The Importance of Scalability

Post by: Grant Rodiek

One of the most important decisions you will make when designing a game is the number of players it will support. In fact, this will probably be (or at least it should be) decision number two or three for the project.

The impact is massive. It determines the components needed (and therefore production costs), the length of the game (more players typically means longer), its complexity, pacing (how do you keep 3 players from falling asleep as they await their turns?), and who will purchase your game. After all, many people such as myself will rarely consider a game that doesn’t play with two. I’m currently designing a game that plays only with two and it terrifies me to think how that will limit the game.

I’m going to make some bold statements. After all, debate isn’t fun when somebody meanders forth with a soggy opinion.

Statement #1: Your game should be excellent in every variation specified on the box. If you say two to four on the box, your game should be fun with two, three, or four players.

For many, the “two” on “two to four” is a joke. This is often thrown in hastily by a publisher seeking the broadest possible audience. A friend recently noted his 2-6 game was originally designed and tuned for 3-5, but it was changed by the publisher. 7 Wonders, a wonderful game loved by many (myself included), boldly states 2-7 players on the side of the box. That 2 is optimistic at best.

I learned this lesson the hard way when I initially released Farmageddon on The Game Crafter. I assumed that nobody bought it to play with two players. In reality, many people bought it for two players and they weren’t pleased with the result. There were a few problems I had to resolve.

Many of the cards simply didn’t work with two players. Crop Rotation used to change the order of play. In two player, it skipped the other player’s turn. Not fun. Foul Manure was a two turn blocker. In two player, it was a pointless card.

The pacing was off. Drawing only two cards per turn meant the game took forever. Action cards were too potent. Because you only had one player to target, the game became mutually assured destruction.

I took this feedback to heart and set out in earnest to improve the experience. Over the course of its development, two player Farmageddon is one of the most thoroughly tested aspects of the game. Now, every card works regardless of the number of players. There are no special two player rules on any cards. To improve the pacing, players draw more Crop cards every turn and must play more as Fertilizer. This keeps the game moving at a steady clip. The Action cards vary more in function now and aren’t pure offense. The Action deck features offensive, defensive, and support cards. Finally, players draw fewer Action cards, which means if you spend all your bullets hastily, you’ll have far less ammo.

Two player Farmageddon is different, but it’s good. How can this be applied to other designs? What are the core questions one must ask? I encourage designers to always establish goals at the outset of every project for the play experience. When testing for player number variations, test against these goals. Here are some to consider:

The pacing of the game is fun. It doesn’t take too long for the game to end, nor do players grow bored from waiting. In 7 Wonders, players take simultaneous turns. In Bohnanza, players trade regardless of whose turn it is. You’re never far from a decision.

The complexity is sufficient. One of the reasons many auction/bidding games require 3 players is because a two player auction isn’t very fun. On the other hand, one of the reasons games like Ascension or Magic: The Gathering are less fun with more than 2 players is that there is too much information to track with too many players.

The amount of uncertainty is appropriate. War games are, by their very nature, confrontational. If the theme wasn’t war, people would potentially call them a “take that.” Because of this, many war games feature only two sides to reduce the amount of uncertainty and back and forth. You know who your enemy is. With King of Tokyo, the amount of information on the board is low and the probability is easily gauged. Therefore, the amount of uncertainty with even 6 players is just fine.

Choices aren’t obvious. It’s not much fun in a game when your choices become obvious. As I noted above, this was a problem with Farmageddon. If you have only one opponent and a pile of weapons, of course you’re going to use it against your one opponent. Design your game such that it isn’t just WHO to target, but HOW to target and with WHAT. King of Tokyo does this very well. Often, when two players are left the game is a race to the finish. Will you go for points? Go for the Knock Out? How will you do either?

If you take the time to ask the questions and devote efforts towards testing the answers, you’ll find that your 3-5 label isn’t a lie, but a bold proclamation for variety and fun. Also, in making your game work for every player number variant, you may find that you’ll improve the game overall. Testing for two players revealed some of Farmageddon‘s worst elements.

Statement #2: Your game should scale with as few tweaks as possible. There are varying degrees of acceptable modifications here on a scale. There are exceptions in all things and degrees of variance with each of these states. Nothing is set in stone, but it’s good to create a starting point.

