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.

On Deck! For Story Time

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I have three games deep in the furnace of development right now: Hocus Poker, Dawn Sector, and Sol Rising. Hocus is thankfully mostly finished — we’re balance testing now. Dawn Sector is with Portal Games, so they’re taking the lead on it. This has allowed me to focus my efforts on Sol Rising.

If you recall, I played Sol Rising with a publisher I’d very much like to work with at BGG. I was given a few pieces of feedback, which are the focus of my efforts:

  • Incorporate the story more.
  • Ease setup. Get players into the game more quickly. It’s not so much a matter of time, which is relatively quick (and far faster than, say, Memoir ’44), but more the avalanche of components and things to look at.

I’m at the tail end of implementing my changes, which were the result of a great deal of design work. I wasn’t just writing more narrative moments, though that happened as well. Before I discuss this work, in the hope it’s useful to you as a designer, I want to provide a brief recap to folks about what Sol Rising is.

Previously, on Sol Rising…

Sol Rising is a light to medium weight tactics game for two players. Well, there’s a team campaign in development and skirmishes (i.e. non-campaign) can be played with more than two, but it’s designed for two. Players take on the role of admirals in command of squadrons of capital ships, like battlecruisers, and fighter wings. The balance of force is similar to what you see in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.

The game has about the complexity of games like Summoner Wars, Heroscape, or Memoir ’44 (if you add an expansion or so). The core mechanics of movement and combat are quite simple, but there are a few nifty features.

  • Instead of controlling individual ships, you control squadrons of ships. An Ability activated by one ship affects the entire squadron. This gives you a bit of a “hydra” like effect for your forces.
  • The board is a circle, which allows for a nice fluid map that feels like space.
  • You need to use the right weapon for the job. Choose between guns or missiles depending on your target, and modify that further with abilities.
  • The game features a 12 mission campaign with future scenarios affected by your previous actions and accomplishments. It isn’t a Legacy game, but it takes some of those elements.
  • 12 Unique scenarios, featuring different objectives, events, unique rules, and more. There’s a lot of variety here.

That last bullet is important. One of the reasons the game has taken so long to develop is that on top of a core game, I’ve had to essentially create 12 unique ways to enjoy that game. It’s been very challenging, detail oriented work.

It has always been my intent to make Sol Rising a very thematic game. There are the obvious elements: a campaign paired with a fleshed out narrative and universe, lots of ships with names and stories, characters. But, I’ve also tried to do this with intuitive and exciting actions, interesting events that help you tell stories, and difficult missions. In many scenario based games, the missions are fairly balanced. Often a 50/50, or close to that. Not in Sol Rising.

I was very inspired by the Battle of Hoth, in which the Rebel forces couldn’t really win, but they could have lost far worse. Really, if anything, the Battle of Hoth was a botched Imperial victory. Starcraft (on the PC) did this very well and it’s something I sought to emulate. Some missions are desperate and unfair, but thanks to the campaign structure, you can do your best and see what results.

That should give you the general idea, and if it doesn’t, ask below.

Better Incorporating the Story

At BGG, my prototype primarily exhibited story via the campaign book. Before each mission, and sometimes at the end, you’d read a little story that would introduce the scene and set the stage for you to play it out. I was encouraged to introduce the characters into the game and infuse some mid-scenario story moments.

Let’s begin with characters. My story has always had a diverse cast of characters. However, they’ve never been IN the missions. My first concern with adding characters was figuring out where they’d come in. To give myself enough flexibility, I decided to assign them in three ways.

  • Fleet Commanders: Big powerful characters than can affect any ship in your Fleet.
  • Squadron Commanders: Assigned to a single Capital Ship squadron (1-3 ships). They can only affect that Squadron.
  • Wing Commander: Assigned to your 1-4 Fighter Wings. They can affect any of your Fighters.

So, for example, at the start of the mission you are told you have Commander Eric Schmidt. Choose one of your capital ship Squadrons and place his card next to it.

