An Example of Process


Post by: Grant Rodiek

One thing new designers (or really, all designers) have issues with are being focused enough to move forward with their ideas. Many new, undisciplined creative people say “I have an idea!” and are then crippled with indecision about where to go next. Or, they go somewhere next, then somewhere else, and ultimately create a wasteful spiderweb of inane thought.

I just returned from a weekend trip to Texas and I’m about to jump on a plane to visit Thailand and Vietnam. That means I won’t have my computer to work on Mars Rising, As a result, I busted out my legal pad and began working on my next design. I noticed at the end of the weekend that I had 6 fleshed out pages, arranged in a way that was very methodical and useful. I fleshed out many details and answered many questions.

I’m not going to share my notes — it’s a bit premature for that. But, I thought it might be useful for some if I shared the outline of my notes, the order I did things, and why. By sharing processes that work well for me, I hope you might learn something. Then, you can share your successes and we all improve!

1.) The Introductory Paragraph: At the top of the first page I wrote a purely fictional introduction. My goal was to define:

  • The role of the players.
  • The conflict.
  • How the players win.
  • The fictional trappings of it all (fantasy, kingdom in danger)

Now, at this phase I didn’t know how players won. I had an idea, but I wasn’t sure. I left that section blank and circled it very noticeably.

2.) Built a components list: This section was revised more than any other, but as I was creating an outline, knowing what tools I had to work with was really important. This included:

  • Tentative name of deck and my gut check for the number of cards, so things like “Location (12)” and “Travel (50).”
  • General token types, such as coins or good and evil.
  • Character pawns.
  • Dice.

photo (1)

By listing this out, I know what I need to use and what tools I have at my disposal. Writing things down reinforces its existence in your mind. If you force yourself to remember everything, you’ll tap out your brain and begin forgetting and overlooking things. Once I had this in my notebook, I was able to constantly re-reference it.

3.) Loosely Define Setup: I wanted to get my head around the notion of what my players would see when they sat at the table. I wanted to think about the spatial arrangement of the components and think about the amount of information new players need to procees.

This is very high level and loose, but I wanted to generally think about:

  • The number of players.
  • How many decks they need to shuffle and arrange.
  • The pieces they get to choose.
  • How many “choices” they need to make during setup, such as characters and things.

Even at this early stage, you can identify what might be overwhelming for players.

 Just a quick note. As I’m writing all of this, when I thought of something I didn’t want to forget, I’d quickly jot it down in the margins and box it in so that it was easy to find. For example, my travel mechanic is based on a value on the sides of the location cards. I quickly noted that in a box. I also thought about how you might sell loot back to the game, so I made a note of that.

4.) Define Card Types: My game is very card driven. From step number 2 I generally know how many decks I think I need to satisfy the game. Now, I need to go another level deeper to think about the types of cards within it.

Some of these types have a single mechanic, such as cards with Traveler functionality that move through the world. There are also events, that must be played. Then there are states, which permanently affect a location, at least until removed.

When I think of Loot, a simple bulleted list helps me identify the need for gold, weapons, spells, and gear. Continuing with the note from the Quick Aside above, I jot down that there may be cards with a “when resolved” type note to further modify the world. Or, tie ins to the my dice mechanic.

5.) Define a Basic Turn: In a big box in the center of the page, I wrote down the three steps of a player’s turn. Sometimes this comes early in a process, sometimes later. I think it’s one of the most crucial questions you must answer (and re-answer as you develop).

At this point, return to step 2 and examine the components you have. If a player does A, then B, then C, do you have sufficient cards to provide sufficient variety and strategy? If you know what a player will do every turn, are there new components or features the design might need to be a fully fleshed out loop?

6.) Define Locations: Locations are the core spatial element of the game. They are essentially the board or the map. Before I could define my other content, I needed to know, generally, the parameters of my world. I filled a page with a dozen locations, each with little notes on art and presentation, potential bonuses and mechanics, and so forth. This entire page is very very loose and will all change, but I needed to know the ground on which my players would be standing, so to speak.

