About Grant Rodiek

I'm a professional designer of digital games. I design board and card games as a hobby. My first game, Farmageddon, is being published by 5th Street Games. I'm obsessed with my corgi and I love spending too much money on good food with my girlfriend.

(My) Start Up

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Last night I finished Season 1 of StartUp from Gimlet Media. It’s a wonderful podcast that focuses on the beginnings of Gimlet Media, founded by Alex Blumberg, who is known for his work on This American Life and Planet Money. I think it’s wonderful and very inspirational. Every time I listen to it I think “you gotta go do something, Grant!” I realized that I am.

Josh and I are very deep into the business side of Hocus Poker. We’re still finalizing spell balance and nitpicking some of our rules, but we find ourselves entrenched in PR plans, launch plans, finalizing contracts with artists and manufacturers, discussing alternate revenue sources, post-launch support, and the beautiful nitty gritty of project management. I’m very excited and nervous about the next few months, but the cool thing is, with every tough debate and decision, Josh and I emerge a stronger partnership and our product improves.

I look to heroes and great studios as inspiration for what we’re doing. In video games, it’s difficult not to think about the polish of a Blizzard Game (or the sales that come with it), or the democratically run genius of Valve. I think of my day job studio, Maxis, which stands out to me as a weird studio with soulful games.

In tabletop, I’m deeply drawn to design driven companies. I’m a massive fan boy of Plaid Hat and Portal Games. I look to Academy Games and am still so thankful of Uwe and Gunter Eickert for testing and critiquing two of my designs. I also look up to Stronghold Games. It’s amazing to me how Buonocore has grown that company and put in so much effort and time while still holding a day job.

Every good company should have a secret power, something they do better than anyone else. Every good company should also have a code, or set of values that define their mission. This answers the question of why they deserve to stand out in the market.

I wanted to think on that for Hyperbole Games.

My situation is somewhat interesting. It’s not unique, or even peculiar, but it’s interesting. I have a super good day job that pays well and keeps me happy. I don’t want, or need, board games to pay the bills. Nor do I want that pressure as I move towards having children in the next few years. This means my needs for my studio are far less about money and far more about the output for output’s sake. I think that’s a cool place to be. My biggest frustration working for a large company is that I always have to work within someone else’s terms or framework. That’s corporate life. With Hyperbole, I always wanted to do things the right way. I’m not a control freak. It doesn’t have to be my way. But, I want it to be right.

Plaid Hat Games clearly proclaims their ingredients for a great game on their site. You can read them here. But, I’ll type them below:

  1. A great game is fun.
  2. A great game creates an opportunity for you to make interesting, engaging, and challenging decisions that affect the outcome of the game in your favor.
  3. A great game allows you to directly engage the other players at the table.
  4. A great game is thematic.
  5. A great game is unique.
  6. A great game is pretty.

I love these goals and I love how strictly Plaid Hat has adhered to them. If you listen to their podcast, you know how important brand and identity is to Colby. I know, as a consumer, he will only publish games that he loves and that fit these core tenets. That is so powerful to me as a consumer. I’m not the only one! Look at how successful his pre-orders have been, particularly with Mice and Mystics and Dead of Winter.

Portal Games stands firmly behind “Board Games that Tell Stories.” That is a simple statement with so much weight behind it. When Ignacy signed York last year, he said: “This is not yet a game. It needs more heart.” That is what they are doing. If you play Robinson, or their euro Legacy, or even an abstract like Theseus, you will see stories that emerge as a result of the rich settings and great player decisions.

What will be the code of Hyperbole Games? What will I stand behind? I’m going to take a shot at this.

  1. Hyperbole Games is a designer driven studio. We will publish games that exist because we had to make them. We will design games that we want to create and play because they will be a blast.
  2. Our games are distinctly beautiful. We will work with our favorite artists to craft distinctive components and bring our games alive.
  3. We publish games that we can do best ourselves. We will still seek publishing partners for designs that need them. If it has our label, though, it’s because it is a game we needed to do in house. This means our games will probably be a little weird, more niche, and more at home with small print runs.
  4. Our games are developed extensively. This is important, especially we live in an age where barriers to entry are being removed and it’s sometimes far too easy to put a game out prematurely. I did this with Farmageddon in 2011 on The Game Crafter. I won’t do it again.
  5. We strive to have a wonderful relationship with our customers. Manufacturing glitches happen – we want to replace your parts, no questions asked. If you have a rules question, we’ll be there. We want to end every interaction with a happier customer.
  6. We will always make things more metal. 

Josh put it this way: In the end, we want to release the best games we possibly can, with the best value for the customer, and not chasing trends or easy sales. That is a tough standard, but one we think is best.

What do you think? What are your core tenets? Which companies inspire you?

Thanks for reading!

Board Game Collections and Potential

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’m an awful human being. Andrew Brooks, the fine writer over at I Slay the Dragon, had an idea for a community based editorial session. I completely missed the deadline and didn’t participate. Well, better late than never. Happy President’s Day!

Andrew sent out two sets of questions: one for gamers and one for designers. I consider myself equally both, so I’ll tackle both of them. I’m posting Andrew’s questions below, like an interview. I’ll answer following.

Question For Gamers:

Andrew: Do you have any games collecting dust that don’t seem to hit the table often but you just can’t get rid of? Why are you holding on to them? Would you sell your favorite game if you knew you would never get to play it again? Would you rather sell/trade an unplayed game and acquire it at a later point if you find a group to play it with or simply hold on to it and wait for that possibility?

Grant: I’m not a hoarder at all. I’m fairly militant about keeping my collection around 100 to 150 games, not including expansions, which thankfully fit in the base game box. With few exceptions, if a game isn’t getting played, it is getting sold. Let’s discuss the exceptions!

  • I have a copy of Jump Gate, signed, from friend Matt Worden. I don’t play this, but I do play Space Mission, the fancy German version. It’s sentimental.
  • I have a copy of Dune, the legendary out of print game. I also own Rex, which is the revised version that plays more quickly and is more forgiving. Dune holds immense sentimental value for me as a favorite book.
  • I’ve had Horus Heresy for about 3 years now. I bought it for a mere $25 on the FFG Christmas Sale. I think I’ll like it, but it’s tough to get to the table. This goes for Fortress America as well, but for about 2 years.

Generally, the more difficult a game is to get to the table, the more shelf life I give it. Also, certain games I really enjoy and I’m okay reserving a slot for them. The other note by which I gauge a game is whether I have something else like it that I enjoy more.

I recently traded Conflict of Heroes, which I liked, but wasn’t getting to the table often. I recognized that I also owned a lot of Memoir ’44, which I liked more and was easier to get to the table, and a lot of Combat Commander, which I enjoy the most, but takes a little longer. No need to have all 3.

I keep games that I love, that I play, or that hold sentimental value. That’s essentially my razor.

Andrew: Consider your favorite games. How old are those games and how often do they get played? Are they your favorites because you play them a lot, have previously played them a lot, or they have some unique qualities that set them apart?

Grant: I really work to get favorites to the table often. For Netrunner I’m at 43 plays plus hours of deckbuilding. 7 Wonders is at 34 plays and is one of the 5 oldest games in my collection. Combat Commander I’ve only played 5 games, but it’s a 2-3 hour game and rather complex. It only works with certain friends, so I take that as a win.

My favorites aren’t favorites because I play them a lot. Often, I know a game is a favorite within my first 3 plays. It’s like love at first site. My favorites have a unique quality, like Combat Commander’s dynamic story mechanics. Or the perfect mix of theme and clever play, like Netrunner. Or beautiful asymmetry and epic moments, like Rex. My favorite games are special, so I work to put them on the table as much as possible.

Andrew: How do your friends’ collections affect yours? Do you share games with your group or do you like having your own copy? Do you have a lot of overlap with your friends’ collections? Are you less likely to acquire a game if you know someone that owns it? Would you be willing to have a shared library if it was practical?

Grant: I have two groups I consider when I’m buying games. My lunch group at work. These are good friends with whom I play practically daily. Top candidates are games that play with at least 5 and in an hour or less.

The second group is my game night group, which is basically comprised of the lunch friends (though some live outside SF so coming up for game night isn’t easy) and a few other rotating pals. Top candidates are games that play with 4-5 in 1-3 hours.

Two of us, Matt and I, are the primary buyers. We buy the new games and learn the rules. Antonio buys everything with Star Wars on it, so if it’s X-Wing, we know he’ll join in, and if it’s Imperial Assault, we know he’ll buy it. If a friend has a game, I hesitate before buying it. The question I ask is, will I ever play this game without them? I really want to buy Dead of Winter as I think it’s good and I want to support Plaid Hat. But, I will never play it without Matt. Imperial Assault is pretty cool, but it will never be played without Antonio.