My next fear was adding another layer to consider. On their turn, a player chooses one squadron (capital or fighter) to activate. With that squadron, they can move, attack, and activate abilities. The abilities are what make that complex, as you can have a few in play at a time to consider. I was worried about forcing players to make choices with their Commanders as well.

The solution was borrowed from my Events. Events are triggered randomly as a result of Combat. When an Event is triggered, you draw 1 face down token from a pool of 10. The tokens share 1 of 4 generic symbols. Every mission, these symbols mean something different and have an affect that is appropriate for that mission. What Event comes out, and when, can really change the game. It adds some nice spice and variability to the battle.

I wanted Commanders to matter, but I didn’t want you to greatly alter your command decisions because of them. Therefore, I gave every Commander 1 of the 4 Event symbols. When that symbol is drawn, you immediately use the Commander’s ability. It’s an unexpected bonus.

You can see an example above. Whenever the Star Event is triggered, the Squadron to which Commander Schmidt is assigned immediately moves up to 3 spaces. It’s simple, quick, and will have an impact on the battle.

On the back of every card is a bio of the character. This gives you insight into who they are and how they think. Now, when you read the introductions to every mission, you’ll also be given insight into which characters will augment your fleet.

Next, I needed to introduce more story moments into the game. How would these trigger? Why? And when? I realized relatively quickly that I already had an outstanding vessel for these: Objectives. Every mission has 1-4 objectives, most of which are optional. These objectives are tied to entities in the world. For example, in the very first mission, the Martians have an objective to escort a Merchant ship to the jump point to warn the others.

When I began thinking about adding narrative moments to these objectives, I realized this would solve one of my other problems. Previously, players had to reference the campaign book to look up objectives or remember what to do. They also didn’t know WHY the objectives mattered until the following mission. It removed some of the punch of completing something. I killed two birds with one stone with the following solutions.

  • Every objective now has its own double sided card. You place these next to the board, or in front of the player to whom the objective is assigned. Easy reminder.
  • Every objective card has a little story on the front to set the stage and better incorporate why the objective matters.
  • Every objective card has setup instructions if need be. For example, now, you just look at the card to add the Merchant. It removes it from the booklet, which makes the booklet shorter.
  • Every objective tells you the trigger – when to flip it over.
  • The back side of every objective has another story piece, which drives home, in the fiction, why your actions matter. It provides feedback within the fiction.
  • Finally, the back side tells you why what you did mattered with clear language on the effect.

Above, you can see an example Objective card – the front side at least. Previously those bottom elements were parts of a very long list of items for setup. Now, those items are distributed, which already feels better. Part of what I’m battling here is perception, and this counters it.

So, we have characters incorporated into the Missions themselves, adding a new tactical choice/option and story moment. We also have the Objectives more seamlessly taught and paired with story moments for players to enjoy in the mission.

What else can we do to make the game feel simpler for setup?

Easing the Setup

One of the first things I sought to eliminate were environment tokens. Part of the game’s appeal is the variety of encounters. You have asteroids, debris, turrets, and more. Problem is, some of these can weigh down the setup time. I realized that I have several missions that feature asteroids, including the first one. My first solution was to make double sided board pieces: one blank, and one with asteroids pre-printed. On the first mission now, you simply use the asteroid side of the board. This goes for many other missions! This saves 5 or so tokens you need to place precisely.

Thinking about how much I liked the Objectives as cards and out of the book, I created a small little card to show all of the Events. That’s one less thing to look up in the campaign book and again, it shortens that already lengthy book.

One of the biggest problems was the number of squadron tokens. Due to my mechanics, every squadron had 2 tokens, one for each formation type. This meant in a typical scenario you were gathering and organizing around 20 different tokens. Yech! I came up with a solution that more or less preserves the intent of my formation mechanic, while greatly simplifying it. This means fewer rules and cuts the tokens in half.

