The Low Hanging Fruit

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eureka Moments

Post by: The Design Community!

I asked a handful of designers about eureka moments they’ve experienced in designing a game. Something that really opened their eyes to how things could work in their designs, or a way to solve their current problem in a magnificent fashion. Some of the examples seem specific to an individual game, but if you read into them, you’ll see broader themes that can apply to you. And in case you miss it, I break out some of these at the very end.

Note: To avoid a resume-like list, I simply introduced each participant with a single item. If you want me to mention another of your projects, just email me!

Ignacy Trzewiczek: Publisher at Portal Games and designer of Imperial Settlers

Let’s face it – I don’t believe in Eureka moments. I don’t believe that I will ever have this brilliant idea, that moment of enlightenment that will let me invent something that awesome like Worker Placement mechanism (William Attia in Caylus), Deckbuilding mechanism (Donald X. Vaccarino in Dominion) or Pay With Cards mechanism (Tom Lehman in San Juan). It won’t happen. I just sit on my ass and work hard trying to use already invented tools and mechanism to build something fun and entertaining. I have not had many Eureka moments in my life, and yet, I managed to design couple of fun games. So my advice for you is – don’t wait for Eureka moment. Just sit on your ass and work as hard as you can. That’s all you need.

Corey Young: Designer of Gravwell: Escape from the 9th Dimension

Santorini resulted from a chain of eureka moments. The first came while I was playing around with some 1-inch lasercut hexagons I’d picked up at a game convention. It occurred to me that when I split one into 3 sections that each became an isometric block.


I started fiddling around with these, playing with M.C. Escher-like artwork. While I liked the mind-twisting aspect, it didn’t feel grounded in reality. My primary concern was that each tile had 6 possible orientations. I considered marking the top or bottom corner to indicate “up,” but all the markings were ugly.


Then, while doodling in my design notebook, I drew an elongated hexagon. BAM! That solved it. The hexes still interlocked, but now there were only 2 possible orientations. With minor visual cues, “up” would be obvious. In some cases, the tiles work in either orientation. The wider format also made the overall image feel less vertically stretched.


The last eureka moment came when I was trying to come up with a way of getting the tiles to stay together in the right orientation. My original prototypes were simply tiles situated on a tabletop. The inspiration for the inclined board came from a music stand.

Geoff Engelstein: Co-Host of Ludology and designer of Space Cadets

Notable Eureka moment: Making losing fun in Space Cadets. That was by far the last big feature to be added. We had played for years where to win you had this climactic ‘Jump’ attempt, with much yelling and screaming. But you lost just by taking too much damage, which usually simply came down to a die roll. Yeah, it could be a tense die roll, but it just wasn’t the same.

One time I ran back-to-back playtests with different groups. The first won, with much cheering as they jumped successfully. The second lost the game, and it just was like air going out of a balloon.  And the thought just popped up in my brain – “Losing needs to be just as exciting. There needs to be a minigame about losing.”  Very quickly we sketched out the criteria:

  • Needed to involve the whole team
  • Needed to be thematic
  • Needed to help save you from losing.

So you always had one last shot for redemption, and you had to pull together as a team to do it.

It took lots of tries to get something that worked, but ultimately the ‘Core Breach’ mechanic became my absolutely favorite part of the game. I think we really did make losing just as dramatic as winning, and it perhaps creates more stories than anything else in the game.

Joshua Buergel: Designer of Foresight (Coming Soon)

One of my favorite eureka moments came on Foresight. I’m a huge fan of Uwe Rosenberg, especially his early card games. One of the things I enjoyed about them was the unexpected ways he used them. Things like not being able to sort your hand in Bohnanza, or the rotating hands in Space Beans. At the same time, I read an article by James Ernest about creating games that break implicit rules, the things everybody knows about games and game components. I think it was written about the extra turn mechanic in Spree, but I thought it was interesting. Since I’ve been a lover of traditional card games all my life, I decided to see if I could apply those principles, unexpected use of cards and breaking implicit rules, to a traditional pack of cards. It hit me in the shower one day, finally. The implicit rule I should break would be that all cards in a poker deck have the same back. If I broke that rule, what could I do? From there, the idea of putting suit information on the back of the cards came about very quickly, and I had my deck of cards in essentially its finished form.

Gil Hova: Designer of Battle Merchants

My journey so far has been a bunch of smaller eureka moments. I’ll highlight two that stand out, though.

The first came relatively early. My first few designs were simple bluffing games. At some point, I realized that I hated playing bluffing games! I was still new to board games in general, and it was a big shock when I realized that the games I liked the most were not always the games that everyone else liked.

We all play games, but the kinds of games we enjoy are all so different. They offer experiences ranging from contemplative thought to cutthroat bitterness. Not every game is going to appeal to every player. Once I realized my favorite games were deep economic Euros, I was able to focus my designs to what I liked best in games: making interesting plans and executing them around other player’s plans.

The second came much later. I was chatting with another designer over Twitter a few weeks ago, and we discussed the traps our early designs fell into. His fell into the “this card forces you to discard your hand, the next card forces you to lose your next turn” trap. Mine fell into the “roll dice to see how many dice you roll” trap.

Both traps use gaudy mechanisms to obscure player interaction. They seem like they add interesting and meaningful gameplay at first, but in practice, they actually obscure it. It took me a long time to learn how opacity and transparency affect game design. They’re both useful tools, but as a new designer, I tended to toss opaque mechanisms in just because they sounded cool, without realizing how much they pulled players out of the game.

I was lucky enough to fall into the NYC-Playtest group, who repeatedly urged me to cut useless mechanisms and to not be afraid to make radical changes. Prolix, my first published game, had an awful, clunky letter movement mechanism that didn’t actually add any value to the gameplay. Once I followed my playtesters’ advice and cut it out, the game started to really sing.

AJ Porfirio: Publisher at Van Ryder Games and designer of Hostage Negotiator

It was realizing that my game could not be all things for all people. There will always be someone who doesn’t like your game. When I started out, it was painful to hear the tough criticism and sometimes very harsh remarks. Over time, I’ve come to realize that it is ok that everyone does not like a design or publication of mine. What is important is that the target audience DOES enjoy it. So in a nutshell, know who your audience is and make design decisions with them in mind!

Todd Edwards: Writer of the Nerni children’s books and designer of Streets and Sidewalks

There I was, working on a solo combat game to take with me when I traveled. That meant the enemy AI needed enough attack variety so that I wouldn’t be able to predict what was coming, you know, to make it more like playing against a person. So I added cards and added cards until I had 120 or more. The game got too big to fit in the small travel box, which defeated the original purpose. Then I remembered my brief brush with combinatorial chemistry back in grad school. What if each card had two bits of info, and you drew two cards for each attack? Then you can have a much bigger variety with a small amount of cards. Then each enemy got five cards. Not only did that make the game portable again, but it let the AI build combos with the attack from one unit and the modifier from another. The AI felt more like a human opponent and the game turned out better than I’d hoped!

Daniel Solis: Publisher at Smart Play Games and designer of Light Rail

I was testing a bluffing/deduction game inspired by Liar’s Dice, where if you lost a wager you’d lose one card from your hand limit. If you ran out, you were eliminated. The last player standing was the winner.

Unfortunately, this led to runaway losers because a smaller hand size made it that much more difficult to make educated guesses about the overall game state. The game was too long and un-fun.

The Eureka moment came when a playtester suggested flipping the win/lose condition on its head. Instead, running out of cards is a good thing that you’re trying to achieve. This makes a natural catch-up mechanism as the player furthest in the lead has the least information to work with.

Since then, I’ve always kept an open mind about victory conditions when I hit designer’s block. Instead of wanting the most X, maybe you want the fewest? Instead of the tallest building at the end of the game, you want it tallest in the middle and then tear it down as quickly as possible? Sometimes there is a juicy design space in “shoot the moon” mechanisms, too.

Ed Marriott: Co-Publisher at Moon Yeti Games and designer of Scoville

My eureka moments are few and far between. But one moment of note was when I realized you could buy 1000 assorted cubes from EAI Education for around $20. That made my prototyping so much faster. I use the cubes all the time. It’s funny to me that sourcing components is my eureka moment so I’ll give another eureka moment.

When designing Scoville, I fumbled over the grid design for a while with how best to have it operate. When I stopped thinking about it and just chose the simplest method everything in the game fell into place. Sometimes it’s easier to just go with something and test it rather than toil over numerous design iterations in your head. Get your games on the table! You might be amazed at the results.

