Interview with Danny Devine

Danny Devine is a great guy and a really smart designer. I had the pleasure of meeting him in person in the Summer of 2013 and again at an UnPub event in Sacramento. He’s got a great sense of humor and a great design sense. I have played his game Ghosts Love Candy and loved it. When I found out Mob Town was coming out on Kickstarter, I knew I had to interview him.

Hyperbole Games: I’m looking up my police file on you. Danny Devine of Reno. Introduce yourself — who are you? What should we know about you?

Danny Devine: Well, my name is Danny Devine…and I’m from Reno NV… (dang it Grant! You stole my well crafted intro!)

I am happily married to my beautiful wife Rachael, we have a rambunctious 2 year son and a dachshund that is somehow more rambunctious than he is. When I’m not working at my day job or chasing the family around the house, you can usually find me at the kitchen table with a new game prototype or in my office working on some art for said prototype.

Hyperbole Games: Your first published game, Mob Town, is now live on Kickstarter for funding. Your publisher is 5th Street Games, the kind soul who saw fit to publish Farmageddon. Tell us about Mob Town. 

Danny Devine:  Good ol’ 5th Street Phil, he sure knows how to pick ‘em.

Mob Town is a 2-4 player area control game that features secret agendas, set collection and a little dash of take that. Every round starts by building out a randomly generated town that is different every time you play. Players play as rival Mob families competing over limited space in order to earn the most points before the Law shows up and ends the round. The game takes between 30-45 minutes to play making it a great game to play during lunch, which is when I usually play.

Hyperbole Games: What is the origin of Mob Town? How did it come about? 

Danny Devine:  The very first thing was the core set collection mechanic. The main deck has 5 suits each of those suits is helpful at taking control of exactly 2 types of the 5 different areas you can control. The theme was a basic medieval theme, really pasted on and dull, but it gave me a place to start. Once I had that I built, I added on from there. I had created the Map Building mechanic for a game called “Space Thingz from Space.” That game was terrible, but the Map mechanic had real promise.

It was literally the same week that I had added that to the game that the Game Crafter announced their Map Building Design contest. It was too perfect to pass up. How could the contest be based around something I just started working on? As dumb as it sounds, it felt like more than just a coincidence to me. I had never entered a design contest before, nor had I ever released one of my games into the wild. All I knew is that if I didn’t try it, I would regret it.

Hyperbole Games: Who would love Mob Town?

Danny Devine:  I would say that Mob Town is for people who like fast paced gameplay, simple mechanics with plenty of decisions and options, and people who don’t mind sticking it to their neighbor when they get too big for their britches.

The theme is friendly and inviting enough that you could play this game with Kids or Grandparents and no one will be offended.

Some of initial rules go a little beyond really casual games, but if you have played games like Ticket To RideCarcassonne or any of 5th Streets other games, you will have no issues here.

Hyperbole Games: You’re also the artist for Mob Town! Tell us about your inspiration for the style, which is cute, anthropomorphic mob animals.

Danny Devine:  The look for the 5th Street redesign was definitely inspired by the movie Roger Rabbit. We needed a way to make Mobsters family friendly to match 5th Streets line and that was the way to go. Artistically the look for the game was inspired by the load screens from Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. They are clean, simple, gritty and appealing all at once.

Hyperbole Games: I had no idea, but the connection really makes sense. I LOVE Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Brilliant film.

What are some of your favorite games? Did any of them influence Mob Town?

Danny Devine:  My favorite genre of game currently is deck building; I am in love with TrainsMarvel LegendaryPathfinder Adventure Card game (that one is pushing it, but it still has a semi deck building feel to it). Unless I’m thinking of someone else, you’re a little “meh” on deck builders right Grant?

Hyperbole Games: Not necessarily. I love Ascension and have played it almost 2000 times. And, I think Dominion is brilliant, though I don’t want to play it much. I guess I find many of them very same same, so I lose interest. That being said, one of the prototypes I have in mind next uses a deckbuilding mechanic at its core with some other innovations. So…who knows?

Danny Devine: As far as the influence for Mob Town, I can definitely pinpoint the main 2, Ticket to Ride and Small World. The suit matching set collection aspect and idea of 5 face-up cards to trade with all came from my love for Ticket to Ride, along with the 1 action allotment per turn. Having only 1 action per turn makes your decision harder and makes downtime between turns almost non-existent. With Small World I loved the idea of everyone competing over cramped quarters and the aspect of things getting harder and harder to take from people as time went on.

Hyperbole Games: Do you have any expansion ideas for Mob Town? What do you think about expansions, in general?

Danny Devine:  We are actually including the first expansion “Mob Town City Limits” in the Kickstarter campaign, so for $35 you can get the base game and the expansion straight away.

The cool thing about the expansion is that it really feels like 3 mini expansions that you can mix and match or use all 3. We have City Cards, which have “clever” animal pun names like Beaverly Hills & Clam Francisco that not only name the city each round, but alter the gameplay that round as well.

Landmarks are shuffled into the property deck when you build the town, controlling these spaces gives you a special ability on your turn or bonus points. Finally we have my favorite, The Professionals, these are for-hire characters that grant you a powerful ability to help turn the tide in your favor, things like taking over certain properties for less or getting and extra turn when the Law shows up.

We also have a solo/co-op variant in which players take on the role of the Police trying to run a powerful Mob Boss out of town before he completes his operations.

I love expansions! When there is a game I really like, I want more of it especially if it adds new mechanics or shakes up gameplay. The only problem I have with expansions is when I can’t play with them because its someone’s first time playing. My game group ruined Carcassone and Small World for a couple of our friends because we gave them too much at once…oops.

I know you are a fan of them in general as well, and you’re working on a fantastic one that I got to play last year for Farmageddon. What is your favorite expansion, what about your least favorite? Why?

Hyperbole Games: My favorite expansion is probably Kaispeicher for The Speicherstadt. It’s a very smart way to expand the game that still feels core to the experience. I played Leaders for 7 Wonders the other day and thought it was brilliant. I also own and love tons of expansions for Memoir ’44 and Summoner Wars and Netrunner that are basically more stuff.

My least favorite expansion is probably the one for Alien Frontiers. It added a lot of stuff that didn’t feel necessary, greatly slowed the game, and made it too complex. We stopped playing with it pretty quickly and never looked back. Ultimately, it felt like it wasn’t needed.

You also have an adorable game called Ghosts Love Candy, which I played last year at GaymerX. That is a delightful game. Tell us about Ghosts Love Candy and the schedule for it.

Danny Devine:  Ghost Love Candy is a quick playing cardgame (about 20 minutes) for 2-6 players. It’s based upon the common knowledge that Ghosts absolutely love candy but can no longer acquire it. However, on Halloween, rules are off! Ghosts have learned that they can temporarily possess trick-or-treaters and eat all the candy they can get their invisible hands on. The mechanics were inspired by games like Get Bit and Smash Up. It’s really light-hearted easy to teach and play but still offers plenty of room for strategy.

Ghosts Love Candy is currently scheduled for a Kickstarter launch in late June early July.

Hyperbole Games: Will you also do the art for Ghosts Love Candy?

Danny Devine:  That is the current plan; I already have some art styles in mind for it that I can’t wait to try. I currently have a LOT of art to do for the Mob Town expansion and we have the talented Derek Bacon on board to help out there. I’m running a tight deadline to finish art for Mob Town and get Ghosts Love Candy rolling, so we have polished looking review copies to send out, but I am looking forward to the challenge. Having a finished game designed and Illustrated by me is truly a dream come true.

Hyperbole Games: When you generally begin work on a game, what is your process or approach? How do you create something?

Danny Devine:  Theme or mechanics, theme or mechanics, that’s what people always jump between. I am no different; it really depends on the situation. A lot of times my ideas for mechanics will come from games I’m currently playing that I mash together until something new and interesting emerges. That was the process for Mob Town, mechanics were in place before the theme emerged. With Ghosts, the complete opposite. I had an idea that I wanted to make a game about ghosts possessing people at a party, I mentioned it on Twitter, and it eventually evolved into a Halloween inspired game. The mechanics fell in place shortly after I realized I wanted it to be more chaotic free for all like Smash Up, instead of a Mr. Jack like deduction game.

In general, I design games that fit in the medium to light category and can be played during lunch (under and hour).

What about you Grant? Based on your games that I have played, I get the feeling theme is really important to you up front when designing.

Hyperbole Games: I design for an experience and bring in thematic and mechanical pieces as I satisfy that. For York I wanted an attrition heavy, aggressive war game that used technology from about the mid 19th century. I didn’t want to use dice and I wanted it to play in an hour with 4 or fewer players. That drove a lot of ideas. For Sol Rising, I wanted space ships and fleets. I wanted you to be an admiral. For Flipped, I wanted a light euro first and came about a light city builder thing as a follow up.