Previously, you’d arrange your ships in formations, like a triangle (one in the front, two in the fear) or spear (three in a vertical line). The formation would dictate who could be attacked. If a ship is attacking a spear from the front, the rear two ships couldn’t be affected. It was an okay idea. It wasn’t quite pulling its weight, though. Now, there are no formations. However, if even one ship in a Squadron has shields, it must be targeted before Ships whose shields are down. That is, unless you attack the ships at point blank range with guns, or use bombers to get inside a squadron’s formation.

That’s all good, but my pile of tokens served two purposes. One, as mentioned above, to denote the current formation on the board. The second, was that the unused token would be placed by the formation to help you remember which squadron was which. So, if Squadron B was in Spear, the Spear token would be on the board, and the B triangle token would be next to squadron B.

The solution here didn’t take long to discover. I put the responsibility onto the player reference board. There are slots on the side of the board for you to place your ships. This cleans up the play space and eliminates a ton of tokens. Notice I also added a slot for any Fleet Commander cards.

I implemented one more solution, which is something I’ve been putting off for a very long time: splitting ships into Martian and Terran fleets. Previously, there was a large pool of ships shared by both sides. Missions would denote which ships to use for each side. Players would find them in the deck and pull them out.

This was problematic for a few reasons. One, it’s fictionally odd. Two, looking through a deck of 60+ cards is far worse than looking through a deck of 30 cards each. Thirdly, it misses an opportunity to make the fleets slightly unique. I’m not sure if they need to be Summoner Wars unique, but I think making both players draw from identical pools isn’t ideal.

As I began thinking about the fleet assignments, I realized I could arrange these cards to help me even more. The game is divided into 4 arcs:

  1. Missions 1-3, the introduction
  2. Missions 4-6, focusing on Martian characters
  3. Missions 7-9, focusing on Terran characters
  4. Missions 10-12, conclusion

I’m going to divide and sequester the ships according to their arc. When a player opens their box, they’ll see a small packet, baggy, or box that says “Missions 1-3.” They can ignore they rest. This means they’ll be looking at 30 or so ships total. Those will now be divided between the two Fleets. This means players have fewer cards to sort through and it’ll take less time to find them.

It also means that by Mission 3, players will be very familiar with their ships, comfortable, and ready to learn something new.

To accommodate this change, which requires a bit of administrative work to make sure everything is organized between my campaign book and the new fleets, I created my Sol Rising Shipopedia using Google Spreadsheets. This document lists every ship, its stats, its fleet, the missions in which it appears, and its ability. I also took this time to take yet another pass on tuning, changing, and improving the abilities. They’re getting tighter and more balanced every day.

The Summary

Let me condense all the changes for you here.

  • Commander cards can be assigned to your Units to provide bonus actions when certain Events are triggered.
  • Objectives are now represented on cards, which provide mid-mission story moments and dialog and feedback on what you accomplished.
  • There’s an Event card to help you reference Event effects without opening the campaign book.
  • The board now has an asteroid and plain side to ease setup.
  • Formations were replaced with a shield mechanic.
  • Squadron tokens were cut in half. Ships are now tracked by placing them adjacent to the redesigned reference board.
  • Ships are now assigned to either the Martian or Terran Fleets.
  • Reviewed every ability, throwing many away, designing new ones, polishing old ones, and ensuring consistency between all of them for style and text.
  • Ships will be packaged and presented based on arc.

Advice for Others

A few things really stand out to me as potentially useful for other designers who are looking to incorporate story better into their games, or simply revise a mature design to match any feedback.

Take advantage of your existing systems and features. With Commanders, I didn’t design a new mechanic players need to concern themselves with. You reference a symbol and take a bonus action when events occur. That’s simple and easy to learn. Some games won’t have much to lean on. A simple game like Hocus Poker doesn’t have much for us to leverage for new features. Thankfully, we don’t  need any. But, Sol Rising is a meaty game with many features and elements. I could have added something new, sure, but I took advantage of a feature that’s not only one of my favorites, but one of my testers’ favorites.

