The Evolution of Dune to Rex

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Frank Herbert’s Dune released in 1979. Based on the novel of the same name, the game was, and still is, considered to be one of the best games of all time. On BoardGameGeek the game is currently ranked 109 overall, 21 for thematic games, and 75 for strategy games. This is an incredible legacy for a game that is now about 35 years old if my math serves me correctly.

In 2012, Fantasy Flight Games released Rex: Final Days of an Empire. They licensed the mechanics, developed them, but were unfortunately unable to attain the license, hence their use of their wholly owned Twilight Imperium universe.

Before I go further, I want to provide context. Dune is one of my favorite books of all time, easily top 3. I’ve read it multiple times and am currently in the middle of re-reading the series. I love this universe. One of my side projects for the past few weeks has been to chase down an original copy of the board game, almost purely due to my love of the franchise, cost be damned. As luck would have it, my friend Josh had a spare copy (what?) and I had some games in which he was interested. The trade hath commenced.

This past Sunday I played Rex for the first time and just loved it. I should have played it years ago, but I must admit I was turned off by its reputation. I expected a 35 year old game to be a clunky mess, and, paired with FFG’s reputation for very complex games, I think that’s fair. But, the game was anything but. It was actually simple, incredibly thematic, and very deep. Yes, I’m a very experienced board gamer now, so simple is a relative mark.

The thematic intuitiveness of the actions and characters was so strong I could identify Dune’s fingerprints throughout without having read about the original game. I could practically taste the spice. I didn’t see Rex’s characters, but those of Dune. I just loved the game and found myself on BGG reading the rules for Dune the following morning to see the differences.

I began taking notes to email my friends about the differences between the two versions and it was a very fascinating exercise. It provided a glimpse as to Fantasy Flight’s thinking as they developed the 1979 game for 2012. It seemed like an interesting, though admittedly niche post, to analyze these things.

This post will be more interesting if you’ve played either Dune or Rex, or have at least read either of their rule books. Familiarity with the fiction will also help.

  • Ilya’s Dune Rules: This is a super cool BGG community effort to revise the original rules for clarity. They also combine the advanced modes, variants, and commentary.
  • FFG’s Rex Rules

Final Note: This is NOT meant as a gameplay or strategy analysis. Absolutely not after a single play of one of the games. Also, I might get a few notes wrong. If this is the case, please leave a comment and I’ll correct it!

A quick overview to Dune and Rex. This is meant to give you a general idea to how the games play. It is meant as a summary for the purpose of this article, not a conclusive run down.

The board is divided into territories, some of which are strongholds. The game is won if a player controls a certain number of strongholds. Players may ally and they win together if they control a number of strongholds together, which is in excess of those needed for a solo victory. Alliances can be broken and changed at specific times in the game.

Every player has a unique, asymmetric ability that outright breaks the game. This is from the team that brought you Cosmic Encounters. It made me giggle even before playing the game.

Every round follows these steps (orders vary between versions):

  1. Influence Phase. Determine where currency is located on the board. This is the best way to get income and forces players to move around the board. It’s a balance between claiming income and taking over strongholds. One player gets to see where it’ll be placed the previous round, which gives her a way to plan ahead.
  2. Bidding Phase. Players bid openly on very powerful cards that nobody can see. The cards are all face down. Oh wait. One of the players has a power that she examines them! And one player receives all the income that’s paid to buy them, essentially making them the bank and the richest player in the game.
  3. Recruitment Phase. Players have a limited reserve of Units. When they die, they go to the recruitment space on the board. In this phase, players pay to remove them from this space and add them back to their reserves to be deployed back to the board. This can be a huge drain on your economy. Players may recruit some units for free based on their faction. This lets some players play fast and loose with their casualties.
  4. Maneuver Phase. Players add units to the board and move units.
  5. Battle Phase. If multiple players occupy a space, they fight. This is a brilliant design. Players simultaneously and secretly choose how many units they are willing to lose. They will lose these regardless and may spend up to the number in the space. They then must select a leader, who has a value (1-6, typically). They may also play 1 defense and 1 attack special card (the ones bid upon earlier). They then reveal. Players compare their Leader’s Value + Sacrificed Units value + card modifiers. Highest number wins. Loser loses all units. There is a twist in that players start with 1 traitor card (one player gets more). This matches a specific leader. For example, I may have the Traitor for your 3 value Leader. I can play it in the battle after you reveal your leader. This kills your leader and immediately cots you the battle.
  6. Collection Phase. Remember the currency placed earlier? For every unit you have in a space with currency, you gain 2 of the currency.
  7. Bombardment Phase. This is a fleet of ships in Rex and the storm in Dune. Every round it moves 1-6 spaces in order around the board. All currency and units it passes over or stops on are removed, except in specific cases. This is brilliant in that it forces you to move, prevents passive, overly defensive play, and can create opportunities on the board. Oh, one player knows about the storm’s movement.

The game is a fairly straightforward game of managing your income and units to hold territory on the board and maximizing your character advantages. It is, however, full of deception, unexpected moments when people cash in their secrets, and treachery.

A List of Changes from Rex to Dune.

  • The storm phase is at the beginning of the round in Dune, not the end. I’m curious  why they would change this. Perhaps it’s easier for the player to think “end of round equals destruction” instead of beginning of the next, which can be overlooked?
  • The storm and first player rotates counter-clockwise in Dune. This is one of those counter-intuitive things that doesn’t seem to have a good reason. Generally, clockwise is the correct decision unless you have a very good reason.
  • Players arrange their pawns around the board, almost like positions on the clock. The first player for the round is the player whose pawn will be next passed by the storm. This is a slightly more complicated way than just passing a first player token, as in Rex. However, this mechanic DOES mean that first player might not shift every round, which is interesting. Complexity and variance versus simplicity and more predictable rounds?
  • Dune ends after 15 rounds (if nobody has met the victory condition), instead of 8. However, an official variant recommends 10 rounds for a more reasonable length game. I felt 8 for Rex was a smidge short in terms of need to progress the game, though with 4 new players, 8 rounds took us 2.5 hours.
  • In Rex, verbal deals are non-binding, but you cannot exchange Influence (currency) at any time . In Dune, verbal agreements are binding. Furthermore, you can exchange Spice (the currency), but it can only be claimed at the end of the round. Here, I prefer Dune’s way of doing things. I’m curious why the change was made. My power was that I could give my ally money during the bidding phase. This is even more powerful if money passed in deals can only be claimed at the beginning. I, however, can give it to my friend when he needs it — now.
  • In Rex, everyone gets 2 free influence from the bank in addition to any they claim. In Dune, you only get 2 spice only if you have nothing. Pay attention here as this is one piece of the core differences — the economy.
  • In Dune, currency is only added to a single territory each round. In Rex, it’s added to two territories.
  • In Rex, once you pass in a bid for a single card, you cannot obtain that card. In Dune, if you pass, but the bid increases past what you passed on, you can re-enter the bidding. I think this is a subtle element that is probably fine to smooth out, though it does allow for a hint more in the way of bidding tactics.
  • In Rex, you may recruit up to 5 killed Units each round. In Dune, it’s only 3.
  • Dune has a fairly complex rule that states if a Leader is killed and revived, if they are killed again, they cannot be revived until all other killed leaders are revived and killed again. I think. I found this rule very confusing. I believe the intent here is to prevent you from just spamming your best leader repeatedly with abandon. It makes the Traitor mechanic more potent, in my estimation. I’m not sure the rule is worth the complexity though.
  • In Rex, you must move units first, then you may add new units. In Dune, you add units first, then you move them. This is a curious change. The cost to add units to enemy-occupied territory is more expensive, so I assume this forces you to move Units into the territory first, then add additional reserves at the higher price. Rex is generally looser with money than Dune, so I can see the reasoning for the change. With Rex, you have more money, so they need to put in new costs, which this change seems to supply.
  • In Dune, adding Units to a stronghold costs 1 per, or 2 per anywhere else. In Rex, it’s 1 per to an empty or friendly space, or 2 per to an enemy occupied space. This puts a greater emphasis on the strongholds in Dune and slows the game down slightly. It puts greater emphasis on managing your supply lines and planning ahead it seems.


  • Dune’s board (see above) is divided into slivers, like a clock, which are called territories. During movement, players can move between sectors in adjacent slivers, but their units are always in one sector. Sectors may span multiple slivers. A battle is triggered if multiple enemies exist in a territory (the sliver), even if they are in multiple sectors. They can, however, be blocked by a storm in the middle as the storm moves between the sectors. Rex’s board (see below) just creates numbered sectors. I’m very curious how the balance changed, if at all, but I can say with absolute frankness that Rex seems to have streamlined this very appropriately. Of all the sections in Dune’s rules, the territory versus sector confused me the most. Typically, players see sectors as a control point and a path for movement. Dune abstracts that strangely and I feel, without playing Dune, FFG made the right call.

  • In Rex, you simultaneously select your Units to spend and your leader. However, after revealing these,  you may choose which cards to play (though you pre-determine whether you will play cards, and you must use them if you chose to do so). In Dune, you submit everything at once. I think I prefer the tension and simplicity of Dune’s method.
  • In Dune, the winner of a battle gains Spice (currency) equal to the strength of all leaders killed in the battle. This bounty is a great boost in income that I find very compelling. In Rex, only certain cards do such things.
  • In Dune, once you use a Traitor cards, it’s shuffled back into the deck. In Dune, you regain the Traitor card. I find this fascinating. Once a traitor, always a traitor, eh? It also means you have a permanent, but now know disadvantage against certain enemies. The first step in avoiding a trap is knowing it exists, right? By the way, this bullet is full of sweet Dune references.
  • Players in control of certain spaces in Dune gain the Spice Harvester card, which grants them additional spice. It’s purely a flat rate in Rex, typically.