Two published games is a big deal. But, I have to ask you what’s next? Any other ideas you’d love to pursue? Themes that interest you? Mechanics that are exciting?

Danny Devine:  Too many to list! I can’t possibly make them all, but I am certainly going to try. I will give you 2 quick examples of the front runners right now. Keep in mind, they are basically both in brainstorming states right now.

Monkey Fruit Farmers: 2-5 Player worker placement game. Players take on the role of a fruit farmer that hires local monkeys to pick fruit for them in order to sell them to the market or fulfill the endless amounts of orders flowing in. There is going to be a fluctuating economy based on the demand of each fruit. Sometimes bananas are worth more than apples. The monkeys you are hiring must be paid in fruit, and they want what the people are eating, which means you have to decide when to feed your monkeys the top dollar fruit, meaning more monkeys but less profit, or throw them the leftovers and watch as half of them go on strike.

I don’t have a name for this other one yet, and it’s pretty ambitious but what I want to achieve is the overarching character development from the Pathfinder card game or how Risk Legacy changes from game to game, but make the experience more compact and easy to play. I want something that can be played at lunch, and the whole campaign takes 5 playthroughs allowing for a week long lunch campaign. I love how dice games like King Of Tokyo or Bang the dice game play, so if I could fit a dice and card game as the core mechanic I would love to. And to top off this pile of random, I want players playing as Super-Hero Vigilantes, not with super powers, but like Kick-Ass or Batman. I would love to figure out a way for you to start the game day 1 as your origin, and by day 5 you are battling your arch nemesis that developed along with you in a glorious final battle!

I want to thank Danny for taking the time to conduct this interview. Check out Mob Town on Kickstarter now!

Interview with David Chott

As I often do, I encountered David Chott via Twitter and its growing game design community. David and I hit it off and began exchanging emails with some regularity. We even met at a small cafe near my home when he came to visit SF.

David has been working on his game, Lagoon: Land of Druids, for quite some time. In this period, he has quit his job and formed a publishing company, launched by this game. That seemed like a good interview. 

My questions are preceded by HG, with David’s answers tagged with DC.

Hyperbole Games: David, welcome to the Hyperbole Games Hot Seat! That’s a name I created just for you. Tell my fine readers a little about yourself.

David Chott: This heated seat makes me feel so pampered, thank you! I was raised in a gaming family and have played a wide range of tabletop games over the years. I started designing games more than a decade ago, but mostly just recorded my ideas in notebooks. I got serious in the fall of 2012. A year later, with Lagoon well along, I quit my job to become a full time board game designer and publisher. That might seem crazy to some folks. But I live in Portland, so I can get away with it.

HG: Your first game is Lagoon. Before we dig into the delightful details, please give us the quick details.

DC: Lagoon: Land of Druids is a strategy board game for 2-4 players set in an unconventional fantasy world. It’s a game about determining the fate of the world, with each player leading a circle of druids on a quest to bend Lagoon’s destiny. Most games finish in an hour or less. Players build the world through placement of double-sided hexagonal tiles drawn from a bag. Use your druids to magically shape and redefine the world to bring about one of three possible destinies. The player who best masters the emerging destiny wins.

HG: What inspired you to make Lagoon? What was the spark?

DC: After hitting a wall as a designer, I read through all my old game design notebooks for inspiration. When I was done, I’d literally only found three ideas that excited me:

  • A scrap of paper I found with a sketch of hexagon tiles forming a landscape
  • Old notes about tokens that could share abilities
  • A recent idea for conflict between non-player entities being the focal point of a game

To my delight, I realized in a matter of minutes that I could combine all three elements cohesively. The idea with the tokens had players putting them on cards that conferred abilities to your other tokens. I thought it would be cool if instead the tokens were placed on hexagonal tiles to gain and share abilities from the hexes. Each hex would represent a different place in my world offering a unique power. The tokens, now druids, could then move around the hex-based world to do things and access different site-based powers. The scrap of paper with the hexagonal tiles called for them to be double-sided, which still seemed more interesting than single-sided tiles.

Lastly, I was obsessed with a particular scheme for non-player entities in circular conflict, and had been weaving it into each of my game designs for months. I decided to bring that in by aligning every site with one of the non-player entities and making sure the two sides of a site tile were always aligned with different entities. This would offer a choice whenever a player added a new site to the board. At the end of the game, the entity with the most sites in play would win the conflict. Players freely support or oppose any entity they wish, but the winner is the one who best supported the final dominant entity.

Amazingly, that’s pretty much Lagoon right there. All the core ideas were in place right there at the beginning. Because I was obsessed with the scheme for non-player entities in conflict, I had actually already worked out thematically that the entities would be opposing energies in a fantasy world. Players would manipulate the world to support one energy or another. At the end of the game, one energy would dominate and the player most responsible for delivering that dominance would be the winner. In previous designs there had been four energies. I thought that would be too many different tile alignments to give players sufficient control, so I went down to three energies. That also happened to make for a much more balanced and interesting circular power dynamic as well: the familiar rock, paper, scissors. The only significant mechanic that was added later is rewarding a player for exploring a site with a seed token that matches the explored site’s energy.

HG: What are some of your favorite games, and why?

DC: My taste in games has changed a lot in the past 5 years. I used to favor heavier Euro strategy games. Today, my favorite games include Liar’s Dice, Innovation, Tash-Kalar, Netrunner, Hive, Jaipur, Tigris & Euphrates and Dominant Species.

But my hands down all-time favorite game has long been Magic: The Gathering, even though I haven’t played very actively since the 90’s. There is so much genius in that game, but perhaps what I like best about it is the wide latitude it gives players to express themselves. Being able to compose your deck from thousands upon thousands of different card choices makes it possible for a player to innovate something wild that’s never been done before. It’s a sandbox. You can build a deck that perfectly matches your personality, mood or preferred play style. Back in college, I could look at any deck in our large play circle and probably be able to guess which of my friends built it. Building decks can be a highly creative act, and in many ways building and tuning a deck is a form of game design. This experience influenced me as a gamer and designer more than all other games combined.

HG: Did any of those favorite games drive you towards Lagoon? Which aspects?

DC: I adore emergence in game play, and many of my favorite games have it in spades (Magic, Innovation, Netrunner, Hive, T&E). This was a goal for Lagoon from the beginning. I find emergent game play so deeply satisfying for several reasons. Games with a good deal of emergent mechanics tend to provide a richly complex universe of possibilities without necessarily being so complex to play. The depth of possibilities in each play of these games means they often have a higher order of replayability than games without much emergence. Emergent mechanics are also quite good at delivering surprising situations play after play. The range of things that can happen in such games tends to be wider than in more rigidly constrained games with low or no emergent mechanics. When all of these factors come together at their best, the game experience is something like exploring a living system whose mysteries and possibilities can never be fully grasped or exhausted even after hundreds of plays. To me, that’s magic in a box. That’s what I want most when I sit down to play a game.

So I’m delighted that even after playing or observing more than 100 games of Lagoon, I am still seeing interesting new situations and combinations emerge that surprise me. Lagoon offers tremendous emergent potential. The game includes 24 double-sided hexagon tiles, for a total of 48 sites that each have a unique action players can use. The “board” of the game is a constantly changing layout of site tiles whose spatial positions have tactical and strategic significance. Throw into that mix the ever-changing balance of power represented by the number of tiles in play aligned with each of the three energies competing for Lagoon’s destiny. It’s a recipe for a whole lot of variety and surprise every play. I think players will find Lagoon has an extremely high replay value without the aid of expansions. At the same time, it is imminently expandable and I have some exciting ideas about how to do that.

HG: Who would love Lagoon?

DC: Lagoon’s fans like it for different reasons. There’s the emergent game play, combo building, and puzzle solving. Many appreciate that Lagoon is both highly tactical and highly strategic. Lagoon tends to go over exceedingly well with Magic: The Gathering players. But I’ve also had train game players geek out over Lagoon because its scoring mechanic has similarities to scoring in stock holding games.

HG: You released a PNP (found here) some time ago. What did you learn from the PNP?

DC: I made the PNP because several people who played it at BGG.CON were asking for one. I was optimistic that many more would try it too. It was downloaded more than 130 times, but I only heard from a handful of people that they actually made a copy and played it. Maybe more did, but they didn’t report back.

