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.

How to Teach Your Game


Post by: Jay Treat

While few teachers get the respect or compensation that would support this claim, teaching isn’t easy and it’s not something most people can do well without some training. And yet, you can’t get people to play games with you—or sell your game design—if you can’t teach them how to play it. The good news is, unlike flying a plane, teaching isn’t an all-or-nothing skill and you can teach even if you’re not an expert. The bad news is, teaching a game poorly falls somewhere between boring and frustrating, which reduces the chances those players will let you teach them more games in the future. And certainly doesn’t qualify as putting your best foot forward when trying to impress a publisher.

I can help.

Teaching, like so many things, is all about empathy. The more you can put yourself in your students’ shoes, the better you can teach them. It’s all about knowing what they could understand, what they do understand, and what questions they’re keeping to themselves. If you know all of that, you’ll know what to explain next and, if you know your students, how best to explain it.

I wrote about a few methods to become more empathetic that I recommend you check out before continuing. Some of them are pretty out-there, but these methods are directly applicable to other aspects of game design, and life in general:

  • Compartmentalization
  • Self-Assimilation

You might also check out Games to Play to Become a Better Game Designer, a geeklist with several entries that will help you become more empathetic, and thus, a better teacher.

As with everything, there’s no one right way to teach. Duh. What I share now is my method, what makes sense to me, and what seems to work in my experience.

Start at the Top

Starting with details, in medias res, is disorienting. It can be a powerful tool for storytelling, but the point of teaching a game is understanding, so we want to start from a bird’s eye view. What is this game about? “It’s a trick-taking game with spies” and “It’s a cooperative game where players are trying to escape a crumbling space station under attack from aliens” are good starts. “You’re bidding not to take numbers” is not.

The first two take advantage of things the players already know to jump-start the process. Players know what trick-taking games are, and they know what spies are, and they’re already starting to imagine the combination and building expectations. If what you tell them next fits those expectations, you’re going to see a lot of nodding heads and the rest will come fairly easily.

I’ve had more than a few games explained to me that made no sense until the teacher was finished and someone asked, “Wait, is this game… cooperative?” Men assume unknown people are male, people assume the “Spot” you’re talking about is a dog, and gamers assume your game is competitive. It’s what makes a game different that you need to call out immediately, because everything you leave out or save for later will be filled in with default assumptions until you do, and that can seriously throw people off the scent.

No Thanks! is a game where players are trying to keep their scores as low as possible by guessing what the breaking point is for each number card that goes around. You spend a limited personal supply of chips to avoid taking a number, but eventually you’ll run out of chips and be forced to take whatever comes your way. The only way to get more chips is to take a number card (all of which are bad, but some are much worse than others). Each turn, you’re evaluating whether you’d rather pass on a card or suck it up and take it now to improve your future standing. In essence, “You’re bidding not to take numbers…” but that statement only makes sense now that you’ve got the big picture.

Get to the Heart of it

You’ve got the very high-level concept of the game in place. Players are looking at the game components and starting to predict how they relate to that, how they might be used, what kinds of things they’re going to get to do. Now is when you hook them. Give them the heart of the game. Tell them what makes the game tick; how they’re going to be spending the next hour.

“Each player shares one of the six factions vying for control of the city with another player. Each round, you’ll have to work with one of your opponents in order to score. You’ll deploy agents from all the factions, trying to play the ones that are good for you when they’re best for you, and the ones that are bad for you, when they’re least bad. Scheming, collusion and manipulation are your bread and butter.”

“The space station has been messed up after the alien ship neutralized it with their lasers. We’re trying to navigate the twisted wreckage while we look for the escape teleporter. We’ll need to open these tech modules to find it, and our Mechanic and Engineer will be patching the station up to form rooms so that we can access them. We’ve got to be quick, though, because one of the station’s systems fails every turn and aliens are boarding from these four locations. The Marine is the only one that can fight them back. And its up to the Smuggler to go outside in her space suit to access the modules we don’t have time to rearrange. We’ve got to work together or we’re all doomed, and so are our families back on Earth.”

What’s the Point

Explain the goal. If it’s simply to earn the most points, say that. It may be obvious, but it’s too quick not to say when the alternative is confusion.

With all these high-level items laid out, you can explain turn structure, the component lexicon, and any other must-know items in whatever order feels natural.

Turn Structure

Assuming players take turns (if it’s real-time, you should’ve mentioned that in the introduction), are there rounds and phases? Is there a strict phase structure, or can players do different things at different times? Overview the whole structure before detailing any one part.

“We take turns individually until someone wins. On your turn, you can research, build, or research and build.”

“Each round will have three phases. The first phase is upkeep where we all move our bits along this track. Next is the action phase, where we’ll each take one of three actions in turn order. Finally we resolve conflicts. If the game hasn’t ended, we start a new round.”

Notice how I don’t describe the individual actions just yet. Think of it as if you were looking at a map of america on the computer, and it’s loading in via nine chunks in a 3×3 grid. Would you rather see Alaska load in full detail first, down to the smallest roads and such before you see Montana or Oregon, or would you rather see the country’s full outline and all the states first before you start to see more and more details as they load? You might prefer the former if you already understand the layout of the country and are looking for the path between Skagway and Victoria BC, but players learning a new game don’t have that layout in their heads yet, nor would they even know to look for the game’s Skagway at this point.

Component Lexicon

There are a few games whose pieces are so few or so self-explanatory, you don’t need to explain what they are, but most games require a little show and tell. “These cubes are resources, the meeples are workers, the red number on the cards is ‘power’ and these three symbols indicate whether the card’s animal, vegetable or mineral.” For games with a large dictionary of symbols, like Race for the Galaxy, what each and every symbol means is the last thing you want to teach your players, but you still want to give them the basics. “Each card can be played for its cost or discarded to pay the cost of another card. The hex shows how many victory points it’s worth in play. Down the left side are abilities that will trigger during different phases of each round.”

For Dominion: “These are victory point cards which you’ll earn during the game and will determine the winner at the end. These are action cards; you can only play one action each turn normally. These are gold cards which you can combine to buy new cards. All of them have a cost, here, and an effect/value here.”

The Rest

Once the only layer left is the nitty-gritty details, share them.

Or don’t, depending on how nitty and/or gritty they are.


Abstract games are harder to learn because all the rules are new, and will seem arbitrary at first. Games with a strong theme (more specifically, games whose theme is integrated seamlessly into the rules) are easier to learn because you’re not learning new things, you’re just mapping old things together. If humans move 1 space each turn, but horses move 2 spaces, players will remember that because they already know that horses are faster. Dissonance will make learning even harder than arbitrary rules: Humans are size 3, but faeries are size 5… makes no sense; everyone knows faeries are smaller than humans!

While teaching a game, the rules and theme are already in place, and you have no control over how resonant they are, but you can capitalize on resonance to help you teach. Why can’t monsters heal while occupying Tokyo? Obviously they’re on full-rampage and there’s no time to sit and relax for a while. If you offer that bit of flavor, that window into the game-world, while explaining this seemingly arbitrary exception, more players will understand and remember it.

Omit Details

Sometimes a friend asks if you’ve heard from Bob Shmacky and you’re like, “Who’s Bob Shmacky?” and he responds, “You know. Bob!” And then you instantly know he’s talking about your mutual friend, Bob. If he had just said ‘Bob’ in the first place, there would have been no confusion, but the extra detail triggered your brain to expect him to be talking about someone new.

You may be tempted to explain a detail that’s relevant to what you’re talking about now to get it out of the way. Perhaps you’re explaining the flow of the game from setup, to the round and turn structure to the end of the game, all chronologically. While there are players who refuse to start playing a game until they know every rule, no matter how small, most players would rather start as soon as they have the gist, expecting for the rules they just heard to “click” once they’ve taken a turn or so. You can reiterate how things work as they come up in the game and then explain the little details and exceptions. Most people need hands-on practice to internalize a concept, and most need some amount of repetition of explanation. This method does both.

Ask for Questions

The surest way to make sure no one asks you questions, and that at least some of your students remain confused about something, is to imply that only stupid people would need to ask questions. That sounds like something you’d have to actively do and easy to avoid, but just the opposite is true. If you don’t explicitly ask for questions, or if you tie questions to misunderstanding, or if you look at a specific person when you ask, you’re doing it. Try to phrase it in a way that suggests of course there are questions. “What did I miss?” “Can I clarify anything?” “I went through combat pretty quickly. Was anything unclear?”

An Example

From start to finish, here’s how I might explain The Last Planet.

The Last Planet is a tactical tile-laying game with a StarCraft theme. Each player is one of three alien races that just discovered the last inhabitable planet in their war-ravaged galaxy. You will establish your presence on this planet by building outward from your starting base. Each tile represents a structure or unit you can build. They have a cost to build and you can only build a tile if it fits against a piece you already have. These worker units will help you gather resources from these natural resource areas, so that you can build your army and conquer the planet.

