of generic tokens and event cards shuffled into the deck to power them.

Using the items above, this scenery can introduce new rules. For example, asteroids add protection when you’re inside a belt, though if they crash into you, they can also hurt you. Watch out!


Continuing on this, the scenery can add new goals. I may have a scenario where one side needs to protect a space station. The other should destroy it.

Therefore, scenery isn’t just a set of new curtains, but a medium by which to enhance and vary the experience.

Good scenarios take players to new places and change the rules in a thematic and exciting way.

Scenarios change the difficulty or provide an advantage. This isn’t a primary one, but it’s something I like. Scenarios give you a chance to handicap a great player by putting him at a disadvantage, or giving players an opportunity to see who does the best in a bad situation.

Personally, I think it’s fun to see who can hold the Alamo the longest. Can you beat 13 days?

One of my favorite examples is the Battle of Hoth. The Imperials clearly had an advantage here. A superior fleet, the element of surprise, and superior ground forces. The Rebels were always going to lose. Really, the question was how badly? Based on the movie, I’d say they did quite well! With relatively few loses, the fleet and majority of their resources escaped with only minor casualties.

That’s the type of thing I’d like to see in Blockade. There are going to be times when the Martians, for example, should lose. But, how badly will they do so? Can the Martian Admiral change the course of history, or at least give himself a better footing in the next mission when the tables turn?

Good scenarios let you change the balance of things. Balance isn’t always required. Really, the only requirement is that the scenario is fun and reasonable. 50 against 1? Lame. There’s an obvious level of silliness, but getting it just right is the hard part.

What do you think a good scenario should do? What are some of your favorite scenario based games?

Hyperbole Greatest Hits


Post by: Grant Rodiek

To celebrate Labor Day 2013, I thought it’d be fun to share and link to some of my favorite interviews, guest columns, and posts over the past few years. You might have missed them! Enjoy and tell me what you liked.

Interviews Aplenty

Jamey Stegmaier is very well known for his incredibly thorough blog that focuses heavily on Kickstarter advice. Around the time of his second game, Euphoria, I interviewed him. Or did I? Jamey turned the tables on me and this one-way chat became a full blown, two part conversation. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

I interviewed designer Gil Hova a short while ago about his latest game, Battle Merchants. Gil is someone with a lot of strong, thoughtful opinions and we dove headfirst into many a design discussion. This is one of my favorite interviews.

I interviewed Sam Liberty and Kevin Spak about their Shakespearean RPG, Forsooth! This is something I didn’t know much about and I loved our conversation. One day I’d love to design a game like this, so it was just great overall.

The Best Guests

Jesse Catron wrote a post about feedback loops and it really stuck with me. Honestly, it’s in my head every time I work on my game. This is a must-read for serious designers.

Corey Young, a designer whose first published game, Gravwell, dominated my feed after GenCon, wrote about pitching to publishers. You should read this. Not only is it feedback I use constantly, it helped him get his second game picked up. That’s two!

The most recent guest column, but also one of the best, frequent contributor Jay Treat wrote about How to Teach your Game. This should be read by designers heading to cons or promoting their game in general.

Finally, the very first post on Hyperbole Games was this inspirational post written by my friend/co-worker/design mentor, Ray Mazza. It’s about finding your holy grail in game design.

Pardon my Ego

These are posts written by me. I’m trying to select ones that intersect the line between things I liked, things others told me they liked, and things that had good traffic.

My post on designing towards a strong theme seemed to resonate with a lot of people. It’s short and to the point.

My post titled “The Great Game Molecules” detailed many of the things I think are essential for a great game. What do you think?

I wrote briefly about working with artists, some dos, some don’ts. This is very much intended for new designers and aspiring publishers.

One of my posts about a new idea that went away is still a neat post. I had the idea to craft an alternate history game. Re-reading this post now, I want to revive this!

I wrote a love-letter to my favorite game component, cards. It’s fascinating to see how in some ways my opinions have, and have not, changed.

Finally, one of my favorite posts, and one that comes up often, is my defense of Monopoly.

Enjoy, and happy Labor Day!

Posted in Blog | Tagged best of, blog, greatest hits, , interviews | Leave a reply

Interview/Kickstarter Promotion Policy


Policy by: Grant Rodiek

If you create a blog that has more than 3 readers, you start receiving monthly emails from this really shady advertising company that wants to pay you $40 yearly to post full page ads about Disney Cruises and such.

If you create a blog about board games that has more than 3 readers, you start receiving weekly emails from (sometimes) well-meaning Kickstarter designers who want to promote their latest project. I get it. I really do.

I’m not interested in either and I’m writing this policy so that moving forward I can point people towards this link. I created this blog to write about design, games I love, and designers I find interesting. The thing is, if I don’t know you or your game, I’m not sure what we’re going to talk about in our interview.

I may only have a few readers, but I want them to trust me. That’s about as high as a horse as I can get on due to my stubby legs.

Here are the rules you should know:

  • If I want to interview you for this site, I will contact you.
  • I do not have time or interest in making your PNP. I’m desperately scrounging for hours to make my own games. If you really care, send a copy to bloggers you deem influential. You must respect our time.
  • You should get to know me before asking me for favors. It’s not hard. I’m on Twitter all day, every day.

I think that covers it. As always, feel free to comment below or .