What I learned is that some Board Game Geek users are amazing people who are willing to invest a ton of time giving feedback on a PNP. I had one user create his own suggested iconography to represent a variety of the basic actions that might appear on site tiles. Another user went even further and completely recreated the PNP exclusively using beautiful icons he designed himself instead of text. I was floored by the energy they put into offering these suggestions for Lagoon, without really even knowing me personally. Our hobby is filled with so many wonderful people, that’s one of the things I love most about it.

But although it would be great if a game like Lagoon could be made language-independent by using icons, it would require a large glossary of icons to achieve that. Which creates a learning barrier for many players. Considering my desire to expand Lagoon with new mechanics that would only expand the glossary of icons further and exacerbate the problem over time.

HG: Let’s take it a step back. What were some of the key lessons you learned from testing in general?

DC: All the basic things you read about play testing and game design are true, but most of them you have to learn yourself the hard way before you really accept them. For example, less is more. Or a designer’s job is done when there is nothing left to take out. Be willing to kill your darlings. Figure out which are the interesting choices your game presents to players, and strip away everything else. Know your target audience. And so on.

It’s funny how, in retrospect, every single mechanic I pulled from Lagoon so clearly and obviously made a better Lagoon with their absence. But so many of them were darlings I fought and resisted removing even when my testing showed they were problematic and sometimes even when my players kept asking me to. This is a lesson I hope not to soon forget.

Lastly, players who get your game and like it are great ego boosters, but it’s the players who struggle with your game that you really need to talk to. These players may not have much to say in a post-game debrief because they don’t want to look dumb for not understanding aspects of your game if other players did. If a player struggles with your game, try to talk to them one-on-one where they may speak more freely. Try asking them to explain how to play your game, maybe even the day after they played it. You may be shocked at their understanding of how your game works, and then it’s on you to make it easier and less confusing.

HG: I’m an absolute board game art snob. I buy, or don’t buy, games purely because of their art. Lagoon’s art is just astounding. It’s gorgeous. Lay out for us the art direction points you gave to your artist. What was your vision for Lagoon’s presentation?

DC: There’s no substitute for working with talented people, so enormous credit goes to graphic designer Peter Wocken and illustrators Eduardo Garcia and Chase Velarde for crafting amazing visuals for Lagoon.

Doing the art direction for Lagoon has been one of my greatest joys in this whole project! I’ve invested a lot of time developing the story and aesthetic concept for the world of Lagoon, and have actually been working on this world for more than a year before this particular game existed.

I take my inspiration from nature. I live in the Pacific Northwest, and backpacking trips into our phenomenal forests are one of my favorite summer activities. I’m a forest person and Lagoon is primarily a forest world. The magical features and natural wonders depicted in the art are the sorts of things I would be delighted to stumble upon while wandering the forest, and maybe the sort of things as a kid I secretly hoped might lie around the next bend.

To convey my vision for the world’s aesthetic, I wrote a fairly detailed artistic sourcebook for Lagoon that establishes a lot of the basics for the benefit of my illustrators. I cover things like what druids should look like, the kind of mood illustrations in each of the three energies should establish, and more. Then for each illustration I often provide a paragraph or two describing what I’d like depicted. But I also like to be vague sometimes and let the artist make most of the decisions. I love being surprised with something awesome that is outside my own imagination! It’s a fun process, and I love it. I’m incredibly lucky to see my world come to life at the hands of such gifted and versatile artists!

HG: You recently quit your steady, paying job to become a full time game designer and publisher. Dear god, man. What is the reason for this? What do you hope to accomplish this year?

DC: I needed a change in career for a long time before making this shift. Frankly, I needed a change in my life even more. As someone in love with story, there’s something especially powerful about taking responsibility for the story of my own life and setting a new course in the direction of my dreams. It represents a major shift in my approach to life, and it’s the best feeling I’ve ever had. Staying true to that is more important than whether I succeed as a designer or publisher. If it doesn’t work out, fine, I’ll set a new course based on what I’ve learned and who I am at that point. I’m learning so much now every day and growing so much as a person, I have confidence that I can keep moving forward. I have a lot of exciting ideas for what I’d like to do after publishing Lagoon: Land of Druids, but the timing depends so much on the game’s reception and other factors that have yet to unfold.

HG: What are the key elements of 3 Hares Games? What makes your company unique? What will make you successful?

DC: Three Hares Games will focus on developing a high quality library of games that collectively tell the unfolding story of a single world, Lagoon. My vision is to set every game I publish in the world introduced by Lagoon: Land of Druids. I think that’s unique for a board game publisher.

I will strive to make Lagoon a unique and compelling world that players will want to revisit in a wide range of different games. I’m excited to dive deep into Lagoon’s mystical landscape and share more of its lore, its mysteries, and its characters with every game I publish. You’ll notice in Lagoon’s art that the three hares motif that is my logo and gives my company its name is taken from the world of Lagoon itself, so I’m very committed to this vision.

As a person, I am extremely motivated by story. Perhaps more than anything else. Which explains why this approach to publishing makes sense for me. If the world of Lagoon resonates with players, I will get to tell more of its stories in the future. Nothing would make me happier. I believe this approach can contribute to 3HG’s success, but no amount of story matters if the games are not fresh and fun to play.

I place a high premium on originality, and I like to think that shows in Lagoon. That’s a quality I want to cultivate as a hallmark of Three Hares Games, and I’m willing to take some chances to do it.

HG: Do you see 3 Hares accepting game submission in the future? If so, what would you think would be the defining characteristics of a 3 Hares Game?

DC: With my plan to set all the games I publish in the world of Lagoon, that makes accepting game submissions trickier. Mainly that’s because I’m unwilling to paste the Lagoon theme on a game that doesn’t evoke the world already. And I wouldn’t expect designers to invest the time to design something native to my world and thereby limit their chances for publication. I can envision collaborating with other designers though. Or potentially inviting a designer to make a game because I think it would work out well. As for defining characteristics, I address that to some extent in the previous question. I think it would also be safe to assume emergent mechanics will be an important characteristic.

HG: Lagoon is on Kickstarter RIGHT NOW. What were some of the most important Kickstarter lessons you took to heart before launching?

DC: This is hard to answer because there are so many lessons I tried to internalize and at the same time there were so many lessons available to me that I didn’t have time to assimilate. I have tremendous respect for anyone running a board game Kickstarter campaign on top of a full time job, because it has been a mad dash for me to cover everything and this IS my full time job (just about every waking hour). Since so many more experienced and wiser folks than I have written volumes on this subject, I don’t have a grand list of things to rattle off.

But here is what I can offer. The amount of time that goes into preparing a board game KS is mildly insane, so double or triple your time estimates. You’ll still be scrambling. Also, realize that your development process to test and polish your game should be on a totally different timeline than your KS preparation schedule. Game quality is primary. Don’t let the tail wag the dog and rush into your KS with a subpar product. It is a crazy amount of work to publish a board game using KS, so don’t put yourself through that with a game that isn’t your best.

My next lesson is that the board game community is filled with amazing people who are eager to see you succeed and often willing to help. Immerse yourself in the community on Twitter, go to board game conventions and make friends with other designers and publishers, help test other designers’ games, and try to be awesome to everyone you meet. I have received more help, support, encouragement, valuable advice, introductions, and all manner of other useful assistance from so many fellow gamers, and I only really got into the community starting back in August at GenCon. Without them, my game would never have reached this point, it would never have reached this level of polish, and I may well have given up.

HG: Final question. I know your focus is on Lagoon. I have done enough interviews to know you’re going to say “my focus is on Lagoon being a success.” But, can you hint at what’s next? Surely you have some ideas (and revenue needs) lingering in your brain.

DC: I’ve already hinted at plans to offer expansions to Lagoon: Land of Druids. I think that would be the most natural next step, assuming there is demand for them. I do have a small handful of new game ideas I’m very excited about as well, but none of them has made it to the prototype stage yet. So they could totally suck for all I know!

I want to thank David for taking the time to answer my questions. If you’re interested in Lagoon: Land of Druids, check out the Kickstarter page here. 

Sol Rising Visual Development

Post by: Grant Rodiek

For whatever reason, about a week ago I decided to take a break from writing and editing scenarios for Sol Rising (previously Mars Rising) and focus on its aesthetics. It’s good to vary your efforts as you’ll use different aspects of your brain and, if enough time has passed, may find ways to improve old designs.

I did two things:

  1. Hired John Ariosa to do some really quick sketches. I was tired of using my Googled ship art.
  2. Decided to change the previous card layout.

For quite some time, this was the layout for the ship cards in the game:

This got the job done, but I had a few problems with it. It didn’t really take advantage of the space. The ability text was smashed into the center and the art wasn’t given room to breathe. I listed too much info in the top left corner. Notice the bombers have 0 lasers. If they don’t have guns, why bother telling you? Finally, the cards didn’t didn’t have any subtle reminders for other rules. Specifically, to place damage markers on the cards or to reveal System Failure tokens when shields go down.