The exception, is often cost and quality of the game. If the game is cheap, or doesn’t take up much space, I often buy a copy because I should have it. Right now, it’s very likely I buy Roll for the Galaxy, which Matt owns, because I think it’s a very smart game and isn’t too expensive and should be on my shelf.

I wouldn’t have an official shared library, because it just complicates things. But, any of my friends can borrow a game at any time.

Questions For Designers:

Andrew: Would you rather design a game that gets played more frequently or is more highly regarded but played less? Would you be proud to know that someone is keeping your game in their collection despite not playing it often? Is how someone feels about your game regardless of how much they play it important?

Grant: By my own rules as a player, I want a design of mine to be played as much as is reasonable. My 4 player war game that has been signed by Portal is more of a long-lunch/game night game. But, I would hope people who like it will take it to game days and get it in every few weeks.

Hocus, on the other hand, is very quick to play. We’ve seen testers play it 8 times in a week, 13 times in a weekend. I don’t expect everyone to do that, but I really hope it becomes someone’s backpack game, the one they bust out whenever there’s a few people and a half hour to kill.

One of the things Josh and I are doing with Hocus is to have killer art and tons of variety in the experience. We want there to be killer value. We’re also a very small first time publisher and we’re not really at this like a traditional business. There may only be one printing, ever, of this game. Therefore, I’d really hope that people who enjoy it keep it around.

Getting plays is the ultimate sign of affection in many ways, but there are many gamers who play a game 3 times, tops, then put it away for whatever is new. It happens. I want my games to be loved and played for years. That’s the ideal. But, if cult of the new is too strong, I’ll accept loved.

Andrew: Is it disappointing when some trades or sells your game? Should it be a goal for your game to stick in people’s collections (assuming it’s a good fit for that person)? Should designers try to create games that will “stand the test of time” or are simply enjoyable experiences?

Grant: No, not really. I track everything that happens to Farmageddon on BGG. I think a copy is sold at least every month, if not more often. Amusingly enough, 90% of the versions being traded are “unopened, unplayed” or “opened, played once.” Farmageddon is a light take-that game with a hint of strategy. It’s meant to be a quick game that isn’t as ridiculous as Fluxx, but doesn’t make you work too hard. You’re either okay with Farmageddon, or you’ll HATE IT.

So, when I see people who have never played the game, or played it once, getting rid of it? They don’t want a game like Farmageddon. I want them to trade it! They’ll be happier and my game gets another shot at life. I’ve played a great deal of Farmageddon, as you can imagine. I really enjoy it, actually. It scratches a weird itch and allows for a laugh. But it’s not for everyone.

Standing the test of time is really difficult to do. It often requires you come up with something highly original and good, or just flat really good. Over time tastes evolve. Dune probably won’t be a favorite game of mine. But Rex, revised, is. I have to be honest and note that I just do not like Catan. At all. I’m miserable almost every second I play it. I just don’t think it has aged very well.

I’m going to look at my body of work.

  • Farmageddon: Not timeless. It isn’t original enough, appeals to a particular taste, and doesn’t have a brand (like Fluxx, Munchkin, Gubs) to make it evergreen.
  • York/Dawn Sector: Maybe! It isn’t out yet. I think this game can really have legs. It takes elements that are great about war games, distills it down, and it’s having Portal’s best folks develop it.
  • Sol Rising: Probably not. It’s a very story driven game. I think it’ll be memorable and very good, but somewhat like Risk Legacy, the first playthrough is always the best.
  • Hocus: Maybe! Our starting point is one of the most famous and beloved games ever – Poker. We’ve spent a year developing and testing a game that is smooth, easy to learn, but is original. But, we’re a tiny publisher, so the 18 people that get it might not be enough to make it timeless.

I really want my games to be great and loved by most of the people who play them when they play them. I think that’s the best I can tackle.

Thanks for the questions again, Andrew. I’m sorry I’m so late!

I’m Gonna Lose

Post by: Grant Rodiek

“How many cards do you have in your hand?”

This is a common question. I’m used to it. The man sitting across from me is trying to kill me. He intends to do this by reducing the cards in my hand to negative numbers. I have only three, which is low, but when you have two brain damage, it’s the best you can do.

My right hand is firmly connected to my forehead with my elbow on the table for support. I’m not a regular and I don’t have a fancy mat yet, so it’s just elbow on table. Need to get a mat. I shift my left thumb to fan my measly three cards to answer my opponent.

I’m so close to victory and death simultaneously that I’m shaking from nerves and adrenaline. I’m not sweating, but I’m clammy, and shaking. I keep joking aloud that I need a cigarette, which was funny the first time, but certainly not the third. I don’t smoke, never have, but by god I’m going to beat this cliche into the ground.

It also kills me that my opponent is incredibly slow to make decisions. I just want this game to be over. Win or lose. The anticipation is killing me.

“I need a cigarette.”

Goddammit. There’s a lot of apprehension from never having done this before.

I consider myself a competitive person. I want to win, or at least try real hard to do so. If the person on the treadmill next to me at the gym is running at a 6.5 setting, I’m going to run at a 7 setting. I’m absolutely not a jerk about it, though, which I think is the right mixture. An ‘E’ for Effort, but not a ‘J’ for Jerk. I’ve generally excluded games from this, which is arguably strange as games have been a top factor of my life for about 14 years now.

I think the reason for this is that I don’t want to ruin my favorite thing with unsavory competition. Yes, I once played in a 5 versus 5 infantry only Battlefield 2 tournament at Quake Con 2005, and it was so amazing that typing this still gives me an adrenaline high. But, I’ve also been screamed at by “friends” regarding my World of Warcraft character’s inefficiency. I cancelled my subscription the next hour.

Friends of mine who have competed before generally speak very highly of the experience. Some with longing and regret for no longer being involved. Sure, I’ve stumbled into a few former Magic guys that clearly need a cigarette, even now, far away from any competitive table, but they aren’t the norm.

I love Android: Netrunner, the best selling Living Card Game from enormous hobby publisher Fantasy Flight Games. I bought it relatively soon after its release, but never played it. I bought Data Packs, inexplicably, and still never played. Then, I picked up someone’s entire collection for about $100. At that point, I realized it was time to get off the metaphorical pot and play the game. I did, and my affection was immediate. But, it wasn’t until I organized what I thought was then a substantial collection of cards to build my first deck while watching It’s a Wonderful Life in December of 2013 that everything really sunk in.

In 2014 I made it a priority to play with friends, and play we did. But, I’m talking 30 plays, which is a great deal for me, at about 45 minutes apiece, but insignificant for folks who play weekly at their local store and in tournaments. I spoke often about entering local, casual tournaments, but with about as much truth as “I have a girlfriend, but she lives in Canada.” Plus, I’m not really tapped into my local game store scene. It’s easy to miss the tournaments if you’re not paying attention. Then, I can’t be disappointed.

Disappointed in what exactly is a topic of myth and stereotype at this point. Was I worried that I’d enter a room full of weird, butt crack sharing people? Perhaps the notion of a 14 year old foul-mouthed Spike scared me off? I’ve played a lot of XBox Live. I’ve heard some chilling stuff. Even South Park has commentary on this sliver of American culture.

In truth, it’s probably a little bit of all of those things. I find that hosting friends, having a beer, and playing a friendly game with our inside jokes is intensely comforting. None of that would be at any tournament. But, my fears go farther down a path of paranoia. I don’t play Poker or Black Jack or Roulette in Las Vegas because I don’t know the rules and I’m terrified of looking like a jackass in front of a pile of strangers. Or worse yet, the dealer throwing me off the table for a serious faux pas and security dragging me out.

I never said I was reasonable. I didn’t want to have to endure an opponent’s eyes rolling when I riffle shuffled my un-sleeved cards, or forgot a rule, or played a deck that only morons play. I don’t think that’s too unreasonable a human expectation.

Fantasy Flight Games promoted my local game store’s tournament on Twitter last week. I don’t follow my store, but I do follow Fantasy Flight. I clicked it for details:

  • Saturday afternoon
  • Show up to sign in
  • $5 entry fee
  • Promo card for participation
  • Boxes and mats for the winners

That all sounded really casual. I told my friends and social media at large that I was attending. As I couldn’t sign in ahead of time, I cemented this decision with the Sword of Damocles of social shame.

As soon as I made the decision, it felt amazing. I was so excited! I spent every spare moment during the week furiously designing decks, tweaking those decks, and testing those decks. The new expansion arrived Friday afternoon. I tore it open, reviewed the cards, and figured out which ones to swap into my decks. After dinner Friday night, around 10 pm, I had a killer idea for a deck. I made it, slept on it, tweaked it, then agonized whether to take an untested deck to my first tournament. I did.

Now, that deck was in the hot seat. I had three cards, clammy hands, and a professed false need for a cigarette. Aside from my cliches, I played very well. I mean, I lost, everything, and no, not from losing all of my cards. I lost control of my economy towards the end, and the threat of traps forced me to take costly measures to not die. It was a death by a thousand bureaucratic cuts. In the end, my opponent squeaked over the finish line and beat me by a single point.