In addition to the main game, Avalon Hill released an advanced set of rules to develop the game further. Some elements of it are considered essential to the experience, whereas others are quite controversial. I’ll only discuss the ones that pertain to Rex.

  • Originally, Dune’s economy was considered overly strict. The new edition added Carryall and Smuggler bonuses, which were granted for controlling specific sectors and granted additional income. Rex handles this by giving everyone a flat 2 Influence every round. I actually like both methods. Rex’s mechanic is simpler, but Dune’s carries some nice nuance.
  • Advanced added the concept of supporting Units in battle. You could support each Unit in the battle at the cost of 1 spice. Supported Units gave their full value, whereas unsupported units provided half. Therefore, it would take 2 unsupported units to equal 1 supported unit. This is a bit complex and added a layer of math. It seems to be generally disliked by the community. I agree with this group.
  • In the Advanced Dune, they modified the amount of spice added each round from 1 to 2 territories, which is precisely what Rex employs. This added quite a bit more to the economy, which is potentially why they introduced the notion of supporting units. FFG inflated the economy, but removed some of its costs, as well.
  • Finally, the addition of the supported rule put the Fremen faction at a strong disadvantage. To address this, Fremen were considered supported (for free) when fighting outside of strongholds. In Rex, the faction I believe to be a Fremen faction is able to add units for free to certain zones and gains Units in the recruitment phase at a higher rate. Essentially, they have an economic advantage when bringing forces to bear in certain situations.

My Analysis. It seems very clear that Dune, overall, is a slower game, based primarily on its economic tuning. Units cost more to add to the board, they take longer to bring back from the dead, there is less money in circulation, no default income except when you are broke, and leaders are more difficult to revive.

The game, in this sense, is probably played with greater attention towards long term planning. Units are sent to battle more cautiously. It also gives a very big incentive for gaining the treachery cards (battle modifiers) and killing leaders via traitors. In our game of Rex, the cost of the Treachery cards was generally relatively low, primarily to hinder the player gaining the income for their purchase. I think if Treachery cards hold more weight, this bidding phase will be more lively and compelling.

For my personal tastes, and I think modern tastes in general, cutting the game in half (from 15 to 8 rounds), making sure everyone has income, and increasing the rate of bringing back troops seems to have the advantage of speeding up the game with fewer negative consequences.

However, I believe the best version of the game is a bit of the advanced Dune with some notes from Rex. 10 Rounds, with the Carryalls and Smugglers, 2 Spice blows, and binding negotiation throughout seems to be a really strong way to play. Regaining Traitors and having a bounty for killed leaders looks fantastic and really puts a proper edge on conflict. Also, with the troop limitations, but a little more income, I think it leaves a little currency for bribery and increasing the bids on the treachery cards, which then increase in value.

But, economics aside, it’s difficult to ignore some of FFG’s improvements. The new board is far simpler and in the best way. Having a guaranteed first player rotation might remove a layer, but it’s not one I think most people would miss. Shifting counter-clockwise to clockwise is just an obvious choice.

Some of the tactical decision are, I think, streamlined in the right way. Instead of stronghold versus non-stronghold, FFG put the increased deployment tax on enemy-held regions, which means you can move into open spaces freely. This makes them quite valuable, but you can’t just hot-drop into an enemy space without paying. They also swapped the order of movement and deployment. Therefore, while speeding up the game’s flow, they still preserved some difficult decisions on where and when to allocate troops.

I can’t wait to receive my copy of Dune. I fully plan to play it with a hand-picked assortment of rules to find the right balance of theme and mechanics. What a great game!

Conclusion. If you were to bring a classic into the modern era, what would you change? What would be your game of choice? Would you prioritize pacing and overall game length, reduce complexity, or seek to improve balance?

This also forces one to ask what must be preserved for the fans of the original. What considerations must be paid to new players? In fact, when you’re revising a classic, do you give consideration to the existing fans as customers at all, or do you plan to sell to a new generation? Money dictates planning and this is a great case where that’ll come into play.

Fantasy Flight have quite a bit of experience with this, with the list including Rex/Dune, Nexus Ops, Fortress America, Horus Heresy, and surely others.

I hope you enjoyed this lengthy piece. It’s a little different than my standard fare. My hope is that it has provided context to you for thinking about not just classics to revise, which is unlikely to be something you deal with, but revising your current designs to be more appealing to the current market. The ability to develop, revise, and iterate upon your design never really goes away. You really just have to choose a direction and stick to it.

What’s your direction, young Atreides?

Low Fat Design Diet

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Design peer John DuBois supplied me with a prompt for this post, and what a great prompt!

I love this idea and it’s been something I’ve thought about a great deal lately with many of my projects. Antoine de Saint-Exupery noted that “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

This is a commonly uttered phrase for any form of design. Elegance and simplicity is prized by creators and consumers alike. Delivering a highly focused, high quality game experience should be one of your goals for every product, but how far is too far? When do you have the correct feature set? When do you have the right amount of fat? Because if you’re asking me, your game needs a little fat.

Perhaps I just think that way because I’ve lived my entire life as a “heavy set fellow,” as my grandfather would say.

In purely scientific fashion, I propose you must view your design through the following lenses to gauge whether your game has the right amount of fat, or as our dear  de Saint-Exupery noted, requires a little more taking away.

After I write about the tools to use, I’ll provide some anecdotal stories that are a bit more fuzzy.

Does your game typically finish in an ideal length of time? This one is fairly standard. Games typically fall within a few categories of time, and note that time is the duration of the experience (setup, play, etc.)

  • Casual/Micro: 15 Minutes. Ex: Coin Age, Dragonheart, Love Letter
  • Filler/Light Strategy: 30 Minutes. Ex: Fairy Tale, Dominion, Star Realms
  • Medium Strategy: 60 minutes. Ex: Ginkgopolis, Ticket to Ride, Last Will, The Speicherstadt, Pandemic
  • Heavy Strategy/Experience: 90+ Minutes. Ex: Eclipse, Combat Commander, Twilight Struggle, Mice and Mystics

You should know, roughly, where your game lies on this spectrum based on the type of game it is. There are countless games by which you can compare your experience. If your deckbuilder takes 90 minutes, typically, you might have an issue (but of course, Core Worlds is the exception).

If your micro-game takes 45 minutes, it’s probably too long. If you observe your game is too long, that’s a good indicator that you may need to trim the fat, reduce complexity, and examine the design. Game length is a tool to notify you that you have a problem, but it can’t necessarily tell you what precisely to fix.

Does your game fit within an ideal price point when compared to similar products? This one may be more difficult for folks who have never grabbed a quote from a manufacturer, but if you use your good judgement and skills of consumer observation, you’ll be fine. Basically, find a game that has a comparable “heft” to your game. By heft, I mean the experience, general components. Does your game match within about 10% of the price?

For example, if I’m making a light drafting game meant for a 20 minute play period, if I have 300 cards and a bunch of chips, the game is probably too hefty. Why? Because Fairy Tale offers that light drafting game for about $20 and just a few cards.

Granted, yes, it’s a mistake to go up against some of the really big publishers that print a thousands of units. Clearly they’ll have lower prices. But, like the above, this is a tool to use. If your component (and therefore cost) is significantly greater than similar games, you need to trim and revise.

As a personal example, Blockade, now Sol Rising, used to require a lot of wooden blocks. The game would have cost a pretty penny. Think Pitch Car expensive. I knew I didn’t want it to be that expensive, so I completely overhauled the game.

Does your game include options, actions, or components rarely used by your testers? This is a good thing to look for in your design. When you’re play testing, do you notice players rarely use a certain card, a certain action, or a certain space in a worker placement? If so, perhaps the game doesn’t need it.Perhaps you can enhance another feature, or condense two of them, to create a single, stronger feature.

Always watch your players to see what they use. This may also be a good way to tune and balance your game in general. But, if 25% of your features aren’t in use, that may be a good reason to cut 25% of your features.

Does your game innovate or twist common expectations in more than 2 ways? This may shock you, but if you innovate too much, your game may be really difficult to play. People may fail to see the fun in the game you’ve created. Typically, you want to do 1 or 2 unique things, then rely on standards to fill in the rest.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you make a drafting game, but you twist the standard of how drafting games work. For example, in Fairy Tale you pick 1 and pass the rest. Then, let’s say you make it so Victory Points are a bad thing, instead of a good thing. Finally, let’s say your game features a rondel that goes counter-clockwise and instead of using the space you land on, you use the spaces you skip. All of these things might work individually, or one or two of them, but if you change the standards too many times, players are just going to be confused.

Don’t overly stir the pot.

Only you can judge the scale and breadth of your innovation, but you need to reign yourself in such that people can actually appreciate the few great things you did and not be overwhelmed with new, unconventional ideas.

If you use card text, does it fit on the card in a reasonable font size? I use action cards, or text-based actions, in all of my games. It’s just something I love to do and when I make games that don’t use it I find them soulless and stale. That’s something I need to improve, but it’s where my skills lie.

Please note: I’m not saying games without card text are soulless. I’m saying my designs that fit that description, to date, have been soulless.

When I’ve really begun to polish and refine the game, be it Sol Rising, York, or Wozzle, I have found that by setting an inflexible font size (12 pt or larger), and an inflexible box for text, I suddenly write MUCH better text. My cards become simpler, more elegant, and more accessible. I begin to remove unnecessary terms or phrases.

This has a massive overall effect on the game. This is an easy one to implement. Set a rigid canvas for your text and force yourself to fit within it. You’ll be so glad you did.

Can the game be setup and taught in a reasonable length of time comparable with similar games? Hopefully by now you’re detecting a theme. Your design is going to be released among thousands of other games, a slightly smaller number of which are directly comparable to your game. Publisher and customers will make these mental assessments, whether they know it or not, so it’s best if you get in front of it and do early analysis.