Before I reveal the new layout, let me quickly explain how cards are used in the game for those not familiar (rules linked at the bottom). Ships in your fleet are represented by cards. These cards are never in your hand, but act as references. They are played face up in front of you to remind you of a ship’s stats and abilities. A single fighter card represents a squadron, or multiple ships. Capital ships are paired with up to 3 cards to form powerful squadrons. If ships are destroyed, you set the card aside. The position of your ships is represented on the board with small tokens.

Here are some of the new cards, featuring illustrations by John Ariosa.

Carrier with Shields

Bomber squadron. There are 3 bombers, each with their own health. All contribute to an attack.

Destroyer with Shields

A Battlecruiser with Shields

Destroyer with Shields Down

You see the small boxes on the cards. Here are where you place 8mm damage cubes to indicate…damage. The two different symbols in these boxes represent Shields, if your ship has them, or Hull, if Shields are gone.

Ability text reads more naturally horizontally and isn’t so bunched. I also only show pertinent information. If the ship doesn’t have Missiles, you don’t see that stat. On the bottom Destroyer, there is an additional square in the top right corner. This icon reminds you to draw and place a System Failure token.

Overall, I’m really excited. I love the art. If this is what John did in just a few quick hours with little iteration, can you imagine these ships with more time and love?

Next Steps: These cards can only go so far with my graphic skills. My skillset mostly focuses on layout (which you can feel free to dispute). I’m very very bad at colors, filters, and anything more than placing an icon. That’s why I stick to black and white.

Things I’d love to work with someone to improve are:

  • Select a superior typeface for better clarity and thematic expression.
  • Apply a superior color treatment to really draw the eye to the Icons and Stats.
  • Add a filter treatment to icons to give them some texture.
  • Improve the graphics housing the icons. Better boxes, or adding graphic outlines to the stats.

I’ll surely stumble across other tweaks through the course of testing, but those are the known issues at this time.

Balance, Language, Refinement: I haven’t touched the core rules for the game for quite some time. I’ve been focused entirely on the scenarios, which is a very different beast. As I began the work to port every card into the new style (52 cards/9 ship classes/over 85% with Unique abilities), I realized this was my best opportunity to take a balance pass and revise ship abilities where necessary.

Never ever miss such an opportunity! I revised almost every ability in some way. For starters, I stuck with a 12 Point font and with 1 exception, re-wrote every piece of text until it fit on 1 or 2 lines. By forcing such a strict limitation, I really improved the accessibility and quality of my text.

I was able to fundamentally re-examine the weapon and ship role balance in the game.

I was also able to completely remove a feature that I realized just wasn’t necessary. This simplified and cleaned up my feature set even further.

I took the opportunity to remove a few unnecessary ships (a third Assault Shuttle), add two Bombers, make sure the abilities were more unique (less re-use), and I added Veteran Fighters. All cards are double sided: Shields and no Shields. That is, except Fighters. They are unshielded and previously all of the backs were blank. However, I realized I could do some neat stuff with persistence in the campaign by adding a Veteran variant to every Fighter card. This means instead of 6 Interceptors and 6 Bombers, you actually have 12 of each. But, still only 6 cards.

Finally, I re-organized all of my graphics files in Photoshop. I always spend the time up front to properly setup my card files so they are easy to edit and maintain. However, like many things, they had grown messy. I took a new pass at organizing them and editing, printing, and adding ships is now simpler than ever.

The takeaway is that you should never skip an opportunity to take a new look at something you thought was finished. I revised almost every card and the game will be monstrously superior. If you have a big game and have moved past a feature, go back to it sometime. You’ll be surprised at what fresh eyes can bring!

Back to the Story Mines: With my fleet polished, it’s time to finish creating moments for it. I have 5 1/2 scenarios left to design, not to mention the original six to continue scrubbing. Each one requires a great deal of story editing and as I noted in this previous post, there are many variables for every scenario.

I hope to have this finished in the coming weeks. If you’re at all interested in testing this game’s campaign, leave a comment. I’ll provide you with a copy in exchange for your testing efforts. I’d love to have a few blind testers tear through the campaign.

Rules: You can read the rules here. Comments are allowed in the document if you so desire. Some of the Campaign scenarios are in disarray from editing, so I’m not linking to that for now.

A Campaign scene for the book.

Posted in Games | Tagged fleet, game, , graphic design, illustration, layout, sol rising, space, | 13 Replies

An Interview with Ty Franck

James S.A. Corey is the writer of The Expanse trilogy of sci-fi books, beginning with Leviathan Wakes, continue with Caliban’s War (my personal favorite of the trilogy), and ending with the recent Abaddon’s Gate. I recommend these books as strongly as I am able. If you love great stories and characters, read them.

The problem is, Corey doesn’t exist for me to interview. It turns out, Corey is the pen name for a duo of writers, one of whom is Ty Franck. Franck is not only half the writing team for one of my favorite books ever, but he has experience writing for games.

One of my goals for Mars Rising is to create a narrative for two friends to enjoy together. Franck’s experience with both games and stories made him someone I very much wanted to interview.

My questions are marked by Hyperbole Games (HG), with Franck’s responses following (TF).

Hyperbole Games: What do you think of the current use of story in games, print or digital? Have you encountered any that are particularly impressive to you?

Ty Franck: I think digital gaming is experiencing a golden age of storytelling. Gamers have told developers, with their buying dollars, that graphics and game play are less important than a compelling story.

Telltale recently won pretty much every game of the year award there is for a graphically primitive media tie-in game entirely because the game had an incredible story.

My favorite games of the last few years were Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect, and Last of Us. All games with strong narratives and powerfully told stories with great characters.

HG: I haven’t yet played Last of Us, but I have played Naughty Dog’s other PS3 titles and I think they are masters of interactive fiction. I’ve enjoyed most of Bioware’s efforts, as well.

The key element that distinguishes games from other platforms (books, movies) is interactivity. Do you personally prefer to experience a game story that is told to you (ex: Call of Duty), or do you prefer to affect and create your own story (The Sims, Skyrim)?

TF: I don’t like sandbox games. Never have. Honestly, after a few hours playing I get bored. I need a compelling narrative to truly engage with a game. If a game tells me I can do anything I want, it has also told me that nothing I do actually matters. Now, if a game can match a strong narrative to a feeling of making important choices, like Dragon Age did for me, then I’m hooked. That’s the perfect structure for making me love a game.

HG: In my prototype Mars Rising, I’m trying to provide some narrative for each scenario to set the scene for the players. What are some of your preferred methods to quickly establish a scene?

TF: Sensory details and familiar situations.

A man walks into his dining room. His wife is sitting at the table, a cup in front of her and the bitter burnt smell of coffee that’s gone cold filling the air. Her eyes are red, her face tracked with tears that have long since dried. She says, “We need to talk.”

Four sentences, a bit of sensory detail, a situation we can all relate to, and the reader will immediately fill in all the bits you left blank with their imagination. No matter how outrageous the setting, anchoring it with the familiar engages the reader. If the dining room above is the galley of a space cruiser, it doesn’t change the familiarity of the moment or the tension of the scene.

HG: That’s fantastic and simple, thank you! One of your main characters in Caliban’s War, Chrisjen Avasarala, is such a rich and hilarious character. What makes a great character for you?

TF: Honestly? It’s pretty simple. They want things. The things they want are hard to get. They work hard to get them, in spite of all obstacles. Along the way, they act like real humans act.

HG: The execution required for that seems quite difficult to pull off, but the guiding note is again, quite simple. Thank you.

You write collaboratively with a partner, which to me doesn’t seem terribly common. Could you briefly describe your process?

TF: Short version is, we plot together, we outline together, we split the actual writing with each person doing half the book, we edit each others work along the way.

HG: You and your writing partner chose a technological level for The Expanse that seems “realistic.” Far more so than the more fantastical technology of Star Trek, for example. Why?

TF: Because we wanted to write stories that focused on the humans, not on the tech. And if the setting is incredibly exotic, it’s easy for the human stories to get lost in it.

HG: Do you have any favorite stories from other mediums that you’d like to see as games?

TF: If somebody figures out how to do a Jack Vance Dying Earth or Roger Zelazny Lord of Light game that respects the original source material, they can have all of my money forever.

HG: I just bought both of these as I realized I’ve never read them. Who knows, maybe I’ll earn all of your money forever?

The Expanse trilogy is full of so many experiences. In Leviathan Wakes (the first novel), we read about shoot outs, limited ship-to-ship engagements, some sci-fi horror, some detective business, and even a love story. Do you have a particular element you would want to play as a game?