On your turn, you’ll gather resources first, then adjust or advance any number of tile chains, and finally resolve combat. In the first phase, take one mineral for each base you own, and then each of your workers can take any resource from a natural resource area it’s touching.

A ‘chain’ is one or more tiles in a line, not counting your base. In the second phase, you can adjust the outermost unit of each chain by rotating it against the next piece. You can advance a chain by buying a new tile that fits and placing it at the end of the chain (and you can create new chains by attaching it to your base). You can also advance a chain by picking up the unit at the start of the chain and placing it at the end, but that breaks the chain from the base which means you can’t buy new tiles at the end of that chain unless it’s reconnected to your base.

When you’re done moving your units, we’ll resolve conflicts in groups. Choose any group of enemy units that overlap your own to handle first. The effects of combat are simultaneous, but the order you resolve dice rolls in could affect your choices. Choose one of your units and decide which of its attack dice you’re rolling against the enemy units its touching. Then your opponent will do the same and so on, until every unit in the group has attacked. For each die result against a unit that matches its defense, it takes one damage. Remove each unit that’s taken as much damage as it has defense.

You win when all your opponents’ bases are destroyed. You may concede at any time; remove all your pieces from play when you do.


I’m pretty sure it’s harder to teach how to teach games than to teach games, so I’m confident there must be questions. What do I need to explain differently or in more detail? Did I skip something important? Do you smell contradictions I can try to clear up?

How do you teach games? I’m sure my perspective is neither the only perspective, nor the best. I hope you’ll share yours below for the benefit of the other readers.

Designer Diary: Intrigue

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

My oldest lasting game idea is a trick-taking card game where each suit belongs to a player. I’ve been working on variations of this game for over a decade. If that doesn’t sound like a very long time, you’re probably old like me. It was originally named Lords of the Realm, until I made a game for which that title was clearly a better fit. Then it was Shatterpact. In both cases, the theme was an epic Fantasy battle featuring heroes with personalities.

What Was

Shatterpact was a card game inspired by more traditional trick-taking games with three significant twists. Firstly, each player is the Lord or Lady of one of the races—all the cards of that suit benefit that player directly. The deck is dealt out randomly so you’ll have a hand full of enemy heroes as well as allied ones. The core of the gameplay revolves around playing the cards that help you when they help you the most and the cards that hurt you when they hurt you the least.

Secondly, your hand changes over the course of the game. You play two cards each round, then after scoring, you pick back up any one card. You can pick up heroes of your realm that other players have tossed out and shape your hand for future victory. You can also claim your enemy’s cards (so they can’t) or your ally’s cards. Which leads us to the third new idea: Each player wants to help the player to her left, but you have no stake in the player to your right. These one-sided alliances lead to numerous interesting decisions about when to help your ally, when to push for your own victory, and when to accept defeat—and how to mitigate the results.

What Could Have Been

In 2012, AEG (Alderac Entertainment Group) announced their Tempest IP: A game universe centered in the city-state of the same name, effectively Renaissance Venice. They announced it with three games lined up (Dominare, Courtier & Mercante) and an open call for further submissions. They’ve since released Love Letter and Guildhall. The former is pretty innovative in both form and function and the latter is hands-down my favorite game of the year. It would be an honor to be published in the same line.

As I read the design documents for Tempest, I was struck by a listing of characteristics that some of the games had already used and new games were encouraged to use if appropriate: Power, Wealth, Guile, and Influence. These lined up surprisingly well to the traits of characters from Shatterpact and I suddenly began mentally recasting the game as one of subtle intrigue and hidden power battles, rather than straight-up violence in yet another meaningless war. The mechanics and gameplay of Shatterpact turn out to make more sense as a Machiavellian game of manipulation.

It was never clear in Shatterpact why you were sending heroes of enemy realms to the battlefield, but manipulating enemy agents is exactly what the shadowy figures of Tempest do. How does one win an invisible conflict? By pulling strings that no one can see: manipulation, blackmail, and deceit. I submitted the idea and by a giant stroke of luck I had the opportunity to demonstrate the game in its pre-Tempest-ized state to the team at GenCon. I wouldn’t say it bombed, but the game we played did illuminate some of the game’s weaknesses:

The nature of the game makes it reasonable to imagine that many games will end in ties. While I know from hundreds of games of experience that’s not true, it doesn’t change the appearance and games are sold on appearance. It also happened that the last game ended with a player in a king-making position. He couldn’t win himself, but his play determined which of two other players would. I hate situations like that as much as anyone, and while the game doesn’t push toward that state, it doesn’t push away from it either.

What I Tried

I was determined to improve the game. On the flight home, I thought about the way allies and points worked. It was interesting and simple enough, but it wasn’t intuitive. Explaining it usually raised eyebrows, which is a warning sign that something’s a little off. I didn’t want to give up that aspect, because I am obsessed with games where players have to help each other in order to claim victory, but how could I make them care without hamfisting it the way I had been? What if each player needed to advance multiple agendas…Agendas shared with other players?

If a player cares about one side of three different conflicts, then the game becomes a series of ever-changing alliances because each player shares one agenda in common with each other player. I might work with Bob this turn to support the monarchy against the senate, but Anne next turn to fight for science over religion. After all, if I help any one player too much, they might score more than I do. This model lacks the novel asymmetry of Shatterpact, but instead sports a much more organic alliance mechanism, and one that has proven more dynamic as well.

I did a bunch of math to figure out how many cards the deck would have, how many factions would be present, and how many agendas they’d iterate between. There are 8 permutations on three dichotomies, so I found 8 factions in the Tempest IP that could headline the game (not to mention the three pairs of agendas that could define them). While a 60 card deck is always nice (because you can deal it evenly between 1-6 players), 15-card hands seem a bit much to ask for a 4-player game, so I went with a 48 card deck to support 3-4 players (and our 8 factions).

I found a piece of art for each faction (all by Levente Peterffy) that fit the setting and mocked up some cards. Originally, each card had one symbol for each of the three agendas that agent’s faction cares about and nothing else (because removing the rank simplifies the card). We would count up all the A symbols, compare them to the B symbols and determine which half of the A/B conflict won that round. It only took one test game to show that was way too much adding. We were playing cards simultaneously, but we had to reorient the cards to ease counting such that it was hard to track who played what or why. The game was miserable.

Don’t Forget Your Roots

I tried a couple more small variations of Intrigue that were nearly as poor before bringing Shatterpact out of storage for a refresher. Playing the original reminded me what was great about it that the new game was lacking. While it’s slower than the simultaneous turns I’d tried for Intrigue, playing cards in turn order led to much more interesting card play. The ranks on the cards helped stratify them, making each choice more meaningful. Finally, I had simplified the play-two-keep-one play style Shatterpact uses (into a series of overlapping rounds) and in so doing lost the ability for players to craft their hands over the course of the game. I played Shatterpact as the Lord of the Dwarves and started without a single Dwarf yet managed to win the game by playing what I did have well and picking up Dwarves from other players along the way. It was awesome.

And so I set out to make Intrigue more like Shatterpact. Or, if you prefer, to re-theme Shatterpact, but using the new shared-agenda model in place of asymmetrical allies.

I gave each agent a rank and changed the scoring method from counting the symbols across all the cards to simply determining which faction has the highest total rank and then scoring the three agendas that faction supports. Much simpler. In Shatterpact, the winning player captures an enemy agent (representing her victory point) before everyone chooses a card to put back in their hand. Under this new model, it is a faction that wins a round—not a player—so that option was out. I tried a couple games and the revision was playing much better, but the endgame was populated by only the highest ranked cards.

With no predation in the game ecosystem, the game would inevitably end that way every time. I was slowly working toward a solution when one of my playtesters, Josh IIRC, suggested an awesome one: Each player must kill one agent and keep one during the resolution phase, but the order she does it is up to her. It takes a bit more thought, but this keeps the game dynamic and offers an abundance of interesting choices. Do you kill an enemy 8 or save a friendly 7? Do you count on the next player to do what’s best for the pair of you? Can you force an opponent to save an agent friendly to you? The starting player for the current round chooses first and that can factor into which cards you’re willing to risk as well as mitigating the last-play advantage the ending player has.

Spicing it Up

With the core gameplay looking much better, I took a look at the advanced game. In Shatterpact, the advanced layer comes in the form of quests. At the beginning of each battle, you reveal the top card of the quest deck and it details the conditions for winning that card as another point, separate from winning the round. Most quests key off of character traits like Brave, Cunning or Swift. The characters with lower ranks have more of these traits so that cards that were strictly worse in the base game become better for this alternate strategy.

For Intrigue, I knew we would need an additional layer to really hammer home the flavor of secret plots and schemes, of quiet power struggles rippling throughout the city, of back-alley deals, and deadly double-crosses. A set of scenarios you could choose for each game and a board/map for each scenario would offer a variety of play and allow me to tell stories.

In one scenario, the Queen has just been accused of treason and is trying to escape. Those sworn to protect her are trying to secret her away while those set on imprisoning the Queen must catch her. A faction that supports the monarchy places cubes on a map trying to reach the escape boat whenever they win, while the factions supporting the senate place cubes that block and eventually trap her.