7.) Draw Cards: I filled a page with 7 high quality, hand-drawn sketches of cards. I tried to draw one of every card type and define synergies between cards. For example, in one place I had a goblin scout who had a connection with the goblin lords. I made sure to mock this up so that I could see what it would look like if I indeed implemented this functionality.

photoOver time I began to list icons that would be needed and I began to understand even more how players will hold and play cards. For example, players can equip a hero with a single weapon. This is splayed to the left of the hero. They can also have a single piece of gear, which is splayed to the bottom. I kept the information needed to play the card in the top left (so you can read with a hand of cards), but designed the permanent info of the card based on how it would be played to the table.

This was also useful in that it gave me an idea of how much information I was expecting players to process at every step of the game. On a turn, players will choose a single card to play. That decision concerns the 1-3 pieces of information in the top left corner. Later in the turn, players may need to use information at the bottom of the card. It is key, to prevent players from being overwhelmed and general AP, to understand the parameters I’ll be putting before players.

Doodling helps this.

8.) Define Characters: This exercise is similar to Step 6. Like Locations, I have a small number of characters, one per player. These exist in every game and will be primary drivers of decisions and content, so I decided to list and jot down the general ideas for each character.

I’m taking a very systematic approach with the characters to keep them simple and make the introductory experience a good one. Therefore, defining these 8 characters was quick and painless. I’m also not naming them, because I want players to fill in the blanks themselves. Therefore, I simply defined what it meant to be a character and punched out 8 quickly. Is this final? No, but it’s another layer that helps guide the rest of my process.

9.) Big Deck Break Down: I have a few larger decks of approximately 50-60 cards. That’s the number I feel is necessary to prototype the game. It may be more, may be fewer. For each of these decks, I did rough numbers of the distribution for card type, using the information from Step 4. For example, the Travel Deck (50 cards) might have:

  • 6 Travelers
  • 3 Merchants
  • 25 Enemies
  • 6 Events
  • 10 Shortcuts/Location Bonuses

This helps me know the importance of every card type. I can also break this down further to think about the distribution within the sorts. For example, if half the deck are enemies, how many of those enemies should be easy? How many difficult? At this stage I’m largely driven by a gut feeling and push for excitement, so it’s easy to define these things based on years of playing games. How right I am is yet to be seen (I wager I’m quite wrong), but I need to start somewhere.

Next Steps: Now, it’s time to build the actual cards. I have my checklist of the number and type of every card. My preferred process is to cut out that many index cards (I split blank cards in half) and then label them. For example, Travel – Event, or Loot – Weapon. I then stack them up and flip through them with a pencil. When I have an idea, I create the card. When I’m stuck, I put them back in my backpack.

Then, we play.

Was this useful? Were any new ideas for your own processes found? Feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments below!

Mars Rising PNP


Post by: Grant Rodiek

At ease, admirals. I wanted to quickly gauge interest in a limited Mars Rising PNP. I say limited because it will be, for the time being, just a few scenarios. This is because I only have 3 I’m ready to share and because I want to limit the effort it takes to create the PNP.

For every scenario I specify the ships and components needed, which means you don’t need to build the entire game to play it. To play scenario 1, for example, you would only need:

  • Print the board, which you simply tape out of a few 8.5×11 pages
  • 15 ship cards
  • 6 regular d6
  • 20 quarter sized tokens (if you have a circular or square punch this’ll take seconds)
  • About 15 tokens (cubes, Summoner Wars damage markers) for damage
  • 12 Squadron tokens (really quick to cut out)

Basically, the effort, for a PNP, is relatively minor.

My hope is to gauge interest in the design, confirm my local testing, test the quality of the rules, but also, gather any scenario and ship ideas you might have.