I lost another game as well, but again, was proud of my tactics and deckbuilding. I played aggressively against a very difficult deck and made my opponent earn his win. I think. I lost another due to time. Our first game took so long that we only had about 5 turns each in our second game. He had a lucky early score, 2 points, and that gave him the win from the time victory.

I almost skipped home I was so excited. It took me about an hour to calm down, but in a good way, unlike the earth quake this summer that sent my nerves spiraling for hours. It was honestly the most fun I’ve had playing a game in a really long time. Maybe since that Battlefield tournament at Quake Con 2005?

The reality is that any community will have some dead weight, some jerks, and negative stereotypes. One built around competition that requires a meaningful investment in time and money is most assuredly going to recruit such types. But, you cannot, and should not ignore such a rich gaming experience. The guys (and gal!) I played with yesterday were jovial, familiar, bearded, sportsmanlike, and sincere. My first opponent even riffle shuffled his cards! I mean, yes, they were sleeved, and he had a mat, but we shared the thhhhffft sound as we prepared our decks.

I know that if Spike shows up, he’ll be the exception, and that I’m only one game away from playing against someone more kind.

You should attend a tournament. Pick a game. Any game. You need to get the shakes for yourself and be overcome with anticipation. You need to wrestle with the pixie in your head that’s screaming “we can win we can win oh my god oh my god we can win.” Plus, that camaraderie about which I spoke? It just might appear at even the tournament scene. I just have to be a regular.

You’re going to have a great time, I promise.

Helpful Links

  • You can find the game on Board Game Geek here.
  • There is a great free tool with which to build decks or learn about the game here.
  • The Gamescape SF Event Calendar is here. Next tournament in March!
  • You can buy the game via Amazon here.

I appreciate the editing notes from Todd Edwards, Matt Worden, Joshua Buergel, and Chevee Dodd.

A Production Leaflet

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I started in the video game industry in 2005 just a month after I graduated college, left Oklahoma, and arrived in San Francisco with a Civic packed with stuff. I’ve worked at Maxis for all but one of those years, almost entirely as a producer, though sometimes as a designer, and occasionally a producer moonlighting as a designer.

In 2014, Joshua Buergel and I decided we would publish Hocus Poker and later, Landfall. This is a big decision and one I’ve personally been hovering around for years. I’ve never had the courage, the right game, or the right level of risk. I’ve always felt my professional experience has been immensely helpful to me in my table top work. Obvious examples include my diligence in crafting early rules, ability to work well with artists, experience with testing techniques, and years of experience with giving and receiving frank feedback.

But, now that I also want to be a publisher, I’ve really noticed this set of skills coming into play. I thought about how important it has been for me, but also, how useful it is. As I look around the hobby there are a TON of people who are starting out as publishers. There are obviously those who have their start in Kickstarter in just the past few years, but also POD producers, but also, young companies like Plaid Hat Games (Summoner Wars released in 2009) and Stronghold Games (Survive and Code 777 released in 2010).

As many publishers will tell you, when you are a publisher, your focus shifts from design to producer. If you listen to the Plaid Hat Podcast, it’s pretty clear Colby is more Executive Producer now than designer. It seems that’s always been Buonocore’s role (and he can correct me if I’m wrong!).

Now, I don’t dare profess to any of these people that I know better. Certainly not. But, some who only have one game under their belts, or seek to start a discussion, might find use in some of the key lessons I want to share. Or, perhaps, you’ll just find it interesting to hear about the perspectives of a video game industry veteran? This was a fun and personal entry to write, so I hope you enjoy it.

Here are the key things I think you need to be a good producer of games.

You don’t need to be right, nor do you personally need to provide the answer. Your job as a producer is to ensure the delivery of a great product. You need to check your ego, and check it often. Instead of fighting for your solution to be the one chosen, fight for the problem to be heard and addressed. Do not let issues plaguing the game be ignored due to other issues or swept aside from budget concerns.

Find and champion the person who has the right answer. Producers are managers and team leaders. Don’t abuse your management role to get your way. This means you give voice to those without power and silence the nonconstructive naysayers. You’re the moderator in the great debate that is game development. Identify the problem, listen to your team, and find out who has the right answer.

Always fight for the best team. It is so painfully easy to settle for good enough. The first barrier is money. I cannot afford the right person. The second barrier is time. The right person is busy, or we need to have this finished RIGHT NOW. People are the brunt of the cost in game development and you can rest assured you’ll get what you pay for.

Costs roll down hill in the form of wasted time, re-work, and customer dissatisfaction. Consider that a poor rules editor will lead to time you spend on the forums answering questions. That also affects your prestige negatively. Art, a potential competitive advantage and a huge way to stand out on a crowded shelf, is so easily compromised. Yet, time and time again, beautiful and distinctive games have a leg up on their uglier cousins. Invest in good testers to find the core issues with your game. Or, don’t pay to spend decks out and listen to your best buds.

Always fight for the best team. Surround yourself with brilliant people. Game development is a series of conversations solving problems. Who do you want on that problem?

Focus on the customer. A designer’s primary concern is the game. Their focus should be on the philosophy, the goals, the vision of the game itself. This is their sliver of the pie. A producer’s primary concern is the customer. These are 2 sides of the same coin, but from a different perspective. Let’s consider a few situations:

  • Designer: Here is a cool mechanism. Producer: How will it be explained in the rules?
  • Designer: This component is ideal. Producer: Is it $5 better for the end consumer?
  • Designer: Battle resolution requires these 3 steps. Producer: Re-work it to be faster and more intuitive.

I’ve written about this extensively lately, but with Sol Rising, my experience was:

  • Grant: This is a story driven game. Publisher (producer): If that is the premise, you need to infuse the actual game with more story.
  • Grant: This is how the game is setup. Producer: That feels intimidating. Find a way to expedite and simplify.

It isn’t that the producer doesn’t care about mechanisms, or the novelty of ideas. It’s that they want these ideas framed in a way that they only excite the customer, bring a smile to their face, and lead to positive sentiment. It’s a different perspective, arguably the development side of things, but terribly useful.

Focus on the experience. Designers can often have a bad habit of the method by which an experience will be delivered. The steps of the mechanism, the journey from input tou output. The producer’s job is to focus on the end result. A good producer is always asking these questions:

  • What is the result you desire?
  • Is there a better, simpler, more fun way to deliver this result?

A key tactic is to offer solutions to achieve this. Often, designers will be entrenched in their thoughts. They don’t want to kill their babies, which is one of the jobs of a producer. A way to start the process and to generate good brainstorming is to offer solutions and alternatives. I suggested this recently with a friend’s prototype.

He had a dice-based combat resolution mechanic. He also had numerous status effects, like you often see in RPGs. Slow, stunned, poison, webbed, and so forth. I found it very cumbersome to juggle between remembering the effects of the tokens littering my board and what dice to roll. I suggested: what if when I get the effect, I get a die that represents it? For example, if I’m stunned, I roll a d4, with lower numbers, to generate a worse result. Or, if using custom die, I get a new die with different faces. The end result was the same, but the journey was arguably simpler.

Remember point number one — you do not need to have the answer. You need to find the person that does. Think of yourself as an editor reading a great story. You love the characters, you love the ending, but the in between is a bit muddy and lacks punch. Offer ways to tighten that up, get the writer/designer thinking, and watch them surprise you with a superior solution.

Communicate. I find this to be one of my greatest annoyances with tabletop publishers. The industry is plagued by months without contact, obtuse responses, and talking to a wall. I think this is unacceptable and, if you care about it, relatively easy to fix. But, I digress.

Good communication is simple and follows a few clear rules.

  • Be clear with expectations. There must be precision in what you expect. If you want creative solutions, be clear that that is also allowed. When you waste other people’s time, such as artists, be prepared to compensate them.
  • Be clear with due dates. I want X, with these specifications, by this date.
  • Share with everyone what these are. If possible always use face to face communication to discuss these items. Then, follow up in writing so everyone has a thing to reference.
  • Be concise. Stop wasting everyone’s time. The more you write, the less it’ll be read. Furthermore, the more opportunities you present to be confused or misconstrued.

At the end of the day, talk to your team. Be honest, be precise, be concise, and don’t let issues fester.

Stop by to check in and see what’s going on. This is more applicable to a physical development team, but also applies to a remote team. This sounds nuts, but act in a way that you fear is annoying. At work, I frequently stop by the desk of an animator, modeler, other producers, whatever, just to say hi, ask what they’re up to, and see if I can help at all. These are anywhere from 15 seconds to 10 minutes. It builds rapport, gives me insight into their day to day, and sometimes, I find issues that I can help prevent before they spin out of control.