Another scenario was more generic, but requires players to play their cards to specific spaces on the board, each of which have a unique ability. One space doubled its faction’s score if they win, while another increases your agent’s rank and yet another lets you swap cards that have been played. That was neat but foreshadowed a long road of balance testing.

The Penultimate Version

The last major flaw in the design was that having 6 cards per suit across 8 suits meant that it was often hard to keep the cards most relevant in the endgame. At the same time, I was trying to figure out how to remove the agenda icons from the agent cards so that there would be room to reintroduce traits. Even if the game didn’t need traits, having played with generic agents versus fleshed-out heroes showed that a big part of the fun of the game is learning about the characters and creating memorable stories about them through play. Getting individual card art as well as helping define their personalities through game-relevant traits was paramount to making that happen. (Sorry, I won’t share the art the prototype is currently using, out of respect for AEG’s IP guidelines.)

As is often the case in design, the best solutions answer multiple questions. Eliminating agendas gave the agents room for traits. Without agendas, the players have to key off of factions instead and the math that lets each player care about one faction that each other player cares about in a four-player game results in six factions. A few playtests convinced me this is a great setup to force the players to work together while making their choices simpler and more relevant. The traits inspired a set of scheme cards, not entirely unlike the old quest cards.

Each player chooses one of two secret schemes at the start of each trick and if the scheme’s condition is met, she can reveal it for an effect. Many trigger at the end of the trick and score you an extra point, but some trigger when agents of a particular faction or with a particular trait are deployed, letting you actively mess with the game-state. It feels very spy-ish without adding much time to the game and players seem delighted to scheme and gamble and keep secrets from each other. I may still introduce scenarios/maps as an add-on at some point, but I’m quite happy with the schemes for now. Ideally, schemes are one layer and maps could be another, letting you use either or both as you please.

I took the game to Metatopia where at least 12 players gave me more positive feedback than I’ve had before, to the extent that one of them told an attending publisher to get a demo of the game. I submitted the prototype to AEG at BGG Con, but they decided to pass on it.

The Game Today

I’ve played hundreds of games of Intrigue and I’m quite pleased with the depth of play, and the hilarious moments that can arise when players reveal their schemes. The core game has been stable for some time, but I iterated on the schemes quite a bit; I’ve printed up six different sets of ~50 scheme cards by now, removing the ones that don’t enhance the play experience and keeping the one that do. I want cards that are fun, flavorful, and interesting or that shore up weaknesses some players feel the core game has. For instance, there are a tons of schemes that score points, allowing players who have fallen behind in the very tight core game a chance to come back. A few cards offer as many as three points, but are much harder to pull off. That’s one place where having a flip side really shines—You can always choose a smaller, more reliably alternative if you’re not in the mood to gamble. Some cards offer rewards for long-term strategies and some shake up players’ hands to help you get out of a rut you may have slipped into.

There are a couple modes of play I still think have potential: Playing with hidden affiliations is really interesting; and I might still bring back maps/scenarios, but they’re clearly not necessary for the initial game. I think I’ll save them as bonus content once the game is out there.

I’ve sent Intrigue out for two blind playtests so far, and I’m really glad I did because they exposed a very serious problem with the rules presentation. What I’ve learned is that while casual players enjoy the core game, hardcore gamers dismiss it as trivial because the simple rules don’t seem interesting enough. They don’t even try the advanced game because they’ve already decided to hate the core game. I’ve never had this problem when teaching the game in person, and the difference is that I explain the game differently than the rules, highlighting the subtle strategies that make it play so differently from traditional trick-taking card games. I’ve done a few things to combat this:

Firstly, I added a strategy section to the back of the rulebook, plainly explaining the top layer of strategies that players tend to miss initially when left to their own devices. Next, I recommend that hardcore gamers add the scheme cards after just a few tricks. I find that the schemes are quirky and flavorful enough that they keep players engaged long enough to start noticing the intricacies of the core game. Finally, because I don’t expect every group to read the strategy section in the back of the rules, I’ve made an Explainer; a sheet separate from the rules that is meant to introduce the gameplay enough to get players started quickly as well as informally hinting at the sideways play that will help you to succeed in this game of manipulation. I just sent out a new copy with these tweaks, so I’m eager to see if that’ll do the trick.

I’ve never been so confident that I will find a publisher for this game. After over a decade, dozens of versions and hundreds of games, that’ll be nice.

How to Use Feedback

Jay is fresh from Unpub 3 where he took a few of his new prototypes to test with a flood of designers and gamers alike. He’s also been participating in the PPP program. Therefore, Jay’s input on gathering and using testing feedback is useful and should be read!

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

You’re more likely to be struck by lightning twice than you are to design a flawless game without any playtesting. Yet, figuring out how to improve your game after a playtesting session is often a mystery. How can you turn your playtesters’ nebulous comments, insane ideas, and bad advice into useful feedback? I’ll share a few tricks with you and I hope you’ll share yours in the comments.

Ask the Right Questions

“Yeah, that was pretty good.”

The first piece of useless feedback every designer hears is the patronizing reassurance that your game isn’t 100% crap. You ask, “What did you think?” or “How did you like it?” and 99/100 people will answer the same way. What they’re really saying is “It wasn’t good enough. I can imagine a worse way to spend as much time, but it involves fire and shackles. I can’t tell you exactly how bad it was because I was taught if I can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

While you will get more pointed feedback from your peers in the industry who know what you need to hear, and you must seek that level of feedback out at some point, you need the perspective of real players first. If you want more useful responses, you have to ask better questions. Crap in, crap out.

Be as specific as you can. If you’re aware of any points that might be less than perfect, call them out and ask for opinions. “What did you think of mechanic X? Was it fun? Balanced? Confusing? In-Theme?” Once players realize you know there might be a problem, they’re no longer the messenger and are more willing to discuss it.

There are other staple questions that can lead to more useful information. “Was the game too long?” “How much would you pay for this?” “Who do you think would enjoy this?” There’s a subtle difference between these questions and the following: “Was anything confusing?” “Would you buy this?” “Was the game too hard?” Take a moment and think about why the first three might be good and the last three might not.

“Was the game too long?” Unlike “Did you like the pacing?”, this question acknowledges that the game might be too long. Answering “a bit” doesn’t make the respondent a villain, it lets them confirm your line of reasoning. More on what that answer means soon.

“Would you buy this?” is a binary and personal decision. The player only has two answers to give; one of which will be a lie and the other will hurt your feelings.

“How much would you pay for this?” gives them a scale to grade on, the upper and lower bounds of which are not clearly defined, so whatever they answer can’t be interpreted as an insult. Even though ‘you’ is the same word, this question feels more like an abstract question where the ‘you’ is more of a general ‘one.’ I might not buy your game for $40, but I know people who would. Note that this question is less to help you set a price point and more as a secret gauge for how good your game is.

“Was anything confusing?” is an attack. Your player hears “Are you too stupid to play this game?” They will always answer ‘no,’ unless they made a bad play during the game and would rather pawn off responsibility for it to the game. A better question is “Where can I improve rules or game text to be more clear?” Or “Can anyone word this better?” Or “Did scoring seem cumbersome?”

“Was the game too hard?” Also an attack:. “Was the game too hard for you?” Instead ask, “What felt imbalanced?” or “The game is meant to be a challenge. Do you think I should increase or decrease [some element]?”

“Who do you think would enjoy this?” allows the player to give you a positive response without committing themselves to a lie about how much they hate your game. They might say “hardcore gamers” which tells you the game is too complicated or “kids” which tells you it’s too simple or luck-based. If they say “my play group back home” you can do a little dance inside.

Under the Veil

Very few of the comments your testers give you will be directly applicable in tweaking your design, but all of it is useful data. Your job is to interpret what they’re saying (the hard part) and decide how to use that information (the other hard part).

“The game was too long.”

Your player(s) weren’t engaged the whole time. While we all prefer short games, that’s a learned defense mechanism against bad games. No one who enjoys Cards Against Humanity minds playing for two hours straight or D&D for four or more hours. A game is only too long when it’s boring.

The more players there are in your turn-based game, the longer a player has to wait before her next turn comes around again. If the game isn’t highly interactive, all of that time is boring. Try to make turns shorter by giving players less to do and preventing analysis-paralysis by limiting their options. Try to keep players engaged when it’s not their turn by giving them stuff to do out of turn, or making sure they care desperately how the current player takes his turn.

If a player feels overwhelmed or doesn’t get the game, they will tune out. “I don’t know how to improve my score/position because I don’t understand everything” leads almost instantly to “I don’t care. Please let me stop.” You probably need to simplify your game. Consider making a basic/introductory game or improving your initial presentation, but probably, you need to simplify your game.