Firstly, you need to write your rules. You need to be thoughtful about how your game will be taught without you in the room to do so.

Secondly, you need to begin experimenting with methods of teaching. This takes a few iterations, but you’ll learn the order of operations when taught orally, as well as how best to explain the sticking points.

Once you’ve completed steps 1 and 2, you need to begin asking yourself the tough question of whether your game is reasonable to teach compared to other games in its weight class. If your micro game takes more than 2 minutes to teach, you’re in trouble. You need to simplify, starting with rules exceptions and unnecessary content.

Does the game match the catalog of the publisher you’re courting? If you pay attention and are honest, this is a very easy way to determine the appropriate level of fat your game entails. Many publishers have a fairly consistent catalog of games by which you can judge how appropriate your game’s heft is. You should always lean towards their recent releases and best sellers, as those are clear indicators of their habits.

Some examples:

  • Tasty Minstrel Games lately is very interested in light, micro style games. But, their soul has always been medium to heavy Euros. If you follow Seth Jaffee, their lead developer, it won’t take long to figure out their tastes. They probably don’t want your tactics design.
  • Plaid Hat Games likes trashy, highly interactive games. Length isn’t really an issue, but they want richly thematic experiences and tend to favor games with cards. They don’t want your euro city builder.
  • Indie Boards and Cards tends to enjoy games that support high player numbers, are very simple to teach, and predominantly feature a strong social element.
  • Academy Games is seeking themes rooted in historical premises. They enjoy variance, simple, elegant designs, and deep strategy. Their games tend to fit in that 1-3 hour mark and support more than 2 players.

I picked just a few, but hopefully you get the point. I’ve begun to loosely identify 1-3 publishers at the beginning of a design and I use that as a rough benchmark by which to scope, polish, and develop the game. If you’re seeking a publisher for your design, one of the best tools is simply their catalog. Use it to scope your game!

Some Anecdotal Notes

As I developed Battle for York, I worked fervently to trim trim trim. I tried to make the game as tight as possible with as little fat as possible. This worked to get it to a steady foundation, but in this game, the game needed more fat. It is possible to trim the spark out of an experience, and sometimes you need to add a bit of Spackle back to your sculpture, de Saint-Exupery be damned.

How do you know when you need to add some chub? Well, use the tools I just listed above. If you find you’re coming in under your throw weight in complexity, or your game is a bit light compared to your ideal publisher’s catalog, feel free to return to some of the ideas you trimmed. Now that you have a tight foundation, you may find they actually DO have a home.

Doing this is tough and it comes with experience. I needed help to identify it with York, but as a result I more accurately hit the mark with Sol Rising. More details on these later.

What do you think? Was this useful for identifying how to trim? Leave it in the comments below!

Josh and I Discuss Names

In case you missed it, we wrote a huge post about the changes for the game’s PNP and graphic layout. Check it out! Lots of pictures.

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek

In this week’s Wozzle post we discuss the very name of the game. Shall it remain Wozzle, or change to something even better? If you have a name suggestion, TAKE OUR SURVEY to cast your vote and enter suggestions!

Grant: What should we call Wozzle? The game began its life as Wizard Poker, but I really didn’t like having the work “poker” in the name. Too many STRONG preconceptions. It scares some people away, when they are the ones we are most trying to attract, and sends the wrong message to actual poker nerds.

Josh: I will say this about the name Wizard Poker: it attracted me enough to take a closer look at it, so to that extent, it did the job. But it was at very best a utilitarian name, the sort of thing that should be in black-and-white on the box with a bar code.

Grant: I tucked the bar code name aside and I tried to come up with something fictional and weird. I was inspired by names like Whist, Euchre, Pinochle, which are all weird names when you think about it. The first thing that came to mind was Wazzle. Alas, a quick Google search revealed that was a “Dora The Explorer” film. Don’t want that.

I changed a vowel and it become Wozzle. Which I like. But, there have been dissenting opinions.

Josh: Any Dora association is way beyond the pale for me. Speaking as a serious nerd for traditional card games, I’m 100% on board with looking to them for inspiration. That said, I don’t totally love the name. I think it’s OK, and certainly better than Wizard Poker, but it sort of comes across as a little too fuzzy-wuzzy. And some of the playtesters have been lukewarm. So has my play group as well. It’s not a world-beating name.

Grant: Lukewarm is always a high mark.

Josh: We’ve sat down for a brainstorming session. Well, virtually sat down, anyway. We looped in the artist that we’ve engaged with and tried to think of some ideas. Which naturally brings up the question: what’s a name for, anyway? What criteria should we be using to evaluate things?

My own history of naming my games isn’t awesome, honestly. I have a series of games played with my own deck (a Foresight deck), and while I like the name of the deck and the flagship game, the rest of my game names kind of suck. I’m working on a dungeon crawler and I couldn’t figure out anything to call it that wasn’t awful, so I’ve taken to calling it Killing Monsters and Taking Their Stuff, which is at least cheeky. But I think it’s clear that I’m not the strongest game namer on the planet. Anything namer, honestly. Two of my kids share an initial, and the other one usually goes by a nickname with the same initial. Which is in turn shared with my wife.

What I’m saying is that I don’t trust my judgement on games.

Grant: I’m almost prouder of the name Farmageddon than I am the game itself. And if I’m being honest, I thought of the name before the game at all. I think what we want to establish in the name for Wozzle that the game is:

  • a card game
  • playful
  • light in throw weight

I generally also like names that are short, easy to spell (for search engines and such), easy to remember.

I’m willing to assign bonus points for something that conveys that it’s a classic game. Our game is, more or less, a hyperbolic take on Texas Hold ‘Em Poker where betting is replaced with wild hand management and card manipulation.

What about Pokus? Perhaps it’s too close to the slightly uncomfortable phrase “Poke Us.”

Josh: Uh, perhaps not. Junior Pokus is, well, unfortunate.

Grant: Indeed.

Josh: The best non-Wozzle game we have on the table right now is Hocus Poker. While you can certainly go wrong with a pun, it has its charms: it does evoke our inspiration, it’s silly (conveying the less-than-serious nature of the game), it brings in a corny classic magic phrase. The problem with it, mostly, is that we need to be careful with poker connotations, because of the expectations players bring to the table.

Grant: You know, Arcana and Tarot have become such a big part of the game. Should we be looking there for inspiration? We’ve had so much fun coming up with names for the 36 Arcana cards (Ornithopter!). Are we missing an opportunity here?

Josh: Possibly? The thing with those is that they’re mostly nouns, and concrete things. A lot of them are mysterious, deliberately so, but mystery in a title (especially from a lesser known publisher) is going the wrong direction. So, again, what is the purpose of a name? Is it to get a player to pull a game off the shelf or look it up on the internet? Pique curiosity? Spark discussion? Look good on a Kickstarter page?

Grant: I’d go with get it off the shelf. And, paired with a nice cover, they’ll get the feel that it’s set in a magical setting and has to do with cards.

Ideas: Hokus, Wiz Poker, Wizum…

Josh: Ultimately, the biggest first decision on the name is: play off of “Poker” or not? It’s kind of a big fork in the road. Do we want the title to be associated directly with Poker or not? I sort of lean towards yes, but could be talked out of it as well. I think it might be a stronger pitch to someone who knows nothing about the game. “Poker with spells” is a really good elevator pitch, and having it encoded in the name is probably helpful.

Grant: Okay. Let’s just go for it. Poker with Spells.

To go on a slight tangent, I think originally, when the game was much more like Poker, I was worried having Poker in the name would hurt people’s ability to see through the changes. I also worried, from a marketing standpoint, it’d scare people away. This is how we arrived at Wozzle.

But, more and more, the game’s foundation is Texas Hold ‘Em Poker. We’ve built an entirely different home on top of this foundation, but the notion of collecting sets of different rankings and racing against luck, deduction, and probability are all there. I look to Steve Jackson’s Knightmare Chess as an example. They didn’t call it Knightmare Wozzle or something abstract. No, they said “this is Chess plus.” So, I think “This is Poker plus” is the right path for us.

Going from there: Charm Poker, Hex Poker, Spell Poker, Magician’s Gamble, Sorcerer’s Pitch, Wizardly Hold ‘Em…

Josh: I do feel like I have to bring up my friend Jarrett’s appalling suggestion of “Texas Hold Person” here.

Grant: To quote every Japanese RPG: “…”

More Ideas: Wizard Shuffle, Magic Shuffle, Wizard’s River, Wizard’s Flop, Wizard’s Turn…

Josh: What about looking at terminology in the game. Poker has a rich set of jargon, not to mention a lot of colorful variants. Anything in there to mine? Flops, turns, rivers. All-in. “The nuts”. Variants like Omaha, High-Low, Stud and Draw.

Nothing is jumping out at me of course.

Grant: Wizard’s Nuts?

More seriously, what about Cursed Omaha, Path to Omaha, Magic River, Cursed Turn?

Can we leverage fiction here? One of my favorite books is The Once and Future King by TH White. It’s based on Arthurian Legend. Perhaps we can reference Archimedes, Merlin, or the Questing Beast?

Josh: Let’s face it, nut puns are funny but not going to happen. “Omaha” is also not the most mystical of names on the planet. I’m hard pressed to think of much gambling done by wizards in fiction, which is not very helpful. I’ve mentioned Dragon Poker in Robert Asprin’s “Myth Adventures” series, but that’s not especially helpful because Dragon Poker is about as prosaic as Wizard Poker.

Grant: What about Elemental Poker?

Josh: It’s OK? I’m not sure what I’d expect pulling a game like that off the shelf, or if it would get me to do so. Here, of course, I have to roleplay someone discriminating, as I personally am essentially interested in all games. But to me, Elemental Poker would involve some kind of game where you’re gambling with the elements themselves, trying to construct hands of this many parts fire, this many parts water, etc. It doesn’t really fit with the hogde-podge of stuff in the game today, which I think has its charms.