TF: We’ve had lots of space flight games, including some great ones. We’ve had lots of SF RPG games. I want to play a game that does both well. I want to fly my spaceship from planet to planet, getting in space battles with pirates, then get off the ship and walk around having adventures. I know for a developer it’s like making two completely separate games, but I’d love to play it if someone does it.

HG: That would be very fun. I have friends who play the new Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPG, but when they are in space they use the X-Wing Miniatures game system.

Do you have anything you’d like to add?

TF: Thanks for the Mars Rising game. We need more space battle games.

HG: I certainly hope I can find a publisher who shares your sentiment! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions.

An Interview with Colby Dauch

Colby Dauch is the owner and chief game designer of Plaid Hat Games, one of my favorite companies that has created two of my favorite games: Summoner Wars and Mice and Mystics. In just a few years, Plaid Hat has grown from a single game company to one with a huge booth at GenCon, two games in Barnes and Nobles, and a legion of fans, err, Dougs.

As an aspiring designer and entrepreneur, I really wanted to interview Colby for this blog. He kindly set aside time to answer my 10 questions. My questions are marked with HG, with Colby’s questions noted by a CD.

Hyperbole Grant: You are overwhelmingly a theme-first designer, which means you approach your games from that of story, the experience, and, of course, theme. What is the most important element in making a game thematic?

Colby Dauch: Keep the theme in high regard throughout the design process. I once heard that a company I won’t name will strip all theme out of a game they are interested in publishing. If it is still a good game, then they will publish it with whatever theme they like.  That’s so against my sensibilities that I find it shocking. I feel like a game that does a good job of transporting you into its world is just doing it right.

HG: Dead of Winter (Pre-Order Here) is a game that, due to its social mechanics and theme, really provides a platform to tell stories. What is one of your favorite stories from the game?

CD: I’m not blowing smoke when I tell you every time I play a new story develops. It is hard to pick a favorite, so I’ll just tell you about the last play I watched. I took the game over to a family Christmas.

I had a full crew of 5 family members playing so I sat out and taught. I watched my family generally work together to overcome adversity — that is until Rod (one of the game characters) had a heart attack. The players decided they couldn’t risk the exposure of carrying him to the hospital where they thought they saw a defibrillator. They instead let Rod die.

My stepfather, who was playing Rod, was not cool with that (Editor’s Note: Players control multiple characters throughout the game). His reaction was that every time someone needed his help, he would ask them where they were when Rod had his heart attack. Morale (a game stat) started to quickly take a dive and they lost that game. I was very intrigued by the drama that played out there around the dining room table. It’s interesting to watch people who you’ve seen interact many times before thrown into a situation where you are seeing a whole new side to their interactions.  And all in the relative safety of a board game.

HG: Bioshock Infinite: Siege of Columbia really opened a lot of eyes to what a video game conversion to board game can be. What are some of your other favorite video games that, due to their themes or mechanics, would also make great board games?

CD: This is a tough question. I think it could be the case that if a video game’s mechanics transition neatly into a board game, then there may not be much reason for that board game to exist. Because you are just giving fans an experience they’ve already had.  This is something we didn’t want to do with BioShock. So I think theme holds precedence here for me.

That said, if you are asking me what my dream video game license is, it’s either Final Fantasy Tactics or Final Fantasy 7. They both had a huge impact on my development.

HG: Having played a significant amount of Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, I feel that’s a game that’s right in your wheel house. Speaking of…

Heroscape is your favorite game and the one that brought you into this hobby full steam. As a side note, it had a huge impact on me and my college friends as well. What are your favorite things about it?

CD: The game is gorgeous. Its visuals alone pull you in. Put on top of that a fun game and the community that formed around that game and generated so much content and formed so many connections and relationships for me.  It was just all consuming for a period of my life. I never had that experience before or since as a fan, so it remains my top game and I can’t imagine it ever being dethroned. It wasn’t just a game I played, it was a game I immersed myself in even when not playing.

HG: Listening to your podcast, you really seem to be able to have a vision for the early prototypes you are shown. Mice and Mystics is one of my favorite games, but your first viewing was, from what I understand, a bit rough. What did you see in Jerry’s early prototype that led you to devote years of development and a lot of money on the project?

CD: Easy. I saw Jerry. I believed in him.

HG: I finished the base game over my Christmas break and plan to begin Heart of Glorm shortly. The tidbits you and Jerry have hinted about the next big box expansion sound incredible.

What were some of your favorite games of 2013?

CD: If I can cheat and do a video game, everyone should play Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. It was a powerful experience for me.

HG: I didn’t specify, so the judges have ruled this a perfectly suitable answer. For those curious, Brothers is only $15 on the Steam platform for your PC.

2013 was a big year for your company. Summoner Wars Master Set and Mice and Mystics are both located in Barnes and Nobles. You added your first full-time employee (the charming Isaac Vega). Seems you’re working to add a second (graphic designer). You attended Essen, plus a huge Gencon booth. For you, what was the biggest “holy crap!” moment of 2013?

CD: Watching the Mice and Mystics fan base have fun with and spread the word about that game.

HG: Having a full-time staff member must be one of the biggest changes to your company ever. What opportunities and changes have come about by adding Isaac to the staff?

CD: People bring with them ideas and experiences and talents all their own. People, not one person, make a company. I have long dreamed of having a community of people working on games together in the same place. Isaac was the beginning of that and I’m looking forward to where it leads.

HG: You guys are testing machines. Summoner Wars has always had a steady testing team (and it shows in the product) and Dead of Winter had a small army of testers, which Isaac covered on the Podcast. What tips can you provide to aspiring publishers to create such an infrastructure?

CD: It’s hard to do for an aspiring publisher. Prospective testers need to be excited about what you are doing. With so many aspiring publishers and prototypes out there, it is hard to do unless you’ve got some kind of track record that has created a fan base you can tap into. When I started out, I was just relying on friends and there was no real infrastructure to speak of. You’ve really got to keep your nose to the grindstone and find ways to keep your friends interested in continued playtests. Because friends and family are the ones who believe in you at that stage.  It also helped that I was so involved in Heroscape. I had made many gamer friendships through that. Heck, I turned my local friends into gamers though that game.

HG: You’ve surrounded yourself with a great team of frequent freelancers who almost seem to be family. As an outsider, that team really seems to be one of your competitive advantages. What advice do you have for hopeful entrepreneurs to create and foster such a team?

CD: Much of that team comes from the Heroscape days I’ve mentioned multiple times here. I guess I mostly feel lucky. Fostering it comes pretty naturally if you are working together on great stuff and everyone’s doing great work then the projects themselves are motivators. You keep being excited about the project and let that rub off on others. It is a lot of work to publish a game, but in the end, you are bringing something into the world that a group of people will really appreciate and enjoy. Hearing those stories from people motivates the team on the next project.

Be passionate and when you attract passionate people, appreciate them. I guess that’s my formula. Or, like I said, maybe I just got lucky.

I want to thank Colby again for taking the time to answer these questions. Good luck in 2014. If you’re curious about Plaid Hat and their games, visit their website. I also recommend their weekly Podcast.

Expansion Design, with a Case Study

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Today, I shall be discussing two things very near and dear to my heart and related such that pairing them in a single article just made sense. Today, we shall discuss expansion design and use the impending Livestocked and Loaded as a case study.

For those curious, Livestocked and Loaded is art complete. The final file preparations are taking place and we’re perusing the rules and cards for final edits, typos, and clarity. It shall be sent to the printer shortly.

Expansions, Generally Speaking

I’m a massive fan of game expansions for many reasons. For publishers, they offer an additional revenue source for an existing product and fan base that is less risky than creating an entirely new game. Expansions give fans so inclined additional content and mechanics at a (typically) lower price point. Finally, expansions provide designers a reasonable opportunity to expand an experience they love with meaningful, substantive additions.

A good expansion should not alter the core experience of the base game. If your game has a 5 step turn structure, you shouldn’t re-arrange the steps or add a 6th without a really good reason. Remember, players will need to learn the expansion. Don’t make them unwind and re-learn the base game as well!

A good expansion should offer new strategies and experiences to the players. New paths should be revealed to players. A good expansion does more than just offer more stuff. Adding new Action cards alone isn’t sufficient. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t use an expansion to add in the kitchen sink. If it was removed from the base game because it wasn’t good enough or didn’t fit, be sure to run that same check past it during the expansion.

A good expansion should fill in gaps, holes, or resolve minor issues with the original game. Ideally, your game didn’t ship with dead ends and gross imbalance. The expansion isn’t a patch, but a smoother.