It will take me a few hours to put this all together, so if nobody is interested, I’d rather put that effort elsewhere. If you’re interested in printing and playing the first, second, and third scenarios (essentially the intro to the campaign), comment below, email me, or hit me up on Twitter.


Catch Up, Now


Post by: Grant Rodiek

Game design peer and fellow farming game designer Doug Bass of Meridae Games asked me the following on Twitter:


To this, I answered yes. Free topic? Oh yeah. He then asked:


Interesting. This isn’t something I’ve explicitly thought about much, but it’s something I imagine I incorporate quite a bit into my designs. Let’s get into it, shall we?

What is a Catch Up Mechanic?

A catch up mechanic is something that exists in the game in order to keep things close and tight until the very end. It’s also referred to rubber-banding as someone can get stretched way far back, then slung forward to the front.

One of the most obvious examples of this can be seen in Mario Kart, the video game. Often, the player in the lead will get weak power ups when in first place. However, the player in last place will tend to get ridiculously powerful abilities. As a result, if you’re in 1st, you need to be good to stay there. This levels the playing field when unevenly skilled players are at it, adds a layer of strategy when advanced players are at it, and frustrates whiners.

To summarize, the catch up mechanic exists to keep one player from sprinting ahead early and staying there. After all, if everyone knows who is going to win 15 minutes into the game, the next 45 minutes (or more) won’t be fun for anyone.

Bad Catching

In general, a catch up mechanic will be very frustrating for players more interested in player skill and serious competition when playing. It’ll generally make them feel as if their good play was useless as a bad player can simply catch back up by merely failing the most.

I’d also argue that bad catch up mechanics can be gamed or used as a form of strategy. Generally speaking, you want the player who wins to be the one who played the best (augmented by some degree of luck, which is up to the designer). I think a bad catch up mechanic is one that can be gamed such that savvy players deliberately play poorly knowing they can abuse a catch up mechanic skillfully in order to take the top spot. Granted, if you like such a strategy, perhaps implement it not as a catch up mechanic but an alternate path to victory. It’s a philosophical point, but an important one.

Some Simple, Good Examples

A few simple examples of relatively simple, light catch up mechanics in games include:

  • Altering turn order. The value of turn order changes for every game, but it typically revolves around being first or being last. Some games will put the player with the most points in the least advantageous turn order.
  • Target the leader. In the case of ties, you’ll see some punitive game events target the leader, or in the case of ties, the leader will suffer the worst.
  • Light Bonus. If a player has a bad round, he gains a small bonus to improve his chances in the following round. In The Speicherstadt, players get 1 additional coin at the end of the round if they don’t win any auctions. This is usually not by choice and is such a tiny advantage it doesn’t upset the game. It gives them another tool, not a trophy.
  • Incentivize Abilities. In Alien Frontiers, the Raiders’ Outpost costs 3 dice in a straight. It’s not the easiest to pull off. Furthermore, it’s not really a useful action for the player in the lead. It is, however, great for a player who has nothing else to lose and needs to get back in the game.

Avoiding Entirely

I generally don’t think to add catch up mechanics to my games. But, I do generally design for close games that come down until the very end before it’s decided. Typically, I do this by limiting player resources and actions. It doesn’t matter how far ahead you are, if you only have so many actions, you can only accomplish so much.

For example, in Farmageddon, players can only play a maximum of 2 Action cards. This means everyone has an equal shake to upset the game. Furthermore, players who get an early start with big crop harvests (Wary Squash is worth $15) often spend a lot of resources to do so. Foreclosure consumes 1-2 crop cards just to use, Crop Rotation costs 1 Crop to use, Foul Manure often costs 2 crops to use, and Wary Squash requires 4 crops to harvest. That means Bob might be way ahead, but he’s also out of gas. I’ve seen players go 3 full rounds without planting anything in Farmageddon come out on top. Every turn matters until the very end.