It strikes me that I’m coming across as really negative here, but I’m certainly not trying to do so. I feel like the perfect name is probably out there for this game.

Grant: Yeah, the gambling of the elements is a good point. And you’re calling it like you see it, which is useful.

Both of us are fine with Hocus Poker, and it accomplishes a lot of things. It’s short, it’s easy to remember and spell. It conveys the gist of the game: Poker with some sort of spell-themed tomfoolery.

Is it really that simple? Is that our perfect name?

Josh: Maybe it’s time to throw a poll on it or something?

Grant: To the poll!

Click Here to take our name survey using Survey Monkey. Thanks! 

Hocus Poker PNP Update

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Progress continues on Hokus Poker. Progress cannot be stopped.

It’s been a few weekends of work, but we’re pleased to release the next update of the Hocus Poker PNP. Yes, you read that name correctly. More on the name tomorrow…

Before I got into details, here are the quick links:

  • Rules
  • PNP Files via Dropbox
  • PNP Files via UnPub

The most significant change in this patch is the graphic design of the cards. Other than minor text tweaks and tiny balance issues, the cards are largely the same. If you downloaded and printed this game in the past month, you DO NOT need this print to get an accurate version of the game. Print this if you’ve never printed, haven’t printed in the past month, or really love the game and want our best effort to date! Please read the rules regardless to see our clarifications that may have hindered your enjoyment in the past.

The first reason for the update was that our graphics files were just old, tired, and crufty. If you’ve worked in software, you know how every so often you just need to go through the code and audit things. We needed that! After 4 months of constant testing and iteration, our Photoshop file looked war torn and needed a fresh start.

The second reason, and a primary driver for this, is that Hocus Poker will be at Origins in limited form. Corey Young, designer of the award-winning Gravwell and soon to be award winning Santorini, GRACIOUSLY volunteered to hand out copies of the game at the Origins convention in just a few weeks. He’ll have 10 copies to give away. TEN. You just need to find him and get one. We’re really proud of these copies and we spent a bit of time and money to make them. They will be printed on 310 GSM (which is nice) cardstock with a linen finish. As far as print on demand goes, they should be top of their class. I used Printer Studio for the print. I was very pleased with their interface, less pleased with their shipping costs, and don’t know yet about their final quality.

I was inspired to do this Origins giveaway by Adam McIver, who handed out Coin Age at last year’s GenCon. It was a brilliant idea and it put Coin Age on the lips of a lot of people. Due to the card count of our game I can’t quite match his distribution numbers, but if 10 people turn into 40 players, that’s great and well-worth the expense. If this Origins experiment works for us, you’ll see more at GenCon handed out by the excellent Chevee Dodd, then more at BGG Con, handed out by yours truly.

In case you missed this note in a previous update, Josh and I are currently planning to self-publish Hocus Poker under Hyperbole Games in the winter of 2015. That gives us about 9 months to test, market, and complete art development.

Back to Origins. We needed to make the cards, and quickly! It takes a few days to print and a few days to ship and we didn’t want to miss the boat.

Our third reason for the update is the new size of the cards. Up until now we’ve used the standard Poker size due to the ease of PNP. However, the poker card was a bit snug for our game and we always planned to use Euro sized cards. Well, we’re ripping off the band-aid. The new PNP is built from the ground up for Euro sized cards. The slight increase gives our Spells the room they need in landscape mode. It also means our spirit cards have more room for gorgeous illustrations.

Enough reasoning!

Let’s get into the specific changes. We had a list of tiny things we wanted to improve and we finally integrated them all. We spoke to many of our key testers, including Robin Less and Mike Mullins, for input. We also used feedback from our UnPub testers. Really, we used every data point possible.

Note: The cards below are the files I sent to the printer. The PNP files have a border around them to facilitate cutting. I didn’t include them below because I think they are ugly.

Spirit Cards: Here is a basic Spirit Card example — a 1 of Froggles.

  1. We changed the typeface to one that is more legible and displays the numeral 1 appropriately. Ringbearer made a 1 resemble the letter I.
  2. We increased the font size of the number, which is the card’s strength.
  3. We added a smaller suit icon to the top left so players can easily fan the cards in their hands or on the table to take up less space.
  4. I made the colors darker and more distinct from each other.
  5. I removed the bottom right number as it wasn’t necessary. It added clutter to the card.

On the final version of the card, we intend the center image to be a nice illustration that isn’t just a bigger version of the suit icon. One of our biggest reference points is Cockroach Poker, which I think does this well.

Arcana Cards: Here is an Arcana Card example — an 11 of Hexis.

  1. We separated the Arcana action mechanic (Show above, Build and Formula for the others) on its own line to make it easier to see.
  2. We moved the Tarot name to the top of the card to further separate it from the actual game text on the bottom.
  3. We reduced the size of the action text and anchored it so it has a consistent flow on all cards. It’s a subtle thing that looks much better.
  4. The Arcana suits would have a similar illustration style to the basic Spirits.

Common Spells: Here is an Common Spell example — Summon.

  1. We previously had a very inefficient use of space. We had the spell class icon (common/basic/advanced) in the bottom left, which hurt longer spells as it effectively removed an entire line for text. Now, the spell class is baked into the banner behind the title. Currently, I just use different colors (it’s a prototype, I’m testing function!), but the plan is to have a different shape and color for a real version. This will make it color-blind friendly.
  2. Instead of listing multiple mana icons for the spell’s cost, which was tedious to count and looked bad, we now just list the number between the mana symbols.
  3. I revised the background purely for fun. Just imagine what a real artist can do!
  4. The text now uses a consistent box shape which made it easier to update. We were also able to preserve our 18 point font!
  5. We’ve entirely removed the notion of illustrations for spells. We would have had to use cost-inefficient card sizes and the art costs would have increased dramatically. 28 Spells means 28 illustrations.
  6. Removed the visual flourish from the bottom right corner. It didn’t add much. A real graphic designer can add a proper frame, but as of now it’s not useful.

Basic Spells: Here is an Basic Spell example — Vanish.

  1. Notice the different banner color.

Advanced Spells: Here is an Advanced Spell example — Fissure.

  1. Notice the different banner color.
  2. Notice the 3 dots at the bottom of the card. This means the card is for 3+ players only and isn’t used in 2 player games. Previously, we had a “3+” on cards that looked bad and was an inefficient use of space. This new icon is easy to find during setup, but also easy to ignore during the game when you don’t need it.

Action Cards: Here is an Action Card example — Surged Void.

  1. To distinguish the Actions from the Spells, I changed them to portrait.
  2. The actions are all very simple and never change from game to game. They act mostly as references, which is why we believe large images will help to remind folks of what they do.
  3. Many Actions act as “holders” for Mana tokens, which is why we left open space to place them and not cover text.

Reference Card: Here is a Reference Card example — Set Reference.

  1. We switched it back to a standard card instead of a big, custom card. This will save on component costs. It also takes up less table space and is easier to pass around to other players.
  2. Instead of using images, which can be misinterpreted (ex: does it require only the symbols shown?) and worse, require a LOT of space, we just wrote the precise example of what each hand is.
  3. Instead of using a double sided card for the Basic and Advanced Sets you can play, we just color-coded them to match the spells as well. This merges them to a single side. Therefore, 3 of a Kind is a Basic Hand. Crossways, Straight, and Straight Flush are Advanced.
  4. By freeing up the back side, we added back a simple reference to remind you how much mana you use at the start, the steps before a round, and the steps during a round. We are convinced people won’t need these 2 games in, but at the cost of one card, it’s worth it.
  5. I realize the background is a disservice on this card, but I was tired.

Card Backs: Because we did a fancy print, I spent a few minutes making some card backs. The first is for Spells, the second is for the Spirits. I actually like the idea behind the Spirits, though we’ll need to make one that doesn’t list all the Spirits. In the case this game is actually successful, we’ll absolutely make more Arcana to support the game.

Updating the Rules

Most of our mechanic changes came in the form of minor polish issues that are the result of our continued testing. Every fresh set of eyes reveals new bumps that need to be polished. Test test test test test.

  • People didn’t like the term Bog for the Community. We’ve changed it to Square, as in Town Square.
  • People didn’t like the phrase “Play Sets.” We’ve changed it to Release, as in Release Spirits.
  • We added the term Possession to mean everything in your Hand or Shown in front of you.
  • Our experiment renaming all the hands (ex: Straight changed to Run) just didn’t work. It was too confusing for poker players. Plus, new players who DON’T know poker have to learn the names regardless. They might as well learn the proper ones.
  • We removed the fourth Vanilla suit of Fairies. It was a waste of 12 cards and not really needed. People instead are instructed to use Hexis and ignore the text.
  • When we added the Junior variant, we suddenly had two types of Advanced Spells. This makes them difficult to reference. To fix this, we renamed Basic Spells to Common Spells, as they are Common to every game. Basic is now used for Spells meant for the new player or Junior players. Advanced Spells are for experienced players. They also have subtle visual differences (as you saw above) to make them easy to separate.
  • Some people asked for a longer game. We added an Epic variant and will make one tiny component change to accommodate this.
  • Our rules needed more visual aids, so I added some.
  • We were doing a poor job integrating advanced features into the rules. I’ve now integrated them within the main rules, but I call them out differently so it’s easy to see and ignore them. I borrowed this from Academy Games’ Conflict of Heroes rule book.
  • I polished our Arcana rules section to remove confusion.
  • We now recommend first time players ignore Arcana AND do not use Advanced Spells. It’s entirely fine to ignore this, but it’ll be a smoother experience for those who actually heed our advice. Demos for Farmageddon that do not include the FrankenCrops always proceed far better than ones that do. I’m going to use that lesson.
  • General polish that comes from reading the rules a million times.