If a player feels they can no longer win the game, or that there’s so much luck that their choices don’t matter, they will disengage and want to escape. Make sure that you have an appropriate amount of luck in your game for the length and gravity of the game (they’re inversely proportional) and that the amount of work a player has to do to take their turn (analyze the situation, make a decision, move pieces around) doesn’t exceed the impact of their choice on the game. It’s fine if your game is mostly luck, provided it’s short, light-hearted and easy.

“I didn’t like this mechanic.”

Many comments mean very different things depending on who said them and the context. You have to be reading your players throughout the game so that you will know how they mean what they say afterward. Honestly, you shouldn’t even need to ask “did you like the game?” If your players were laughing and smiling, they definitely did* and if they were checking their watches or nodding off, they definitely didn’t.

*Good company can make a game the same way bad company can ruin a game, but you can tell how much of the fun was just friends joking with each other as if they weren’t playing at all.

If a player lost the game because he misplayed or because another player leveraged a mechanic against them well, “I didn’t like this mechanic” often just means “I didn’t get this mechanic” or “I lost to this mechanic and I don’t like losing.” If they play again (good luck with that) and have the same opinion, consider upgrading them from ‘sore loser’ to ‘onto something.’

If a casual player hates your mechanic, it’s probably too novel/complicated for him. Reconsider your audience, or simplify your game.

If a hardcore player hates your mechanic, it’s probably too old/shallow for her. Reconsider your audience, or look for a unique twist to cast a new light on this classic mechanic. If you weren’t aware the mechanic was old, ask for at least two games that use it and go play them. Also, play more games. Musicians don’t not listen to music. Boxers don’t not watch boxing.

If an industry peer hates your mechanic, ask them why. They could fall into any of the above categories, but if not, they probably have a really good reason and whether you agree or not, you need to understand their reason.

“There’s too much luck.”

Funny how you almost never hear the opposite. The reason is that in a game with luck, players can blame their loss on something other than themselves; in a game with no luck, your only recourse is to blame the game balance or complexity; it is a rare player that acknowledges their own mistakes.

That said, there’s probably too much luck. We game designers love our dice and cards and rarely do the math to see exactly how much impact they have on the game. It’s okay, that’s what playtesting is for. Just don’t be afraid to make some big tweaks (always start with big tweaks and iterate your way down to small tweaks—it’ll save you time, guaranteed). Editor’s Note: Famous video game designer Sid Meier of Civilization fame has a classic rule for tuning: double it, or cut it in half. I’ve been using this for years and it has served me well.

Games need variance in order to create suspense, so don’t remove all the luck. Just make sure players can’t invest more work into the game than you can guarantee they will be rewarded for. Again, shorter and easier games can have more luck, but longer and harder games can’t. Think of a bell-curve. If your game is 5 minutes, it’s okay if the more skilled player only wins 60% of the time, but if your game is 5 hours, it’s not okay if the player who played best doesn’t win at least 95% of the time.

Note that luck and skill are not opposite ends of a single axis. There are games with low luck and low skill (Tic Tac Toe) and games with high luck and high skill (Poker). One does not preclude the other. There are also vastly different sorts of variance. That’s a whole other article, but consider for one example the difference between Candy Land and To Court the King. Candy Land’s dice decide who wins the game, while To Court the King’s dice usually just push toward one strategy or another.

“Have you considered X?”

Players will suggest ways to change your game or things to add. Especially industry peers. Some of these suggestions will be so dumb, you have to lock off the part of your brain that heard them so it doesn’t infect what’s left. Some of these will be so brilliant, they turn your game from “ehhh” to “yeahhh.” You have to listen to these suggestions and even harder, you have to consider them.

Suggestions like these are to be treated like a brainstorm. No matter how bad they sounds, you must not criticize or dismiss them, or it will be the last suggestion you get from that playtester. You can either write them down and promise to think about them later (which you should actually do) or talk them through on the spot. Make sure you understand both the core concept of the proposal as well as the reason the suggester thinks it might improve the game. Often, his solution will be unusable, but the problem he’s trying to solve will be a very real problem that you need to address.

This actually tends to be the easiest way to tease out a problem from your testers. “What would you change/add/remove?” will often lead to terrible ideas that pinpoint with laser accuracy a deficiency in your game. For example, “I would make separate cards for cowboys’ horses” :: “You haven’t integrated the Western theme enough.” And “eliminate the bidding step” :: “the bidding is unoriginal and doesn’t really impact the game.”

Remember that no one understands your design or your vision as well as you do. Just because Richard Garfield would add powers to your character cards, doesn’t mean you should. But if you don’t understand exactly why he suggested that (the game’s too simple) and exactly why you shouldn’t (your audience is the elderly), then you need to find out.

Is there another comment you’ve gotten you’re not sure how to interpret? Let’s discuss it in the comments.

What Next

You’ve got your feedback. You think you know what it means. How should you change your game? Try all of it—one at a time. So many of man’s greatest achievements have come from accidents or from crazy ideas that someone wouldn’t give up on. Don’t let your instinct throw away an idea because it doesn’t sound helpful. If you don’t know exactly how that would work out in every possible situation, you owe it to yourself to find out. Most of what you try won’t improve the game, but everything will improve your understanding of the game.

Design is an exploration. You are entering an unknown reality where you don’t even know the rules of physics. You can only discover the boundaries by pushing ahead in a direction until you hit a wall. The more you push, the better intuition you have of what’s possible and what’s not, but if you stop pushing when you find something good, you’ll never know if you missed a secret passage to something vastly better.

Design with the intention of failing, or you’ll never have the perspective at the end to know if you’ve truly succeeded or merely stopped designing.**

That said, don’t try everything at once. If you try three changes at the same time, and the game improves, how do you know if all three helped or if one helped a lot and the other two held it back. If the game worsens, how do you know all three changes were bad? More importantly, how do you understand how each change impacts your game and what that means about your game? Editor’s Note: The scientific method will treat you well.

You don’t have to prototype every change. Most games and most changes have to playtested with other humans to see their true impact, but sometimes you can do that without making new playing pieces. Just tell the players X is Y this time. Some changes you can eliminate socratically: What if players could pay $10 to the bank to roll an extra die in Monopoly? They wouldn’t bother in the early game, and would know exactly when to use it in the late game. Does the mid-game matter? Do you want players paying marginal amounts to the bank to completely bypass their opponents’ hotel chains? You have to be really careful with this type of thought because it’s ridiculously easy to miss important details and still be 100% certain your right. If you are going to skip this test, at least run it by another player to see if they agree with your conclusion.

**How do you know when you’re done? If you blind playtest the game with at least three new groups of your target audience and they all love it, and you can’t find any way to make the game better (without making it worse), you’re probably done.

Multiple Paths

You’ll often reach a fork in the road. Perhaps your game is half-way between a party game for gamers and a fun party activity for non-gamers. You have to go one way or the other because the split won’t please anyone, but how do you choose? This is the other other hard part.

Sometimes, you have to go back to your original vision for the game. If you set out to make the fastest, lightest tactical wargame ever and you have the chance to instead make a meatier game that really stands on its own, maybe you should stick with your vision and complete your original goal. Put your thumb in the page of this choose-your-own-adventure, because you can always go back and explore the other path when you finish this one.

Sometimes, I’m thinking most of the time, you have to forget where you were coming from and listen to what the game wants to be. Like carving stone, of course you have to start with a plan in mind but you might get half way there and just see something else waiting to be revealed. Something better. It’s rare that the act of executing one game idea doesn’t lead me to discover something different, something a little more natural and unique. Unlike carving stone, you can always undo a change and go back to what worked better.

Ultimately the decision is yours and yours alone to make, but remember that you can always ask friends and peers for their opinion. The value of another perspective is immeasurable.

Calm Down

As a parting note, I wanted to touch briefly on designer ego. It’s impossible not to be invested in your game. It’s your baby and if you aren’t invested in it, it’s going to be trash and you’re wasting the playtesters’ time. What you have to learn to do, though, is to divorce the quality of your game in its current state from your self-confidence as a designer. A bad playtest doesn’t make you a bad designer. It doesn’t even make the game bad, because your game isn’t finished. It just means you’ve learned something and found a way to make your game better.

The only way to be a bad designer is to release only bad games, and the only way to do that is to ignore your playtesters when they tell you what’s wrong with your game. Or to not playtest.

Away to the Last Planet

Folks often stress the importance of mechanics and note that “presentation isn’t everything.” Rightfully so, but when a prototype like Jay Treat’s Lost Planet comes along, the presentation alone piqued my curiosity and more than once has gotten me to ask “what is that?” Jay kindly wrote this post to dive deeper into the game and I couldn’t be more excited. If the picture above doesn’t get you to ask for more details, you’re a boring gamer!

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

In November, I wrote about a StarCraft deck-building game that I’d brought to Metatopia and was a spectacular failure. I mentioned that I would continue to try to make a StarCraft-inspired tabletop game but that I wasn’t sure it would end up in the form of a card game. Something that kept coming back to me as I considered possibilities was trying to somehow capture the dexterity element of the video game, that is the ability to click quickly between units and command a large army across the map while continuing to develop your resource and unit production.