Kyle Hendricks: Co-Designer of Bountytown

When design started on Bountytown, it was originally supposed to be a Touch of Evil re-theme. My eureka moment was sitting in a meeting room at my day job, thinking about the core conceits of the game, and it hit me hard. The “spaghetti west” is always misrepresented as super white and male. Bountytown then took a MAJOR shift as the main goal was to provide a voice for often under represented folk. Because of that, we took huge changes with mechanics and breaking from our other “formulas” which made it what it is today!

Jay Treat: Designer of Legacy of the Slayer

For Cahoots!, the big eureka moment was realizing that instead of having one suit per player and fiddling with a formula for sharing points with opponents, I could have one suit per player pairing and the scoring would just work automatically. By challenging a core assumption about trick-taking games (that there are always four suits) and by considering my goal for the game rather than my current solution for it, I was able to simplify and innovate at the same time.

Legacy of the Slayer’s genesis was in the eureka of combining two solutions to problems I had with existing story games: Cards to focus the narrative on characters and their development, and a system to ensure that loose ends get addressed before the game ends. It’s important as a game designer to find what bothers you in the games people are playing and imagine solutions; That’s vital practice in developing the problem-solving skills you need, but also one of the better sources of inspiration. When a solution is so compelling you want to build a game around it—even better, when you realize you have multiple solutions that would fit the same game—the end result is likely to be a product that innovates in a way people enjoy (as opposed to innovation for its own sake which is often a dead-end).

Ben Rosset: Designer of Brew Crafters

I was taking a brewery tour at Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton Delaware and the owner, Sam, was so passionately describing how he grew the brewery into a thriving business in such a short amount of time, and talking about all the new equipment they were installing that year and about the new recipes they were researching, and then suddenly it hit me: this would make an amazing game! I went home and immediately got to work on what would become “Brew Crafters”.

Chevee Dodd: Designer of Pull!

I’ve always wanted to design a trick taking game. I love games with a “problem solving” aspect, and trying to deduce players’ hands to figure out the perfect play really excites me. So, I designed a trick taking game PULL! and that’s exactly what it was. A game where playing perfectly was a requirement.

The problem is, that’s not fun for most people. There’s a reason why Bridge isn’t heavily talked about with excitement among gamers… but Tichu is. So, during my weekly gaming sessions I started paying more attention to what makes Tichu “fun” for us. I found the answer during a particularly close game when one player was trying to go out first while setting up his partner. An opponent, who hadn’t done much the entire hand, suddenly throws out a bomb, which wrecked the brilliant play of the other. This happens a lot when playing Tichu, and it’s neat, but that wasn’t the moment.

Shortly after his bomb, the opponents threw out a bomb of their own. BAM! Eat that. Nope. Quiet guy calmly looks at his hand, and throws the rest down. He had an Ace high straight bomb! Just like that he went out, totally destroying his opponents and the table burst into laughter and mocking.

That’s what PULL! needed: an injection of coy little plays that could totally turn the game upside down. That’s when I went to work to make the game “fun.”

Grant Rodiek: Designer of Farmageddon

Early in Farmageddon’s life I was having difficulty solving the tuning of the Crop and Compost cards. You needed Crop cards to plant and Compost cards to harvest the Crop cards. I couldn’t get the distribution right! Players always had too many crops or too few compost, or vice versa. The thought occurred: why not let Crops be used as either? This solves the distribution entirely. In fact, it removes the problem. It also adds a nice little choice: how do I use this crop card?

Multi-use cards have since become a favorite tool of mine. They feature prominently in York, LF, and surely more to come. But, they are also a key element of my favorite games, including Race for the Galaxy, 7 Wonders, and Summoner Wars.

Secondly, and most importantly … I worked on York for years. The core mechanics didn’t change much, but I was constantly polishing barbs and imperfections. Smoothening and removing bumps. A friend noted I was going to strip the screw, so to speak. Over time, it became clear that I had sanded the game into a foundation. I had sought elegance at the expense of fun. Since then, I haven’t feared inelegance or “fat” as I think of it. As long as it makes sense, and increases the fun, I leave it. You can see these changes in Sol, which is full of fun items, Hocus, and LF.

Some highlights, in my opinion.

  • Don’t wait, but get busy on creating fun. The magic will happen as you work.
  • Losing should be fun too!
  • Don’t worry about making games for everyone. Make a great game for someone. Make the games YOU want to make.
  • New mechanisms can be found by breaking current rules and expectations. Break core assumptions to innovate.
  • Take inspiration from the world around you, be it flavors, sights, or key moments in your life.
  • The best doesn’t always have to be the biggest or most. You can win with the fewest or another less obvious fashion.

If you want to contribute your eureka moment, , or share in the comments below!

Raising My Bar

Post by: Grant Rodiek

This is a long, very personal, and in parts, difficult post that’s taken me a few days to write and edit. Bear with me!

I noted the other morning on Twitter that one of the more difficult skills I’ve learned as a designer is when to recognize good isn’t good enough. Throughout your design career, you have to recognize when something isn’t working. That’s one of the first lessons. But, knowing when a good thing isn’t a great thing? And it SHOULD be? That’s a bit more difficult and it requires a large scraping of honesty and inward reflection.

Honestly, it doesn’t take much experience to recognize something broken, and if you’re like 99% of us, that’s the majority of every game’s life span. We joke at work (making games) that games suck until they don’t. I stand by this wholeheartedly. When your game is broken, it’s obvious because the tuning is ridiculous, or mechanics just don’t make sense, or people aren’t having fun. This is a skill to develop, of course, but really it requires paying attention.

But, recognizing that good isn’t good enough? That takes a different skill set. That takes a level of honesty, an understanding of your market, both in terms of competition and consumer, and in terms of your own personal goals.

This will be an honest and personal post about my design and entrepreneurial ambitions. I realize these posts are useless if they are solely about me and cannot be applied generally, so I’ll do my best to write it in a way that it’s meaningful for others.

Let’s get to answering that question. How do you know when good is good enough?

One element that has really driven this change in my perspective is working with publishing partners on my games. Publishers have great stakes in your product once they have signed it. They need to publish 2500-5000 (or more) copies, which requires significant capital investment. For that, they need to spend thousands of dollars on art and graphic design. Above all, they need to earn a profit and make enough to fund additional copies or other projects. It needs to sell and it needs to represent their brand favorably. Your publisher not only has a desire for your game to be great, but a fundamental need.

In a few cases I’ve had publishers say “this, this, and this are nice. We need to throw the rest of this away and make it way better.” The good news is, they were right! The important part was that they recognized what worked and what was special. They saw the foundation and knew where to start building. The wheels start spinning and I begin to ask myself if I can begin to apply these critiques myself.

Really, I think knowing when something is good enough is about recognizing missed opportunities. If those opportunities exist, and they haven’t been explored, you may not know it’s good enough. If you find yourself thinking about them, then there may be something lacking in your core experience.

I find this happens not when my game is busted or falling apart, but when it reaches long periods of stability. You need to fundamentally understand your game, both over the span of its life, but in its current iteration. If you’re changing your game every test, this is difficult to observe. It isn’t that you notice imbalance, or even dominant strategies (which you shouldn’t have), but your mind starts wandering. This is difficult to nail down, but walk with me. In a way, it’s a static romantic relationship. You aren’t fighting. You like each other. But, where’s the spark?

To look at some of my personal examples, York had a good card mechanic, solid pacing, a nice action system, a good point structure for 4 players, a nice battle system, and good tactics content. It also had a neat idea involving a fort structure. But, it lacked breadth, theme, variance (for replays), and enough strategic depth. These were missed opportunities that needed to be explored. Its individual elements were almost a bit too trimmed and smoothed. It wasn’t the most elegant game — that’s not what I’m saying. But every part was meticulously tested and refined and before too long, I had this little, lock-step Prussian experience. It needed some spark to it.

Sol Rising (then Blockade) had a solid movement and combined arms mechanic, did neat things combining several ships as a single control group (i.e. squadron), and used a fun circular board. But, it entirely lacked scenarios and breadth, the dice needed to be simplified, it lacked opportunities for player customization, and made expansions difficult due to its costly components. Without changing it to its card based format, it would never have a chance at being a great game.