If you’re curious, here’s an example of the old cards. The changes we’ve made aren’t monstrously differently, but they’ll have a slight impact on the quality of the experience. Really, it’s all about tiny tweaks as we crawl towards GREAT. Game design is often a game of inches.

Thanks for reading! Please share any thoughts in the comments below.

Here are the links again.

  • Rules
  • PNP Files via Dropbox
  • PNP Files via UnPub

A Story of Rage

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Happy Friday! I have about 3 really good blog posts in the works that I haven’t had time this week to finish. I’ve been very busy with work and Wozzle in my spare time. I wanted to cap off this week with a short story I thought you might enjoy.

GenCon 2012 was my first GenCon, heck, my first board game convention. It was especially memorable because it marked the release of my first published game, Farmageddon, which was on display at my publisher’s booth.

I was very busy during the convention. From 9 am to 6 pm I ran non-stop Farmageddon demos at a table in the dealer hall. I grabbed a quick bite, then from 8 pm to midnight I was testing York in the First Exposure Playtest Hall. I was very tired, but I loved the work so it was really fine. In fact, I vastly prefer a GenCon like this to one where I’m not working.

That’s the context. Fast forward to Sunday afternoon. This is family day, when all the adults bring their children. I’m exhausted at this point and have slept about 5 hours total. A dad that resembled Eugene Levy comes up with two young children, one is about a 7 year old girl, the other about a 9 year old boy. They’re young.

They wanted to play Farmageddon, which is probably a little too advanced, but both children could read and I’m not going to tell them no. I walked them through the instructions and a turn, then stepped aside to watch the main table. I had 2 tables and I felt it better to let them play as a family with me within arm’s reach to answer questions.

About 10 minutes into their game I hear a kerfuffle. The girl is sitting on one side of the long table, the boy directly across from her, and the father is sitting perpendicular at the end. The boy played the Farm Futures card, which lets him draw 2 Crop cards from the top of the deck OR examine another player’s hand and steal 1 card.

Naturally, the boy chose to steal a card from his sibling.

“NO!” she screams. “He can’t have my card.”

The dad, somewhat aloof, asks his son to see the card. He reads it, and quietly notes, “Sweety, the card lets him take one of yours. That’s just how the game is played.”

Pan the camera just to the side to see me nervously standing there running my hands through my hair. I have no clue what is going to happen. Words keep moving to the front of my mouth, but none exit. Really, my mouth is just open and I’m awkwardly leaning towards the table.

“No!” she screams again. “It’s not fair.”

“Dad, it says I get a card.”

“Sweety, he gets a card. Let him see the cards.”

While the girl is looking at her father, the boy identifies his moment and seizes it. He leans across the table and plucks a card randomly from her hand (which isn’t how it works, but at this point, I’m no stickler). The girl turns her head to look at him with absolute murder in her face. She is LIVID.

The dad still doesn’t really care. He is emotionally on a beach somewhere, drinking rum, without children.

The littler girl then does my favorite thing ever. She let out a feral growl and slammed her remaining cards on the table. Then, like an alligator leaving the river to consume a gazelle, she leaps onto the table, flat on her stomach, and begins clawing at her brother. This young, enraged she-beast began scratching, flailing, and sending cards everywhere.

The boy is caught off guard by this maneuver. The dad casually says things like “Now honey” and “Don’t do that,” but she isn’t listening. The boy grabs the cards, desperately, bending them and trying to protect his young face.

My potential customers at the other table and those standing around begin fleeing. People awkwardly stare at my tables and the scene and just keep walking by. Eventually, the dad calms her down, thanks me for the demo, and leaves.

Naturally, they didn’t buy a copy.

It was then I knew that Farmageddon was the best thing I would ever create.

Josh and I Discuss Collaboration in Design

Post by: Joshua Buergel and Grant Rodiek


Josh and I have been working on Wozzle collaboratively for months. We’re so pleased with this initial experience we have even begun working on other designs (yes, plural). Josh lives in Seattle, WA, and I live in San Francisco, CA, so we had to figure out how to design together over distance. Thankfully, it’s easier than dating over distance.

We wanted to write about our experiences with collaborative design, our relationship, tools, and processes as we thought it would be interesting for other designers.


Grant: I’m surprised we’ve never had a conflict of vision. That always seems to be the death of any design partnership. Perhaps it has to do with our origin story? Josh came in as an enthusiastic developer and before too long it was clear we were partners. I guess he just knew, “signing up,” what the game was and he agreed with that?

Josh: It helps a lot that it started a solo design. From the beginning, I think the vision for the game was pretty clear, and it hasn’t strayed from that original vision much. The mechanics have changed a lot, but it’s still recognizable as the same basic game. It also helps that I’ve been the developer on several designs in the past, and have tried to find ways to work with other designers. What got me into the project was the essential appeal of the core idea, and since I’ve been happy with that idea, it’s made it easy to stick to improving the game.

I think it also helps that we’re both apt to use persuasion as our primary tool in interactions. At no point have either of us ever tried to resort to any kind of coercion to get our way. The dynamic is one of trying to convince the other that something is a good idea, which is a good intellectual exercise and keeps conflict to a minimum.

Grant: Yeah, the persuasion note is a good point. It ultimately feels like we’re pitching to each other. Which I think is good, because if it makes it past that first hurdle, and not all ideas do, it must be at least somewhat better. Right? Right?

Josh has done a lot of professional development work with GMT Games and that can’t be overlooked. And, it should be noted, on way bigger games. I remember when Josh first started helping me on Brigade’s rules and I thought he had an evil knack for finding every problem in a rules document.

Let’s talk about our communication methods.

Grant: Fundamentally, our relationship exists in 3 places: through comments in our Rules and brainstorm documents, using Google Drive, through Gmail conversations, and via Google Talk instant messenger. We’ve been very dedicated to having up to date, central documentation. Our rules are always current. I think that helps keep us rooted so we always know what we’re discussing.

Josh: I think working in technology, like we both do, really helps us out here. We’re both comfortable with these sorts of digital tools and have no trouble with a conversation distributed across several channels like this. Having it all be available and searchable at all times of course is really important.

A useful working habit here as well is that we’ve gotten pretty good about responses in a timely fashion. Not necessarily instantly, if we have stuff going on, but most documents, changes, suggestions, and other pieces of correspondence usually get a look within a day or so. That keeps thoughts fairly fresh and keeps the number of confusing “didn’t we already discuss that” conversations to a minimum.

Grant: Come to think of it, this is a reason some of my past tries with collaboration have failed. We have a similar work schedule and ability to spend time on the project. It doesn’t help if one person works on it daily and the other only has time to do it weekly.

We also both work as managers with teams ranging from 5 to hundreds of people. I can’t help but think that’s made us generally good at written communication. It’s important to be precise and concise when using written things to discuss design or anything really.

Josh: Essentially, forcing ourselves to have all of our thoughts written down between each other has made the translation into actual user-facing rules a much easier transition. No video chats! We’re working in what is essentially a written medium, so writing should be more than enough for our collaboration as well. I only know what Grant sounds like because of his gameplay videos. He hasn’t the foggiest what I sound like (but will at some point).

Grant: I enjoy the mystery.

One thing I think has helped us a great deal is our weekend schedules. Josh is never around his computer on the weekends. He is out and about with the kids, etc. I’m sometimes glued to my computer, other times also bumbling about with my dog. I think we’ve done some of our most creative work over these weekends. I remember the weekend we switched to the new deck format and came up with Arcana we had a 90+ email thread. Just short quips and notes back and forth from our smart phones.

I’m not sure if it’s exactly something others could engineer, but I think having that “away time” to think in brief has been very useful for us.

Josh: Yeah, I spent most of that weekend at a BBQ or at the park, watching my kids run around, typing stuff on my phone. I can’t really emphasize enough how important being able to usefully contribute on my phone is. It really does help that you’re able to translate some of my more scattered thoughts into a more permanent document on these sorts of occasions.

Grant: Some of our best brainstorms have been triggered by quick throwaway notes. Just a short sentence with the base question. That “fire and forget” lets the other person do a little imagination their end and, as you discuss it, you meet somewhere in the middle.

Josh: We should show the email where I started floating the idea of a tarot-inspired special suit. Looking at it, it’s downright incoherent, but it got the wheels spinning, so it did the job.

Grant: I remember it made zero sense, but Josh was really into it. I think I asked in 2 or 3 replies, “Okay, but what are you talking about?” We’ve gotten better at prefacing nutty ideas with “this is nuts” or “Just tossing this out,” and also setting up for things that actually matter. I knew Josh was trying to get to something important with the Tarot, and he was.

One thing I think has been both a challenge and a sign of our maturity is that there are times when one of us has a really stupid idea, but within that is a kernel of genius. Upon reading it, the first instinct is “no this is dumb.” But, in most cases, we’ve said: “go on, explain what you’re talking about.”

Letting the other person get the idea off their chest and past the knee-jerk has led to great stuff. It’s hard to do but you really have to actually discuss every idea until it’s clear it’s awful or good. It has to have time to breathe.

Granted, there was this one idea Josh had that I just did not like. I couldn’t get over it. I can’t even remember what it was specifically, but I compared it to Fluxx and felt really terrible afterwards. It was a dire insult.

Josh: Yeah, that one hurt. I’m still smarting. It was some spell idea way back that involved some crazy rearrangement of the table. Maybe some endgame condition.

Oh! It was my idea for a “0” Arcana card. I think it allowed an upgrade on your hand. Some half-baked thing.

Grant: Funny enough, we actually have the upgrade card IN the game, just not with the 0. So I guess we both did a Fluxx-ish thing?

Josh: If one goes back far enough, they’ll find me beating the drum for that idea a long, long time ago. Grant rightly resisted it in a bunch of its more lame iterations until it finally found fruit. Again, a sign that there are very few ideas that are so bad as to be worthless.