Worst: Fake players (i.e. you must manage an AI)

Less Worse: Add or Replace Rules

Okay: Vary Existing Rules

Better: Modify the Presentation or Game Content

Best: No changes

Making no changes between the number of players is clearly ideal. This means your players read the rules once and are set forever in every situation. This isn’t always feasible. Forbidden Island does this. With only two players, you have fewer class abilities (less flexibility), but you draw flood cards less quickly. It’s a great trade-off and you don’t need to change anything.

Modified content is the next step. If your game has scarce resources, you may need to vary the supply per the number of players. If you have a war game, you may need to alter the number of armies allowed. Bohnanza states which bean types to remove for certain games, Small World provides different boards, and Die Speicherstadt has fewer cards auctioned each round. They are the same games with slightly modified components.

Varied rules can be used sparingly. In Farmageddon, I varied the number of Crop cards drawn at the start of the turn (+1), increased the amount of Fertilizer to be played (+1), and reduced the number of Action cards drawn (-1). You still have the same rules, they are just executed slightly differently. It’s not too bad, but even I have to reference it if a great deal of time has passed since I’ve last played with 2 players.

With new rules, you need good justification for doing so. I’m currently doing this for Empire Reborn. Though it has tested well and is pretty straightforward, it leaves me uneasy. In a three and four player game there are sufficient units to cover the map. However, with only two armies, instead of creating a map for only one play type, I chose to modify the rules. In a two player game, each player controls one main Army, like in any game, as well as one ally army. The ally army is severely curtailed in capabilities and therefore adds little overhead or too much additional management. They essentially help fill the board with warm bodies. I’m currently exploring a different way of creating the boards to more easily allow a board that scales for 2, 3, or 4 players. This would replace the current two player rules, relegating them to variant status.

I explain the two player rules with under a half page of quick bullet points, but I’ve seen some games with pages of rules for different player numbers. This is dangerous ground and is burdensome for your players.

Finally, fake players, in my opinion, are the worst way to allow a game to work with multiple players. Requiring players to fully manage their own team as well as remembering to maintain a neutral third entity is not much fun. Creating a game with excellent pacing is already difficult enough. This just kicks your pacing squarely in its shins.

More statements can be made, but I believe this is a good stopping point for now. What games scale the best in your opinion? What scaling problems have you encountered? What assertions did I get incorrectly? Comment below!

Mechanically Sound #4: Eclipse Edition

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I recently had the opportunity to play Eclipse, the highly praised epic space opera game that currently resides as the #5 game of all time. Because of its high ranking and quick ascendancy, the game is somewhat controversial for some. There will always be naysayers. However, after only one play it’s clear to me that this game is very special.

Furthermore, the game is incredibly well designed. Nothing is out of place, nothing was confusing (for me, at least), and everything was richly thematic.  It seemed fitting and appropriate to dedicate a Mechanically Sound column to a few of the things I enjoyed most about Eclipse: Ship customization, battle, and the economy.

Ship Customization

Examine this player board. At the very top, from the left to the right, you have 4 ship types: fighter, cruiser, dreadnought, and space station. If you look closely, you’ll see a variety of squares with symbols on them.

Ships have a few variables:

  • Initiative: This determines who attacks first.
  • Movement: How far the ship can move with a move action.
  • Power: Weapon upgrades, engine upgrades, etc. require power. If your ship doesn’t have sufficient power to equip the part, you cannot do so. You can also upgrade a ship’s power supply.

On top of this basic framework, you can outfit a ship with improved guns that cause more damage with every hit, better engines for more  movement, shields to hinder an opponent’s hit chances, armor to increase life, computers to improve your hit chances, bombs to devastate planets, and my favorite, missiles, with which to launch a single, hopefully devastating broadside at the outset of every engagement. If you’ve read David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, the missiles in particular will be very exciting. I loved them.

This may sound complicated, but the presentation is excellent. You place the upgrade components (square pieces of punchboard) and place them on the ship. Ship numbers are limited by the number of components and typically you only have a handful out at a time. As a first time player, I had zero problems knowing what my ships could do and what upgrades were available for them. I was also able to keep tabs on my opponents’ fleets.

I think the biggest reason for this is that instead of going incredibly broad with ship types and a slew of variants, the designers went narrow and deep. Only 4 ship types, two of which have very simple component possibilities, and everything ultimately feeds into battle or movement.