I enjoy flicking games like Crokinole and Elk Fest, and am excited about recent nerdy advances in the genre like Ascending Empires and Catacombs. Similarly, there’s great potential demonstrated by Micro Mutants (formerly X-Bugs). Ultimately, I decided that Micro Mutants is already practically StarCraft with a bug theme in place of space and far too good to warrant recreating. Flicking might still be an option, but my brief exploration of the idea hinted that it probably isn’t the right fit. The common conflict between precise flicking and hard flicking, combined with the need to evaluate a turn by the final result and not what may or may not have happened during the split-second the discs were ricocheting around is a bit of a turn-off.

I still wanted something very tactile, something that really takes advantage of the physical nature of the game and lets players get really hands-on with their zerglings and zealots. What if you could place units on the table and move them about in some intuitive manner? How do you handle how far a unit can move without the awkward rulers of so many miniature wargames (or the patented Attacktix system)?

My solution was to create playing pieces with physical properties that defined as many of their characteristics as possible. Their length determines how quickly the unit moves and their ends are unique so that you can only build a zergling from a breeding pool… or another zergling. Since moving each piece every turn would be a pain, you can ‘advance’ a chain by adding a unit of the same type to the end of it, effectively replicating movement and replacement of the old unit.

I was aiming to keep things as simple as possible, so originally each unit just has a static number to represent its prowess in combat. When two or more enemy units overlap, they each deal their damage to each other. I think I’d been planning for damage to last between rounds at that time, which gets tricky when you advance a unit. Do you move the damage up the chain?

I did a Versus Self test and quickly learned that the game was deterministic. With nothing random, every game would play out exactly the same once players figured out the optimal setup. Different strategies would require different counter-strategies, but I’ve never been interested in recreating Chess.

I needed variance and added it in two places: The proportion of gas and minerals available at each resource site became a die roll; You can’t always rely on the same strategy since some require more minerals or more gas. I also added dice to combat.

Each unit attacks with so many dice (to show how effective an attacker it is) and requires higher or lower results to be damaged (to show how big/armored it is). I played this version against the skilled and patient Mr. Edwards of Board Game Reviews by Josh. It was much better and validated the direction I was going in. We identified a few hurdles in the game system and a whole lot of balance issues. For instance, air units were far too easy to build and invalidated any ground strategy that didn’t lean heavily on ranged units.

You can see Zerg and Protoss forces pictured above. I waited to work on the Terrans because I didn’t want to make any more pieces than I had to; these things take an unholy amount of work to make. That forces me to be more conservative with physical iteration on the game, something I’m usually quite liberal about. This test went well enough that I started the design (both game- and graphic-) for the Terrans.

But that night, I was kept up by concerns about the current dice system. While it’s possible to make tough units with weak attacks, vulnerable with weak, and tough with strong, an idiosyncracy of my solution (putting defense values on the dice images themselves) meant that I couldn’t make vulnerable units with strong attacks. There was also no distinction, other than numbers, between normal ground units and armored ones; something the video game makes a pretty big deal of, but I’d accepted as another abstraction from the original.

Except that it’s harder to make Rock-Paper-Scissors triangles of units when units are just big or small. So I kept thinking about simple ways to represent that until I realized that I could do it very easily with custom dice. Each unit is destroyed when hit with a number of a certain symbol: ground units would have an infantry symbol, armored units a tank symbol and air units an aircraft symbol. There would be four types of dice. Zerglings get green dice which are very good against ground units, potentially useful against armor and useless against air. Immortals would get red dice which are good against both ground and armor units. Photon Cannons would get blue dice which are good against air. And all the ranged units that can hit both ground and air units would get white dice which aren’t great against everything but are never useless.

Realizing your game needs custom dice isn’t ideal the week before a convention, but fortunately the game design community is full of awesome people like Grant and Jason who got my back. I’ll be stickering the morning of Unpub 3, but my game will also be at its (theoretical) best.

I’m excited to show Last Planet off and see if it stands up to more diverse opinion. It’s still very raw and will require months and months of iteration to balance, but so far it seems like I’m on the right path to make a legitimately tactile experience that may just do StarCraft’s theme justice.

What did you think about Lost Planet? Leave comments and ask questions below. 

Convergent Design

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

A friend of mine has been thinking about a game for years that lets your group play as the crew of a starship bridge. Each player would play his own mini-game that determines his station’s performance and the group’s individual successes would add up to determine how successful the mission is for the whole team. And then Stronghold Games printed Space Cadets. It’s not just the same theme and execution, there are even specific mini-games in common. He was understandably disappointed and I knew exactly how he felt because I’ve been there. A lot.

I was able to console him with the reassurance that this happens all the time. I’d be surprised if every one of you hasn’t experienced something like this yourself. Which is why I want to reassure you that’s it not just you. I call this phenomenon Convergent Design, after Convergent Evolution, the idea that animals with little-to-no evolutionary relationship have developed distinctly similar features through unrelated paths, largely because those features are fairly optimal and their development inevitable.

Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison independently invented the lightbulb within five years of each other. Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and Pixel Lincoln were all released within a year of each other. The same year I finally got publisher traction for Assault on Khyber Station, I found Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space on a dealer’s table and a week later I heard people raving about Escape, which turned out to be The Curse of the Temple. While that last one is more coincidence than a duplicated idea, you can still see a clear trend. Even Space Cadets isn’t alone: Artemis is the same idea for the PC and Spaceteam for iOS.

I attribute it all to the global zeitgeist. While every human is as unique as a snowflake, we all consume the same media and participate in the same culture. Modern communication has reduced the latency of this effect from years to mere minutes and even mitigates the previously large cultural differences between nations and continents. With several billion people laughing at Seinfeld and holding their breath for Harry Potter, it’s no wonder that a few of us are going to wonder “Hey, what if you could set reminders by location instead of time?” all at once.

In the Unpub zone at GenCon this year I watched a Rick Collins game, Scrapbots, in which players build robots from junk and battle them against each other. Each robot’s abilities and well-being are defined by card slots in their hit locations (head, chest, arms, legs). In one fell swoop, I saw two of my designs preempted. I might have been crushed, but I’ve been in this position often enough to know not to take it personally. Instead, I laughed that I never did get around to developing either of those games, so if my goal was to see those ideas realized, I just got a present. I save hours of headache and hard work while someone else does it all for me, and I’ll get to just buy his game and enjoy it already completed. Thanks!

Now, I am being optimistic here. If the game does get published and is as awesome as it can be, then all is well. If, on the other hand, the game fails to be published, not only am I back to square one, but I basically have no chance selling the game to the publishers that turned down the original. And if Scrapbots does get published but turns out to be bad, then I’m really screwed: I won’t have a sweet game to play, I won’t have my desire sated to see those ideas well-realized, and making the game myself to do it right would be a fool’s errand because no publisher will want to touch a game seemingly derivative of a well-known flop.

When I was 15, Wizards of the Coast was accepting external Magic set submissions. I put together something I’d be too embarrassed to show anyone today, but with a few solid ideas in it just the same. The same year I mailed that off, they announced the big policy change and stopped accepting anything. I never got a response whether they even read my stuff. But that Summer, they released a bunch of new cards and mechanics that they obviously stole from me.

Except they didn’t steal them. I know this because it takes considerably longer to develop, template and print a card than the time they had to steal my idea.

Last year, I led a team that designed a Magic set that I am quite proud of. Not only were there a half-dozen nearly identical cards printed in Wizards’ version of the “same” set, there were cards released while we were still working that matched brand new designs and forced us to remove or drastically change them.

And that wasn’t surprising, because not only were we working in the same medium (this ubiquitous magepunk TCG) with the same frame of reference (the preceding 18 years of Magic sets), but we were even working within the same parameters (to design a flavorful core set that’s easy for new players to learn but interesting for established players to draft) toward the same goal (to lead into a multicolor-themed fall set named Return to Ravnica). In fact, one of the reasons I consider the project successful is the number of solutions our team shared in common with the Wizards’ team. If we hadn’t hit some of the same touchstones, it would have been a sign that we were off in our understanding of where Magic is and where it’s going.

When I go back and apply the same logic two decades ago, my old anger at having my ideas “stolen” is replaced by pride that even as bad a designer I was at the time, I was still on track enough to come up with the same things the professionals did. When Jason Tagmire learned about concurrent Lincoln movies, he used that as fuel to help market Pixel Lincoln. When Edison learned about Swan’s work, he sent goons to eliminate his competition. Wait, bad example…

The point is, it’s up to you how to respond when someone beats you to the punch with your own idea. You can throw a fit and let it eat you up inside. You can take it as validation. You can thank them for saving you the effort. And you can even team up with them and use it to your advantage.

You might even reevaluate what it means to ‘own’ an idea. But that’s another article.

Form Versus Function

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

I learned several valuable lessons at Metatopia a few weekends ago.

Firstly, there is no such thing as bed-time. You will be up late. Every night. And you will love it.