A good expansion should bring people back to the base game, liven it up, and make them fall in love again. Typically, a small percentage of the people who bought the base game will purchase the base game. Let’s say 20-40%. That means you can, with reasonable safety, assume those who buy your expansion really enjoy your base game, or like it enough that they think it’ll be great with one more twist.

A good expansion integrates as smoothly into the base game as possible. People shouldn’t be scratching their heads as they figure out how to snap the new module into the original game. Just because you’re dealing with experienced players doesn’t mean you should set accessibility and a smooth learning curve aside.

Some of my favorite expansions include Kaispeicher for The Speicherstadt, the X-Wing Miniatures ships, Memoir ’44‘s expansions, and Summoner Wars. I own others, but I haven’t played them, or not enough, to list them.

Now, let’s apply these things to my design of Livestocked and Loaded

I was originally fairly apprehensive about creating the expansion. I knew I could create one and that the base game could support it, but we didn’t begin our Kickstarter with an expansion in mind. Now that the expansion is almost finished, I’m really glad it exists. I really enjoy the layers it adds to the original experience and it’ll be launched to a game that has sold pretty dang well for a new, tiny publisher.

When I began work on L&L, I set out to use Weather and Livestock as primary components, purely because they are rich reservoirs of content and mechanical inspiration. They also fit some of my mechanical goals for the game.

The art for one of the weather cards.

Weather: I made the assumption that by the time people received the expansion, they would need some new spice to liven up the experience. Weather could serve as this spice, just like it does for farmers in real life. However, unlike real weather, I deliberately set out to make the Weather present more of an opportunity (most often) than an unexpected penalty.

My friend, Cole Medeiros, designed Gubs: A Game of Wit and Luck, published by Gamewright. Event cards are a big part of that experience. They are drawn and, more often than not, they greatly alter the state of the game. While they work for Gubs, I didn’t want to introduce more chaos into Farmageddon. There are 10 Weather cards in the expansion. Every game, you randomly select 5 and seed them approximately evenly throughout the Crop deck. When drawn, they present an opportunity or something to shift the game.

Two examples:

  1. One card lets every player draw an Action card. Then, in order, the players must play them if possible.
  2. Another card lets every player immediately fertilize and harvest any crops in front of them.

Livestock: Farmageddon is a very tactical game. You’re rarely planning more than 2 turns in advance, though careful management of your Actions and Crop cards will be the element that mitigates the luck and leads you to victory. I saw an opportunity to introduce more strategy and long-term planning to the game without sacrificing what makes the original fun.

Oola von Heifer, the $20 animal.

There are now four animals, which are played in the center near the unclaimed fields. They are worth $5, $10, $15, and $20 respectively, which makes the $20 animal the single most valuable card in the game (Wary Squash is worth $15).

To interact with the animals, I added a new activity players can take on their turns: feeding. Any planted crop a player controls can be fed to one of the four animals. The crop is then destroyed and one of 6 feed cards are played to the fed animal. This makes the Sassy Wheat crop far more valuable. It will now be a great Fertilizer and a great Feed crop!

When fed, all of the animals, except the $20 animal, offer a powerful ability. These help you mitigate luck and pursue new strategies. The abilities are:

  • Draw 2 Crop cards
  • You may play a 3rd Action card during the current turn
  • You may discard any number of your Action cards face down into your Harvest pile. They are worth $1 at the end of the game.

In the base game, players should always play two Action cards per turn. If you aren’t using them, you are missing out on the fun and you’ll let your opponents run wild. However, there are some cases where one might have excess cards. Now, you can feed an animal to dump those cards for bonus points. I’ve seen someone use that ability brilliantly to win the game.

Sauce the Pig

The Feed cards will slowly add up to the animals over the course of the game. The player with the most feed cards on an animal will win it and its points at the end of the game. This means players need to carefully balance opportunities in planting and livestock. It adds quite a bit to the experience.

Naturally, as the game has added a new feature (livestock), I knew it would need new Action cards to take advantage of this. I began the game with 6 Action cards, but ultimately whittled this down to 3 Cards.

  • The Blue Ribbon: This can be played to any animal to permanently increase its value by $5. This is a very powerful card.
  • The Corgalohts: This lets you move an opponent’s Feed OR remove a feed of yours from an animal. This is useful for obvious reasons. But, if you don’t have any feed, you can’t feed animals. You can use this card to remove a feed from an animal that is a lost cause, re-feed, get to use the bonus ability, and vie for another animal.
  • Farmer’s Market: This card exists to let you mitigate the luck of the draw of Action cards. If you’re pursuing a crop-focused strategy, you don’t need a Corgalohts, for example. With Farmer’s Market, you draw 4 Action cards, pick one, and discard the rest. This has the side effect of letting you get rid of cards you don’t want in play.

Some Challenges with L&L

Remember when I said you shouldn’t alter the core experience with your expansion? Originally, the Animal related Action cards and Weather cards were unique decks. There were also new choices and turn choices related to using them. A friend of mine and long-term Farmageddon tester said “NO.” He reminded me that the game had a nice rhythm of draw crops, do stuff, draw Actions to end. This was a good reminder. As a result, the Actions are now just Actions and the Weather cards are a part of the Crop deck.

Balancing the power of the abilities with the value of the Animals was a big problem that was thankfully easy to solve. Early on, all four animals had really good abilities. My testers noted that it always made the best sense to just feed the most valuable animal. To spice things up, I made it such that the least valuable animal had the best ability. Furthermore, the most valuable animal had no ability. Want to win that Cow? Go ahead. You won’t get any bonuses on the way.

I’ve learned a great deal since I created Farmageddon. One of which is creating more systematic cards with fewer exceptions. At times, it was challenging to introduce Weather cards, new FrankenCrops, Animals, and new Action cards that played nice with everything in the original. Were I to do it all over, there are definitely some terms and cards I’d revise to work better. Don’t worry — we already have an FAQ prepped for the 1 or 2 cases that may cause confusion. Otherwise, we’ve worked really hard to make this smooth and clear.

Finally, as you read above, the game had 6 Action cards at one point. Originally, all of the cards had incredibly narrow, focused utility. I had forgotten that one of the things that makes Farmageddon fun is how so many of the Action cards pair well with each other or have varying utility in different situations. By refining and massaging the cards, I added 3 cards that all need to be in the game and really make it better.

Ending Thoughts

What do you think makes a good expansion? What are some of your favorites? Any questions on the Farmageddon expansion, Livestocked and Loaded?

The Results of Two Contests

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I have two announcements today! Firstly, I asked Twitter followers to submit a clever, awful, or funny agriculture related pun to win a copy of Farmageddon. I received far more submissions than I expected (just shy of 20!) and all of the puns were so awful, err, I mean great, I decided to use a random number generator to pick for me.

Congratulations Burke Drew! I’ll get in touch with you to obtain your address. Then, Farmageddon shall be yours.

Secondly, and more importantly, I’m happy and pleased to share the results of the Classic Game Design Remix Contest I hosted. The contest received far more participation than I expected (that’s a running theme). I had 10 submissions that remixed MonopolyScrabbleClueRisk, and even Tic-Tac-Toe! I gave entrants 2 months to create their submissions and it took me about 3 months to judge them.

Why? Well, I had lots of priorities, including working on my own projects, a trip to Asia, the holidays, and reviewing these games was difficult. It provided some good insight into the experiences of real publishers. I had only 10 rule sets to read, review, and then a handful to play. Can you imagine what it’s like for a publisher with piles of submissions? Madness!

Nevertheless, over Christmas break I put my nose to the grindstone and decided to get my work done. Here is the process I followed:

  1. Review all rule sets and ask questions of designers where I’m confused.
  2. Provide notes, thoughts, and critiques to all designers.
  3. Select Finalists
  4. Play Finalists with my crew of 5 friends
  5. Vote
  6. Select the Winner

I’d like to go into details on a few of these. I chose Finalists based on games that seemed to be the most fun and seemed to match the spirit of the contest the best. By that, I mean they used the components and innovated within the box of the original experience.

I played all games with the same 5 friends. Even if the game didn’t support 6 players, somebody would sit out, watch, and provide an opinion and commentary.

I didn’t specify any criteria for voting, but merely asked for a 1-10 rating from each of them. We submitted our ratings most based on how much fun we had. Points were deducted for confusion, mechanics that didn’t quite work (some submissions were a bit rough), or games that didn’t quite make sense. But, “science” aside, rest assured we picked our favorite game.