I thought the battle system made a lot of sense and had a good dose of randomness and luck (it uses dice, after all), but still seems to reflect the upgrades and capabilities of the ship.

Ships attack in initiative order and players roll the number of dice indicated by upgrades. This usually means one or two per ship. Any 1s rolled are always misses. Any 6s rolled are always hits. Between these extremes is where modifications come in.

If you have a targeting computer for +2 hit chance, for example, you will hit on a 4 and up. If a 6 is a hit, then 4 + 2 (from the computer) means 6. That’s a 50/50 chance,which is much better than 1/6. However, let’s say your opponent has a shield, which gives you a -1 hit chance. Well, then you hit on a 5 and up. 1/3 is still far better than 1/6!

Occasionally, a battle can have a seemingly endless number of back and forth re-rolls, especially if neither side retreats (the game gives you an incentive to fight the battle to the death, even if it’s your death). But, in most cases this system perfectly reflects the capabilities of one’s ships without slowing the game with cumbersome tallying.

I really want to see how this system varies and changes over multiple plays. Currently, I think it’s the bee’s knees.

The Economy

For the longest time with Empire Reborn I tried to craft some form of turn-order determining system that reflected a player’s current status on the map. Essentially, a player with many armies widely disbursed should be more cumbersome than a player with fewer armies tightly focused.

Ultimately, I scrapped this to streamline the game and focus on the battles. However, Eclipse, which is a much heftier game, solves this goal in a really cool fashion.

Look at the bottom portion of the board in the image just above. There are red disks and little red squares on three tracks (orange, pink, and brown). The tracks are:

  • Orange Track: Last number revealed is the amount of money (a currency for taking actions) you earn at the end of every round.
  • Pink Track: Last number revealed is the amount of science (a currency for researching technology) you earn at the end of every round.
  • Brown Track: Last number revealed is the amount of materials (a currency for building ships) you earn at the end of every round.

There are 5 actions you can take every turn (multiple times, any order). To indicate you took an action, you place the rightmost red disk into the action space. This reveals a negative number on the bottom track. The left most revealed number at the end of the round is the amount of money you must pay. So, the more actions you take, the more money you pay.

Now, examine this picture again:

Each hex tile is a system. The owner of the system places a colored disk to indicate ownership. This disk is removed from your track at the bottom, which means colonizing planets permanently increases the cost of taking actions. Similarly, systems have a varied number of orange, pink, and brown cube spaces. When you take control of the system (with a disk), you can place cubes onto the board. So, if I claim a system with an orange and a pink space, I remove those cubes from the track on my board. This means I’ll earn more money and more science every round. It also means some systems are better than others, or may be better or worse depending on your strategy.

If you want to build ships? Go for systems with brown (manufacturing) spaces. Need to up your economy for more actions? Find the orange.

Thematically, this is excellent. The larger my empire, the more costly it is to manage it. And, as I develop star systems, my economy, science, and manufacturing capabilities increase. These things are so tightly connected and intertwined. There is no fluff and it’s just excellent.

As you can tell, I’m a bit enamored of Eclipse. This is probably the closest thing you’ll ever see to a review on this site. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that other games use very similar systems, but I haven’t seen things quite like this in my experiences, so they were very new and very welcome to me.

Have you encountered any stellar mechanics lately? Do you have a love letter to write? Note it in the comments below!

The Release Valve

Here is another one of those posts where it may have questionable value. But, the purpose of a blog, at times, is to write and catalog things simply because you can.

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve worked in the digital game industry for almost 7 years. At first, it was as if I’d entered Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, minus the Oompa Loompas (mostly). There was, and still is, something magical about getting paid to create a thing purely for the entertainment of others.

Alas, even game development is a job. It’s a career, with benefits, pay, yearly reviews, 401k concerns, managers, long hours at times, and all the normal trappings of every other job. The other truth that all developers must grasp is that you’re ultimately making someone else’s games with someone else’s money. Even the head of the studio is working for the CEO. The CEO works for the shareholders. So it goes.

The key to maintaining one’s sanity in life is to find a creative outlet, essentially a release valve. This applies not only to game developers or those in a creative industry, but anyone with a pulse. My girlfriend creates with flowers as her canvas. This is her valve. She’ll spend long nights designing bouquets and center-pieces for weddings in addition to her normal job. She does this almost at cost, practically as a favor, yet she does it still.