I limit players in York similarly. For example, all players have a maximum of 15 Units and only a few actions with which to move them. Sure, you can spread thin to hold more territory, but you’ll be an easy target for wolfish opponents. All combat results in attrition, so even if a player wins a battle, he’ll likely need to slow down to replenish Units before returning to the offensive. Finally, there are only 2 scoring rounds, which are spread apart. You may get ahead early, but you’ll need to continue for 3 more rounds before scoring again. A great deal can happen in that time.

Often, when I play a game that feels like a foregone conclusion for much of the experience, I don’t feel it’s in need of a catch up mechanic, but often a little more balance in its core.

Action cards are often a good way to keep everyone in the game, especially powerful, decisive ones. In Forbidden Desert, players gain really powerful cards that essentially multiply the effectiveness of typical actions, but in a very limited sense. If used properly, these help keep the players in the game without removing a challenge.

Another example are the ship/water movement cards in the Birth of America series, specifically 1812: Invasion of Canada and 1775: Rebellion. One side may be dominating a particular area, making it nigh impenetrable by land. Except, the other side will use a warship to ferry an army around your lines to disturb the stalemate. Was it fair? Sure, you knew they had it and that they could use it. You have them too! But, is it a catch up mechanic per se? No. It just keeps the game interesting and eliminates the runaway leader problem.

Having multiple resources is often a good way to keep the race fair. For example, in Settlers of Catan, players will have good resources for 1 or 2 of the resources, but not all of them. This forces trade or expensive dock trade-ins. A player rich in wood will only be rich for so long. In order to build things, she’ll need to part with it in trade.

Another simple way is to use resources to gain resources. Sure, I have a pile of gold. If you force me to spend it to acquire other things, that’ll cap my lead somewhat. This is largely based on tuning, but if you force a constant amount of inputs, nobody can get too far ahead.

It also may be the case that your game simply doesn’t need a catch up mechanic. If the game is short enough, or the information regarding scoring is hidden, you may not need such a mechanic. Often times, the perception of being in the game is just as viable as actually being in the game. In Modern Art, nobody knows how much money everyone else has. Plus, there are so many ways to win that game. I’ve played many times and revealed at the end thinking I was a competitor, only to find I was hundreds of dollars from the winning slot. Did I mind? No, because I had fun the entire time.

In Conclusion

Some easy tricks to keep things fair are to change turn order or give very slight bonuses. You can also implement bigger, lower level changes like introducing hidden scoring or allowing for dynamic action cards.

At the end of the day, really think about how players will win the game and what is required of them. Focus on mechanics that keep your players engaged for the duration and limit everyone so that no one player can keep dominating everyone unless you want that.

Ultimately, if you feel your game needs a catch up mechanic, look deeper than the symptoms to find the root case. You may not be in need of a band-aid addition, but a more fundamental change to improve the game.

How did I do, Doug? And everyone else? If you have any good examples of catch up mechanics, share them. If you know of some bad ones, share those too. Chime in! 

Great Reads of Late


Post by: Grant Rodiek

Reading is one of my favorite and most consistent sources of inspiration for my games. My favorite books fuel many of my mechanics and settings, but also, generally get me excited for a premise and theme.

This isn’t a review, but it is a pile of recommendations, so read into that however you want. The books listed aren’t in any order of preference, but mostly the way in which they entered my mind for this post.

Also, where you see The Inspiration, I note how I’m using the information in my designs.

Vicious by VE Schwab

13638125I don’t read comics really. I read Marvel as a youth and a few years back I enjoyed a brief kick of graphic novels with The Watchmen and some of the best Batman books, but otherwise, I get my comic fix at summer blockbusters.

VE Schwab’s Vicious is a fantastic comic book novel for those who dig comics and those who don’t. The book focuses on two characters, Eli and Victor. Both are brilliant medical students who discover that they can gain incredible, X-Men like powers from near death experiences. Things fall apart from there.