It should be obvious, as table top design is for a physical medium, but remember to consider components as a solution to your problems. Many of my issues were solved by introducing new cards, reference boards, or other items to help stretch out the information and communicate the story. Now, cost is often a very decisive factor, but thankfully for me it wasn’t. I’ll stress that even if cost IS a factor, you should allow yourself some open creative space to see what’s possible. Don’t shut that door before you’ve really thought through your options. Remember to consider components as a potential solution.

Always remember that once your game has reached the complexity level you desire, if you add something, you need to remove something. I added Commanders, so I removed formations. Formations previously were an action a player could take on their turn, that required players to understand double the components that now exist, and the rules for it. Now, it’s just a single rule (shields). I think my complexity is actually lower now, so it was a net reduction, which I think is good! Another way I simplified the game is that I made it such that several ships share abilities now. I also removed abilities that were too complicated. When iterating on a design, consider your desired complexity level and what it’ll take to remain there.

Games are an interactive medium. Something designers constantly forget when designing story for games is that the story should be about the players’ actions and choices. I hate when a video game removes control from the player and forces them to watch a character talk. Games aren’t books and they aren’t movies. They are interactive! That’s why I’m proud of how the objectives tell the story. Yes, the introduction isn’t interactive. It’s setting the stage. But after you destroy the space station and you get to read the dialog on the back, it’s the result of something you did. It’s based on your choices. If you don’t blow up that station? You won’t see that dialog. I think that’s powerful. This will especially pay off when you see how the persistent effects continue to evolve the game.

I hoe this was interesting and insightful for you. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below. Thanks for reading!

The Influence of Travel

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I have recently returned from 2 weeks of travel abroad, first to Prague, Czech Republic, then Barcelona, Spain. Beth and I try to enjoy at least one big trip every year and this was ours for 2014. Every destination offers something unique and appeals to the senses differently. Ones current mindset also takes advantage or alters the perception of the travel.

This year, I was very taken by my two destinations, as well as what they offered in the terms of design and ideas for design. I wanted to write about this shortly.

I was most taken with the architectural works of Antoni Gaudi, who was clearly a nutter or brilliant or both. If you’ve been to Europe, you’ve seen the cathedrals. If you’ve been to Asia, you’ve seen homes entirely unlike ours here in the United States. If you’ve been to Barcelona, you’ve seen structures like the Palau Guell, or La Pedrera, or the Sagrada Familia, and others, that are entirely unlike anything you’ve seen. In the real world, or your imagination.

Gaudi despised straight lines and took his inspiration from the beauty and natural strengths of nature. His work was not only aesthetically beautiful and unique, but functionally sharp.

As I walked around the Palau Guell in particular, my mouth was constantly open. I was just blown away by what I was seeing. It was just incredible. Naturally, I wanted to play within such an experience of wonder and construction. The first and obvious thing that comes to mind are Legos, though I’m not sure the rigid blocks could emulate the alien curves and arches of Gaudi.

Even if I can’t figure out a way to emulate his works in a game or like idea, I can take to heart the spirit of his efforts. Gaudi was a meticulous, passionate, and original craftsman. He sought the marriage of form and function and personally oversaw details down to the door handles or the design of a chair. It is easy to take that to heart, but less simple to execute against it. I shall try.

My mind was also entertained with the notion of language, or more accurately, not knowing a language. In both Prague and Barcelona we did not speak the languages and had to do our best with simple phrases or locals used to American tourists.

I thought to that scene in the 13th Warrior, where Antonio Banderas is sitting around the fire. Everything his companions say in their language is gibberish to him. Yet, slowly, over time, it becomes English. This, of course, is the film’s way of saying he is learning their language.

Some games already experiment with limited or alternate languages. Hanabi is beautiful because players must learn to use a few words in incredibly diverse and broad ways. Mysterium is about using the language of visuals to communicate complex things. Ugg-Tect is a game about cave men, in which you must communicate in grunts and whacks of an inflatable stick.

I want, seriously, to design a game about language. Or, more accurately, a game where the core mechanic or hook is that you do not speak the same language. What if there were a trading game where the competing parties had to agree to terms using different words or communication mechanics? Didn’t the ancient tribes have to do the same? What about a war in which allies must work together with differing languages? Or merely just combining a game of diplomacy with one in which people don’t speak the same language. One in which a faux pas or poor translation leads to something dire.