I design games. They are my valve and a key to my happiness. When I have an idea, good or bad, it’s mine. I get to try it on my terms.

Game design is creating a story and a universe with rules of your own invention. Pigs can fly and corn can sprout eyeballs. Orcs fly starfighters and politicians can be noble. Game design is also the crafting of an experience or a particular feeling you want to evoke: Laughter, tension, cleverness, courage.

The labor of game design is filled with what I refer to as “delightful tedium,” including hours of spreadsheet manipulation (do I need 3 or 4 of these cards?), Photoshop tweaks, cutting hundreds of cards, and repainting wooden tokens you stole from your brother’s copy of Risk. I love this. It’s almost as if I’m counting grains of sand, only here, there’s purpose.

This release valve, which I twist on my morning walks and inside my apartment study, is the equivalent of my grandfather’s wood shop. He would gather, re-organize, toil, cut, build, destroy, and tinker for hours. Often he had a goal, but almost as often he had no pursuit other than the delightful labors of mind and body. He sought the best possible way to waste his time, much as I tinker for hours.

The desire to create fun, to build entertainment, is an absolutely noble goal. Happy people live longer, work harder, love deeper, , and countless other benefits. It is, as far as I can tell (from rigorous scientific study), the best use of my spare time. But fun is not the only worthwhile pursuit. That’s only one human need and desire. There are countless more!

I realize my audience is entirely filled with game designers, players, and people who get what I’m saying. But, in the hopes that someone outside of this niche stops by, I push you to make something. Create a blog. Tinker with water-colors. Make YouTube videos about Corgis who sing absurdly catchy pop-songs. Or, design games. We all need the delightful tedium. We all need to have something that occurs to us in the lunch line and forces us to pull out a notepad to jot it down.

We need that release valve that makes us interesting, industrious, and happy.

Feel the ‘Spiel

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

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

Guest Column by: Chris Oltyan

Why did I want to go to Protospiel?

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

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

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

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

So what is Protospiel about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was it Worth Going?

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

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

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

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

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

Drawing the Line

Post by: Grant Rodiek

As you polish and refine your game, it should become clear that you cannot have everything. The notion of focus, simplicity, and refinement are common themes for this blog, both from my own columns and those of my noble guest columnists. Proper focus is the tool of a design master. It’s a pursuit to which I will always strive.

It’s easy to sit on an ivory tower and spout philosophy. To be completely frank, as a professional game developer I’ve grown to loathe the “creative consultants” who show up to present ideology in perfect Power Points that often conflict or do not allow for reality. So, the purpose of this column is to provide some examples of where I drew the line with my own designs to provide perspective to aid you in your own designs.

Before I get into examples, it’s important to define the line. This is perhaps one of the most critical decisions you can make at the onset of a game’s life.

  • For whom are you making this game? (It’s appropriate to have both a customer and publisher in mind!)
  • What do you hope to accomplish with this design? Is it a new mechanic? A certain length of play or player experience? Is it a particular theme?
The answers to these questions will help you define the line. If you remain true and loyal to these answers, not only can it strengthen your final game, but will help you know when to waiver and when to remain strong in the face of the inevitable suggestions and “what ifs” from your own mind.
The Line for Farmageddon

Farmageddon was designed to be played in a short play period (30 minutes), for a wide age range, and for people more interested in laughing and messing with each other than thinking too hard.

This created incredibly strict lines really quickly for me. Complexity was, and remains, Farmageddon’s Enemy #1.

Interrupts: One of the first suggestions, always, especially from Magic players, is to add interrupts. Interrupts are inherently frustrating, especially for casual players, as they basically tell you “nope, you just wasted that card.” They also add complexity in that you now allow play to occur outside a player’s turn, you need a priority stack, plus you have the paranoia of not wanting to play a card for fear of it being interrupted. No. Interrupts.

Crop Complexity: Another suggestion was to add more complexity to the basic crops. People wanted behaviors on Sluggo Corn, Wary Squash, etc. The problem with that was that it just complicated things. Players shouldn’t need to worry about text on all 7 cards in their hands. Crops should do a thing and Action cards should do a thing. They should be distinct and easy to learn.