Secondly, making connections—the kind that lead to dream jobs—isn’t as hard as I thought. Basically, you just need to show up, be friendly, and be generous. There are tricks and nuances, of course, that’s true of everything. And, as with any attempt, you can’t succeed if you don’t try.

Thirdly is a theme that came up three times across three different games over the weekend. I tweeted about, but it’s worth discussing in-depth.

The Last Planet

I’ve hinted several times on Twitter that I’ve been working on a StarCraft deck-building game. I played Fantasy Flight’s StarCraft board game with some friends earlier this year and was reminded quite viscerally how painfully slow the game is. So I set out to make a StarCraft game that better captured the video game’s feel, primarily by playing faster. I somehow latched onto the idea of a DBG being an interesting expression of base development and built an intentionally very literal interpretation of the game. As expected, it worked but not particularly well. I intended to recreate it, but got distracted with other projects.

Last month, my friend Josh pushed me to pick it back up. I had one new idea to try before completely rebuilding it so I brought that to Metatopia. The fix helped, but was like a drop-in-the-bucket. It took easily 100 minutes before one player successfully attacked another. The game is too complex and has too many steps to accomplish by a complete order of magnitude. And that’s really not surprising: It’s a complex video game with millions of moving parts all being handled seamlessly by the computer. Take out that super-fast helper and it’s up to the players to handle everything. Even simplified as it was, it’s still preposterous.

Despite that massive problem, there is fun in the game and I have not given up. I will rebuild from scratch, divorcing myself from StarCraft and creating a new SciFi theme, not because I know I’ll never win the game rights, but because I can’t let the conceits of the video game dictate the paper game’s path. I know if I keep this exact theme that I will be distracted from the better possible game by what StarCraft has done and how.

It’s entirely possible the end result won’t be a DBG, but a real-time puzzle or who knows what.


After that, I saw some of my designer friends playing with an early game prototype. Kevin’s game has an awesome theme: The players are experimental test subjects of a mad scientist trying to escape his dark labyrinth before he kills them. The game starts with an interesting mechanic where you play cards to form the edge of the dungeon and your character moves like a magnet to cards that match your player color. Once you reach the inner dungeon, you instead lay dungeon tiles that dictate the directions you can move from that space. Because the dungeon is dark, you don’t decide how to orient the tiles, you just place them however you flip them.

This leaves the end-game entirely up to chance. It does fit the theme and really puts you in your character’s shoes. On the other hand, you’re suddenly not playing the game you started and probably not enjoying feeling your character’s frustration so personally. The reason for placing the tiles with a random orientation was to fit the theme of a dark dungeon, but it removes the fun from the game. My suggestion was to let players choose the tile’s orientation to improve the play, and then modify the theme to justify the change. Maybe the dungeon isn’t pitch-black or maybe the doctor gave them infrared vision as part of his experimentation. The former doesn’t really hurt the core theme and the latter fits it pretty well.

I know Kevin is working on this game because I saw a very nice graphical tease for it, so I’m eager to see what the next version brings.


The next day I joined what turned out to be a brainstorming session rather than a playtest. You might be pretty disappointed at such a thing elsewhere, but at Metatopia it was cool. Yeah, let’s bounce ideas off each other to help the designer—Jim—reach a good starting point. Honestly, that’s almost more fun for me than actually playing. The premise is that the players are corporations competing to alter a planet’s atmosphere so that it’s ready for colonization. Jim had the kernel of a pretty neat mechanic for this part of the game as well as a dice mechanism to determine player order and the amount of resources available each turn.

As we were proposing possible directions for the game, we occasionally hit a hard stop in the form of a pre-established theme. What if there’s a conflict with resident aliens? There are no aliens. How can we add variance to building placement? Wind. There’s no wind on Mars! There is on Venus. Are dice the best way to determine how much a player can do each turn? They represent the fickle budgets of your corporate overlords. (Note that one of those over-wrought preconceptions was mine, not the designer’s.)

Form vs Function

If you’ve read my earlier stuff, you know that I’m a huge advocate for theme in games. There are great games with no theme, but there are so many more great games with theme. Ultimately, a game can’t fire on all cylinders without an engaging theme. The flip-side is that you can make a game great through the theme alone, but it’s much more likely to be garbage without fun mechanics. And a thematic game can’t reach it’s greatest potential without awesome gameplay.

Some designers approach games from the bottom-up, completing the game by perfecting the gameplay and mechanics, and then finally pasting on whatever theme seems to fit best. Some approach design top-down, finding a neat theme and bringing it to life, going with whatever mechanics express that theme more fully. A lot of designers are versatile enough to use whichever technique feels right for a new game. I put it to you that none of these are ideal.

Integration through iteration is the holy grail. Start where you like, whether it’s bottom-up with a clever mechanic and some fun gameplay, or top-down with an engaging story and a gripping atmosphere. Just don’t go too far without switching hats. Even if you’re idea is still amorphous enough that you need a quick test to figure out where to go with it, you should already be imagining how to express your idea from the other side of the camp. After your first test, when you understand the basic game well enough to start the next step, shift your focus and ask how the theme could best serve the mechanics, and vice-versa. If something needs to change, change it. Kill your sacred cows or they will eat your game.

If you do this throughout the design process, the final result will be so tightly integrated that players won’t be able to imagine your mechanics with any other theme, nor will they wonder if the flavor could have been stronger with a few more/less dice.

A fantastic example to demonstrate this is Magic: The Gathering because the game has been remade so many times using every model we’ve discussed. A big part of what made the game take-off was the excellent fusion of flavor and mechanics in the original design. There were many years of bottom-up designs to follow where the designers were exploring mechanical possibilities and the theme suffered. Many years later, they let the creative team dictate the world and built the set around that, but the gameplay wasn’t satisfying. They rebooted the core set with Magic 2010 using a new strategy—the original one: Make cards that are fun to play and deeply resonant. It was a huge success and breathed new life into the game. They haven’t looked back since and they have done amazing things that just weren’t possible in the old model.

StarCraft is a video game because it can’t be done as a board game. It can’t be done as a board game because it’s a video game. The Zerg are what they are because they play differently from the Terrans and Protoss. And they play so differently because they are the Zerg. These sound like poser-wise tautologies, but the point is that both sides were developed toward this state together and couldn’t have done otherwise. I can make a game that plays like StarCraft, but with a different theme or I can make a game with StarCraft’s theme but plays differently, but the vast differences in the media prevent me from making the same game. And ultimately, what would be the value in that if I succeeded? Why play StarCraft the board game, when you can play the same game with better graphics on your computer? That was the impetus for adding the deck-building-game conceit but I didn’t go far enough. DBGs don’t have a tech tree or, if they do, it’s nowhere near as deep, specific or complex as StarCraft’s.

My work on Intrigue (Editor’s Note: This is another game of Jay’s) is another interesting example. In theory, all I had to do to convert the theme from Fantasy war to Renaissance spycraft was to change some art and names. But where quests are perfect for Middle Earth, they make no sense in Venice. Scoring points by killing your enemies is natural in war, but would attract a bit too much heat in a political race. And where’s the scheming? Spies scheme! So I changed some mechanics to fit the new theme. Playtesting proved that the mechanics could be better, so I fixed them and then adjusted the theme to fit the new mechanics. Having agendas is great, but being invested in particular factions is good too. It’s a give and take where everybody wins in the end.

You have examples of successes and failures along these lines. Let’s hear them.

Paper Route: Developing in Real Time

Chevee recently released his game Paper Route on The Game Crafter and as a free print-and-play download. I checked out the rules several times and, though I haven’t had a chance to download the PNP yet, the game looks excellent and my Twitter feed is abuzz with people saying “Paper Route is fun!” 

Post by: Chevee Dodd

It all started when Cyrus Kirby (@thefathergeek) challenged me on Twitter.

I happened to love Paper Boy also, so I was really intrigued by the challenge.  I had some initial thoughts and ideas, none of which were real-time or action based.  My first concept was a “scrolling” game where the board unfolds as you move down the street, but the more I worked on that idea, the more I realized the game would be long and drab.  What I wanted was to capture the frantic action of the arcade game and translate that, somehow, into a board game.

I had never attempted to design a real-time game.  An even bigger challenge was that I had not played any real-time games either!  Because of my lack of understanding, I quickly dreamed up a system that I thought was going to be great!  There would be Houses and Obstacles.  These cards would have pictures of arcade controller buttons on them.  Each player would have a deck made up of button cards.  The players would simultaneously flip one card from the top of the House and Obstacle deck and then pick up their own decks and begin searching for the buttons printed on the House and Obstacle.  Once a player had found all the buttons, they would flip them over on the table.  The person to flip first would then score points assuming they didn’t mess up.  If they didn’t pull the correct set of buttons, they would lose a life.  This continued for 10 (or so) rounds and the person with the most points wins.  If you lost all three lives, game over for you.