Another concept that spoke to me was being lost in a foreign city. We always think about navigation and exploration in terms of the ocean, or broad lands like in Lord of the Rings. But, it’s quite easy to find oneself utterly lost in a new city. It’s one of my favorite parts of travel.

I wonder whether it would be compelling to create a game about exploring a city? Perhaps an ancient city. Or, an abandoned city. Or one partially destroyed through conflict. Perhaps it would be about finding things in a city just like Prague or Barcelona without such gamer trappings. I think it’d be fascinating and full of interesting ideas.

Think of the markets, the sights, the people, and the mix of common public areas and more intimate neighborhoods. A new city offers so many sights and scenes uncommon to visitors. I think it’d be a shame not to capitalize on them.


Finally, much in the way I’m so overwhelmed and inspired by Gaudi’s attention to detail and pursuit of perfection, I’m inspired by tapas. Yes, the delicious small plates of food eaten before, or for, dinner, often with a group of friends with a glass of cava or beer. Tapas are delicious and simple. They pack tons of flavor in just a few bites, requiring only a few ingredients and often a generous pour of olive oil.

I’m not really entertained or interested in micro games. They don’t interest me much to play, or to design. But, I do love to create focused experiences, or focused mechanisms with a strong impact. Hocus Poker is what I’d call a “meaty filler.” Same with Landfall, which as an overall product greatly mimics the tapas experience. You’ll get many delicious, small, incredible bites.

I love to travel, see new things, and eat the local cuisine. I love to take inspiration from the world around me and travel provides a unique, though brief source of inspiration. What, if anything, stood out to you in one of your recent travels? How did it influence you or your work?

Thanks for reading.

Posted in Blog | Tagged barcelona, , ideas, inspiration, prague, spain, travel | 2 Replies

The Rewrite

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Update: Here are the updated rules. 

I love writing rules. Writing the rules is often the first thing I do when I begin a new design. Developing the rules is arguably where I spend the most time as the rules are what I’m looking at when implementing changes or developing the prototype. I also update them as I go following every test, or as needed.

I recently tried something new in rules writing, which I thought was interesting enough to share. In addition, I wanted to begin a discussion on providing and incorporating rules feedback. The new thing? I completely re-wrote our rules for Hocus Poker from scratch. Other than one single section, the entire document was torched (figuratively, hooray the cloud!) and set aside.

If you’ll allow a brief tangent, I also re-wrote them by hand. On a short flight, I took out my legal pad and a pen and just took to the task. I hate writing by hand beyond sketches and scribbles, so you can be sure my text was concise and well-thought out. That, as an exercise, was very useful. I recommend it.

But, why would I re-write the rules instead of just tweaking the current ones? We’ve been seriously blind testing the game for about a month now with approximately 10 groups of dedicated testers, a few PNP testers, and local testers. We’ve had a lot of eyes and different perspectives providing input. Everyone, literally everyone, learns and obtains information in a slightly different way.

The other day while discussing a recent batch of feedback, Josh and I took a step back and noticed our rules were just bulging at the seams. They’d become this overweight monstrosity with dozens of clarifications and strange diagrams. We’d been blown off course!

They reminded me of the United States federal tax Code, a notoriously cumbersome, confusing, and rickety series of laws that fuel taxation software. Our rules had reached a point where players were missing key concepts because their mental space was being consumed by unnecessary additions. It was time for a clean slate.

I had a few questions in my mind while redesigning our rule set:

  • Where are the low-hanging fruit? We had a few large sections that needed to be removed, shortened, or integrated differently.
  • Where could we showing a visual for what was currently text?
  • Where should be be writing what was currently visual? Images take up space and aren’t always useful.
  • Where was the correct flow of information interrupted? We had a few places where we’d have A, B, F, then C.
  • How can this be said simpler?
  • Are we already saying this? Are we already saying this? (Remove repetition)
  • Does this really need to be a rule? Or a note? Or a clarification? Does everyone need to see this?