If you’re a board game publisher working with remote developers, such as a graphic designer, design partner, or illustrator, get their IM client and name. Every now and then, pop in. Ask them how things are going, if they need help, or ask if you can see what they’re working on. Be a curious fan of what they’re doing, not a tedious micro-manager.

Don’t be afraid to ask what you’re team’s up to. You’re paying them! You’re the customer! Go make friends and ask!

I asked Twitter for questions. Here is the answer to the one I received!

How different is video game design from board game design? - @deadlyaccurate

The short answer is, more different (currently) than it should be. In my opinion, one of the top problems plaguing game design, and arguably one of the reasons you see such an influx of brilliant, simple indie games, and a flourishing mobile market, is that many digital games have become far too complex. Simply because one CAN affix a series of calculations to a digital game mechanism does not mean one should do so.

The result, most often, is that there is so much going on under the hood that a player cannot make an intelligent decision regarding their action. If the outcome isn’t fully understood, in many cases, it could be random. Oblivion, the predecessor to the brilliant Fallout 3 and Skyrim, had one of the most obtuse leveling systems I’ve ever seen in a game. It was so complex that me and many others had to make obscure decisions to ensure we could keep up with the game’s difficulty curve.

Board game designers, unless you’re a terrible one, constrain the amount of calculation and computation required. After all, players must do it themselves while also trying to have fun. As board games are largely component driven (cards versus dice versus miniatures), decisions about user interface are very core to the experience. I think mobile design has improved this, as mobile games are so driven by the quality of their interface, but it’s something all digital designers should keep in mind.

The biggest difference, which won’t change, is the scale of the operation and timing. A board game company can be quite successful with 1 or 2 full time employees and contractors for a variety of things, including illustration, graphic design, testing, and manufacturing. Yes, there are indie developers who do everything, but it’s rare to find someone who can do quality 3D animation, 3D modeling, illustration, coding, engine development, online coding, web coding, tuning, writing, and more.

It’s also much faster, typically, to iterate on a board game. Now, this differs wildly by platform. It might take weeks or months to implement a system in The Sims on PC. On mobile, we could implement changes in an hour. The biggest issue is 2D versus 3D (in many cases), as well as offline versus online. Those elements can exponentially change the workload per feature. With a board game, a 100 card deck is quick to modify. A 500 card deck with all unique cards? Or having a pile of tokens? It’ll take longer.

Networking 102

I’ve known Todd for quite some time via the Internet, but more recently we’ve become closer friends and design peers because we both live in San Francisco and made it a priority to meet and work together. Todd approached me with a great idea about our process and how he’s used it elsewhere and I knew it would make a great Guest Column.

Guest Column by: Todd Edwards

A while back, Grant asked for designers to write in with their big accomplishments for the year. I realized that mine were not sales, but rather exciting things that have helped propel my designs to the next level. What’s more, both things are direct results of Networking. I know there are a bunch of other networking articles out there, so I’ll skip the 101 for the most part and trust the editor to insert an appropriate link.

He can put the link right here: (Editor’s Note: Uh…uh…I did a Google search and found this article in the Washington Post?)

Years ago, I began my side career as a creator by writing a novel. Then another, and another, and so on. My writing got incrementally better, but when I gathered some like-minded folks into a critique group, my writing really took off. Something about critiquing other people’s work really helps you learn the lessons that you are blind to when looking at your own work. Also, having people dig in and find the flaws in your work is really helpful too, especially if they are totally candid and don’t pull their punches. And finally, critique groups give you a chance to talk shop with other writers.

It turns out the same is true for game design. You probably have a test group. People who play games, and they’ve agreed to play your designs and give you feedback. That is awesome and critical to do, but you can’t inflict half-formed ideas on them. They don’t think like designers, so they can’t help turn the ideas into playable designs. Designers can help pick apart your game from a different perspective. Even more, designers LOVE to talk design, so they are usually up for hearing your half-baked ideas and offering feedback. It may not work for everyone, but I know that I work best in a team, bouncing ideas off others, taking suggestions and making them my own, etc. In fact, when I have a bunch of half-formed ideas floating around, the best way for me to crystalize them into something coherent is to explain them in an email to someone willing to read my sometimes stream of consciousness idea  deluge.

Enter our illustrious host, Grant. We’ve known each other a while over Twitter, and we’d gotten together to play and test each other’s games a few times at cons and around town (once we realized we lived near each other). However, we are both busy guys with careers, and it was pretty sporadic. Late last year, we decided to form a “design critique group” and get together every other week. Since then, my game designs have progressed more rapidly than ever. The combination of constant deadlines to keep me pushing ahead and a designer feedback is invaluable.

You see, I’m working on my first big game, by which I mean a 4-5ish player, 90 minute, co-op. There are a lot of different systems that I’ve been working on and pulling together, and being able to show early prototypes of the different systems helps keep me on track. Not to mention the brainstorming that has resulted in changes to my current prototype. I’ve also been able to play some “peer” games and get to see how similar ideas work in practice. Because he knows my design, my critique partner was able to point out things in other games that apply to my design.

Anyway, how do you form a critique group? It will vary, but like anything that involves meeting people you don’t know, exercise some caution. You can find local designers on Twitter, Facebook, Meet-up, etc. Go to local gaming events and talk about your designs. You’ll probably meet other designers. If you click with them, get together to play each other’s games. But start by meeting at a coffee shop, local game store, etc. you know, exercise caution. You’ll need to find people you are comfortable sharing with and giving/getting unfiltered feedback. You’ll also need to find a schedule that works for everyone.

When you give feedback, don’t be mean, but don’t pull your punches. If something isn’t working, they need to know. Try to always follow-up with a suggestion or two of how to fix it. When you get feedback, don’t take it personally. Creative people aren’t always the best at hearing criticism, but think of it as good practice for your eventual BoardGameGeek reviews. And when you get a critique, don’t argue about it, take it in, ask questions to make sure you understand the feedback, and then decide if and how you want to incorporate the feedback. And if someone doesn’t take your feedback, just remember, it is ultimately their game and they decide what goes in or not.

Todd Edwards is a robot engineer by day and writer/designer by night. He’s published 3 children’s books and one novel. Check them out here or learn more about him here. He also does freelance writing for games and is looking for more gigs. Contact information is on his website.

Interview with Michael Keller

When you run a blog, you get to bug people with whom you want to have a conversation under the guise of an interview. Michael Keller’s City Hall has really sparked my brain lately and sent me on a research path that might, maybe, result in my own economic design. For now, let’s talk to Michael about his designs and economics. 

Hyperbole Grant: Welcome! Just to catch everyone up, tell us who you are and provide the high level pitch for your published games.

Michael Keller: Hello, my name is Michael R. Keller. I’m a software product manager by day and have just recently realized a decade-long effort to design a game and have it published. My first game, City Hall is a city-building game built on a mechanic that combines role-selection with semi-reciprocal bidding. I also have a second game that just came out called Captains of Industry. That game was a labor of love. I’m a lover of economics and Captains is the ultimate expression of marketplace dynamics.

HG: I want to start with City Hall. I played it with you at BGG, bought it shortly after, and have since played 3 times with my group. From this game, and from what I know about Captains of Industry, you really love player driven markets. Am I correct here? Why this mechanic?

MK: You’ve hit the nail on the head. One of the pitfalls of many economic games is that after a few plays, you begin to “know” what everything is worth. In the real world, there is no locked, established value to things. Value is subjective and dependent entirely on what the market participants think. Take black pearls. When black pearls were first introduced to the European market, they were considered vastly inferior to white and yellow ones. However, when a French empress began wearing them, they became fashionable and skyrocketed in value. I find that arbitrary market valuation fascinating.

Bitcoin is another example. I’ve been aware of it for years and watched as it went from ridiculous nerd fantasy to skyrocket in “value” to the point where governments had to monitor it. It was wonderful seeing the bandwagon effect as investor celebrities hopping on board caused domino after domino of price jumps. And it was just as wonderful watching the whole house of cards collapse this year when people decided there was a hype bubble holding it up.

As an aside, I think I’ve just violated a regulation on mixing too many metaphors.

HG: Here at Hyperbole Games we don’t believe in restricting the markets or metaphors.

MK: Closer to home, my first job out of college was working for Citi. This was in the summer of 2007. As you can imagine, the front-row seat I had to the economic implosion caused by reckless, bonus-seeking bankers, which relied on everyone keeping the illusion going, had quite the effect on me.

In my games, I want to reward players who can either spot market opportunities or are clever enough to create them from whole cloth.

HG: Players in City Hall exchange Influence (a currency), which fuels much of the economy in the game, particularly player actions. Captains of Industry looks like a big player driven economy on steroids. Can you detail for us the points of player connection and interaction in this economy?

MK: I don’t want players to turtle up and just do their own thing.

HG: If I can interrupt, that statement alone promises many benefits to a deeply strategic game. It’s more difficult to conceive a dominant strategy if other players are involved in every step. It makes it impossible to solve the game, or be stuck with your last 5 turns on auto-pilot because of your initial choices. I find that very compelling. Sorry, continue.