Well, that’s a working game.  Done, right!?  No.  Not at all.  Just because the game “works” doesn’t mean it’s worth playing.  This game had exactly zero decisions which meant that the fastest player always won.  Remember me talking about never playing this type of game?  It showed here. BAD.  I had assumed that these types of games were entirely dexterity based.  So, the game worked.  There was no strategy, so there was nothing to break.  Nothing to tweak.  When that happens, there is no game.

At this point, I was personally out of ideas.  This is a direct limitation of me not being familiar with the type of game I am designing.  Some designers say that they don’t play other peoples games because they don’t want to inadvertently “borrow” ideas.  I don’t have that reservation.  I believe I can separate myself through game-play even though my mechanics may be familiar.  Does this mean I run out and buy up a bunch of games that are similar to what I am working on?  NO.  What it does mean is that I spent some time researching rule sets on the Internet, trying to see what makes them work.  I looked at games like Brawl and Falling from James Ernest, Icehouse, and Jab: Real Time Boxing, and even the classic card game Speed.  I found what I was missing: play options that required decisions.

There has to be decisions in a game.  If there’s not, we are just participating in an activity.  While that is fine, if that’s your sort of thing, it is not exactly interesting for a card game.  There needs to be multiple paths for each card played.  Should I play this to advance myself, or hinder my opponent?  Should I play this as a bluff or do I need it to better my position?  Can I take a hit, should I take a hit?  Will it help?  These are the decisions that turn an activity into a game.

The challenge for me was inserting these decisions into a game that had none, without ruining the frantic, arcade feeling.  Mashing buttons on an arcade stick is mostly mindless.  You are making split second decisions and using muscle memory to drive the action of the game.  You are processing things at high speed and that causes mistakes when something unexpected comes up.  Without decisions in my game, it was very improbable that you would make mistakes.  I had wrongfully assumed that speed was enough, because in a video game, it is.  When you are facing off against a human opponent, however, there needs to be a feedback loop.  Without graphics and on-screen action to clue you in on what’s going on, you have no way of determining if you are “winning” or not.  You need to be able to see what is happening on the table in order to react to it.  I needed to translate the visual feedback of arcade games onto the table.

Enter some awesome playtesters.

I have some really great playtesters that are very talented players and designers.  One tester had a really great idea: have multiple houses out at once and let the player decide which to go for.  This was exactly what I was looking for.  If I set out a line of houses, players have to complete multiple tasks simultaneously which brings some decisions into the game.  Because you can see what your opponent is working towards, you can decide where you want to play your cards.   Now you had to pay visual attention to your opponent’s plays as well as use pattern recognition and building skills to complete your own goals.

As soon as I switched to this system, I found the arcade action I was looking for.  Instead of searching the deck for some cards, you flip them over one at a time.  You have to stop at every card and make a decision where to play it or to discard it.  No take-backs.  Now you have five potential goals to choose from.  You can try to go for the ones with the highest points, or target only the houses your opponent is ignoring.  You can try to out-race your opponent on the houses they are playing on, completely invalidating the cards they have played there if you take it.  It’s fast, it’s furious, and you are prone to making mistakes.

A few rounds of playtesting proved to me that this was the way to go.  It actually did feel a bit like a frantic arcade game but also had great head-to-head appeal.  It still needed something a little extra.  Even with the five houses out, the faster player was heavily rewarded.  Now, this IS a dexterity game.  The faster player SHOULD win most often BUT, there needs to be hope for the slower guy.  With the system as it stood, you could steal a house from your opponent without completing it to mess with them.  This caused you to lose a life, but it could be strategically viable if you are behind.  While this was an interesting decision to make in-game, there needed to be another way.

This is where another tester influenced the game.  In fact, this player hadn’t even played the game yet, but came up with an awesome idea just from reading the rules!  An idea so perfect, that I added it directly into the game:  vandalism.  Just like the arcade game, you can vandalize houses.  Each player’s deck has four newspaper cards that are typically used to score obstacles.  Hit the dog with a paper, score 25 points… that sort of thing.  What if you could use these papers to vandalize a house, preventing EITHER player from scoring it?  Doing this removes the newspaper card from your deck permanently, but it is a great mechanic that provides you with another option to control the score without being too cumbersome.  That’s the whole point really.  The player should be making decisions, but these decisions should not be weighing the game down.  This is supposed to be an analog for arcade games, after all, and taking your time in an arcade game is the best way to lose!

After testing these two changes a few times… okay, MANY times… it was clear to me that this was the game I was going for.  I still had some minor tweaks to do to scoring and the button combinations printed on the cards, but that’s just balancing stuff.  That comes after the system is solid.  Going through this process really taught me a lot about not only real-time games, but myself as a designer.  I took on a project I was completely unfamiliar with that required me to think about game design from a whole new perspective… almost like designing a video game.  Giving the players decisions without allowing them time to think about those decisions was completely unfamiliar to me as a board game designer.  It was a real challenge that presented new problems I had not considered.  Typically, when I hit speed bumps like this, I collapse and give up.  I pushed through this time, and I think it turned out really great!  I hope I can keep up that momentum in future almost-failed designs!

Feel the ‘Spiel

Protospiel is a yearly event held in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It is a gathering for game designers to play each others’ prototypes, gather feedback, socialize, and meet with publishers. It is an event I very much wish to attend. When I put out feelers asking for a guest writer to cover Protospiel, Darrell Hardy matched me with Chris Oltyan. Chris agreed and here we are! 

In many ways, this is a post about the differences between video game development (a career) and board game development (a passion). As a 7 year veteran of the game industry, much of Chris’ commentary makes sense to me. One of the primary reasons I design board games in the first place is to give me a “release valve,” i.e. a way for me to be creative entirely on my terms. I included a few notes in the post, so forgive me for that.

Guest Column by: Chris Oltyan

Why did I want to go to Protospiel?

I am a 12 year veteran of the video game industry, but recently I decided I needed a change. I love video games, but the time was right for me to leave the industry (at least for now) to spend some time with my kids. This is not a quality of life article, but others in the industry can feel free to read the subtext in that statement. I served as producer and designer on approximately 25 shipped products. In my copious free time, I started a paper prototype for a mechanic for an MMO I wanted to make. After seeing my pretend budget for my pretend game, I decided to press forward and make it as a board game instead of waiting for someone to send me $35 million. By the way, if you are interested in handing me $35 million, please make the check payable to Chris Oltyan and comment below to coordinate the deposit into my account.

Over the past 4 years I’ve spent time here and there polishing my boardgame.  This is a zombie themed boardgame, but I started it way before it was cool to do it on Kickstarter. After leaving my job, which had a pretty restrictive employment agreement, I picked up the discarded pieces and began to actually assemble the game. I used Protospiel as a motivator to finish it.

Editor’s Note: Often times in creative industries, employees are forced to sign agreements that prohibit them from developing things outside of work, OR maintaining ownership of these things. For example, I must get permission for every game I hope to publish, including Poor Abby and Empire Reborn. Some companies are more restrictive than others. 

I was conducting about one playtest each week 1 month leading into Protospiel and have probably tested earlier versions 20-30 times. I tested primarily with video game developers (programmers, artists, and designers), as well as a few folks who have worked in the board game industry. I thought I had a pretty well balanced game and I was hoping to get feedback on whether or not my particular flavor of zombies was a worthwhile addition to the genre.

So what is Protospiel about?

Protospiel was an amazingly informative and helpful venue compared to the video game conferences I’ve attended. Conferences I’d been to previously would involve conversations between designers like:

“What are you working on? Can’t say? Well, neither can I. So, how’s the weather?”

Protospiel was a welcome and open setting where people showed work in a variety of stages and worried more about whether or not their mechanics were achieving their goals rather than who might steal their idea. In fairness to video game designers, this isn’t a choice they make as individuals, but often is a result of corporate policies, non-disclosure agreements, and a general paranoia that seems to permeate game studios. Sure, there may be some discussion around game theories, but show and tell is often not legally possible.

Protospiel had a great crew present of designers, publishers, and testers. Unlike feedback from video gamers (i.e. “Dude, you need to add [awesome feature in person’s head that costs 1 million dollars to implement that 3 people including person you’re talking to will actually care about] to this game!”) Protospiel was more like “Have you considered [elegant mechanic from game I either designed or played] to solve this problem here?” This is a bit of an gross generalization, but it just felt like everyone cared about games a ton and had useful, practical experience in making games that they were happy to share.

Editor’s Note: One of the problems of the video game industry is that costs have skyrocketed. This is one of the reasons so many developers have shifted to lower cost platforms, like the iPhone, web browsers, or Facebook. Many people outside of the development team don’t realize that a “simple” feature could cost months of development and millions of dollars.

I think a lot of it comes down to the fact that a board game designer is often responsible for every aspect of his prototype. He knows all the problems with the design intimately, from the implementation of mechanics to UI and information display. Board game designers are generally not part of a team, they ARE the team, and that concentration of experience really helps to understand what does and doesn’t work in board games.

Was it Worth Going?