As so much time was spent on adjusting the rules, it forced me to consider the root cause. How did we get here in the first place? The short answer is that we took into account almost everyone’s feedback.

In the same way that not everyone’s feedback should be fully considered and accepted for the design of your game, not all feedback should be introduced into your rules. Josh and I will need to discuss what we do moving forward, but I think we’ll need to change how we go about introducing feedback from our many rules commentators.

I think this will be less a problem for Josh, who is the more patient one of the two of us. Ultimately, I want to be receptive to feedback. I know how it can be very frustrating to put work into something for someone, often with no compensation, and see zero changes as a result of your work. I think my hummingbird brain thinks “Oh, I’ll make their change! We’ll be best of friends.” Hummingbird is too harsh. I’m actually more like Dug from Up.

My first proposal is to create a spreadsheet to catalog comments and critiques that don’t quite fit. At least not at first glance.  We’ll list them and take a look every week or so. We’ll note how many people shared the comment. If you see a trend, you might want to address the feedback. The lack of a trend doesn’t mean you shouldn’t address it, but it should be considered more carefully.

Remember: Everyone learns differently. Everyone processes rules differently. Some people fill in the blanks and just run with it. Then again, some people fill in the blanks disastrously. Try to identify personality types and see where they run into issues with your rules. Over time, you should be able to  think about these types and fortify your rules for them as you write them.

When you encounter someone whose feedback seems bizarre, talk to them about where they are coming from. It’s clear they do things differently than you. As you don’t share a brain, that’s just fine. You’ll be surprised to find how simple some of the solutions are.

A common mistake of many rules editors, which is something I’ve assuredly done myself, is to identify a section in the rules where someone MIGHT be confused. Basically, you create trouble where none exists. Many people launch into a rules document with their red pen at the ready. We all mean well, like Quixotian rules nerds.

  • Someone could think you mean Z when you really mean Y. Consider: What would a reasonable person think in most cases?
  • Someone might want to know this information here instead of there. Consider: What do you need here and why?
  • You should really list out all of these. Consider: What does that solve? Who does it help?
  • Just in case, you might want to confirm what isn’t affected by this rule. Consider: How best to clarify, and position such clarification, to reduce repetition and undue complication.

Add these items to the list. Or, use them as the beginning to your discussion. Challenge (politely!) your readers’ critiques. In the same way that your rules document isn’t yet final, neither is their input. Have a conversation and seek the root cause to solve their concerns as best as possible.

To summarize, never forget who owns the rules: YOU (the designer)! Thank, love, and appreciate your readers, but remember to keep your rules clean, clear, and not Franken-like. Before incorporating a suggestion that seems odd, note it. See if other people mention it. At the very least, use it to start a discussion. Keep in mind that others can and will process information differently. Seek to understand their point of view and improve your rules within reason to accommodate this. Remember that people have a natural desire to help, but that they might “find confusion” where none actually exists. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get to the bottom of things.

In the end, improve your rules with the same thoughtfulness and patience you do the game itself. Otherwise, you may have a document that caters to everyone, but serves nobody.

A Look into 2015 for Grant and Josh

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Josh is crunching at work, so I’ll be writing solo today. That means fewer mean comments, but, I’m sure you’ll survive. Josh and I wanted to write briefly about the cool stuff you can expect from us in 2015. This is a mild press release of sorts, details and things to look forward to. In many ways, we did the hard work in 2014 to have more fun in 2015. By that, I mean we’ve done extensive design, development, and also just building the foundation of what I think is a great partnership.

Firstly, let’s discuss Hocus Poker. In 2014, Josh and I completed over 100 tests, local and blind, of Hocus Poker, through about 5 major iterations. We’ve invested in sending a handful of dedicated testers a nice DriveThruCards copy of the prototype that we think and hope is our final version. I say that regarding mechanics – we have no doubt the Spell content and Moonbears need more tuning.