But at any rate, there has to be a lack of fear in any kind of creative collaboration. When I’ve had one of my brainwaves, the reaction cannot be “that’s stupid, you’re stupid, and you should feel bad” even if that might be the truth. Some of those ideas really have been rotten to the core, but a number of them have led to a useful conversation and some nice features. Even ideas where one of says “I know this is crazy…” are still worth having. A certain unfiltered brainstorming feel should be maintained at all times.

I’m not sure how often it’s happened on Grant’s end, but there have been very, very few things where I’ve just been totally repelled by an idea out of the gate. I might think one was kind of daft, but it doesn’t hurt to talk about those.

Grant: Well, a good thing in design, solo or otherwise, is to ultimately think about the end result. Sure, the method to achieve it might be silly. But, if the end result behind it is solid and it improves the experience? Well, then you have a great talking point. If you know where you’re going, you can identify the right steps to get there.

With Arcana for example, Josh said that it would be cool to have special cards, based on Tarot, that let players do neat things from their hand. That seemed like a good idea to add a significant element to the game. Now, it was a bit far out in that it added a lot of complexity to the game, but it was the right complexity and we had to discuss it.

I think the right way to go about it, which we more or less do, is say:

  • Here is the high level idea
  • Here is the problem it’s trying to solve or the opportunity we can take advantage of
  • This is how it fits

It’s then on your design partner to seek understanding first, before anything, THEN begin to discuss, evolve, and debate. Always make sure you critique from a standpoint of understanding. A phrase I’ve used often is: “can you elaborate further.”

Josh: That’s probably because I have more of a habit of dashing off a half-formed thought and then filling it in later.

There have been a few explorations that led nowhere, and most of those have been because they didn’t really fulfill a mission. It was experimentation for the sake of it, but it didn’t really serve a goal for the design, so it led nowhere. I’m thinking here particularly about some of the thinking about scoring systems, although that might still turn into some interesting variants.

Grant: I think we can provide cool variants for Wozzle for years.

Josh: That Arcana path came from a thought experiment, which has been a handy tool during the project. Essentially, we imagined what it would look like to pitch the game to a few publishers, and what they might think about the project and what we’d have to change. The end result isn’t necessarily where we thought it would have gone, but Grant proposed the idea of thinking about it and it spawned a useful discussion.

Source Control.

Grant: I think source control is really important. Having one person who actually makes the changes seems to have helped us keep things straight. In our current setup for Wozzle, I actually update the documents, Josh comments. However, on our other projects, there are some things Josh has the “lead” on and others where I have the “lead.” Basically, it keeps things sane and prevents them from getting out of control. You don’t want to have to worry about the “right” version or what you both agreed upon.

Josh: I’ve been a little surprised at how un-restricted that setup has felt. At first, I was itching to just make some of the changes directly to the rules document, figuring that would be more efficient. But it’s just not, at least for a game of this size. Putting my proposed changes in comments allows us to have a discussion (if one is warranted) or at least lets Grant see those changes before they go in. It means he doesn’t have to worry about looking at a diff to see what has changed between two revisions of the rules.

One area that I wish we had a better tool on is around cards. Currently, I have to just send my comments on card wording in an email. That works, but it’s out of context, and it’s not as easy for me to do quick reviews of that text.

Grant: The card stuff IS a bit slow. I don’t mind doing the card work and it’s very quick for me now. But, you don’t have an easy way to comment and it really helps seeing it on the card. I wish Google Drive had a graphics program that actually let you make stuff you can use. As it stands now, Drawing is basically good for mock-ups and not much else.

Josh: Even just annotated screen shots might help. Actually, maybe I should try Skitch?

Grant: That looks nice. I’d be fine with that. You could theoretically take the PDF and just write over it, yeah?

Josh: I think so, yes. I’ll give it a try as we work on new Arcana suits.

Another area where things have worked out well is bringing some disciplines from our day jobs back into the project. I’ve worked on a simple simulator for us to use to evaluate changes, while Grant has been doing much of the project management. That division of responsibilities has worked well here.

Grant: That simulator has been fascinating and so useful. It’s helped us do some quick, gut check simulation (or hundreds of thousands of simulations) on probabilities. It really helped identify the Crossways, which we may have tossed out without data to back us up.

In my day job I’m a producer on a very large team. My job often consists of tracking items in spreadsheets, talking to developers about issues, sending emails, hosting meetings. Doing projects like this lets me use those skills, but in some ways it gives me a chance to do things like I wish I could at work.


Grant: Something we’ve taken turns on lately is asking really tough, vague questions of the project. Asking how we can go to the next level, typically when we’ve just hit a nice smooth point after solving the previous problem. I’m curious how you feel about some of these when you get an email from me that says something like, “how can we make Wozzle more like a game Gamewright would publish?”

Josh: Those have been great. I think it’s easy to get complacent in a design. You’ve played it a bunch, your friends all seem to enjoy it, folks who are friendly to you are encouraging, and you start thinking that it’s pretty locked up. Having another designer there to ask questions, to keep the team restless, has been handy.

I think we could have stopped a month and a half ago and had a game that people would have enjoyed. It would have been a perfectly good, solid game. If it was just one of us alone on the project, it might very well have stopped at that point. But the continual questions have kept us honest, kept us focused on which are the worst parts of the game at any moment. “What if?” has been a great start to many of these conversations.

Grant: I definitely hit that point working on York by myself. I distilled it to this one precise thing. But, it clearly wasn’t ready at that point. Without a partnership it would have lingered.

Josh: What about content? I feel like it’s been much, much easier to fill out our needed content in this project than other, similar projects. I’ve been struggling on some of my solo projects to generate everything, but that hasn’t been much of an issue here.

Grant: I feel like we were born for the content here. I’m an action card fiend. Farmageddon has actions, York has Tactics, Sol Rising has 55 Unique ships. As a designer I’m obsessed with them.  This was just sorta my deal. And you are a poker expert and dear god have 3000 games. You know every poker variant and then some. I just think we have the skills needed to think of ways to manipulate cards.

Perhaps it’s also just the simplicity of the premise? Wozzle doesn’t really have much theme. If you’re making a card for your dungeon crawler it has to be rooted to the experience mechanically and thematically. For Wozzle, our only gate is answering the questions:

  1. Is this fun?
  2. Does it fit our game?

Josh: It did feel like, at times, we’d sort of reached the limits of design space for spells. I sometimes thought that there were only so many ways you could manipulate the cards within our rules set, and that we’d more or reached the limit of the good ideas. I was wrong, happily, as we were able to break into some new ground in a couple different ways by manipulating the costs of things.

But that’s again an area that I might not have broken into on my own. I might have seen the diminishing returns on spells and thought that the space was pretty much used up.

Grant: We go in cycles, for sure. I think we use a key term, exhaust it, then move on like barbarians to the next idea. We used to never do stuff with discard, now it’s here and there. We fully explored show, interaction, theft. I definitely think it helped, whether we intended to or not, to explore each one in a focused manner. But, yeah, I’m surprised we kept coming up with ideas. I remember after we cut spell 4 or 5 (now on 23+) thinking how I hoped we didn’t have to come up with too many more.

Graphics and Key Terms

Grant: The other thing that helped is we established a graphic design early. We knew we wanted big, chubby text and we worked really hard to identify key terms. That gave us not only a language to use between ourselves, but helped us frame the box, so to speak, on card content. That was a place you really helped, identifying key terms and forcing us to use them better.

Perhaps that’s another good bullet: identify key terms and a language for your project. It’ll frame the discussion.

Josh: It’s such a programmer thing. I think of a game term as nothing more than a macro, a subroutine. The game says “Add”, but in reality that expands into an entire sentence. My day job has me thinking in those terms all day long, where I can re-factor and pull things out, so it’s natural for me to extend that discipline in my hobbies. But it has been a solid area of collaboration, having a set of agreed upon terms and a sort of implicit working language. It’s made it possible for us to both think in Wozzle terms, which is useful.

Here’s another place where I think having two people on the design helps, which is that it gives a safety net. It’s unlikely that we’re going to accidentally screw up the design, because there’s another person there who understands things just as well. In order to drive off a cliff, we have to both not be paying attention

Grant: I think another benefit of remote collaborative design is that we have two core groups with whom to test. I have about 10 people that have played the game at last 5+ times each. But, my core group is different than yours. They have different tastes, preferences, and play styles. In a way, it’s like I’m blind testing for you and vice versa.

Josh: That’s a great point. I’ve got a core group of a half-dozen or so people that I’ve been gaming with on a weekly (or more!) basis for 18 years. These are folks that play huge, long games with me as well as a bunch of smaller games. It’s a pretty picky, analytical group, which is great for a lot of things but can sometimes get down in the weeds. Having another core group balance that out has been really handy.

Key Points to Summarize

  • Make sure you both agree to the goal of the design.
  • Take advantage of good software to work together. There’s no excuse.
  • Use careful source control so that changes don’t get lost in the mix-up.
  • Always discuss ideas from a point of understanding. Make sure you understand before you say “no.”
  • Challenge each other, to keep the design moving forward. Even if it seems stupid, ask “what if”
  • Create a glossary of terms to frame the discussion.

If you have specific questions we didn’t address, ask them below! We tried to pursue this topic conversationally, so at times we meander or jump from point to point. Apologies!

The Magic of Arcana

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Wozzle has entered a new, exciting stage and I wanted to write about one of the most significant changes: Arcana. A month or so ago, we got rid of our poker cards and replaced them with 4 unique suits numbered 1-12. We found this to be more intuitive, a little more fun and playful, and it helped distance us from poker in a useful way. You have no idea how many expectations gamers bring with to the table when playing anything that resembles the 800 lb. gorilla that is Texas Hold ‘Em!