Here are some quick signs you may have missed opportunities in your design:

  1. You find yourself constantly designing expansions or variants. You’re restless.
  2. You find that you don’t have GOOD answers to questions posed by testers. You’re uncertain.
  3. You find that you have too many darlings you’re willing to kill. You’re reckless. Every design needs a thing or two that’s worth fighting for. You need an Alamo.
  4. You find yourself holding frequent what-if thought experiments. You’re introspective.

The soul of a designer when a game is pitched, self-published, or on a shelf, should be at peace. Rejection should come from customers who don’t enjoy this type of game, or publishers for whom the game isn’t the right fit. But, you should not be restless, uncertain, reckless, or overly introspective.

AND NOW, a detour to provide more context for this post. I’m going to talk about my goals as an entrepreneur and publisher.

While steadily testing Hocus Poker the last few months, I also finally took the plunge to form my LLC. The purpose of the LLC is to self-publish smaller card games as a means for me to learn and grow as an entrepreneur. I won’t divert all of my designs to this, merely smaller ones that fit my brand and can be produced without using my home as collateral.

Hocus Poker is meant to be the first game to be released in 2015. I previously used phrases like “I’m doing this [business] just for fun” and “I just need to break even,” but I’ve stricken those from my vocabulary. Those can’t be my goals or operating motives, because I’ll then act according to them. When the goal becomes self-sufficiency driven by profits, it really ups the stakes. My goal had to change to success by the standard definition, not a lame one. There’s no room for cowards.

Some of the things I’m expecting of my LLC and its titles include:

  • I need to sell 2500 copies in 2 years. That’s over 100 copies per month.
  • I need to get the games into distribution. Without the FLGS, I’m sunk.
  • I need to attend minor, cost-effective cons initially to build an audience from face to face interaction. This means hustle and logistics.
  • I need to pay off the cost of doing business in CA every year. This isn’t cheap. I now know why people form in Delaware.
  • I need to make games with potential to be picked up by foreign partners.
  • I need to make games with expansion possibilities. I intend to support successful titles both to support fans, but also drive revenue.
  • I need to release 1 game per year. Assuming the occasional one is successful, there need to be enough products in the pipe to keep the lights on.

Not all of these have equal weight. By that, I mean these are all part of a multi-year plan and some are more important than others.

I recently heard a Ludology episode in which North Star Games owner Dominic Crapuchettes was interviewed. Something he said really struck me for its boldness and clarity of vision. Dominic noted that they designed Evolution such that it could win the Spiel des Jahres. As Tiger Woods was groomed for golf, Evolution was groomed for the Spiel des Jahres.

Think about that! He publicly stated, with utter confidence, “we seek to win the Spiel des Jahres with our strategy games.”

Obviously, that isn’t my goal. Goals are useful if they are achievable and jokes if otherwise. I probably already have people snickering with some of the notes above. But, I need to target goals within reach that are similarly ambitious. I need to find my relative Spiel des Jahres.

Let’s swing this back around to product development. I’ve returned to my previous hyper price-conscious state. I’ve always been obsessed with price and am convinced it’s a massive component to Farmageddon’s success. Therefore, a $20 MSRP for Hocus Poker won’t cut it. It needs to be $15, tops. Why? It’s an easier purchase for people on the fence, which is pretty much everyone as I’m an unknown entity. It’s also a great value for the game we’re delivering, which is fundamental to drive word of mouth.

Amusingly enough, the COO of Steve Jackson Games also thinks this is a good idea, so maybe I’m onto something! Stop and read his post here. It’s really excellent, not just for publishers, but designers seeking to be published.

If I’m examining Good Enough through the lens of price, I can easily see missed opportunities for Hocus. As we noted in a previous post, we’re essentially paying for 108 cards, but are only using 80 currently. We’re also using punch board components, which make the game a bit more fiddly (components always do!), more costly, less portable (ex: it is more difficult to play at a picnic table in the park), and I would argue that they don’t add enough fun to justify their existence. Plus, if I’m being honest, they’re going to increase the cost to the consumer in two ways: more expensive box and more expensive components, not to mention initial setup costs in molds for the tokens!

That, then, is another way by which to judge Good Enough. Does the cost, product-wise or cost-wise, of a feature or component, justify its existence with positive, fun driving benefits? After some thoughts, I can say with some certainty that the tokens in Hocus Poker do not.

Cost is a big factor and something I’m painfully aware of even as a designer (i.e. when I’m not wearing my publisher pantalones). In addition to the cost per unit, I have to consider the cost per run. The investment in making the game exist at all.

I was always struck by Jamey Stegmaier putting a guarantee on his games. You can return them within the first month, full refund, no questions asked. Am I willing to put a guarantee on the game? I should be. And, whether I use crowdfunding or not, would I be willing to put the full value behind the game to publish it myself? Again, I should be.

A few more notches on the bar, it seems.

The Roles

An insight I’ve gained working in a highly structured, professional game development environment is that different management groups have different priorities and responsibilities. I’m going to toss out an observation that I think is apt in regards to the board game space. The designer’s primary responsibility is the game and the vision. The publisher’s primary responsibility is to the customer. Now, this doesn’t mean the designer doesn’t care about the customer. Nor does it mean the publisher doesn’t care about the game. But, they each have their role and highest priority.

In applied language, this mean’s the designer’s role is to make the game great and find a home for it. The publisher’s role is to find great games and in some ways, act as the gate keeper and make the game successful in the market. This isn’t good enough, we pass. This is going to be good enough, but it needs more work.

If you’re self-publishing, as I’m seeking to do with some of my titles, like Hocus Poker, I suddenly have to fill both roles. I must do so viciously and with clarity. With Sol Rising, I get to wait for my publisher to say “it’s good, let’s ship it.” With Hocus, I have to carry that entire burden myself. Do you see the difference?

I have to bounce between devout belief and idealism in my design, then flip entirely to the side of stern, nigh-villainous publisher. It reminds me of the standard parenting tip that you can’t be both a parent and best friend and also shines light on why so many publishers don’t double as designers. Sure, they design stuff occasionally, but many people who are serious in the hobby focus on one or the other.

Great. Now I need to have long, detailed conversations with myself about my strengths and failings.

Peer Pressure

As a final parting note, good enough is defined by one’s peers. Nobody joins the NBA and says they aspire to be that second string dude who never gets to breakaway his breakaway pants. Note: That’s a John Mulaney joke I’m stealing. No, you point out the biggest, baddest dude (or dudette) and set that as your goal.

My adult life has been spent in PC games, so I look to Valve and Blizzard as standard setters. Firaxis too. You know, the guys who made Half Life 2, Portal, World of Warcraft, and X-Com.

In board games, I look to those who fill my shelf with great games. Gamewright, Academy, Plaid Hat, Portal, and GMT. They set the bar in my eyes, which may be the most ridiculous  thing I’ve stated yet. Selling 2500 copies pales in comparison, right?

It’s a long term haul, but it’s worth it. Look at how Blizzard could sell 10 million copies of a ham sandwich to their legion of fans. Look at how Plaid Hat redefines what one should expect to sell in pre-orders. Look at how Imperial Settlers sits comfortably on top of the Hotness the last few days, even with the Kennerspiel announcement (I realize this isn’t scientific AT ALL). In this excellent story about how Sid Sackson developed Acquire, I took note of how the author devoted a paragraph to praise Hans im Glück for their push to develop greatness. An excerpt:

“There are a number of exceptions, however – and none greater than the German publisher Hans im Glück.  They _actively_ rework designs; more than any other publisher I’m familiar with they are willing to completely rework a game in order to get more out of the central design that was submitted.”

That’s the reputation I seek, potentially foolishly. I seek it with the knowledge it may be 10 years and a half dozen games out. I also realize my little LLC might not survive that long.

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve gone over quite a few of the tools I use to gauge whether something is good enough. These included:

  • Among other things, if my mind is restless with the design, it might not be good enough.
  • Does the price per copy provide enough fun for my customers?
  • Is the game good enough to sell through in a marketplace full of excellent games?
  • Can I proudly put the game next to those of my favorites on my shelf?
  • Would I give it a guarantee?
  • Would I self-finance it?
  • Can I sign off on it both as a designer AND a publisher?

Is this good enough may then be a very easy question to answer with so many tools and data points. The hard part might not be answering it, but instead recognizing the answer and using it to inform your next steps.


Diagramming for Clarity


Post by: Grant Rodiek

A fundamental problem with every board game is that a game designer doesn’t ship with every copy of the game to teach it to customers. This is a difficult problem to solve before the advent of cloning or teaching droids.