Our favorite game was Risk: Alien Invasion by Sean Steele. In the game, the winner is the last one standing against an unceasing onslaught of alien invaders. At the start, you all take turns placing 36 cubes total, 3 at a time, in a country. You can share a space with other players, but no more than 6 at the start. Every round, the aliens cause casualties to you based on your proximity to them. But, if you team up with someone and gather together, you can build forts to withstand some of the attrition. There is a cool, social element here of semi-cooperation. Then, you draw a card to reveal where the aliens land next. Then, you can move 5 of your guys to new places, hopefully safe haves. One fun twist is that if the person in the destination has more men than you, you must first gain permission. If he says no, you can’t arrive.

The game had a lot of luck, but enough decisions to keep us invested. The game was full of a great tension and by the end we were standing up watching it. Best of all, the game lasted all of about 40 minutes with 5 people and was simple to learn. It’s a desperate, delightful game. We had a lot of fun, but also, we have tons of ideas for the game.

This was the game people really wanted to play again.

What happens now? For winning the contest, I’m going to build Sean a copy of his game via The Game Crafter. However, I’m going to suggest he keep developing the game further. He has something here that can go beyond the scope of this silly contest.

I also hope to put together a simple PDF of all the submissions to share with you fine folks. I’ll be providing feedback to all the finalists, as some of the games could use a little tweaking (as is expected from rough prototypes) to really make them shine.

Thanks to all the entrants, readers, and everyone for their patience. I took longer than I should have, but at long last it’s finished! Congratulations to Sean. You designed something really cool and I want to see where it goes next.

Posted in Blog | Tagged game design contest, remix contest, results, winners | 4 Replies

The Cup Doth Runneth Overeth

Post by: Grant Rodiek

This is a post I’ve probably written before, but it’s a lesson that bears repeating. Honestly, it’s one of the most difficult things for junior and advanced designers alike to keep in mind. As I was just reminded of it myself, I wanted to attempt to remind you.

When designing a game, never forget that your players will only be able to process so many concepts and elements. Never forget that their cup, their mind, will fill up. They will be overwhelmed at some point and it is YOUR sacred responsibility to manipulate the contents of their cup so that you go up to, but do not exceed, 100%.

Think of distinct components as a pie chart. Think about all the little elements you have, then consider what you think is most important. If your battle system is your coolest, most unique feature, it may take up 40% of your player’s mind space. It’ll require 40% of their learning efforts. That means you have 60% for everything else.

Here are some common things in games that you may not realize fill your players’ cups:

  • Number of resources or currencies.
  • Number of steps in a turn.
  • Number of phases in a round.
  • Whether the steps in a turn must be taken in order, or in any order.
  • Number of distinct mechanics, unique or established.
  • Number of variables on a card.
  • Distribution of a card in a deck — it matters to some and it’s something to consider.
  • Probabilities of a die roll. Is it 1/6? 1/36? How many types of dice do you use (d4/d6/d6/d10/d10)?
  • Take the previous bullet and twist it up a notch if you use custom dice.
  • Number of different card decks or card types.
  • Number of places to look with their eyes. In York, players examine the board (spatial relationships, changes constantly), their hand of cards (changes every round), and their reference board (used less with future plays, but overwhelming initially).

One of my favorite personal examples of reducing complexity in a design is my turn order choice for Battle for York. My combat system was complex and had quite a few moving parts. I knew I needed to reduce complexity. I didn’t want turn order to be a strong factor in the game, nor did I want it to be a decision point. After experimenting with multiple semi-complex solutions, I arrived at the simplest: purely random. Some disagree with it, and that’s fine, but ultimately, I was able to lower the complexity to the point of not overwhelming my target audience.

The amount of complexity people can handle is entirely relative. I consider myself an expert gamer, yet Terra Mystica was too much for me. I entirely ignored the cultist track, knowing full well it would cost me the game (it did). I just didn’t care, as I was at my maximum capacity. When teaching City of Remnants, at the point I arrived at battles my friend simply asked me to stop. “Can we just play the game? I’m not retaining anything more at this point.” He’s getting his PhD in theoretical computer science. He isn’t stupid. Hell, my mom was initially overwhelmed with Coloretto. It’s not a matter of ignorance or mental capability. People just hit a point at which they can’t take more.

I can’t remember who said this, but I think it’s Eric Lang, Geoff Englestein, and I’ve certainly heard Corey Young promote it. Consider adding only 1, or 2 at most, unique mechanics to your experience. The rest can be twists, or even comfortable classics. If everything is new, even a tiny mechanic, the amount of mind (or cup) space it occupies just skyrockets.

In case you’re curious, the reason for this post came about when I plugged in my last hole for Draftaria’s initial design last night. My game has a few mechanics. The biggest and most complex one is my unique element, a combination of a few mechanics presented in a new way. I think it’s cool. I then use a drafting mechanic, lifted verbatim from every drafting game, but the content you’re drafting is a little different. Remember, even light twists occupy more mind space. Thirdly, I have some light resource management with a single currency. You obtain it, then buy things with it. Very standard.

I needed to figure out how to resolve conflict. The game avoids violence, but there is trouble to resolve and conflict that must be fixed. I wanted a system that wasn’t deterministic and would lead to multiple outcomes. I kept designing and conceiving wild, complex, and new things. However, I recognized that this game already has that. It’s the thing I mentioned in the previous paragraph. So, I went with simple. You’ll roll some dice, they’ll do a thing. The dice will be standard, pipped, six-sided dice.

For the briefest of instants I thought, “man, that’s a bit underwhelming.” Then, I remembered that the rest of my game shall whelm my players. Conflict resolution isn’t the focus and it should be simple. The cup is now full, but not overflowing.

To quickly wrap this up, remember to consider your target audience. Remember that everything slowly chips away at your players’ abilities to play and remember. Remember to go up to the brim of your cup, but never over. Finally, don’t be afraid to simplify and stick to the status quo for some aspects of your design in order to excel and wow with others.


Find your Smeech

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve had a very creative few months and in them, I think I’ve done some of my best creative work. By creative, I specifically mean idea generation and the more conceptual side of design. This is the aspect of design with which I struggle the most, as I’m a stronger developer by nature. It has been a fun few months. I think we can all agree it feels good to improve in an area where you are weakest.

A great deal of my efforts have been spent on Draftaria (the development side of my brain is busy with Mars Rising), which is an idea that entered my consciousness as Drafty Dungeon and has evolved constantly. I just passed the stage during which I create my goals for the game. This is one of the most important milestones for each of my designs.

When I decide upon the goals for a game, they aren’t set in stone, but  I tend to stick to them. My goals focus on a mechanic I want to use, an experience I want to provide, or a demographic to whom I wish to appeal. For Farmageddon, my goals were to make a highly interactive and short farming game that was better than Farmville. For Battle for York, my goals were to make a war game that didn’t use dice, played in approximately an hour, and played with more than 2 players.

For Draftaria, the first goal I decided was that I wanted to have a strong focus on drafting. It’s a mechanic I love and one I’ve long wanted to use. Drafting is so beautifully simple; pick a card and pass. It really pairs nicely with my current obsession to create simpler games. I very much want to grow this hobby and one way in which I can contribute to that is to craft more accessible games.

Another goal is that I wanted to design a game with a strong sense of adventure. Originally, this was a dungeon crawler. Then, a sprawling, Skyrim style epic. Now, it’s a little bit of Zelda, a little bit of Harry Potter, and a dose of goofy, wandering fantasy. It should present you with a sense of discovery and magic and a world a little outside your control.

I realized I wanted something lighter, sillier (but not a joke), and more colorful. I’d rather have the world of Pandora from Avatar than the cover of a heavy metal album.

The third goal, and the topic of this post (at long last, the crowd rejoices!), is the third goal. Lately, I’ve been completely focused on creating more thematic, story-driven experiences. This is not a “design theme first” argument, I’m merely noting that it’s more and more important, to me, that the end result of my designs is a strong theme. I also want players to enjoy a story together. No, it isn’t a story-telling game, but I want the mechanics to drive exciting, memorable moments.

I think we can all agree that the preceding paragraph is a pile of cliches. Yes, it’s true. But, nonetheless, it’s a goal. I’m willing to decrease the strategy required to play and encourage players more to do things that seem cool, or exciting, or interesting. I want to reward a little risk and exploration. Calculation be damned. Those are conscious philosophical decisions I’m making.

I really cemented this decision recently when I was in the shower, a place of great creativity for me. Ladies. Without really thinking about it too deeply, I found myself carrying on a conversation between two characters aloud. One character stood out, and I began conceiving mechanical and thematic ideas from him. His name is Headmaster Smeech, and he will be players’ first experience in the game.

I realized that I wanted Smeech to teach the game to my players, which means I needed to violate a rule I hold most dear; don’t mix flavor and instruction.