My design partner, Joshua Buergel, had an inspiration based on Tarot cards. You see, Josh has played every game ever (or so it seems) and is this vast, breathing, array of knowledge. If we aren’t using poker cards, then can’t we do something else with those cards? The answer is yes, yes we can.

We started with our first Arcana suit, which we’re calling Hexis. The gist is this: as an additional option to the 4 public spells you can pay Mana to activate, you can play a Hexis card from your hand, following its instructions, to use its effect. All of the cards in Hexis use a single, simple mechanic: Show. By this, I mean you Show the card (which is a mechanic used in normal Wozzle) from your hand and place it in front of you. Effectively, you can only use each Hexis once per round.

This does a few really cool things for us and Wozzle:

  • Arcana introduce private information and abilities. Previously, players had their cards secret, yes, but they could only use public spells. Now, they have a secret Ability.
  • Whereas Spells have to be general enough to work in almost every situation, Arcana can be nuanced and specific. That lets us explore crazy stuff.
  • It adds a layer of strategy, variance, and complexity that is nice.
  • This gives us a great expansion opportunity. Use 3 vanilla suits + 1 Arcana. Which means with only 12 new cards, we can greatly change the game.

After we tested and proved Hexis was a good idea, we designed Mechana and Alchemus. We each took a stab at them, giving them a unique flavor that fit the core. Whereas Hexis was (deliberately) a safe, simple mechanic, Mechana and Alchemus introduce new concepts.

For Mechana, I was inspired by the Construct cards in Ascension (or Locations in DC Deckbuilder). I wanted to add a way for players to have a semi-permanent passive benefit. I introduced the Build mechanic. If a player ends the round with a 2 pair or better, he may place a Mechana card in his possession in front of him. Once per round, if the Mechana triggers, he gains its benefit.

Josh took the lead with Alchemus and I love the result. He introduced the Formula mechanic. Players must discard the Alchemus card, as well as the cards listed in its formula. In exchange for this high and sometimes difficult cost, you may execute extraordinarily strong actions.

Really, the Arcana gives us a new, devious layer that involves clever timing, taking a risk, and recognizing an opportunity. They are a great addition to Wozzle that, if the game is successful, will see much more life in the future.

We’d love your help testing them. In addition to the 30 Spells, there are now 36 Arcana cards. We’d love your help making them as fun as possible.

Publishing Plans: Speaking of the future, Josh and I wanted to talk briefly about things to come. Our plan at this time is to self-publish Wozzle when it is ready to be published. I’ll finally form an LLC and we’ll use Hyperbole Games as the label.

Josh and I have both independently wanted to dabble in publishing for some time. Both of us will still primarily be designers seeking publishing partners in the future. Both of us have full time jobs we have no intention of leaving. But, we have the entrepreneurial spirit and would like to dabble in publishing for the occasional side project like Wozzle, and others we have in the works.

Barring an unforeseen arrival of money, we’re planning on using Kickstarter to raise funding and aid us in marketing. We’re partnering with some experts to help us with some of the risky things that scare us. We’re willing to pay more for mentoring. We want to do this right. We’ll also hire a fantastic artist that’ll make the game gorgeous. We’ll share details as things are inked.

What’s left still ahead for the game? Most importantly, testing. Polish, polish, polish. We’re slowly building a network of blind testers to supplement our local testing in San Francisco and Seattle. The game will make appearances at Origins and GenCon with some copies given out if all goes to plan.

We’re excited and nervous to try this. It’s a ways out still, but we intend to be fully prepared.

Questions? Comments?

Interview with Jerry Hawthorne

When I began working on Sol Rising, I knew I wanted to make a game with a strong narrative component, more randomness than York (my previous design), and a fun take on scenarios. One of my biggest inspirations is Mice & Mystics, designed by Jerry Hawthorne and published by Plaid Hat Games. 

I’m a big fan of the game, which you can see in my review of Mice & Mystics. When I found out Jerry was taking interviews for the new expansion, Downwood Tales, I immediately contacted him. Here is the result! 

My comments are preceded by HG, with Jerry’s preceded by JH.

Hyperbole Games: For those who don’t know who you are, give us a quick introduction. What makes you tick? What’s something we should know about you?

Jerry Hawthorne: My name is Jerry Hawthorne and I am 46 years old. I have a lovely wife and two awesome kids. I work full time as a busy hair stylist, but I also design board games in my spare time (if you can call it that) as a freelancer. My games are visual, very story focused, family-friendly, and usually involve a healthy amount of luck. That’s just how I roll.

HG: Around 2012 you released a little game called Mice & Mystics that was a huge hit for you and Plaid Hat Games. I finished the first book, Sorrows and Remembrance, earlier this year and it was just a delight. I played it with a friend on lazy Sundays. He’d send me a text and say “bring over Rat Zelda.”

Give us the super quick explanation of what Mice & Mystics is so we’re all on the same page.

JH: Sure. Mice & Mystics is a story that you can play like a game. During the game, you will be playing the role of a human that has been magically transformed into a mouse to escape a treacherous sorceress who has placed your King under a spell and usurped his throne.

Play revolves around completing chapters in a bedtime style story book. As you play, you will also read from the story book and discover the unfolding events which will affect your game. The game was designed to give players a unique experience, and has random elements that ensure no two sessions are the same.

HG: To toss in my perspective as a player to complement your note, in addition to all of that, the game is a light, scenario driven dungeon crawler. Scenarios feature unique, thematic experiences driven by the story and these moments are strung together with a dicey combat mechanic.

Heart of Glorm, the first expansion, came out last year. It’s a great, small box with a few characters and a few new chapters. I’ve heard Downwood Tales is WAY bigger. What can we expect for this new expansion?


JH: The new expansion really adds a lot to the game. You get three new characters: A gecko named Jackobe who is hired to guide your mice through the forest. Ansel, a pure hearted warden sworn to protect the forest creatures. And Ditty, a shrew scamp who strums her magical fiddle to help the party. There are new bad guys to fight and new devious bosses, including an arrogant aristocratic bullfrog and a predatory snake named Hesster

The story is somewhat more involved, with an even stronger emphasis being placed on campaign play. There are branching story arcs and many twists and surprises, but it continues the story of Collin and gang as they are strangers in this new land. The heroes bring courage and correctness to a forest filled with dangers and double crossers.

The box is stuffed with 8 new 2 sided outdoor tiles depicting the forest floor, the burrows and tunnels under the forest, and also the trees and branches where the mice will need to go to traverse the terrain challenges in their path. There are also a bunch of new figures, 60 new search cards, and about 30 new abilities.

HG: Can you comment further on the branching play, perhaps with a tiny example? This was something I sought to do with Sol Rising to try to address the comment that scenario games are only fun once. But, also, I wanted to give players a little agency over their story.

How did you tackle this challenge?

JH: It was very challenging because the story has to come around to the same place eventually. I’ll give an example: At the end of chapter 1, there are two possible outcomes. The story splits and there is a chapter 2a and 2b. There are also two possible outcomes for chapter 2a, one will have you playing 2b, the other allows you to advance to chapter 3.

Wow, that sounds more complicated than it is. Anyway, these were very difficult to write because the events have to feel as though they fit story wise. I think we accomplished it quite well.

HG: As a designer and player I love expansions. They are a great opportunity to explore new avenues. What was the number one thing you wanted to do with Downwood Tales?

JH: With Downwood Tales, I wanted to give the players a more epic story that would seamlessly continue the adventure. I wanted to provide more bad guys with challenging abilities. I also wanted to take cinematic game play to the next level.

In Downwood Tales your party might come to an impassable chasm in the forest. There could be a variety of options the players would need to discuss. Do you go around by exploring to another tile? Do you climb a nearby tree and use a leaf to float down to the other side? Or do you have a wild figure in your party who knows which vines might allow you to climb down into the chasm and continue in the tunnels known as the Underwood?

HG: I really like this opportunity for group discussion. It definitely has that “Lord of the Rings” element of “where do we go from here?” Could you give an example of the more challenging enemies? How did you up the challenge with the bad guys?



JH: Sure! We have frogs that leap around, newts that shoot flaming arrows, fearies that fly and they can curse you, bullfrogs who can zap you with their tongue, weasels that clobber you, and Hesster the snake who is this story’s equivalent of Brodie.

HG: I prefer cats to snakes. Much like Indiana Jones.


Expansions are also a great way to address rough spots or merely improve things that, in retrospect, you wanted to be better. Did you have any of those? Does Downwood Tales really improve something from the base game?

JH: I’m not a person who dwells too much on past failings or tries to use expansions as fixes. Mice & Mystics has resonated with its fans because it is an approachable game that really puts the story first. I wanted to give more of that stuff. The game is the same, the environment has changed for the mice. There are a lot of things to discover.

HG: How did you want to advance the story? Was there anything in particular you wanted to accomplish?

JH: I wanted to tell a story about growing up, rising to your expectations, the weight and responsibility of authority. These are very much a topic in my household, but can be applied to global events as well. As always, the story is light and filled with the same silly humor that you come to expect from jokers like Nez and Filch. But there are tender moments and contemplative moments as well.

HG: I’m trying to estimate the percentage of tenderness that came from Lord Bistro…

You have some really clever story and mechanical moments in Sorrows and Remembrance. I loved gambling with the rats and trying to keep Vurst on my side as we went through the sewers was really neat. Do you have any really cool set pieces in Downwood Tales?

JH: Yeah, this is just something you all can expect from Mice & Mystics. Each chapter will have a completely new and different set of challenges, and not all of them will involve fighting. There is an entire stealth chapter that the playtesters were raving about. There is a “Last of the Mohicans” style ambush chapter that is a lot of fun, and even a race down a babbling brook on boats made from fallen leaves.



HG: I like the idea of the ambush. It’s such a unique element to warfare games often miss. It’s usually just a straightforward fight. Finding ways to spice up every battle is really appreciated.