MK: Both of my games force you to interact directly with other players to get what you need. But you don’t get it by force. You get it by showing that you value it more than them. But in doing so, the player you beat out receives the resources you spent. This creates what in economics is called a Pareto Efficiency in which both the winner and the loser are better off than if they had never clashed. This is because the loser receives resources which he or she considers more valuable than the goal they lost to the winner (otherwise the loser would have bid even more).

HG: One of the seemingly Quixotic ideals for many designers always seems to be the semi-cooperative game. They often end up being awkward. With a drafting game, for example, there’s the notion of counter drafting, but often times that both hurts you and your neighbor. You didn’t really want the card. What I like about your system is that everyone benefits. You wouldn’t put this term on the back of the box, but in a very real way it’s a semi-cooperative experience. Everyone benefits.

MK: Which is, at least in theory, what an economy is supposed to be. A set of mutually-beneficial exchanges of goods and services. All it takes to put this experience in game form is application of those economic principles to an arbitrary goal.

HG: One of the things about the invisible hand is that it balances things for you. Or does it? Can you share insights on balancing a game where the economy is so player driven? In City Hall players receive a free Influence at the end of each round, and there are incentives to take less used roles. What else?

MK: The danger in a player-driven economy is that it is very easy for an inexperienced player to drive themselves into the ground with a bad early play. Sure, they learn their mistake quickly, but there’s no way to correct for it, as doing so would require resources which they just lost to their mistake. In City Hall, I start the players off with only three influence each. Through the two methods you listed, I slowly inject influence into the player economy over the course of the game. This adds a nice, dramatic curve to the bidding, as bids escalate from 1 or 2 at the start to 10 or 15 by the end. It also means that the worst mistake you can make in the early game is bidding three more than you “should” have. And you’re guaranteed to get at least one back next round.

HG: In my most recent game (which I won!), I identified the few things I had to do in order to win and took actions to maximize my Influence. In the final round, I spent 12 and 10 Influence for two actions. It was deeply satisfying to have engineered my success by securing the capital.

MK: That’s the core of the game. The city-building is the arbitrary goal that surrounds the framework of managing your political capital.

HG: Are there any other games that you enjoy that create a player driven economy?

MK: Power Grid is one of my favorites. It’s not fully player-driven, but there is one aspect of it that really gets me. When a plant is up for auction, the value of that plant is not based solely on its inputs and outputs and the alternative plants you can try to buy. It is also based on what plants other players have already bought and how likely they are to keep those plants running and what plants they would replace them with.

This is because Power Grid exhibits a principle called derived demand. The plant’s value is derived from the value of its production, which is the money you get from selling the power minus what you will have to spend on resources each round to generate the power. The cost of those resources is a product of what plants are already being run, which resources they use, and whether those plants are likely to be retired.

This creates several positive and negative feedback loops, all of them jostling against each other to push the “value” of the plant around. The best part of this is that the plant can have actual different values to each player.

If I have three coal plants already and you have two oil and one eco (which you want to replace), the coal plant will be worth more to me than it is to you. This is because you know that if you get this new coal plant, there will be four plants devouring coal each round, causing the price to skyrocket. If I get this new coal plant, it’ll retire one of my existing ones, so coal prices won’t rise so quickly. Therefore, this plant is more valuable to me than it is to you. Especially if you suspect that I will go for an oil plant if I don’t get this one. That would make the two oil plants you already own drop in value as I’ll suddenly be buying the oil you were getting cheaply. All of which only takes two players into account! There’s so much going on in that simple plant auction.

HG: What are some of the biggest differences between the initial City Hall and the final product? I’m curious about the game’s evolution.

MK: The superstructure of the game has been there since the first playtest. The changes since then have been characterized mostly by the quote from Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “It seems that perfection is attained, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.”

The city simulation in the game was previously far more robust. I’ve been a fan of a certain trademarked city simulation game since I played it on the SNES as a child. The initial inspiration for the game was thinking how to turn that single-player video game into a multiplayer board game. The first prototype of City Hall contained some mechanics from that series which did I eventually cut out of the final design.

The most impactful of these was roads. As you know, all zones are affected by their neighbors. However, the permit cards previously had roads on them which would be used to connect to each other and create transportation networks. Permits would be affected in different ways by both what they were adjacent to and what they were connected to.

Another big change was that instead of parks, there was a set of different, one-of-a-kind special buildings. These buildings represented police departments, fire departments, schools, and parks. Each of these had a different effect on their surroundings.

Both of these were removed because, while they were interesting, they weren’t core to the game. Early playtests showed that the interesting part of the game was the trading of influence between players. The roads and special buildings were just complications that got in the way of that core mechanic. While there are city-building games that are built around the interplay of dozens of different buildings, this game isn’t. Hopefully removing these parts brought the game closer to perfection.

HG: What’s your favorite game of late?

MK: I picked up Tragedy Looper at BGG Con. I’m a fan of both asymmetry and deduction games, so this probably qualifies as the game I’m most excited about that doesn’t have my name on the box.

HG: What are you working on now?

MK: Honestly, I’m kind of burned out right now. I’m still playing games for fun, but the past three years have been cognitively, emotionally, and physically taxing. I’m just to enjoy having my two games out for a while and focus on things other than games for a year or so.

I had been working on a real-time financial game, but couldn’t break through a complexity wall without sacrificing my goals for the design. Maybe I’ll come back to it someday.

HG: I hope so. City Hall is wonderful, I expect to pick up Captains of Industry sometime this year, and I’d love to see more from you. Thank you so much for your time, Michael!

City Hall can be purchased directly from the publisher, Tasty Minstrel Games, or obtained wherever fine games are sold. Same with Captains of Industry!

Posted in Interview | Tagged captains of industry, city hall, economic design, economics, michael keller, tasty minstrel games, tmg | Leave a reply

Mechanisms that Perturb

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Designers often discuss favorite mechanisms, games that inspire, and things they like, but we often skirt the issue of things we don’t like. There’s good reasons for this, in that you don’t necessarily want to criticize one’s peers, or be a Negative Niles. However, I think, if positioned properly, this might lead to an interesting discussion. Or, at least an interesting statement of perspectives.

Therefore, I seek to discuss mechanisms that perturb. These are mechanisms or activities in game that tend to grate against my enjoyment and appeal to me less as a designer. Note that every single one of these has an exception, a champion of doing it properly. The point of this article is not to say “this is always bad,” but more for me to note things I care for less.

You’ll find I ask questions throughout. Feel free to respond in the comments!

Interrupt Cards, and/or Out of Turn Play: This is a mechanism I find is almost always done poorly and it drives me insane. Introducing decisions outside of a player’s turn almost always increases complexity and requires additional explanations for a variety of conditions. Note that I’m discussing turn-based games. If a game isn’t turn based, then out of turn play is fine.

The most notorious offender is the legendary “stack” of Magic, where one must gauge the priority of interrupts and instants and monster attacks. But, many light games, especially take-thats, introduce this and I feel it adds unnecessary complexity.

Netrunner, a favorite, introduces out of turn play/decisions in the form of runs on the server. Players need to decide what servers to rez (i.e. activate) and such. But, by and large, you know that when you’re taking actions, it’s your turn.

Interrupts are generally just awful, for the simple reason they invalidate a turn. It feels lousy to the recipient and often cheap. In my head, it always feels like:

“I want to do this.”



I think it’s very important that players get to make a decision or do something interesting on every turn. Passing, without strategy, having interrupts, or having to weave through layers of what can/can’t happen due to interrupts really hinder this.

What’s your favorite game with out of turn play? What’s your favorite time to interrupt?

Worker Placement without Blocking: For me, the number one best part of worker placement is the tension of spaces being blocked and your opportunity being denied. There is the delicious choice of taking something before its time, or holding out to see if you can claim your first, second, AND third choice.

I feel that worker placement without blocking is like beer without alcohol. It’s lite sour cream. It’s a wolf without teeth. It’s another metaphor.

An exception that comes to mind is the Raider station in Alien Frontiers. It’s intuitive (have a higher straight), expensive (3 dice), contextual (you want something to steal), and not super common (requires a 3 dice straight). That, to me, is the right balance. But, making it a constant element? Not for me.

Another, is that some buildings in Lords of Waterdeep allow two placements. That, being less common and shared, also works.

Which game has done this mechanic well to refute my claims? What’s your favorite worker placement?

The Mimic: Choose any card to copy: This is a minor grievance, but it came to mind and I’ll list it. I don’t enjoy cards that put the burden on me, the player, to pick what it’s replacing. It’s a wild card that is far too broad. “This card can be anything, just name it.” Uhhhhhh? It puts too much on the player and should really be a smaller decision space.

Don’t put this on the player. Constrain their choices or remove the card.