My ticket to protospiel was $45 and my hotel was $65 a night (compared to $1600 + $200 a night for GDC). I was able to playtest my game 2-3 times a day with different people and received good feedback on my game’s mechanics every time. All the designers and publishers I tested with were able to point me to examples of work they thought I could reference and helped me pinpoint issues with the game. I will be spending the next year getting ready to show the fruits of that labor, and that’s okay. People at Protospiel understand that boardgames are a labor of love for those who design it and are close enough to the ground where they get to indulge in the privilege of waiting for a game to be “right” before shipping it.

Editor’s Note: One of the primary sources of frustration for developers in the digital industry are having to ship a game before it’s ready in order to meet a deadline. Nothing is worse than spending 4 years on a game and shipping it in a bad state when it needed just 6 more months.

This was such a great opportunity I asked if I could run my own satellite ‘spiel. The organization is not even a company, just a bunch of passionate designers who felt that up and coming creators could really use the benefit of other experienced designers.  David Whitcher, the organizer of the event, said that it took several years before a consistent crew of people were bringing in games that were almost publish ready.  Let me just repeat that: Several Years.

To me, Protospiel helped me remember that making games can be about the game itself, and not the market budget, upcoming conference, or arbitrary ship date.  Protospiel demonstrated in no uncertain terms that if you have an idea for a game and are willing to put in the effort, you can make something amazing and fun. For that alone it’s well worth the price of admission.

Those are my thoughts on the conference.  I’ll also be pulling together my notes on the games that I played and talk about how the feedback process worked for a follow-up post.

Hidden Depth

If you’ve been reading this blog, Jay Treat should need no introduction at this point. He’s my most frequent guest columnist and I’m quite glad for his help. Here’s another great column I’m sure you’ll enjoy!

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

Hello again, game design friends. Today I’d like to discuss hidden depth in games. All manner of games are purchased for the fun that they promise, but it’s the fun you can’t see until you play that keeps players coming back (and telling their friends). Some of the greatest games come in tiny boxes with short rules, yet offer heaping amounts of rewarding gameplay.

Let me tell you about a pair of very deep games you may not have heard of with very simple rules. So simple, I can teach both games in this post without breaking flow or going overly long.


Hanabi (by Antoine Bauza) is a cooperative card game with a deck made of five suits with ten cards each: three 1s, two 2s, 3s & 4s, and a single 5. Deal four cards to each player (five with fewer players). Here’s the gimmick: You don’t see your own hand. Players hold their cards facing everyone else so that their own cards are the only ones they don’t see.

On your turn, you must take one of three actions:

  • You can play a card to the table
  • Spend one of the team’s 8 starting clue tokens to give another player some information about her hand
  • Discard a card to buy back a spent clue token.

The goal is to build five fireworks displays by playing a 1 and then a 2, and a 3, a 4, and hopefully even the 5 in order for each suit.

It sounds easy, but the game is very tight. So much so, that the goal isn’t really to score 25 points by completing all five piles, just to score as high as you can. Hopefully higher than previous scores. It’s that difficult. 23 is a thoroughly impressive score. The trick is that there’s more information that needs to be given to play correctly than you’ll have the time to give.

When you tell a player about her hand, you can choose a suit or a rank and point out all the cards in her hand of that suit or rank. “This is your only red card.” “These are your 3s.” As such, the game requires some memory (which card in my hand was a non-red, non-blue 3 again?) and deduction (I can see the other 9 yellow cards between my partners’ hands, the display and the discard pile, so I know this yellow card in my hand must be the 5), but the real meat of the game is innuendo.

There’s no table talk allowed, obviously, so the ability to communicate more through your plays, and to intuit other players’ subtle hints is crucial to a successful game. “These are your 1s” means something completely different on the first turn of the game (you should play any/all of them) than it does halfway through (you can discard them …unless we’re still missing a suit). “This is your only 2” is a hint to go ahead and play it when there are four fireworks displays stuck on 1, even if you don’t yet know for a fact the suit doesn’t belong to that fifth stack.

You can misplay, by the way. If you misread a clue and played a blue 3 while the blue fireworks display is still at 1, the card is discarded (you don’t earn a clue token for it) and the team earns a strike. If you get three strikes, the game ends immediately in total failure. That’s bad and to be avoided, but sometimes it’s worth the risk to go for the gold when you have incomplete information on the theory that a third 17 is no better than a 0 and you’d rather have a chance at scoring 18 or better this game.

I haven’t been able to find a copy of Hanabi until I checked while writing this. Looks like the collector’s tin is available right now and I just heard a new edition is on its way.

Kakerlaken Poker

Kakerlaken Poker (by Jacques Zeimet) is a competitive card game of bluffing with a deck of 8 suits, each with 8 rankless cards (each card within a suit is functionally identical but sports different art, which was a classy move on the publisher’s part). You deal the deck out to start, and then on each player’s turn he chooses a card from his hand, plays it face-down in front of another player and names a suit: “It’s a Rat.” (The suits are various pests and insects like spiders and stinkbugs.)

The player can accept the card, declaring whether your assertion was true or not. She reveals the card and if she’s wrong, she keeps it. It goes face-up in front of her for the rest of the game. But if she’s right, it goes face-up in front of you. That’s a bad thing, because the game ends when one player gets four copies of a single pest. At which point that player loses and everyone else wins. Fun, right?

Here’s the twist: instead of accepting the card, she can look at it and then pass it along to another player, declaring its suit again. She can name the same suit you did or another. The player she passed it to now has all the same options she did. The card can continue to be passed until there’s only one player that hasn’t seen it, at which point he must accept it, declaring whether he believes it is the last suit named or not.

Like Hanabi, this game might sound way too simple to be interesting, but it’s not. It’s absolutely fascinating because there’s so much subtle communication, human interaction and good old bluffing happening. When you slide a card at me claiming it’s a fly, my initial response is entirely dependant on the known fly population. If you have three flies in front of you, I will suspect it is not a fly, because you would be taking a huge chance of losing the game if it is. If I have three flies, though, it becomes rather likely that it really is a fly, since accepting the card has a 50/50 chance of ending the game in everyone else’s favor. Unless I also have a few scorpions, in which case you may be counting on my heightened fly-aversion to trick me into gaining another deadly scorpion.

But wait, what if another player has a fly in front of her and no one else does? You probably don’t want me to accept one way or another. You want the card to make its way to Anna through me. I could pass the card along to her and try to get her to keep it …but why should I take the risk you didn’t? So I pass it to Bob, with the understanding that he should pass it to Anna. Maybe he will and maybe he won’t. This whole time, people are adding more information to the claim. Perhaps I looked at the card and said “it’s not a fly, but it eats them for breakfast: It’s a frog”, but Bob looked at and said “Don’t listen to him, Anne, it really is a fly!”

What if instead, I passed the card to Bob without looking at it (you can do that) and said “fly.” My claim isn’t based on an actual observation of the card, I’m just preserving your original statement. What does that mean? It could be that I don’t care, or perhaps I’m preventing myself from displaying a tell. Or maybe I’ve figured out some subtle play that you haven’t. Goodness knows that happens often enough in this game.

Cockroach Poker” is also known as Eight Curses, where the suits are replaced with enchantments with the curse subtype from Magic: the Gathering’s Innistrad block. I can’t support playing a game without buying it from the publisher so that the designer is rewarded for his or her effort, but I will grant that Eight Curses is an entirely appropriate retheme.

What’s going on here?

Designers spend so much time crafting rules and interactions (cards, markers, rondels, turns, whoknowswhat). But, so often the real joy of a game is the rich human interaction that you could never fabricate yet falls into place naturally if you leave room for it. Most party games are powered entirely through the intricacies of social interaction. Werewolf and Celebrities are all about subtle communication. Even seemingly mindless games like Apples to Apples and Cards Against Humanity are fun purely because of the way they cause you to interact with the other players.

So what, don’t all games have this? I would argue that all good games have some hidden depth, whether it’s more social or mechanical. If a player can find a reason to take a move other than those spelled out in the rules or on the cards, she has discovered a nugget of hidden depth. If your game is chock full of such things, you’re offering your players more of the “ah-ha” moments that make them feel clever and enjoy your game.

Note that granting your players more freedom doesn’t usually help the way you might think. Players are often paralyzed when presented with too many choices. For example, I played a political simulation many years ago at Origins in which each player had some global political office and they set us loose for four hours to see what would happen. A few players leveraged their resources, wheeled and dealed, and caused some interesting results. However, the bulk of us just milled about with no clue what to do next. That was too much freedom.

It is when your choices as a player are limited that you are most challenged to play optimally, and it is because of those restrictions that you are forced to think outside the box, prompting you to discover clever solutions.

It’s quite apropos that these few thoughts only scratch the surface of how to add hidden depth to your game, and that I’m quite certain there’s much more to it that I simply haven’t uncovered yet. It’s that inkling that there’s more to discover yet that will keep me thinking about this subject and that’s the exact same motivation that keeps players coming back to games like Hanabi and Kakerlaken Poker.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject. Have you gleaned any insights about when a game or mechanic will have hidden depth, or won’t?