We’re very excited to be at this point after what has been a long road. What this means, is that barring a publisher we both like approaching us, we intend to self-publish Hocus Poker in 2015. We aim to send it to manufacturing in early Spring.

We’re putting together our art team now. Specifically, we’re working to hire an illustrator whose work we think is striking, a little dark, and unique. We do not know of any games that have hired someone with her style. Josh and I were giddy when she noted she was interested. We’re also going to hire a graphic designer to craft our icons and really make everything pop. We both think aesthetics are incredibly important and we don’t want to miss this opportunity.

Because of our positions in life, Josh and I are excited to take some risks with Hocus Poker. Some folks self-publish to start a business, or even create a new profession. Josh and I both have good jobs and families and don’t plan for that, though, if you guys want to buy 50,000 copies, we’re down! This means we can take some visual risks as well as some mechanical risks. At BGG Con, one publisher looking for a far simpler game noted Hocus was “a bit thinky.” We completely understood that it turned him off for that, but things like that are far more feasible within a modest scope. We seek to make a smidge of money so that our wife/fiance don’t make fun of us more than they already do.

To reflect our art style, and these risks, we no longer think Hocus Poker is an appropriate name. It’s a little silly, and for some invokes images of Bette Middler. We’ll share more about this when we’re ready. Josh had a really good inspiration for this the other night and we spent 2 hours tooling around with it. We think it’ll be quite appropriate when it’s all set.

In about a week we’re going to submit Hocus Poker for the Ion Awards. We’re hoping this gives us a little bit of prestige to bolster our reputation. Those who read this blog know that Josh and I have been working on Hocus Poker all year. In case you didn’t know, this blog has a Hocus Poker Tag so you can quickly find all posts related to it. But, not everyone reads this blog (shocking) and doesn’t know us (also shocking). We’re hoping an award, if we’re lucky, helps there.

Finally, we see Hocus Poker as a nice, small, relatively low-risk opportunity to present our competence as a business. We want to demonstrate to people that we’ll be honest dealers, competent developers, transparent, fair, and that we’ll match our promises within our capabilities. We’re crazy excited about Hocus Poker, but we are also absurdly excited about Landfall. If Hocus Poker goes well and we build a mailing list to boot, we think Landfall will really have a greater chance to succeed.

Therefore, let’s discuss Landfall. Landfall is a very ambitious collaborative project from me and Josh that we’d like to launch in early Fall. Notice I said project — Landfall isn’t a game, but a series of games. Our design development will focus on them next year and we’ll be self-publishing this.

Finding a publishing partner isn’t an option for this, both because we want full control, but it’s also not really possible for a publisher to do what we’re doing. That sounds obnoxiously arrogant, but it’s actually not. We didn’t invent the flying car, but we’re trying something bizarre and not really feasible for traditional publishers.

Landfall is a narrative driven game series set in a unique science fiction universe. We actually conceived the idea not long after Hocus Poker. I’ve worked quite a bit on one of the games, with Josh taking the lead on a second. They have even gone through some early blind testing, which is good.

You’ll see some incredible influences on our designs here. Influences from our favorites. Race for the Galaxy, Combat Commander, 7 Wonders, and some CCGs. Key word is influence. Some of our most unique work will be found in Landfall.

We’ve been quiet, and will continue to remain quiet, because it’s essential to the fun of the experience. Why the secrecy? Well, there are a few reasons.

  1. The project has been built around the notion of surprise. We want to surprise our customers, not just through play, but the entire consumer experience. Surprise is a key element to your enjoyment.
  2. We don’t have all the details yet. We still need to prove many things. We aren’t 100% ready to discuss it, so we won’t.
  3. We think we have 2 very unique things about this project. It’s not so much that we’re worried someone we’ll steal it, but we don’t want people to deflate the air out of it for the next year while we work on it. And, if a splash is made at all, we want to make it.

If you have any questions, comment below, or email me at grant at hyperbolegames dot com. We hope you guys have a great year and come with us on our little entrepreneurial journey.