Complex Line of Sight and Range: This is an area that I think every new war game can innovate, simplify, and improve upon their forefathers’ contributions. We were playing Level 7: Omega Protocol last year, which uses a square tile system. Its line of site rules were terrible! You could count towards a target vertically, or horizontally, or you could have diagonal, but never multiple diagonals in a row. They also added very confusing rules for cover. We put this game away in favor of Imperial Assault. Their line of site rules are far superior. One corner of the firing unit’s square must be able to reach two corners of the defending unit’s square. This is great, as it’s simple AND allows for players to fire around corners, yet be protected in return.

This airing of grievances also includes overly complex range solutions. Counting around squares constantly is so tedious! Think about it seriously for a moment. If you’re making a game about relatively modern weapons, range is often not an issue within the area of engagement. Accuracy, whether they hit or not, is. Where they hit is also interesting. You can do this with dice rolls to resolve hits that also abstract damage and chit pulls that identify where things are damaged.

Keep this simple and focus on the best part of the experience: maneuvering your units and bringing your firepower to bear. Not counting tile after tile.

What’s the best example of line of sight and range you’ve seen?

Trading, because sure? I’ve played a handful of games lately that involve trading and negotiation because it’s technically something you can do. But, it’s clear these elements were layered on, not core to the experience. I feel trading needs to be fully integrated by giving players a reason to trade. Trading often benefits both parties and helps balance issues of scarcity. Catan’s trading balances out the cruel nature of the dice. Bohnanza’s trading is forced by the queue of cards that must be played. China Town gives you random stuff that may be worthless to you, but incredibly valuable to someone else.

Having resources alone isn’t sufficient to allow for trading. If you desire a trading floor and social engagement, be sure to institute limits on supply, scarcity, and incentives for players to do so.

What’s your favorite reason to trade in a game?

Variable Ending: This has been a pet peeve since I was introduced to Munchkin and Catan. I think Munchkin would be quite fine as a 30 minute game. But, it never seems to end. Similarly, I want to play about an hour’s worth of Catan. Unfortunately, that never seems to be the case.

I prefer games have a set time period, such as a deck running out, a finite number of rounds, or when a nigh guaranteed event will occur. I’m also quite fine with games where the precise ending isn’t guaranteed, but the mechanisms force an escalation along that all but guarantee this will happen. City Hall does this very well. When X buildings are built, or a player reaches the end of the Approval Track, the last round is triggered. This seems to happen about the same time every game, making its length reliable.

As a player and designer, I appreciate knowing the space within which I have to work. I enjoy knowing about how much time I have and where we are in the story. Games with a fuzzy ending often turn into games that, for me, overstay their welcome.

What are your preferred methods of a game ending?

If the game ends with no winner, Bob wins: This irks me because it feels like the Sword of Damocles is hanging over my head. It also feels like someone’s getting an easy win. Now, that’s perception — it may not be a fair balance concern. In Rex, one of my favorite games, the Fremen (I can’t remember their Rex name) win if someone doesn’t win by the end of the game. This, paired with their ability, basically allows them to hang back and camp. Discworld: Ankh-Morpork also has a role where if the game ends without a winner, he wins. This allows him to just trash things and run amok for an hour.

With my factions, I prefer clear benefits and clear downsides. I love flexibility to interpret those within the system to allow for variability in the experience. I feel like defining a de facto winner prescribes a path that is simply best for one of the factions. It boxes them in and I don’t think that’s nearly as fun. I don’t play the Fremen, because I don’t want my path locked into prophecy.

Do you know of a case where this mechanism works?

Losing earned points: This just feels nasty. A big part of design is identifying experiences that feel lousy to the player and removing them or replacing them with something that delivers a similar experience without the same vibe. If I’ve scored points, I hate losing them. It feels dirty. I especially dislike losing them and giving them to someone else. Many take-that games do this and I feel it’s one of the reasons they are so heavily despised.

A way to do this in a more kind way is to remove resources from a player to hinder their ability to score more points. You can also penalize a player for using certain actions, or making them cost-prohibitive. Again, you’re slowing them, which slows their rate of point gain.

This is mostly about perception and shifting a penalty from points, which are sacred, to things that are less special. Lords of Waterdeep’s mandatory quest cards are hated by some, but I think are a fairly clever solution. In City Hall, especially as the game progresses, players need to spend major Influence in order to take actions. This limits their ability to take other actions for a few turns.

What are some of the best examples of penalties you can think of?

The Passive Overflow: A few games have really fallen out of favor for me for inflicting too many passive effects upon the table to track. I wave a chubby, perhaps too hairy finger at designers who do not carefully consider these. Having passive effects that only affect the owning player are okay. Having passive effects that affect everyone really need to be considered sparingly.

Seasons was a game I enjoyed, in theory, but grew to enjoy much less due to the constant upkeep and accounting of its passive effects. Every round, or every action, could affect multiple players in different ways. It slowed the game and made it difficult to make decisions — there were just too many factors.  We also had some trouble with Shadowrun: Crossfire. Various Events and bad guys in play will inflict things at different times. We often forgot to check this, which then meant we were cheating or retroactively addressing things.

The core lesson is, remember that players can only track so many things. The more layers you add, the more difficult it is to keep track of everything and make decisions that properly consider the board state.

What are examples of games that use passive effects very well?

Comment below! Thanks for reading.

The Overlooked

Post by: Grant Rodiek

As a start to this week’s blogging, I wanted to write about a few games that I really enjoy, yet others don’t seem to talk about much. Now, I believe these games to be commercial successes, due to sequels, or reprints, but I just don’t see much chatter about them. Therefore, this post is about 4 (potentially) overlooked games and my recommendations for them. Enjoy!

1775 Rebellion OR 1812 The Invasion of Canada

I just love these games. They have a classic, beautiful aesthetic with large boards that display the maps, wooden cubes, and cards with illustrations that resemble paintings from the era. The mechanisms are dead simple. On your turn, play a movement card from your hand of three. The card details how many groups of soldiers you may move, and the distance up to they may travel. Battles begin at the end of movement exactly like they do in Risk, but there’s a shift. Every army, like the British Regulars or Colonial Militia, roll different custom dice. The dice indicate how likely the groups are to deal damage to their opponent, do nothing, or outright flee. It’s simple, but so effective. The British Regulars never flee and are very effective in combat. Makes sense. The Colonial Militia are cowardly and flee like bandits. They aren’t professional soldiers. It happens.

Movement and battle is augmented with a few Special cards. And my favorite cards, those that let units board ships to make incredibly decisive moves, really up the ante. Your opponent thinks you are bottled up in New York, when suddenly he ships a warship full of men down to the southern theater.

Games take around 60-90 minutes, and only a few minutes to teach. There is also a great deal of strategy mixed in with the luck of the dice and card draw, which makes it very approachable. If this hasn’t piqued your interest, I have one more item to fire across your bow: it’s a team game. One of the few team games I’ve seen, actually.

In each, one team represents the forces of the British Empire, the other the wily Americans. 1775 Rebellion focuses on the American Revolution and supports four players: Continental Army, Continental Militia, British Loyalists, and British Regulars. Hessian Mercenaries and the French can enter the fray, but controlled by the other players. The Native Americans are neutral and can be recruited by players.

1812 The Invasion of Canada is about the War of 1812. This one plays up to five players. The factions are mostly the same as before, but the Native Americans are controlled by a third player on the British side. The French and Indian War is not far off as the third game in the series…

This is a lovely game. People tend to say 1775 is the superior game, and it does have some refinement and nice elements. But, both are wonderful.

1775 on Amazon here. 1812 on Amazon here.

Vampire Empire

This game was my first foray into the Stronghold library. This is a 2 player game, similar to Revolver in its simplicity, with asymmetrical play and a heavy dose of bluffing and deduction. There are 9 character cards, split evenly into three colors (Clergy, Nobility, Commoners), and double sided: one for Vampires, one for Human. All characters begin in the Human form. Thanks to the games nice card sleeves (provided), the back is hidden and you can pull out the card to switch the character.

Vampires are determined at the beginning of the game by pulling 3 tokens out of a bag. The Human gets to secretly examine 2 other tokens, so they know 2 guaranteed humans.

The Vampire wins by killing all the humans, or having all three of the vampires in the Castle. Humans win by killing all of the vampires. I think there may be other ways, but I’m forgetting. It’s been a month or so!

The game is a simple one of hand management and choosing where to pick your battles. Players have cards that can be played by discarding a defined number of cards. The costs vary between Night (the Vampire player’s turn) or Day (the Human player’s turn), so preserving some surprises and the costs to afford them is crucial. The Vampire player may play coy, or boldly, by revealing a Vampire and switching out the card. The Vampire player can use any character to kill any character, whereas the human can only attack known vampires. When the Vampire player uses the Bishop to attack the Noble…is the Noble a Vampire and he’s tricking me? Or is the Bishop the vampire? Or neither? There’s some beautiful double think.