If you’ve read my blog, you know that I believe very strongly that accessibility, or the lack thereof, is a key component to the growth or stagnation of our hobby. Therefore, today we’re going to talk about diagrams and how this very crucial element should be used to improve even the simplest game.

Every player learns to play your game differently. Some people like to read, some love to watch videos, others insist on being taught, and finally, some may simply be visual learners. Most likely, most people are a little bit of everything. Every designer has the budget and time to write clean rules — it just takes practice. Furthermore, every designer has the skills to create even the most rudimentary diagrams to illustrate even the simplest point.

Remember, a picture is worth 1000 words. And a picture paired with 1000 words is a far superior rules document. My goal for this post is to give you a variety of examples and cases from my own games and others to demonstrate how to use diagrams to improve your rules.

One Quick Note: Do not bother with diagrams until your rules are relatively stable. You’ll kick yourself if you have to constantly re-make the diagram to match your shifting rules. Wait until you’re at a point of relative stability, or a big moment (Con, pitch) to do it.

If you want to see my words in action, check out the Hocus Poker rules. They now contain diagrams for many aspects of the rules.

What should diagrams teach? Diagrams should teach anything that can be misconstrued with written communication. A board game rule booklet is a construction manual, a how to manual, and a trouble shooting manual all in one.

Construction Manual: For construction, let’s look to some of the best manuals in the business: Lego and Ikea. Without a single word, they teach people how to communicate elaborate, intricate things. Or, cheap plywood stools.

Therefore, a standard for game diagrams is how to setup the board and play space. Unless your game has a single deck as a component, this holds great value. Not only does it clear up any confusion surrounding the interpretation of the text, but it is your chance as the designer to show your players the ideal way to setup the game to maximize their space.


In the diagram above, I demonstrate how to setup the Actions and Spells. I provide context and examples for how the Mana and Rune tokens will be used. I give an idea for how players should sit, and remind them subtly that hands are private (face down). Finally, I show where to setup the square. This is all fully explained in text in the rules, but providing an image with captions really drives it home.

Use diagrams to demonstrate how precisely to setup the game so that there are no questions from your players on whether they read correctly.

How To: There are some standards in games that don’t need visual backups. Shuffling, for example. Then again, Pandemic, which I consider a standard setter for accessibility, has a diagram that shows you how to hold cards in your hands (in the first edition, at least)!

Here: Just go read Pandemic’s rules.

What do I want you to take away from this? Pandemic uses a visual to help explain every single choice you can make in the game. They tell you how to move your pawns, what cards you spend to cure, how you remove cubes, how to travel. All via diagrams. I assure you that a large part of Pandemic’s main stream success is how difficult it is to screw up your play experience. People hate feeling stupid. This is one of the reasons they don’t play board games. Pandemic does everything it can to ease this.

For Hocus Poker, we created diagrams to cover a few things with which people might have confusion, each shown below: Paying to activate spells, creating a hand, and tie breakers.

Each of these is backed up with a text explanation, but each is intended to drive home things that should be relatively simple.

The key element we’re trying to communicate in the diagram immediately above this is that you stack your Mana and that you do so above the Spell cards. The text explains the finer points, but driving home visually what it means to “stack” is really key.


Here, we used this snapshot of a game to outline several points. One, a player’s possession and that it includes both their hand and shown cards. We also wanted to highlight that players can build hands using their possession and the Square. Thanks to a tip from a reader, we used blue and red outlines to note one example player’s hand from another. Finally, this helps reinforce that some hands are better than others.


For this last one, we’re explaining the tie breakers. You see three hands in the third image, each a pair of 2 matching cards. The first tie breaker is that 11 is better than 3. That knocks out Merlin. The second tie breaker is that the best Arcana card in ties wins. Morgan is the only one with an Arcana (the 11 of Hexis), so she wins.

One thing you hopefully noticed in both my examples and the far superior Pandemic ones is the sense of context. The diagrams are not just useful for teaching a single item, but multiple items wrapped together in context. Every diagram is an opportunity to teach a new thing and remind the player about another thing they just learned.

The Trouble Shooting Guide: We use diagrams to teach players to setup correctly. We then use diagrams to teach the basics. Diagrams should then be used to teach the difficult stuff.

One thing I like about the rules for Horus Heresy is that within their diagrams, they not only show you what you can do, but what you can’t. Check out the movement diagram on page 22.

If you’ve ever tested a game, you know that immediately after you or your rules explain what a player can do, players will ask if they can’t do something. I have mixed feelings on how to solve this. If your rules specify everything a player can’t do, the document will soon grow to 300 pages. However, diagrams are a great way to highlight the most often asked issues.

In Battle for York, players are allowed to completely abandon a region on the board. This is different than Risk. Therefore, I used a diagram to show that you could move all your units and therefore subtly teach that, yes, it’s okay to leave a territory naked.

In addition to edge cases and examples like the ones above, diagrams can be used to demonstrate written rules whose implications may not be immediately clear. For example, in Sol Rising, activated Units can Move, Attack, Change Formation, and Activate Abilities in any order. However, players who have played Memoir ’44 or Summoner Wars may think they need to move first, then attack. OR, they may think that they can attack, then move, but they need to do them entirely as a chunk. Not true!

Therefore, I used diagrams to show an activated Squadron moving one space, attacking, then moving the remaining two spaces and changing formation. This would have been a cumbersome and easily misinterpreted paragraph in the rules booklet. But, as a captioned image, it illustrates the point perfectly.

How should you create your diagrams? You have so many tools at your disposal! Google Drawing is FREE and is really fantastic for creating simple diagrams. Their tools let you create simple shapes, like cards, very quickly. And, you can import images to use as well. You can also setup your prototype and take a Photo using a smart phone.

You may laugh, but it’s possible to even doodle something on pen and paper, then scan it into your rules. You’d be shocked to find what a square with an arrow can teach your players.

What are your favorite examples of diagrams in rules? What are some tricks you’ve found useful for crafting diagrams? What did I get wrong? Share it in the comments below.

Free Kickstarter Advice


Post by: Grant Rodiek

Kickstarter controversy is just silly lately. There are a handful of new consulting companies you can pay to help you with your campaign. Interestingly enough, I’ve watched a few of their own projects fail. So much for expertise? You have the $122,000 case of fraud where the guy just isn’t going to deliver the product. You have the boast of making a game for only $999! Plus, of course, the Kickstarter and established brand presence.

This all tickles me.

In light of all this, I thought I’d offer some free advice in a few forms. My own personal observations, but also, I’d like to point you in the direction of some good data.

First, some links.

  • Read the Stonemaier Blog’s Kickstarter Lessons. All of them.
  • Go to Kickstarter and review the projects.
  • Go to the Most Funded projects and see what they did well.
  • Listen to Funding the Dream. Even 10 episodes will give you a spectrum of ideas.
  • Talk to your grandfather or parents for a little common sense.

The elements that comprise a successful Kickstarter campaign or product are not closely guarded secrets of the NSA. They don’t require a doctorate in economics to fully grasp. Really, you need to PAY ATTENTION and observe the world around you. People have been selling goods and services for thousands of years. Think about the companies you like and emulate them.

Kickstarter is a petri dish of success, failure, and out of this world success. It is FREE to observe and watch. I’ve been watching Kickstarter for years and I have learned a few things just by paying attention.

It’s not hard to learn these things. It just takes time and a keen eye.

If you want to be successful, here are some good standards to which to adhere.

Here are two of the most important things for initial sales, i.e. Kickstarter. Opinion alert!

Have great art. This is subjective, but presentation is what gets people window shopping. You need people to pull your product off the shelf, digital or otherwise. If you race for the bottom and hire the cheapest art student off Deviant Art who doesn’t understand anatomy, perspective, or colors, guess what? You don’t have great art. 

I won’t call out bad art here, but take a quick stroll through the projects that aren’t funding.

Have a great price. You need to sell at a price that is a great value to consumers. It is painfully simple to go to your FLGS or Amazon and compare your prototype, its components, and its play style to similar games. For Farmageddon, I looked at Gamewright’s collection of card driven games. Obviously we couldn’t beat their economies of scale, but we knew we had to be well under $20 to compete. For York, as a 60 minute game, I knew $50 was the upper limit, but $40 was ideal.

I hate to beat this horse, but Princes of the Dragon Throne cost too much in both iterations. Its first funding goal failed and its second one barely succeeded. Consider what your audience wants, compare yourself to the competition, and match it.

Side note: On Kickstarter, a great price typically includes free domestic shipping and a discount on MSRP. These are hard on your margins, but hey, that’s the ecosystem.