However, I crossed the line a little bit when I created the FrankenCrops. There are 10 Crops, one of each in the deck, that all have a one-time use ability when planted. We packaged these as an expansion to the base game and in my testing I’ve been very pleased with the variety and complexity they add. However, I do not think every crop needs this functionality. Here, I relented and it was the right decision.

Moving Forward: The Livestocked & Loaded expansion will really test Farmageddon. The expansion adds a bit more strategy and new complexity with Weather, Animals, and a simple bidding/Area control mechanic. So far it has tested well, especially with Farmageddon veterans. But, these testers are all gamers, not necessarily casual folk, so the added complexity feels good. How will more casual farmers dig it?

The Line for Empire Reborn

Empire Reborn is a war game designed to be played within an hour, not feature dice (which solves some problems and adds others), and provide a deep and meaningful experience that sheds much of the complexity of so many war games. I also wanted a game where players actually battle (not just posture and maneuver). I really looked to how Memoir ’44 handles terrain variation (most of them do the same thing), or how it does so much with only 3 unit types (and a few very subtle variations with elite units or engineers). I was also inspired by 1812: The Invasion of Canada, which has many of the best parts of Risk, but is fun, deep, and plays quickly.

As I have quickly found, there are just as many lines to draw in a meaty game as a super light game.

The Problem of Turn Order: Turn order is a big deal. In fact, the more serious the game, the more it matters. Empire Reborn has really run the gamut here with random turn order against which you needed to make decisions, a system where turn order is determined by your actions, a system where you can modify turn order, and one that’s just simple and random.

As it turns out, after months of testing and design, the one that seems to work best is having turn order be randomly determined each round. This drives serious gamers nuts. It just irks them to have something so fundamental be determined randomly! I have to be honest, it irks me a little as well.

The truth is, I needed to draw the line somewhere. I needed to keep the game simple in some places to avoid exploding the heads of the gamers I’m trying to attract. I want the game to focus on fighting and taking territory, not changing turn order.

The other, more subtle element in this decision is that sometimes it’s better to go first. Sometimes it’s better to go last. It’s incredibly difficult to design a system that accounts for these things as a player’s need changes every round based on the layout of the map and the position of their opponents.

If the turn order is purely random, it means you need to make decisions knowing that you don’t know when you’ll go. It allows for a little bit of luck in a game that doesn’t have dice (yes, in my opinion, some luck is needed in a game). Also, it is what it is. The game only lasts an hour, so it’s not likely you’ll need to flip the table if it just so happens the order messes with your finely crafted, fragile plans.

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” – Field Marshal von Moltke. Perhaps he should add “or random turn order.”

More Troops: One of the most common and understood mechanics in Euro games is increasing your reach or effectiveness. In Agricola, increasing your family size means more actions. Same with Stone Age. Therefore, for a while I tried to incorporate a mechanic where each player had to work to increase his potential Unit pool (i.e. potential Army size).

Much like creating a complicated mechanic for determining turn order, all of my attempts at fiddling with this lead to overly cumbersome and not really meaningful gameplay. It also distracted players from the main event: battles and capturing territory.

When I returned to the original mechanic of “everyone has 12 Units in their pool,” nobody complained. Nobody felt like the game was lacking breadth. Why? Because each player has 4 Tactics (16 total on the board) and there is plenty to occupy your thoughts.

In conclusion, know where to draw the line. Know when to say “enough” and either remove a feature, or prevent it from becoming a part of your game in the first place. Know who you want to not only play your game, but who will spend money on it, love it, and tell their friends about it. If you’re making a 4 hour juggernaut of a game, well, you may need 4 hours worth of features to keep it interesting. That’s not my area of interest (either as a designer or a player), so I cannot comment. But, the shorter your game, the more mass market you intend your game, the more strict you need to be.

What tough cuts have you had to make? Where did you draw the line? Share below and start a discussion.

Handful of Fun

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I believe very strongly that cards are the best component with which to design great games. Perhaps it’s just how my mind works, but every time I conceive a mechanic or way to do something, I ultimately replace it with a card driven system. Cards are a fantastic tool for your design arsenal and I intend to elaborate on this point fully. However, like all tools, cards come with their own downsides. I’ll try to cover those as well.