Different games need different testers. For something like Summoner Wars you want someone like James Sitz who is incredibly analytical and competitive. Mice & Mystics is such an experience though, if that makes sense. Yes, balance is important so it isn’t too easy or difficult, but I feel like you’re testing its soul more than its stats. Have you found it difficult to test the game and find the right people?

JH: For Downwood Tales, I gathered a small group who I call my ‘creative core.’ These guys helped me ensure that the chapters had the same compelling quality as the base game and that they offered a play experience that was cinematic and charming. The second playtest phase involved a huge group of volunteers who put in about 500 tests. This helps balance the challenge level. Some chapters may be harder than others (that’s just the nature of designing around a story), but none of them are unfairly tough.

HG: I spent the past year working on a story-driven tactical game, which was greatly inspired by your work on Mice & Mystics. Working on the narrative in a way that made sense and paired with the game was really difficult. What is something you’ve learned working on Mice & Mystics about story-driven games? What were some of your biggest challenges?

JH: Well, I’m glad you see how tough it is. I really have to say that it was an exhausting, grey hair inducing roller coaster. But I have gotten better at it. The trick is to portion out your story beforehand in equal chunks (chapters) that each rise and fall like an independent story within a story.

As an example, the first chapter of Downwood Tales has the mice traveling from Barksburg to a town called Headfall Hollow, that is located deep in the Downwood. This is rather easy. The story starts at Barksburg and ends at Headfall Hollow. What happens in-between gets filled in like using crayons to color the stuff between the black lines of a picture in a coloring book.

HG: I agree to this approach. With Sol Rising I created mini-arcs of about 3 missions apiece that contributed to the entire story. Thinking about the big points was not too difficult, but coloring in the spaces? Not so easy.

What are some of your favorite games to play? How, if at all, did they inspire you?

JH: Everyone knows I love Heroquest, and that Mice & Mystics was heavily inspired by it. Heroscape also holds a prominent portion of my heart.

Recently, I have had the opportunity to play the finalized version of Dead of Winter. I can’t wait to play it again. It is a game that offers an experience so incredibly close to its aim, that I can’t imagine anybody ever getting tired of it. It perfectly creates the same emotional response from players as you’d expect from a real desperate group survival scenario. Every choice seems so important… It’s blissfully agonizing.

HG: I played an earlier version of Dead of Winter when Colby and Isaac visited San Francisco. Pretty entertaining! The pre-order is still available, actually.

This just occurred to me writing the questions, but would you ever want to create another experience within the Mice & Mystics universe? For example, managing the mouse city and the goings on, or playing the game from the perspective of the bad guys. Would that even appeal to you? Have you thought of something like this?

JH: I’m actually currently working on another game in the Mice & Mystics world. I can’t talk about it yet, but I am very interested in exploring the potential of the Mice & Mystics world.

HG: Excellent! Some of your first design projects were on Heroscape. Mice & Mystics has a similar heft – simple combat, clean abilities, simple movement. What are some of the most important things you learned working on Heroscape?

JH: I learned that theme can be supported with simple game mechanics. As an example, Jackobe the gecko in Downwood Tales uses a boomerang. To convey the odd way that boomerangs work, I wrote an ability for it that allows it to curve around and hit an enemy from behind should he miss with the initial throw.

Simple but thematic, and that is exactly how Heroscape is.

HG: Are you able to comment on when we can expect to purchase, approximately, Downwood Tales?

JH: I don’t have that info yet, but I should have a better guess in a few days.

HG: Anything else you want to add?

JH: I’d like to thank you for taking the time to do this Q&A. Also, thank you for your fantastic blog. I really enjoy reading your thoughts on game design. I find myself needing these perspectives from others who enjoy the thematic game sub-genre as much as I do. Most blogs on game design are directed at the more structured nuts and bolts stuff that I find so dry.

HG: The pleasure is all mine. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.

Design Exercise


Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve been doing a lot of things lately that have made me a better designer, but they aren’t exactly designing games per se. It’s more appropriate to refer to them as design exercises. In the same way I go to the gym to build physical muscle, I enjoy exercises to strengthen my creative muscles. This seemed like a good topic for a blog post.

In no particular order, here are some exercises that help sharpen my skills as a designer.

Take a deep dive playing games in a genre that interests you. This is the “R” portion of R&D. Before you begin work on a dexterity game, worker placement game, or war game, go find a few really good ones, maybe one or two bad ones, and play the heck out of them. Go deep until you understand the core that ties them together, their differences, the things you love, and the things you hate. You should really understand them.

Research is fantastic for inspiration and making you a better designer. We often separate our game activities into three categories: playing games for fun, testing games, and designing/developing games. The reality is that playing games for fun is one of the most important things you can do. Next time you play, take a step back and open up another mental pathway. Try to consider the game throughout, much like you would a classic novel as discussed in high school English. Don’t just have fun. Learn!

Analyze a classic, then mod it. I think about this one quite a bit. There are quite a few really good elder games that could stand to be modernized. I don’t just mean Monopoly and Risk, but even games from the 70s and 80s. For example, Fantasy Flight relatively recently released Nexus Ops and Fortress America, two games that were tweaked slightly to be modernized. Same with Rex (I mean, Dune) and Netrunner.

The next time you’re at a convention with a library, go find something old and crusty. Blow the dust off its rules and try to discover what made it special in its prime. Then, think about how to make it a classic in our modern time. You can do this with 18xx games, old war games, trick taking classics, or even a game like Catan, which is getting old at this point!

In a sense, much of me and Josh’s work on Wozzle fits into this category. We asked ourselves how to take Texas Hold ‘Em and make it fun for a broader audience in 45 minutes. It’s been an incredibly exciting design process and I’ve learned so much.

Write a 500 word pitch. Thanks to my dog, I spend a lot of time walking the parks and neighborhoods of San Francisco. Just me, her, and my thoughts. I think up quite a few games, most of which never survive the ascent of the stairs into my apartment. But, every now and then, I’ll write one up as a pitch and send it to a design peer.

This is very useful. At the conceptual stage, how do you excite someone and explain the gist of your idea in 500 words or fewer? Take that idea you thought of on your walk and frame it. See if it still excites you, then try to develop it. Or, more importantly, see if it excites your peer.

Pitch writing is incredibly important! Without a good pitch, perhaps the game shouldn’t be prototyped in the first place? Without a good pitch, you’ll have a hard time finding a publisher. Make your game exciting from concept to sale! Get better at selling and framing your ideas from the start. This will help you form goals early on and focus your design towards what makes it special, all of which should be detailed in that 500 word pitch.

As a side note, the Board Game Designer’s Forum hosts 500 word pitch contests monthly!

Read rules. I’m one of the primary purchasers of games in my group, which means I’m reading a new rule set every few weeks, if not more often. This has turned me into a living, breathing, analyzing database of rule sets. My design partner Josh is practically a mentat (sweet “Dune” reference!) with 3000 games in his collection. Even if you aren’t the one who buys the games, if you’re serious about design, you need to be serious about rules and considering how your players will first experience your design.

Go to BGG and download the PDF or check the publisher’s website for a copy. Read them, all the time. Identify standards for what good looks like, standard failings, and improve your own documents.

Analyze in progress rules for design peers or publishers. I’ve been doing this relatively routinely for years now and I consider it one of the best reasons I’ve grown and improved as a designer. The key isn’t just to read final rules, but to see rough concepts in their formative stages so that you can begin to think critically about what is wrong, what stands to be improved, and how it should be structured to facilitate ease of learning. Never forget that failure and mistakes are some of our best teachers. In this case, they don’t even have to be your own failures.

As you read and analyze these rules, you’ll start to improve your ability to use language and terms consistently, phrase sentences similarly, identify exceptions and areas for clarification before asked, and you’ll begin to create a mental rules template that works for you, your mind, and your designs.

Also, as a side note, reading rules for others is a great way to build strong relationships. It’s somewhat like attending class every day and asking questions. Who is the professor going to favor? The attentive student, right?

Write rules. Ah yes, the dreaded rules writing prompt. Yes, you should do it. Often, repeatedly. You’ll learn so much about your design when you find out why your rules are confusing or inferior for your testers and consumers.

But, let’s say your game isn’t quite ready for rules to be drafted. I have to accept that not everyone writes them as the first thing like I do. You ready for your homework assignment? Go write the rules for someone else’s game. Either a peer’s or ones already published. I’ve done this a few times and it’s very insightful. Can you do it after only a single play? What about multiple plays? What do YOU think is most important to teach?

It seems odd to spend time drafting rules that’ll effectively never have use, but the lessons learned will pay dividends as you design for yourself.

Experiment with graphic design. I recommend you do this with your own games or try to improve the design for someone else. Can you improve upon the cards for Magic: The Gathering? What about a game like Ascension that is quite wordy and verbose? You have no excuse not to do SOME form of graphic design. You can do this with a pen and paper, Google Drive’s FREE Drawing program, or countless others.

Remember, print games aren’t just a series of orally presented rules, but information presented on cards, boards, pieces, and other physical elements. Good design requires you consider your product from every angle. A big, glaring angle is its visual presentation.

Build a deck. Go buy a few boosters from any CCG (Magic, My Little Pony, and Pokemon all have starters for under $20 at target), Netrunner, or even bust open a few Dominion expansions (or your deckbuilder of choice). Set a number of cards and build a killer deck. Then, give it a dry run. Did the combinations pan out as you planned? Did you have enough resources? Were you able to attack as you envisioned?

Doing this will help you apply these lessons, gut instincts, and building abilities to your own design. You’ll soon see combos and chains for your players to create in a worker placement, economic building game, or more. Being able to identify synergies in one product will absolutely translate to another in many cases. Train yourself to analyze, think critically, be creative, and see opportunities. Magic players ARE designers — they just design decks within a tightly controlled sandbox.

Is anything here useful? Share your thoughts or your own recommendations in the comments below!