Combat is resolved by players playing cards that match the color of the character (so, brown cards can be played to attack with or defend for commoners). So, do you protect the noble? Only to find in the future it was a ruse to get you to waste cards protecting a vampire? Or do you let the noble die? Only to find it was a human all along? Or, you let it die and called the vampire’s bluff — he just killed one of his own?

This game has a great art style and comes in a lovely tin. It takes just a few minutes to teach, but is full of depth and so many plays. It’s well worth a look if you enjoy 2 player games, deduction, bluffing, and simple hand management.

Only $22 on Amazon.


I’m a lover of 2 player games and asymmetry. My friend returned from a convention, mentioned this game, and it went straight to my Christmas list a few years ago. This is a great game that is the best combination of theme and trash with simple, well designed mechanics.

Do you like dungeon crawling? Combat? Being a demon lord? Step right up! One player controls a small group of 2-4 (about) convicts, guided by a battle priest, who are fighting the demonic hordes for redemption. For each character there is a nifty tray with a number of slots. Each slot has a Movement, Defense, and Attack value. Some are better for sprinting through a cave, others for standing firm, others for taking out everything. At the start of a round, you roll 1d6 per character, then assign those rolls. 1 die per character. This provides the nice combination of choice within limits. Here’s where things get interesting: whenever a character takes a damage, you must place a peg on one of the rows. That means if you assign a 4, and there is a peg in row 4? Your character is stunned and does nothing for the turn. As you take damage, your options diminish. Tricky, tricky.

The player who controls the demons essentially owns a limitless horde of weak little goblins. He has some heavy hitters, but mostly  a mass wave of goblins. As the human player explores, the demon player chooses how the tiles or oriented. This lets him create mazes or circles that wear down the humans as they valiantly explore. That’s fun. Also, at the start of the round, the demon lord rolls a number of dice, then assigns them to a mat to activate abilities. It’s somewhat like Alien Frontiers, if you’re familiar. These abilities let the demonic player draw powerful action cards, spawn more monsters, and other shenanigans.

So, what else? Lots of great scenarios for variation and good stories. It’s packed with beautiful, pre-painted miniatures. There’s not one, but two great expansions with more tiles, cards, characters, and monsters. More minis!

The base game is only $46 on Amazon with a ton of fun content.

Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy

Portal is one of my favorite publishers because their games stand in the middle of Euro and Ameritrash design. I’ve heard Eurotrash and I’ve heard mid-Atlantic to describe such things. I think Legacy is one of their best titles, but also one that doesn’t seem to receive as much hype.

The goal in Legacy is to build the most incredible family over 3 generations. You will build an actual family tree with cards as your characters marry, have children, die, and so forth. This looks quite cool on the table and you begin to tell a story as your family grows.

At its core, Legacy is a worker placement game. Players use their limited actions each round to have children, get married, buy mansions, obtain titles, win friends, begin business ventures, and more. These actions are taken to increase your family’s wealth, increase its prestige, and bring in just the right characters. Matchmaking at its finest!

The game plays well with 2-4 (and has an official solo variant I’ve never tried) in around 45-75 minutes.

As a personal anecdote, I was joking with Ignacy once about how my friend’s male character married a woman who looked like a man. Without the colored border, we wouldn’t have known. Ignacy immediately named the character and noted “ugliest character in the game!” It was hilarious and just notes the charm throughout the title.

Grab it on Amazon here.

Any titles you’d recommend? What are some gems of your collection that seem to have been overlooked? Share them in the comments below.

Posted in Blog | Tagged 1775, claustrophobia, fun games, legacy, overlooked games, recommendations, vampire empire | Leave a reply

Thoughts from Hocus Blind Testing

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I wish to thank Mathew Tate for submitting the photo above. His hands are lovely.

Around November or early December, Josh and I sent approximately 10 copies of Hocus Poker to testers around the US (and one in Denmark!) who agreed to play the game for us. We paid to have the cards printed via DTC, as it’s about $6 per set (plus a few more bucks for shipping). That seemed worth it to us, as we didn’t have to cut out 10 sets of cards, and neither would our testers. If you have a small game, we think it’s been a resounding success. Especially if you don’t have a big name reputation like Plaid Hat Games or Portal, it’s a great way to get involved blind testers.

The results have been very good. Around the time of BGG we thought our game was actually good. We knew it had spell balance tweaks, and that the rules needed iteration, but we thought the version we had was the final one after some development. That’s a bold proclamation. Thankfully, the feedback has been very good. We had one tester player 13 times in one weekend, another played 8 times over a few weeks, another has his friends asking to play it when they come over. That’s good stuff.

Often times when people discuss development, it’s about a game that’s still broken, far from finished, or deeply rough. That’s most of what you read about on my blog, for example. And, if you click on the Hocus Poker tag, that’s the main body of content. However, because Hocus is mature and very far along, I thought it might be interesting to discuss some of the big changes we’ve made, as well as some of the interesting thoughts that have occurred to us.

Tweak the rules, get frustrated, throw them away, start over. I wrote about this process extensively here, but it bears repeating in this post. We made, probably, a thousand tiny changes to our rules document. That was expected. What wasn’t expected was that our rules would become this lumbering beast, more confusing than before. Don’t believe us?

Here are the old rules. 

Here are the new rules.

What do you think?

The urge for 5 player becomes strong. Josh and I have always wanted 5 player, but a while ago we said “it’s too hard” and set it aside. True, we had some limiting factors: the size of the deck (52 cards) affected the ability to draw cards, and 52 cards is standard for poker. Nobody really mentioned it, but I think the fact that a.) things were going well and b.) it’s such a massive win for the product made us antsy.

I don’t think we would have arrived at this on our own from local testing. But, getting the confirmation from so many that things were going well freed our minds for boldness. Game designers NEED confirmation checks ins from others. We NEED validation. Without it, we’ll crumble. Or, you’re probably a little too arrogant?

Our 5 player solution is simple, though to be clear it still needs testing.

  • Added a 0 and 14 Strength card to every suit. This makes it a 60 card deck, but by and large keeps the Poker-ness whole. These cards are only added for 5 players. This solves the draw problem and keeps the distribution of hands with 5 players more sane.
  • Players are dealt 9, instead of 10, cards. With more out on the board, and the need for cards to draw, this again reigns things in.
  • There is a third Community, with its own pot, but players can still only have 2 pockets. This mean that we don’t have 5 players making a mad stupid rush for 2 communities. But, it also adds a neat layer to the strategy: which 2 communities are you vying to win? Which one are you skipping? Perhaps more importantly, which community are your opponents skipping?

With external validation, your mind will be freed to solve good problems once again. Seek out legitimate validation.

There were subtle trends we weren’t noticing. Last night, the wonderful Marguerite Cottrell mailed us a personal VIDEO of her notes with Hocus Poker. She’d played 8 times, with and without Advanced Spells. She succinctly offered high level notes, thoughts, and gut reactions. Then, she went through each individual Spell Book (like Alchemy, Illusion), and gave her personal thoughts on it, identified its weakness, or its imbalance.

In a few of these, she revealed two enormous Gems. Josh and I hadn’t thought of it this way prior and when we heard Marguerite say it, we simultaneously thought “Oh, yeah!”

  • Spell Books (a set of 3 Spells a player receives that are unique to them) that have a Spell that does “Do a unique thing. You may then do a Basic Spell.” were more powerful than Spells without. She’s right. It’s essentially a Spell that does 2 things. We’re spreading the love, now.
  • All Spell books tend to affect 2 of the 3 areas of the board. By this, she means Community, Pots, and Pockets. She noted some of the weaker Spell Books only affected a single thing. Great insight! Again, we’re spreading the love.

Find someone like Marguerite (stay away from her we need to send her more projects) to cut to the heart of an issue. If you’ve been a designer for a while, you know how frustrating it can be as a designer to be bombarded by tester requests for stuff or changes without reason. “You can add this. You should change this. Why isn’t this like this.” As Gil Hova noted to me at BGG in a discussion, “Please tell me the problem, I’ll find the solution.”

Battle lines have been drawn around Basic and Advanced. Basic mode is, in my opinion, a wonderful addition to the Hocus Poker product that is entirely an accident. The game I took to BGG on me and Josh’s behalf was 3 Basic Spells, 3 Advanced Spells per player, and Moonbears. A publisher, after my pitch, noted the game was too complicated for what he wanted and asked if there was a simpler version without the Advanced Spells.

My answer was “I dunno! That’s a fascinating idea.” I wrangled some friends at the con, then my family again at Thanksgiving the following week, and wouldn’t you know, it was a great idea. We saw this as the tutorial version. It removed some complexity and options and was much faster to teach.

Here’s the thing: some people love it, to the point they don’t even want to try Advanced, or once they do, they want to go back. Marguerite’s roommate noted that “Basic is more strategic with more control, whereas Advanced is more tactical.” That’s fascinating.