Once you nail these two basics, be sure to prepare properly in other areas.

Have several quotes to compare, then decide upon a manufacturer before you launch. There are so many good manufacturers. I have a list of about 25 companies that manufacture games entirely or build some portion of the process (boxes, dice, etc). It is unacceptable to launch a KS without knowing precisely what it will cost to manufacture 1000/2500/5000 copies of your game. Measure twice, cut once. Know who you’re taking to the dance and buy them a corsage. Metaphor.

To get a quote, you need to know:

  • All of your components. All of them.
  • The sizes and quality of all of your components.
  • The size of your box.
  • The size of your rules.

Ignoring miniatures and custom dice (which are outliers), game boards, cards, and rules will be very expensive. Punchboard is shockingly cheap. If there are ways to swap wooden tokens with punchboard, go for it. If you can reduce cards, do so.

One of the reasons York is so expensive is that I have a double sided game board and 108 cards.

Shame on you if you launch your game and don’t know precisely what it will cost.

Have all of your stretch goals designed and quoted. Guess what? Stretch Goals are a fundamental part of the current Kickstarter ecosystem. You may not raise enough to deliver a single one, but you better have 3-5 designed and ready. By designed, I mean if it is an expansion it is tested and fun. You know what your art will cost. You know what it’ll cost to incorporate the goal into 1000/2500/5000 copies. You know how it’ll affect shipping costs. Here’s a Hint: You shouldn’t make stretch goals that affect your shipping costs.

Adding a Stretch Goal should be as simple as adding an “x” to your spreadsheet.

Side note: Be sure your stretch goals enhance the product. They should not exist to complete the product. Backers will punish you with their absence if you make expected, standard things an add-on. Be ethical, be honest, be fair.

Know your shipping costs and understand fulfillment. Will your game fit into a small, medium, or large flat rate domestic package? Sweet. Shoot for that. International shipping is a whole other can of worms that I actually don’t know much about. I know some folks have done well using Amazon fulfillment in Europe, Asia, and the US.

I will advise a word of caution to signing with some companies who promise to just make fulfillment easy and fun. Check first what they are taking from your margins and look at their other work. If it sounds too good to be true, it just might be. If you really want to be a publisher, then put in the time to fully understand and succeed with shipping and fulfillment.

This aspect will kill your business if you screw up. If you’re curious why I’ve more or less walked away from the idea of playing publisher, this is one of the biggest reasons.

Make sure people know about your game and like it. Reviews are important for selling your game. Guess what? There are many people out there who refuse to buy a game until they see Tom Vasel (or another reviewer) explain it. That means you can’t ignore that!

But, reviews cost money and in some cases they won’t actually move units. Word of mouth is really the most powerful form and it’s the most difficult to build. Drive word of mouth by:

  • Sharing your rules
  • Creating preview videos on YouTube
  • Attending conventions and playing your game
  • Sending your prototypes to others, especially influential people
  • Release a PNP

Your mileage may vary. In my experience, none of those things really help  individually and never quickly. But, during Farmageddon’s Kickstarter campaign, we had podcasts talking about the game, random folks posting reviews on BGG from the PNP, plus a few hundred people who bought the POD version from The Game Crafter. It built a lot of honest buzz and really helped.

Notice how folks like Dice Hate Me go to every single convention in the north east to promote and play their games. If that dude sees a FLGS on his way to church he pulls over and puts Belle of the Ball on a table.

Summary: Don’t launch your project without reviews and word of mouth. Sure, add more throughout, but launch with it.

Share information on your game. This one is so easy to do.

  • Share rules
  • Share plenty of final game art
  • Share a gameplay video/tutorial
  • Bonus: Share a PNP. Nobody is going to steal from you. This shows confidence.

Finally, make a good game. I consider this to be the most important, but it isn’t for Kickstarter. THIS IS NOT A SLAM on the quality of Kickstarter games, but is a comment on what you’re doing on Kickstarter: pitching the game to thousands of customers in the hope they back you to get a copy of your game. Kickstarter is a month-long, interactive, evolving, two-way commercial. It’s a sales pitch in YOU and your game.


Make something great. If you make something great, your game will continue to sell off of Kickstarter and your next Kickstarter project will be even easier. If people really like you, it’ll be much simpler to share rules, share previews, and ask folks to PNP your game. A large number of people made the PNP and tested Euphoria, not because they knew anything about the game, but because they liked and believed in Stonemeier.

Making a good game is the best way to future proof your business.

I hope this is useful. Feel free to call me an idiot in the comments below!

Publishing Case Study: York

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Creative nerds everywhere want to be entrepreneurs. Thanks to Kickstarter, the Internet, and money growing on trees, it’s now relatively possible for these nerds to become entrepreneurs.

I am not a publisher, but I want to be. Badly. Yes, I self-published Farmageddon and yes I’m self-publishing Battle for York. The distinction I wish to make is that I did these as a creative exercise. I did these for myself. I believe a publisher creates games for the purpose of revenues and profits. A publisher does it to be a business. I did it for funsies. Now, that doesn’t mean a publisher doesn’t have fun and doesn’t love games, but to be successful, my games need to make money and I’m not quite there yet.

This article is intended as a case study to stir discussion and aid those interested in game publishing. I receive quite a few emails with questions about publishing and I do my best to answer them with what (little) I know. I’ve been taking notes for years and watching. This article will discuss the development I did to publish Battle for York, what I would have done differently if this were a real, profit-focused print run, and the marketing ideas I have for the game. In summary, you’re going to read about what I did, what I would have done, and some of my goofs.

Development: The Actual

Overall I’m quite pleased with the development of Battle for York. Some of my friends have told me that they tested their game a few times, a publisher signed it, then they were hands off for the next year’s worth of development. Well, I did that development. York was thoroughly tested over the course of a year with friends and co-workers, non-gamers, gamer gamers, random folks at GenCon 2012, folks at Protospiel Milwaukee, and a few folks in the Prototype Penpal Program.

Testing overall went through 3 main phases: mechanical, balance, and usability. The first phase focused primarily on making the game work. Getting it to an Alpha state. The second phase focused on making sure the game was fun and fair. Also, to ensure it’s fun to play 1, 5, 10, and 20 times (it is!). This phase is about getting it to a Beta state. The final phase was about making sure the game was as easy as possible to learn and play. It was about ensuring the reference boards and cards presented the information as well as possible. I haven’t done this for a game before and I found it insanely useful.

All told, the game has over 70 tests with dozens of people. It was tested extensively with 4 peers for the sake of deep, long-term balance testing. The rules have also been read, tweaked, and massaged for the entirety of this year. I write my rules at the beginning of the project for precisely this reason. I am reasonably confident my rules are good.

Development: The Potential

If this game had more of a development budget I would have done a few things differently. As it stands now, I had one local long-term test group and one blind long-term test group. I would have sent out copies to at least 2 more groups for long-term blind testing. This would have been invaluable for balance and accessibility. Plus, more word of mouth marketing.

I also would have tried to work out a testing moment with a prominent reviewer. Now, this might not have occurred — reviewers are busy and reluctant to do these things. I would have been willing to pay them for their services, services being 2-5 tests. I would do this in the hopes of getting a private, mock review. I would want to make sure it would go over well in the review circuit. Now, I cannot guarantee every reviewer would agree with the mock review, but testing with 1 or 2 is a good sample size. Hint: We do this all the time in the digital game space. It’s very useful.

Another change is that I would have begun stalking local FLGS to attempt to get some local word of mouth built. There are a few good stores near me: Gamescape in SF, End Game in Oakland, and Black Diamond Games in Concord. However, doing this takes time, gas money, and the stores need to be cool with me testing/shilling my game on their premises. This isn’t just a show up and rock it affair, so it would need some effort.

Finally, I would have hired a dedicated editor to examine my rules. I would not change the number of peers who examined them. Their service has been amazing and again, the rules are good. But, paying someone who is on the line to make it awesome is a good thing to do. This maxim is so true: you get what you pay for.

If you’re curious about the design side of Battle for York, ask questions, or check out this lengthy post I wrote on its origins and development.

Art: The Actual

I’m very pleased with the final art for Battle for York. The cards were illustrated by one of my favorite artists, John Ariosa. The work he created was amazing, working with him was fantastic, and overall I’m just thrilled. Here are some of his pieces:



I wrote about working with artists earlier, but I’ll rehash some of the info. I spent a year thinking about the art for York and built not one, but two Pinterest boards for it: Theme 1 and Theme 2. I had a clear vision and that really helped things.