If you’ve ever received rules feedback from me, there’s a strong chance I left a comment about unnecessary flavor text within your rules. Because, as I probably noted, rules are meant to concisely instruct. I still agree with this, but I challenged myself to craft a rule set that is fun, compelling, and instructive. It’s an El Dorado, for sure, but one should challenge himself for every new design, yes?

Can my rules begin your story? Can they teach you how to play the game and introduce you to the world? Can they set the tone and put your hearts and minds in the right place?

Obviously, the rules are just the initial experience, but I’ve found writing them as Smeech (and his assistants) to be incredibly instructive for my design efforts.

I’m deep in the midst of that uncomfortable, prickly, sun bleached creative gulch where I have about 3 out of 5 big questions for the game mostly answered (sort of). But, the last questions are really difficult and were they multiple choice I would have probably just answered “C” at this point. Plus, even though the answer to Question 2 was “Cards,” I still have to make all of those cards. Really, question 2 is about 100 small questions.

I tire of this metaphor. The summary is that I’m almost there and I’m resolving my difficulties with the help of Smeech, a crusty old wizard who resides in my head.

As I write the rules in the character of Headmaster Smeech and explore his character and his world, I find it informing mechanical direction. I wasn’t expecting that, nor for it to be fruitful. Ideas are plentiful, but it’s finding good ones that’s key. I find Smeech helping me design cards, be it their names, function, or types of magic. He knows the ancient arts well.

I find Smeech guiding the level of complexity I want to put before my players. There are times when I find it difficult to explain a rule within framework of the world, so I take a step back and think about it further. How can I make it more intuitive? How can I make it interesting without being complicated? Smeech is, after all, a headmaster, and is used to teaching headstrong young wizards their craft. Right?

The results have been very surprising. One of my two primary mechanics emerged as a result. It should be a nice, refreshing twist on a few established mechanics. The visuals of the mechanic also paint a very clear picture and support the fiction of your role as a player in the world.

The process is fascinating for me. New game, new methods.

A great deal of what I’ve said is vague and bereft of specific examples. I’m hesitant to reveal too much as too many details are still in flux. They may also turn out to be simply dreadful. Plus, that’s not the purpose of this post. The point I’m trying to make is that if you find yourself creatively stuck against a wall or in need of a jolt to your process, consider the following:

  • Place yourself in the world you are crafting and answer the classic questions of a journalist: who, what, where, when, and why. Be it Agricola or Arkham Horror, you can recognize the needs of your setting.
  • Take yourself out of your comfort zone, either by focusing on mechanics or theme first. Either way, try a path unique to yourself.
  • Think about ways you can excite and entice players from the beginning.
  • Consider ways to craft a simple, intuitive experience from the ground floor.
  • Ask how a character in your game would do the things you tell your players to do.
  • Find your game’s Smeech.

Who is your game’s Smeech? Have you tried any new processes lately? Leave notes in the comments below!

The Speicherstadt Makeoverspiel

Post by: Grant Rodiek

If you’ve seen my Twitter commentary or read this blog, you probably know, or at least have a hint, that I like The Speicherstadt. Actually, like is a bit of an understatement. I love this game and it’s easily one of my favorites. This is my favorite Feld by far, and I think it’s a great game for a few reasons:

  • Fantastic variance in how the cards come into play.
  • Tight, yet simple resource management, which reduces amount of math in play.
  • Highly interactive and arguably mean, without feeling that way.
  • A beautiful twist on auctions and worker placement.
  • Easy to learn and teach. One of my favorite games to show to non-gamers.
  • Short. The game is often 45 minutes, even with a full 5 players.
  • Brilliant expansion. Arguably, one of the best expansions I’ve played.

But, holy nerd gods does the game’s presentation not do its mechanics justice! Firstly, it’s called The Speicherstadt, which references a warehouse district in Germany. It’s not English, and for people who didn’t study German in Austria like me, it’s a bit of a mouthful. Though, I must admit that once my friends were taught to say it, they began shouting it like a battlecry. The expansion’s name, Kaispeicher, is even worse!

Also, it has a man moving a pallet of goods into a building on the cover. Also, brown.

Frankly, I don’t think the game has received the love it deserves, and I believe that’s partially due to how it has been presented to the consumer audience, at least in North America (which, yes, I recognize isn’t the entire world, but it’s a significant market, nonetheless).

A quick explanation, for those not aware, is that many publishers, especially those as big as Z-Man, will often partner with publishers in other markets to co-publish a title. This helps save on manufacturing fees and development fees, such as art, the printing itself, and localization. But, whereas a name like Trajan or Castles of Burgundy span multiple markets, The Speicherstadt is a miss.

Enough whining! Step into my hypothetical publisher’s Tardis, where we shall revise The Speicherstadt to be a winner in America. If I could ever sign a previously released title to craft a new edition, this would be the one. Note: I referenced Doctor Who to improve site traffic. I in no way endorse or condone this show.

Firstly, the theme must be altered. This is dangerous territory. When considering a theme, one must carefully consider the actions the player will take and not slap an inappropriate veneer over the game. A boring truth is better than an exciting lie.

The game is about turning limited resources/investments (coins) into great outputs (points/profits). To do this, you must shrewdly outbid and outmaneuver your opponents, all seeking similar goals. Some things that come to mind with this premise:

Politicians expending influence and jockeying for position to gain positions and pass favorable legislation. This is dangerous territory, but I believe farcical politicians passing laws not tied to any country or culture could potentially work.

To replace the fire of Speicherstadt, you could have political scandals, blackmail, and external crises. Contracts could be legislation or deals. The goods (cubes) could be influence from various constituents, wealth, or bargaining chips of some sort.

Inspirations: The Prince, British Commonwealth styled parliaments, or perhaps a more futuristic bureaucracy, similar to that seen in the universe of The Resistance.

A Wall Street style stock market. This is essentially the same premise of The Speicherstadt, but I believe this approach allows me to apply a more modern and colorful vibe.

To replace the fires, you could have recessions and depressions, and other such negative forces. Contracts could be requirements from investors and board members, or the elements of product launches.

Inspirations: Take a look at the Wall Street trading floor. It’s madness!

Local business starting from scratch to gain customers and prestige. Or, go broader with start ups with similar products jockeying for investors and IPO. When I think of this, I think of my small home town where new restaurants and small shops constantly appear and disappear. They fight desperately for customers, loyalty, and to stand out.

I also look to my current surroundings in Silicon Valley, where there are so many companies trying to gain the best employees, give the best benefits, and convince everyone they have the best product. Players would act as owners or CEOs, guiding their new company.

The resources could be awesome employees/personnel that are needed on product launches (contracts). Some of this might be a stretch, which means there would be a lot of work involved in making this intuitive, clever, and appropriate. That goes for all of the themes, really. Nothing is a clean A to B switch.

What is something that you think would work? Comment below!

Secondly, the game would need a short, to-the-point name to match the theme chosen. The name should follow standard conventions for what good looks like, including:

  • Short
  • Action focused (I love verbs or strong nouns)
  • Conveys the player’s actions
  • Confirms the theme from the cover art

As I don’t have a theme, I won’t bother too much with names, but it’s not too difficult to begin churning ideas from the three noted above.

Thirdly, I would completely revise the art style. I would focus on a style that is highly stylized, colorful, and a little silly. After all, politicians, CEOs, and Wall Street traders are all a bit ridiculous, hyperbolic characters. Political cartoons have been having fun at their expense for centuries.

Cards would tell stories of the actions and assets players buy in the game. My first thought, naturally, goes to Brett Bean, a masterful character artist.

His characters are always colorful, slightly exaggerated, and show a great range of emotion. If you don’t follow his work, his morning routine is to go to a local coffee shop and warm up by drawing other customers. Here are some of his pieces that I think match my goals:

My hope for the art would be that it would draw the eye of customers walking through a game store. My hope would be that the characters shown on the cover and on the cards on the back would make them smile and be curious about what’s going on. And, when they discover the premise, that they don’t think “oh god, not another game about business.”

The key is to stand out without confusing. It’s very tempting to go 200% wacky and wild, but then you might utterly confuse your consumers. “Wait…what the heck is this game about?” If people ask that question, you’ve failed. Dudes wearing brown homespun pants and wielding pitchforks on games might be boring, but people know what they’re about.

Would I change the game? No, not at all. Other than taking a stab at the rules to improve clarity and adding a round example, I wouldn’t touch the gameplay. I would include the expansion into the base game. In this hypothetical future, there would need to be a very good incentive for people to give this game another look. Packaging the expansion and base game together should satisfy that, or at least raise eyebrows.

What is a game you would love to revise from a publisher’s perspective? What is an overlooked favorite, or a gem that could be tweaked to 11 with just a new coat of paint? Share your thoughts below!

Thanks for going along with me. Have a good weekend!