I’ve seen this trend in person. Some people play Basic and say “that’s cool, but it needs a little more.” Boom, here’s Advanced. I showed my local gamer group, guys and gals who play meaty stuff, and they thought “woah, Basic is packed with decisions. It doesn’t need more.”

This is all entirely unexpected for me and Josh. We’ve made the decision to present the game as advanced (without the label), putting Basic at the bottom of the rules as an alternative. Through testing, we think that is the best way to manage expectations and put our best foot forward. But even Josh and I are a little divided. Me? I sorta prefer basic. It has a classic card game soul and I just dig it. Josh? He’s an Advanced guy. We both like both, but choices are being made. Entirely unexpected outcome from a part of the game that was entirely unexpected.

If you ask me, having both is a great addition to the product. It suits different moods, different personalities, and different groups.

The force is strong with this one. Since we began these tests, we haven’t changed a single core rule or mechanism (excluding the addition of 5 player). We have re-written rules, we have clarified options, we have tweaked Moonbear content, and we have thrown away, re-designed, re-worded, or simply balanced the Advanced Spells. But the core remains.

I’ve been approximately tracking tests from us and our testers and we’re around 50 tests on just this version. That’s very strong validation. We’re kicking the tires and they are like “come on, man, we’re good!”

Yeah, that’s right. Our tires talk. We have Advanced Spells to refine and need to run tests against our final graphic design when it’s ready. But, it feels so good!

In closing, a hilarious Hocus Poker story. It seems our thematic integration is a LITTLE TOO STRONG (har har). This morning, tester Robin Lees mailed me this picture. Apparently, his printed, without a command, and no computers on in the house, decided to print our rules.

It’s a sign!

You can read the rules for Hocus Poker here. We’re revising the Spells now, so I don’t want you to waste your time printing. We’ll link the PNP soon. In the future, we’ll be discussing art production and other publisher related things for the game. If you have questions, mention them below. Stay tuned!

Posted in Hocus Poker | Tagged 5 player, blind testing, development, final testing, hocus poker, mature, rules, thoughts | Leave a reply

The Low Hanging Fruit

Post by: Grant Rodiek

The beginning of a new design can be an overwhelming occasion. If you’re hiking Half Dome at Yosemite, which I recommend, the first time you encounter one of the very long and very steep climbs, you think, “why am I doing this?” It can be overwhelming, as I said, and you might not know exactly where to start.

If you’re anything like me, and experience tells me we all do things a little differently, you’re thinking of the big idea you hope to express with your game. The experience and the overall vibe. This might also pair with a component or mechanism you want to use, like dice, or a rondel, or worker placement, or perhaps another product defining point, such as player numbers or length.

So, you have the gist of an idea, potentially a mechanism or limiting factor (2 players only!) to restrain it some, then a huge cliff looking down upon you. “Go ahead!” it jests. “I won’t laugh.”


A trick I often use to calm my designer’s nerves and make progress in the appropriate direction is to seek out low hanging fruit. By this, I mean ways to make your task simpler, while still helping you craft a design that is unique, novel, and deserves to be played. One important thing to note is that merely identifying and championing these fruit doesn’t make the design task easy. The path from A to B is still fraught with disappointment. But, the goal is to get out of the wilderness sooner and find ways you can be unique from the start. Personally, I find my games’ most unique elements evolve through testing and iteration, and trying to identify that spark from the first step is, for me, impossible.

I’m going to provide a few quick examples of my personal experiences with designs and low hanging fruit, as well as throw out some other designs that I think similarly benefited. But, it’s just a guess!

Hocus Poker: At the outset, Hocus Poker (then Wizard Poker) was built around the notion of poker plus spells. The poker portion meant a similar deck of cards (suits and ranks), as well as the hands with which the world is familiar (flush, full house). But, we’ve always had guiding low-hanging fruit to constrain us creatively:

  • No player elimination. This is generally a universal no no. It works with actual poker, in which people are gambling, but not in a casual game.
  • No gambling. Poker is fueled by an exchange of currency. Hold ‘Em is miserable when you’re playing for jelly beans. We didn’t want a game that required people to spend money to have fun.
  • Cards only. This was primarily for publishing concerns (cost, box, complexity), but also for product elements such as portability and accessibility.
  • Design a game around card management, not bet management. If you remove money and player elimination, you need a fundamental shift.

None of these are brilliant insights! I think we can all agree they are rather obvious. These qualities took a year of development to realize, so our work was not done for us. But, by quickly gravitating towards easy differentiation, we could set forth productively.

Dawn Sector: When I began Dawn Sector in 2012, I was still relatively new to the hobby (which limited my knowledge of existing titles), but was also fiercely committed to shorter games. In the past year I’ve made a commitment to bring out longer games at game day, but in 2012 games that took more than an hour basically weren’t played. I wanted to make a war game, and a quick examination of top war games revealed some opportunities. I know these fruit aren’t exclusive to my game, but they aren’t super common either.

  • More than 2 players. So many war games are strictly head to head affairs. To me, there was an opportunity to expand that number to 4. That seemed obvious.
  • No player elimination. In 2 player war games, it’s fine to play until one side is expunged. With 3 to 4 players, that’s not fun. Although it has taken years to create a system that supports this, it was an obvious opportunity at the start.
  • As a partner to the previous bullet, all players needed to be involved, engaged, and viable until the end. It’s far simpler to say ” nobody is eliminated” than “you’re all in it until the end unless you play heinously.”
  • Short play time. Many war games range from 90 minutes to 6 hours. One of the reasons Memoir ’44 is so popular is due to its short play time.

You’ll see that none of these are mechanisms, thematic ideas, or even component suggestions. You can do this with many genres! For example, if you want to make a worker placement game, what are the easy things to change? Well, exclusive spaces could be something you get rid of. Changing the available spaces is also an idea. Most auction games require at least 3 players. Can you craft one that is compelling with 2?

Imperial Settlers: This is one of 2014’s top rated games and one I’ve been enjoying myself as well. Ignacy is a favorite designer of mine and I found his efforts on this game deeply inspiring. As many of you probably know, Imperial Settlers is a new game built on the engine of 51st State, which is a game of Ignacy’s that came out a few years ago.

51st State is very well regarded, and still has expansions coming out, but it is known for being incredibly complex, intricate, and detailed. As he does with all of his games, Ignacy has written at length about it on his blog. Go find them! (I’m lazy)

Looking at 51st State and Imperial Settlers, Ignacy tackled, in my opinion, some low hanging fruit.

  • Imperial Settlers has very few limitations. You aren’t gated on the number of cards, or duplicates of cards. You aren’t gated on the amount of resources you can collect, or how many deals you can have. If you can play it, you can do it. This leads to some nuttiness, but that’s OKAY. There are just fewer rules. Few exceptions.
  • The presentation is incredibly approachable. The characters are cute, chubby, and colorful. There are little cartoon sword tokens for combat (like Zelda!). There are cute little wooden apples and pink little people. It’s such a fundamental shift from apocalyptic 51st State, but man, it’s such a clear opportunity.

I can’t speak as intimately about it, but from my understanding, the above strategy is largely what the Privateer Press team applied to Warmachine as they looked to compete with Warhammer 40k. You can also see this strategy in much of Blizzard’s work in the digital space. World of Warcraft is a director’s cut of what is/was great about MMOs that came before it. League of Legends is a director’s cut of Defense of the Ancients. Taking something fun, distilling, and focusing it, are great fruits to pluck.

Finally, and I’ve written about this at length in a previous post, is the conversion of Dune to Rex by Fantasy Flight Games. That team clearly examined the game’s history, the balance debates, and did so through the lens of modern consumer tastes (versus those of the 70s and 80s). As a result, I believe they targeted a few fruit:

  • Shorter play time. Rex plays in around 2-3 hours, whereas Dune seems to be more a 3-4 hour game. That hour is really crucial.
  • More forgiving economy. The original Dune economy was incredibly tight and, if someone played poorly, could effectively eliminate you from the game. The new economy is designed to counter that.

There are other details, but those are two keys for this discussion.

When I examine games I love, I’m constantly reminded of how much one can improve a game by expediting the game’s pace and rate of player involvement. City Hall, a current favorite, is a 90 minute to 2 hour game, but every player is involved in every decision. Nobody is ever checked out as they must remain engaged.

Dead of Winter is so innovative as it reduces downtime AND infuses story by providing Crossroads cards and personal goals, which makes the traitor mechanic more interesting than usual.

Another constant that seems to be useful is replacing a standard component with something else. Instead of a pawn, use a die in worker placement. Instead of a miniature, use a card in tactics games. Figuring out which component to use isn’t obvious, but the starting point can be to take a standard favorite, and just pick a few elements.

What are some low hanging fruit you’ve plucked for your designs? What other examples can you share from games you’ve played? Start the discussion in the comments below.