I also greatly scoped down the required assets to fit within my tiny budget and John’s time frame. Ultimately, I hired him to create 5 images, each done in 4 colors. I asked for characters with simple backgrounds, which also kept things within scope.

I also hired Robert Altbauer from the Cartographer’s Guild to illustrate a map for me. I discussed the project with 3 artists, but ultimately settled on Robert because of his style and experience, his demeanor, and his very reasonable quote. I had him create 2 maps: 3 player and a 2-4 player. These were based on drawings I created for the prototype — the layout was refined and complete. He made it pretty and created icons for it, including the Cities, Seaports, Forts, and Headquarters. You can see one of his maps with the board elements here:

I handled the graphic design duties for the project, which included icon sourcing and layout. For icons, I used and modified them as needed, usually just by simplifying the icon or modifying it to fit the aesthetics of the rest of the game. These icons are consistently created and provided free within the creative commons license, so I used them.

Because I was obtaining the icons and because my graphic skills are limited, the overall look and feel of the game is simple, clean, and modern. Here’s a card to demonstrate this point:


You can see one of every card on Facebook here. This style was shared throughout the game’s assets, including the game board, the rules booklet, the stickers, and the player boards.

All designers do some form of graphic design for their prototypes. This project has been very instructive to me both in how to do layouts and execute tricks in Photoshop. Experienced graphics folks will giggle at what I produced, but I did my best and I learned a great deal. I created dozens of iterations for the player boards, refined the rules dozens of times, and even experimented with the relatively simple board.

Never undervalue the importance of properly communicating elements to your players.

Art: The Goofs

I did two stupid things. One is something most publishers do, for better or worse, the other is just a goof of mine. Firstly, my game isn’t the most colorblind friendly. In testing I used colors that did not share a colorblindness spectrum, but for the final game I opted for color. The four player colors are yellow, blue (oops) and green, red (double oops). Were this a fully published game, I would probably do something more along the lines of green, yellow, black, and white. Maybe. I’m not sure and right now it’s not something I’ll change.

Fortunately, the cards and game boards are very color blind friendly in regards to the information presented. But, the game pieces are less so if you’re colorblind.

The second goof also has to do with color. I’ve always used red to indicate “offensive tactics” and blue to indicate “defensive tactics.” These items also have symbols, but the colors really drive it home. My prototype did not feature red. The final game does. Now, there are red and blue player colors AND I use these colors for offensive and defensive tactics. Doh! It’s not the end of the world, but it is lame and it’s something I’d address in a real version.

Art: The Potential

The game’s assets are ultimately not very consistent. I knew this going in, so this is less a learning for me and mostly something to do differently if this were a real publication effort. The key differences is that I would have added additional process and layers to it as well as hired a graphic designer.

I also would have hired the illustrator to craft more art. Instead of 5 cards with 4 colors each, I would have made the cards color agnostic and created a unique set of 5 cards for every faction. This would have quadrupled my costs, but also made the game more varied and exciting visually.

When creating the art, I hired the illustrator (John) and map artist (Robert) simultaneously. The cards have a very painterly style and the map looks like, well, a map. In a full printing, I would have hired the illustrator first. After he (or she) created a handful of assets, I would have then sought a map artist who could work within that style and remain consistent. Another option would be to have a graphic designer create a wireframe then simply have the artist do an aesthetic pass to make it look gorgeous and consistent.

I would have also hired a graphic designer to create icons, improve my layouts, and do an aesthetic pass on all UI. When I say improve my layouts, I say that because I would still create everything. I would mail the graphic designer a copy of the game with all my assets, have him (or her) learn to play it, then with his expertise, improve upon it. From there, he would make it beautiful. As the designer, I expect myself to know what my player’s need best. I expect the designer to know slightly more than me. Ish.

The mapmaker wouldn’t begin the map until he received an improved wireframe from the graphic designer. I sent the mapmaker a layout, but it wasn’t the final one. Granted, not much changed, but still, these things matter.

I would also retain the artist to do an aesthetic pass on the icons created/sourced by the graphic designer. If you look at what York actually has, it’s painterly and somewhat fuzzy illustrations (intentional) with clean, sharp icons. These would be merged and made consistent.

Stylistically, I would also direct my team to create something that fit the fiction better. Currently, the game is set in the 19th century with some decidedly 21st century styled lines. Clean clean clean. I’d like to see a parchment vibe, something that makes me think of the time period. Island Siege by Ape Games and graphic design by Daniel Solis did this well. Here is their player mat:

In my mind, these are fairly obvious decisions based largely on time and money. Could York look better? Sure! But, the cost to do so isn’t worth the money I will make for it. To summarize my notes here:

  1. Hire a graphic designer
  2. Leapfrog between artists in order to maintain consistency
  3. Create a more appropriate aesthetic to match the theme

Marketing: The Actual

I didn’t do a very good job marketing Battle for York. Much of this have to do with me thinking  to myself, “it doesn’t matter much.” I like to develop my games openly and as a result folks may feel overwhelmed by the amount of information I share. At work, PR always guides us to have 2 or 3 points and stick to them. Market those 2-3 things precisely and repeatedly. With York, I posted about development (balance, UI, testing, mechanics, etc.) and shared everything as it became available. I should have shared things more sparingly.

If you notice with Blockade, I’m mostly teasing it via Twitter. I’ll write fewer posts and they’ll matter more. Of course, if you EVER want to know anything about my projects, email me. I’m an open book.

Another example is that when John was sending me assets one at a time, I simply shared them on Twitter. I believe there is a more effective and potent way to wield these beautiful surprises. In a proper campaign, I would have merged my Faction Previews with the art reveals. I also would have crafted a more elaborate fiction and story for each. There would have also been a video format. Just imagine how fun this would be!

The intent, would be to build hype and excitement for the theme and mechanics of York bolstered by gorgeous visuals and a well-crafted fiction.

I asked people, somewhat, for thumbs on BGG, but I don’t like spamming folks for what is ultimately an exercise in pageantry, and as a result I don’t have many thumbs. You have to ask for things!

Once I receive my copy of York, I’ll do a video unboxing to show the components and create a video tutorial to explain the game. I’ll also be sending a copy to a few reviewers. Finally, I’ll have it with me at GenCon to share and demo.

Marketing and Kickstarter: The Potential

I actually detailed some of the things I’d do differently above. So much for that format! The truth is, York is too big of a game for me to self-finance and I would have to run a Kickstarter campaign for it. Let’s discuss the Kickstarter I would have run. Before we get into Kickstarter…please don’t freak out. These are just my opinions. There is no right way. There is no single way. This is simply what I think would be my way based on my own experience with Farmageddon and a lot of observation.

Obviously, before the game launched, a handful of reviewers would have a nice prototype of the game in order to review and share. It blows my mind that some people still launch a game on Kickstarter without critical reviews to vouch for the game. This is a no no.

Before I launched on Kickstarter, all art assets would be final, all graphic design finished, and all rules final. I personally don’t like the “NOT FINAL” caveat. I’d self-finance this and say “boom, here’s the game. THIS is what you’ll receive.” It’s a personal choice and ultimately, everyone should do what they feel is best. This also helps you stick to your manufacturing schedule. Many KS projects still have to finish the game after KS.

I would share a PNP and also share a small number of copies with common BGG users to comment and discuss. This was very powerful for Farmageddon’s campaign and I feel sharing a PNP shows confidence. I would also take a note from Stonemaier Games and provide a money back guarantee. Now, before I did this, as mentioned at the very top, the game would be tested even more to fully relax me when giving this guarantee.

Stretch Goals are probably the thing I like least about the current Kickstarter ecosystem and it would definitely be a problem for me with York. I don’t like many of the extras for a few reasons:

  • The extras packed in can really increase the MSRP, which can hurt long-term sales.
  • I want to present and create the game as it’s meant to be. No more, no less.
  • They make publishing, an already difficult thing, a bit more wild and unpredictable.