Posted in Blog | Tagged 2015, collaboration, grant, hocus poker, House of Slack Games, , josh, landfall, self publishing | 2 Replies

Cutting Cards with a Silhouette Portrait Cutter

Guest Review by:  Corey Young

Synopsis: The cutter makes quick work of cutting printed cardstock into cards.

As a game designer, I make a lot of cards. I mean A LOT of cards. I iterate my designs very quickly. If something is broken, or we find a typo, or for any number of reasons, I make entirely new sets of cards. Until recently, I used 80lb cardstock, usually duplex printed at my local FedEx Office. I’d then cut these using an X-Acto and straight edge, then round the corners with a corner rounding punch.

Ah, the joys of carpel tunnel syndrome. I had to find a better alternative.

This past week, I saw an ad for the Silhouette Portrait craft cutting plotter. It lists right now on Amazon for $109, down from $199. I thought that for that price, it was worth a try.

The installation of the software and driver was very easy. The software is easy to use and intuitive. I made a layout that mirrored my typical 9 card arrangement in under 10 minutes.

The first thing that you’ll have to get used to is the cutting mat. It’s a long sheet of transparent plastic, coated with a sticky/tacky surface. This holds the media (cardstock) in place while it’s being cut. At first, this can be off-putting because the cardstock tends to REALLY stick to the cutting mat. I recommend that you use a few sheets of scrap cardstock to break the surface in. It will tear the paper a bit, and leave bits behind. Once you’ve done this a few times, the surface will be “seasoned” for grabbing, without damaging, the media.

I was very concerned that my duplex-printed cards would lose ink to the cutting mat sticky stuff or be torn up, but I was delighted to discover that it actually made the cards pop off more easily. It left no marks on the cards. I over-bleed my backs, ensuring that the entire back is covered with ink. Again, I have FedEx Office do my printing, so the printing is of very high quality and saturation.

You may want to do a lot of trial and error calibration to get your cutter’s registration exactly where you want it. Here are a few things I’ve found that might help you.

  • In the software, set the cut speed to 3. Setting it slower wastes time and decreases the accuracy. The default cut speed for 105lb+ paper is 1, but I’d ignore that.
  • Set the depth on your blade to 4 or 5. It works just fine, and I’m thinking that it will help the cutting mat last longer. I am a bit concerned that my cutting mat will wear out faster than the manufacturer might think, simply because I’m always cutting the exact same pattern. I ordered 2 extra mats and an extra blade.

The registration (calibration) routine listed in the instructions are basically useless for getting the precise cuts that I need. They basically tell you to line up the black arrow centered between the white rollers on the cutter. The center point is not marked. You just have to eyeball it. Not good enough.

Why is it so imprecise? I suspect that the primary use for the device, cutting craft shapes out of monochromatic materials, does not demand the same degree of precision. If you want to cut a flower pattern out of yellow cardstock, it doesn’t really matter if the pattern is off by half an inch. For my purposes, cutting printed cards with almost no bleed, I needed to take extra steps.

I’ll provide a lot of detail here in the hopes of saving you the experimentation time.

  • The cutting mat has a nice outline showing where an 8½”x11” sheet fits. Carefully align your card stock to that.
  • When you’re feeding the mat into the cutter, look for the two parallel guides at the left. Align the left edge of the card stock to the inside (right) edge of the leftmost of the double guides. I know that’s confusing. I highlighted the line I’m talking about in the first image. The second image shows the card stock aligned correctly.

This will center the stock correctly every time. To make my life easier. I then took a Sharpie marker and marked the cylinder exactly where the black arrow on the cutting mat is pointing.

I’m now able to precisely cut 9 cards, with rounded corners, in about 45 seconds. This used to take me something like 5 minutes using my manual process. The time savings is certainly worth it to me.

I may start cutting my prototype tiles for Santorini with the Silhouette as well. These tile faces will be elongated hexes printed on adhesive-backed paper. I should be able to set the cut depth so that it cuts the surface material, but not the waxy backing material. This too will be an enormous time savings for me.

Conclusion: The Silhouette Portrait craft cutter is an inexpensive, worthy tool for game designers.