Vicious is dark, but not jammed with obnoxious baditude. The characters are a fascinating mix and everything is just so fun. I loved reading this book and had a difficult time putting it down at night. I very much hope there is more Vicious in the future and really, more Schwab. She’s really active and cool on Twitter, so give her a follow if interested.

The Inspiration: So many super hero games are about established characters from Marvel or a unique universe duking it out. They already have their powers, so really, it’s a game about combat. In reading this book I thought it would be cool to create a game purely around the origin story. Players are all ordinary citizens with ordinary lives and problems. Until something life-changing happens. No, it won’t be the plot of Schwab’s book — that’s creative theft. But, could a game about Origin Stories be compelling?

Leviathan Wakes and The Expanse Trilogy by James SA Corey

Leviathan_Wakes_(first_edition)I loved this trilogy, perhaps more than I’ve loved any series ever. It is an amazing compilation of great characters, space combat, noir detective arcs, and interplanetary conspiracy and politics. The main cast of characters are a dash of the Millenium Falcon and Serenity and I just love ‘em.

The series begins with Leviathan Wakes, continues with Caliban’s War, and ends with Abaddon’s Gate. Oh wait, it doesn’t end! The series has been signed for books 4, 5, and 6 (thank you) and a TV series is rumored to be in the works. For me, this is basically someone telling me Christmas has been extended for 6 more months.

I think Caliban’s War is my favorite, primary due to two characters: the Martian Marine Bobbie Draper and foul-mouthed UN undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala. Both are amazing, hilarious, strong-female characters.

The Inspiration: This series influenced Blockade and now Mars Rising more than any piece of fiction. My ship technology and combat techniques are a mixture of Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, Weber’s Harringtonverse, Williams’ Dread Empire’s Fall, and The Expanse. But, the political situation and notion of using the planets of our solar system are heavily derived from Leviathan Wakes. I’ll tell my own story, but their influence is clear.

The Human Division by John Scalzi

TheHumanDivision_hc_compI’m a big fan of John Scalzi, both his works of fiction and his blog. The Human Division is a really interesting experiment, in that it was released episodically via Kindle (the link above is the entire work). For me, it was fun to read tiny snippets every week. The book is somewhat of a side story in the Old Man’s War universe that focuses on the diplomatic efforts of a team of humans trying to salvage the situation left from the events of the main Old Man’s War arc.

I love Scalzi’s characters, who are generally snarky. Humor is very difficult to write, especially humor that keeps the universe and ton generally serious and not just a farce.  I’m also a fan of how he focuses on characters and events, not just an elaborate description of technology. Scalzi will introduce technology to establish the rules of the universe, then get to the important stuff. I enjoy that and use it to consider how to phrase content in my designs.

The Inspiration: I’m trying to infuse my story segments in Mars Rising with some humor. Ultimately it needs to be serious, but I want a little humor to keep it from feeling overbearing. After all, it’s a game.

The Iron Brigade in Civil War and Memory by Lance J Herdegen

New-Lance-Herdegen-Iron-Brigade-hi-res-682x1024I sought this book out in order to find a definitive work on the subject matter. The Iron Brigade, primarily comprised of volunteers from Wisconsin, is one of the most famous Brigades from the American Civil War.

Their legacy still influences the US Army to this day.

I really enjoy this work, because it tells a story and doesn’t just list facts. The chapters are a mixture of letters home, first hand accounts, photographs, and historical information. It really adds a personal touch that tells you about the men who fought the battle, not just about the battle itself.

The Inspiration: I’m not ready to share too many details. I’ll just note that I want to create a historical game, specifically to aim at a few publishers. I have two completely different angles in mind and I’m researching both. The Iron Brigade is one of those angles.

Anything grab your attention? What have you read lately that thrilled or inspired you?

Posted in Blog | Tagged books, leviathan wakes, recommendations, vicious | 1 Reply

The Lifestyle


Post by: Grant Rodiek

Today is November 1, 2013, which means people are beginning National Novel Writing Month, National Game Design Month, and prepping for turkey festivities (in the states, at least). The premise for these is that you’ll write a novel or design a game in the month of November. You’ll be encouraged and pushed by your friends and peers, who are also doing it, and you’ll just get your feet wet.