Nevertheless, here are the stretch goals I had in mind for a Battle for York campaign:

  • Additional factions: York features four asymmetric factions. Manufacturing more is really just a matter of a player board and 25 cards, plus the art. I would design and test 2 more before the campaign so that adding them wouldn’t be a big deal.
  • Stories: I hired a writer to create two short stories for the current game. In hindsight, these would be awesome stretch goals. Craft stories for every faction that go beyond the “short story” limit.
  • Promo Cards: I created some of these for the current version (Tactician, Saboteur) and really like how they change up and in some ways, break the game. I think good promos are fun and I’d probably do a few of them for a KS campaign.
  • Custom Tokens: The game would largely use punchboard tokens to keep the game at a lower MSRP. However, for scoring and turn order tokens, I could have neat custom meeples created. Note: The current game uses all wooden components, so in that sense, it’s arguably nicer than the “real” version. This is probably the least likely goal I’d pursue.
  • Bag: To cut down on MSRP I’d remove the bag from the base set. But, as a stretch goal for backers, I could include the bag. Note: There’s a bag with the current version.
  • New Maps: The current maps are balanced and designed for straightforward gameplay and symmetry. I’d love to create weirder maps that shift the gameplay, add new mechanics, and really vary things. Adding new maps is simply a matter of adding more boards. Oh, wait…those are super expensive! Still, something I could “add” much like Days of Wonder did with the Memoir ’44 Winter/Desert board.

All of these would be estimated and quoted before the launch of the campaign. If my goals were hit, I’d simply reveal the next stretch goals. They would fit within my budget and I would not lose money. As a side note, I really like how Mercury Games Kickstarted The Guns of Gettysburg. They had a very upfront, honest policy regarding Stretch Goals.

My funding goal would probably be around the $10k-20k mark. I know that’s a big gap. The minimum number of copies is typically 1000 and 1500 (depending on the manufacturer), but I’d prefer to print at least 2000 as that’s where you begin to see price breaks. Margins improve here, but your investment greatly increases.

Ultimately, the number I decided would be based on the amount of money I’d be willing to put towards it.This was one of the reasons I didn’t KS York — It’s more of a niche game and I’m not sure it’s the one to put $10,000+ of my savings towards. I hope to design and publish that game (or sign someone else who does), but I’m not sure York is it.

I prefer Kickstarter projects with a few, simple backer levels. Typically:

  • Get the game for the US
  • Get the game for Canada/Europe
  • Get the game for somewhere else

Foreign backers would probably need to buy multiple copies to make it cost effective, but I haven’t gone deep enough into that to say for sure. My Kickstarter page would be simple with the following information:

  • KS video would largely be a 2 minute pitch. “This is why you should back.”
  • Page would detail components at a high level, link to reviews, share some of the art (cards, game board).
  • Page would give a quick glimpse into the world’s fiction.
  • Page would have a gameplay video. “This is how you play.”

The campaign would last for 30 or fewer days. I would be highly responsive and transparent for any questions ask (see the Farmageddon campaign for proof!). I sent several RFQs and settled on a manufacturer who would create a high quality game, was nice and reliable (from personal referrals), and could help me make the game at a $40 MSRP. I just didn’t pull the trigger.

Fulfillment and Post-KS Sales: The Potential

Fulfillment is a tricky subject. There are so many options and ways to do it. I know a few that I would NOT use. As for what I would use, I’m currently leaning towards doing it myself (if sales were low) or using Amazon fulfillment. Amazon could also help with shipping to European backers, again, if sales warranted such a thing.

In the short run I would rely heavily on Amazon’s storefront. Doing so gives me a place to store the games, a nice, safe, outstanding web store, and lets existing Amazon customers use their logins, their credit card info, and Prime status to get free shipping. Basically, I wouldn’t invest in my own Hyperbole Games storefront until sales warranted such a thing.

I would immediately begin the slow, challenging process of getting into the traditional distribution channels. There are a lot of great distributors and it would take time to build a great relationship with them. I would need to attend trade shows like GAMA and GenCon with some presence in order to do so. It is so key to be in FLGS to reach a mass audience. Once in an FLGS, my hope is that superior art and a very reasonable price would warrant a look from potential customers. Those two elements are so very key.

I would send the game to additional reviewers, especially ones with a large presence like The Dice Tower and some of the popular war game reviewers, like Marco Arnaudo. I would absolutely save some of these for after the KS campaign.

I would also begin creating expansions. I’m a huge proponent of the expansion driven business model. I love it as a consumer, a designer, and a publisher. As a consumer, it gives me more of a thing I love, but also, it’s my choice to do so. As a designer, I get to create content atop a foundation. Content is so much easier than mechanics! You also get to dream up and create less typical elements. With the base game, you want to cover your bases and hit as many people as possible. With an expansion? Go nuts. Finally, as a publisher you are able to drive additional revenue off the same IP. You can leverage existing art assets and branding. It’s also less risky to create a smaller expansion than yet another full game. Many of the most successful publishers utilize the stuffing out of this business model, including:

  • Days of Wonder: Ticket to Ride, Memoir ’44, Smallworld
  • Steve Jackson Games: Munchkin
  • Plaid Hat Games: Summoner Wars and hopefully Mice and Mystics
  • Mayfair: The Settles of Catan
  • Fantasy Flight Games: Almost everything they make. Lately, NetrunnerX-Wing, and older titles like Arkham Horror. 

Over time, the hope would be to build a small, core audience who continues to support the game’s expansions. In turn, I would support them with scenarios, PNP components, and the obvious rules support. Byron Collins of Collins Epic Wargames does a great job of supporting his community. So does Plaid Hat Games. I would like to emulate this.  This core of consumers would hopefully grow via word of mouth and eventually I’d be a millionaire. Or, I’d simply reprint and improve the game.



This post is absurdly long! I apologize. This post covered:

  • Development: Actual versus Potential
  • Art Development: Actual versus Potential
  • Marketing: Actual
  • Marketing and Kickstarter: Potential
  • Post KS Sales: Very hypothetical potential

This post was fun for me to write and share, but most importantly, I want it to be useful and interesting for you. Were you looking for specific information not covered? Did I gloss over something? Please feel free to comment below. Or, email me your question at grant[at]hyperbolegames[dot]com.

Thanks for reading. I sent Battle for York to the printer last night and I am so very excited to hold it in my hands.

Make Good Rules

Jay Treat is a really smart designer. If you follow him, interact with him, or attend an UnPub to play his games, you’ll quickly agree. He’s thoughtful, and direct. I wrote a post about rules writing on my old blog. I intended to update it and improve it for this site, but then Jay sent me his submission and I saw that my work was unnecessary. Read, enjoy, and learn!

Guest Column by: Jay Treat

One of the most common mistakes new designers make is underestimating the importance of rules. Obviously, you made the rules that make the game, but did you write them down? I often forego that step for initial playtests because they’re so primordial at that stage you’re more likely to change everything than not. However, once you’ve arrived at the point where you basically know what your game is and are just working out the kinks, you absolutely need to sit down and write the rules. This is important, not just because the finished game will need a rulebook, but to help codify the exact wording you want. Details like determining the starting player and tie breakers may not have a big impact on how your game plays, but they do make a difference and you can’t fudge them once your game is shrink-wrapped. You’ll also need to have playtesters learn the game by reading the rules (to make sure they make sense) and you can’t do that if there are no rules for them to read.

I want to take a moment today to walk you through some tips that will help you produce readable, functional, and flawless rules.

Making Rules :: Programming

Establishing the rules for a game is a lot like programming. A lot. It’s not enough to know how things are going to go in the ideal situation or the most common situations, you need to understand exactly what will happen in every possible situation — no matter how unlikely it may be — and your game can’t break under any of them. Every board game has corner cases, but they become exponentially more common as complexity increases. Games like Cosmic Encounter with pieces that trump the rules of the game are littered with combinations that are ambiguous at best. Ambiguous rules cause arguments and very few gamers enjoy real-life confrontation.

While the first stage of playtesting is about finding the fun of the game and making things generally click, the second and third stages are going to require a lot of bug-hunting. Make play choices that seem suboptimal so that you can check previously unseen combinations and verify that the rules don’t fall apart. If there are two many permutations to try them all, make a spreadsheet and do the math to make sure scenario 13 and scenario 74 don’t result in an unfinishable game.

Also like programming, syntax can be the devil. Missing a semicolon? Your code may not compile. Got an ‘and’ where you wanted an ‘or’? Players who learn the game from the rules might be learning a different — hopefully worse — game. This is another reason you want multiple foreign eyes going over your rules; these kinds of mistakes are usually invisible to their author.

Ad Absurdum

The best way to make sure your game always plays as expected is to test the extremes. If a player can roll all 1’s in your dice game and is guaranteed to come in last place, that doesn’t just indicate that one in a million games will be an auto-loss, it strongly suggests that many games could be skewed to the point of being unfun. If, on the other hand, there is no combination of luck that can guarantee a loss, perhaps given a particular strategy, then you can be confident that no game in the possible spectrum will be ruined for that reason.

You have to check both extremes too, of course. In particular, watch out for a dominant strategy. If there’s any one path a player can take that will always yield the best chance of winning, you can be sure that everyone who figures it out will use it every time and that nobody will be interested in playing again. Similarly, if there’s a strategy that’s guaranteed to lose, no one will ever take it and it’s just adding clutter to your game. Fix it or pitch it.

Every Rule Has an Exception*

You can’t break the law. Unless you’re a cop, politician, or diplomat. Or unless you don’t get caught. Or unless you’ve accepted the legal repercussions. Once you’re in jail, you can’t leave before you’ve served your sentence. Unless you’re well-behaved. Or well-connected. Or escape.

As much as every game must have rules, games almost universally are made interesting by the exceptions to those rules. Small World is a great example. Everyone follows the same rules of playing tokens and attacking regions, but what makes the game worth playing are the races and the abilities that break those rules. Exceptions are so central to the identity of rules that you could argue a rule is defined by its exceptions. Games like Magic: the Gathering are so defined by their exceptions, that the exceptions have their own exceptions.

Not sure where to go with your next game project? Make a rule. Ideally, a stifling, prohibitive rule. How much can you build within the constraints of that rule? (Restrictions breed creativity, but that’s a whole other article. Aaand here it is.) Once you’ve reached the limits within that rule, break it. Not completely, of course; you’d lose everything. Just make one little exception. I can’t guarantee this exercise will produce anything fun, but chances are good it will be interesting and the challenge enlightening.

*Except those that don’t.

Less Isn’t Worse

It’s entirely natural to keep adding cool new things to your game. A is cool, therefore wouldn’t A+B and A+C be even cooler? Whether they are or not, you need to seriously consider whether those additions are needed to make the game fun or if they just add more bulk to the rules and thus length and difficulty to learning the game.

It’s so natural to keep adding more things to your game, that you’re often not even aware of it. You produce your first prototype or your last and say this is the game and nothing extra, but you’ve been playing with parts for so long that they feel inseparable to you, even though they’re not. One of the hardest parts of game design is knowing what to exclude from your game and trimming legitimately fun things away from a working game. But it’s important because the best games are always tight packages, metaphorically, presenting only the bare minimum components and rules needed to enjoy the game and nothing else.

Failing to trim your game into a lean mean fun machine will almost invariably cost you publication because extra parts make the game more expensive, extra rules make the game less accessible, and the combination makes a game no one wants to take a chance on. Can you save these cool bits for an expansion? Tuck them at the bottom of the box with a note that says “don’t open until your fifth game?” Often times, getting the core game published, played, and reviewed gives you the perspective to inform sequels and expansions that will validate some of your excised ideas, mutate others, completely negate the bulk of them, and then add new, better ones. It’s hard to see when you’re cutting your darlings, but in the end, it really is for the best.

Unenforceable Rules

Sometimes a game knowingly includes a rule that’s impossible for other players to verify for correctness, and sometimes these tricky situations just sneak in. “Draw two cards, then put one back on the top of your deck.” If you put the cards you drew into your hand, your opponent can’t be sure that the card you put back was part of that pair or had already been in your hand. If you’re not paying attention, you may not even be able to tell.

I love flicking games, but they often involve keeping track of what hit what and considering the number of pieces that can be involved and the speed at which many flicks happen. It’s often highly debatable (if not a complete mystery) whether my piece hit your piece before or after it hit my other piece, or whether it was my other piece that the first knocked into yours. Rules that depend on knowing these things are flawed.

This is actually the biggest problem with the holy grail of simultaneous real-time play. Woe to the new designer who wants to brilliantly eliminate all downtime from her multiplayer games by making them real-time. It is a path fraught with peril. Every game like this that I’ve played requires so much attention to your own area of interest that you’d be lucky to have a passing idea what your immediate neighbors are doing, much less the players further away. That ultimately means it’s up to you to make sure you play correctly. Even if you assume everyone in your game is 100% honorable and would never intentionally cheat, the chances that everyone understands the rules well enough to play without error while things get fast-paced and hairy are usually nil.

You want to avoid ambiguous situations and those that require the honor code whenever possible. Outside of tournaments, the vast majority of players will never cheat. Not only is it wrong, it defeats the joy of besting your pals in a friendly battle of wits. But there are always exceptions. It’s not just the twisted players who take more joy from cheating without being caught than they do from winning. I know people who will break a game just to demonstrate that the game is breakable, with no intention of profiting from it themselves. And when it comes to tournaments where real pride and sometimes real money is on the line, I wouldn’t be surprised if a third of the room would cheat given the opportunity.

Learning a Game
I don’t have any stats, but from my own experience and from my various playgroups, I’d estimate that on average, a player learns ten games by playing with someone who already knows the rules for every one that they buckle down and read the rules themselves. Even if it’s not 10:1, it’s 4:1 at the very bare minimum. The rules for some games have never been read because they’ve never been written — consider folk games like Charades, Celebrities, Werewolf, Ring around the Rosy, and The Paper Game. Granted, many of these have been published after the fact, but the point stands.

It’s vitally important that your rules are clear enough and readable enough (simple, fun language that isn’t ten pages long) that the first person who reads them understands them well enough to teach them, and it’s equally important that your rules are short and resonant enough to be passed along orally.

A lot of players, particularly the sort I gravitate toward, would prefer to start playing a game as soon as possible and learn the details of the game as we play and make mistakes rather than sit through an entire reading before getting to do anything at all. Consider the possibility of writing the rules to your game in a way that supports this kind of play. It’s not always possible, but it adds a lot of value for the people who enjoy that. Sometimes, it’s as simple as telling the reader the objective, the basic flow of the game (what you’ll be doing and the major mechanics you’ll be using) and how to set up. From there, players can read each step of the game as they get to it. Again, this doesn’t work for every game, but when it does, it’s a beautiful thing.

Intuitive Rules / Game Kinesthetics
A good science fiction story asks its viewer to accept a new reality. It can be anything from, “it’s the future, we can travel faster than light, and there are other humanoid lifeforms with advanced technology” all the way to “everyone’s a different freaky alien, there’s technology that’s basically magic, and a bunch of us have superpowers to boot” and beyond. The viewer accepts that reality, and the power of suspension of disbelief prevents their natural “that’s not real!” instincts from rejecting the experience. It’s very engrossing… until the story breaks its own rules. How many riots would there be if Captain Picard force-lifted Deanna Troi and dropped her down the core shaft? All of them, that’s correct. All the riots.

The point is that whatever absurd reality you create for your game, every single entity must remain as true as possible to that reality. This is what I mean by ‘resonance’ or it will kill the illusion and your players might as well be playing an abstract game with no theme at all. If you’ve got a battle game where everything has a size stat, you can’t give your killer housecat a 3 while your german shepherd has a 2, even if the housecat has laser claws that’ll make it win every time. If you’ve got an Animal House game in which anthropomorphic animals party together, don’t make the spiders more sociable than the pigs. We’ve accepted that cats can have laser claws and that spiders can talk and dance, but we haven’t forgotten that we already know that dogs are bigger than cats and pigs aren’t creepy eight-eyed monsters that eat their own. (Don’t you hate spiders?)

You also need to ensure that playing your game is what it sounds like it will be from the box. Have you ever mistakenly put sugar on your food when you wanted salt? You like sugar, it might not even be a bad combination with your meal, but when you first taste it and it’s not what you were expecting, you’ll spit it out. Sugar is good at being sugar, but it’s terrible at being salt. If your box looks light and silly, don’t give your players a three-hour epic strategy. If your box shows a robotic firefight, don’t make your players trade robot parts in a marketplace. They expect fierce metallic combat.

This extends beyond Box versus High-Level Gameplay all the way down to the individual components. If players find dice in the box, they’re going to want to roll them. If it turns out you’re just using them to count from 1-6, your players will be disappointed. If they open a deck of cards, someone’s going to shuffle it before the person reading the rules can get to “lay the cards out in order” and they’ll be annoyed. If you give them plastic pieces that stack well and never let them stack, expect angry letters. In the ideal situation, your components should be so obvious that players can basically play the game without reading any rules. I’m not saying that’s often achievable, but it is the ideal and you want to get as close to it as you can while preserving the unique fun of your game.

In Summary
Make good rules.