I think this is cool, mostly. But, I want to share three really good blog posts from people I very much respect that point out why it’s not all sweet, sweet Halloween candy.

  • How to Fix National Game Design Month by Gil Hova
  • Just Say No to NaNoWriMo by Sarah Rodriguez Pratt
  • Writing: Find the Time or Don’t by John Scalzi

You should really read all of these. They’re all short and make really good points. Sarah compares this month to a New Year’s Resolution. How many people actually go on to lose weight? And Scalzi very pointedly notes you either want to write, or you don’t, both of which are fine, but don’t confuse yourself or others.

It’s dangerous to dissuade creativity or sit on a throne of superiority and tell others they aren’t good enough, or aren’t hardcore enough. That’s not what any of these people are saying, nor is it something I espouse.

Here is the point I’m trying to make: If you want to be creative, you should be creative. Realize that you are unlikely to get published, especially quickly. It takes time to learn what you are doing, time to get good, and time to network with the people who will want to work with you. You also need to be a little lucky. While this time is passing by, be actively creative.

Use NaNoWriMo or NaGaDeMon to kickstart your creative lifestyle. Use them as jump off points to begin your craft, but do so with no firm expectations of completion or quality. Just get started and join the rest of us in this awful creative struggle we choose to inflict upon ourselves.

Being actively creative doesn’t mean you go home and write rules every night, or that you go home and fill a white board with ideas. It doesn’t mean you tune 60 cards every night. I try to work on game design most days of the week, but doing so, for me, entails:

  • Brainstorming while walking my dog or running errands.
  • Listening to podcasts on my commute from experts to gain inspiration.
  • Reading novels and works of history for inspiration and research.
  • Using Photoshop to build cards, boards, and other elements of my games.
  • Arts and crafts! Cutting, sketching, gluing, and taping my games together.
  • Rules writing and editing, both useful, and both use different parts of my mind.
  • Game testing.
  • Blogging about my games.
  • Game iteration based on testing or other desires.
  • Painting miniatures for a prototype.
  • Playing other games to learn and be inspired.
  • Calling a friend to discuss our designs and spitball ideas.
Miniatures for a new prototype.

Miniatures for a new prototype.

All of these things improve my craft and are generally fun and exciting for me. You should identify things that you want to learn, ideally to support the games or novels you want to write, and add them to your own personal list. Last night I edited the narrative for my third scenario of Mars Rising, tuned which ships will be used (and where they start), and designed bonus campaign objectives and unique events. I also applied a primer and base coat to minis for my next game.

I began designing games in my free time about 4 or so years ago. In that time, I have at least 11 games (that I can remember) that I’ve designed, prototyped, and tested. I have about 5 or more where I spent significant design time but never built. Then piles of ideas. I have a single game published, and I would argue that of all those games and all that work, only 3 are any good.

Of my friends who are published few have more than 1 game published, and fewer still have 2 or more. But, those of us who do this regularly love to create and we push ourselves for those few successes.

This sounds overwhelming, so I suggest you dip your toes in lightly and see what works. And I suggest you use NaNoWriMo or NaGaDeMon as your wading pool. Be creative often and constantly. Begin to apply focus to your efforts and strive to execute and create, not just imagine. The work requires both facets and many of our drive by peers never exit the “it would be cool if” lane.

If you enjoy the work, and find you’re enjoying it often, begin to think about your goals. You can create for the sake of creation, which is the easiest and least stressful. You can create for self-publication and the very modest success that brings, which is also relatively easy. There are so many Print-On-Demand services these days for both books and games. If you really love it, try to get published. It means more failure, but also the greatest rewards.

Regardless of your choice, use this month to become a part of the community. Use it to switch up your lifestyle and create something. Good luck!