Oh cards, how I love thee! Cards are amazing! So many of my favorite games (Memoir ’44, Dragonheart, Dominion, Ascension) use cards masterfully.

Cards allow for private Information and player ownership. There’s something delightful about knowing something your opponents don’t know. It’s really as simple as that. What I have in my hand can fundamentally alter things for you, my dear enemy, and you have NO clue what’s coming! This sounds a bit like a take-that only pro, but that’s not the case. Can you imagine poker if everything was visible? No, you can’t, because that notion is foolish.

True, if everything is on the table, it’s possible to consider every possible outcome and plan accordingly. But, the element of surprise and, more importantly, surprise that only I can plan for, is great fun.

Cards also give players something to own, something to hold. The card is more precious because it’s yours and only yours (or, something you share in limited quantities).

Cards allow for exceptions. As you’ve heard me and several others say on this blog, it’s key to keep a game simple, elegant, and free of undue complexity. However, if you build a solid foundation, cards give you an opportunity to really spice up a game and making it sing.

The game of Dominion is fundamentally built upon an absurdly simple set of rules (draw 5 cards, 1 Action, 1 Buy, discard) that is broken by acquiring Action cards. Summoner Wars, as I discussed in my column about factions, is a series of thematic, coordinated exceptions. If wielded correctly, cards turn your game into something truly special.

Cards provide a canvas for gorgeous illustrations. Custom meeples are neat, but I’ll take a beautifully illustrated card any day. Never overlook any of the sensations and elements that your board and card game can provide. One of the most essential sensations is great art, as Farmageddon’s successful Kickstarter can attest.

Beautiful art immerses your players, tells a story, excites the imagination, and helps your game fly off store shelves. Without cards, you immediately have fewer opportunities to leverage this benefit.

Cards allow (some) games to be infinitely expandable. Magic: The Gathering is an unstoppable juggernaut. So are the previously mentioned Dominion and Summoner Wars. Cards are relatively easy to manufacture and with a little bit of shuffling they can keep a great game vibrantly alive for a very long time.

Furthermore, because you can do so much with cards in the way of functionality, a few cards can really change a game in fundamental ways. Ascension’s constructs really help to make Ascension a unique deckbuilder. Same component and layout, just a few key words make all the difference.

Cards help players learn and remember the rules. A few weeks ago I was working on a simple, pure dice game. One of my biggest frustrations with the design was that players would have to remember every symbol and rule in the game because you cannot print lines of text on a normal sized six-sided die.

Every time I added a rule or tweaked something, I would say aloud “nobody will ever remember that!” As a result, I switched to cards. Cards allow me to have a greater variety of incredibly simple spells. Why? I can write the text, use icons, and reinforce all of this with a clever layout when using cards.

Cards are one of the best uses of luck. When it comes to games, I’m an absolute probability junky. I love it. With a six-sided die, you always have a 1 in 6 chance of rolling one of the sides. Obviously, if a symbol is duplicated OR you have a way to modify the dice roll (see: Alien Frontiers), then the probability is modified somewhat.

However, if you give a player a deck of cards, as he draws from the deck and plays cards, he will begin to know what he has, what he doesn’t have, and when he might get it. Dragonheart is an incredibly simple game that does this very well. There are only so many cards and you begin to know the pulse of your deck. Dominion is a bit more complex, but YOU build the deck, so you know the approximate chances of drawing that card you need.

You have to be careful with this. Early iterations of Farmageddon had limited appeal because the distribution of Action cards wasn’t really even-handed. Essentially, the player who drew the Dust Bowl or Foreclosure cards tended to win most of the time. However, in the final version of Farmageddon, there are now 12 cards (up from 8), the distribution of the more powerful cards is lessened, and there are other cards to balance things. Now, victory tends to go to the player who plays his cards the best, not the player who randomly draws the best cards.

But, I thought you were perfect? Cards aren’t perfect. As much as it pains me to point out my lady’s flaws, I must.

Art is expensive. Meeples may not allow for gorgeous illustrations, but they do have a fairly straightforward cost. Art, especially good art, gets very expensive very quickly. One of the reasons I shelved the current iteration of Poor Abby Farnsworth is that I designed it in a way that it would require an inordinate amount of art. Nobody would ever publish it and there was no way I could afford to self-publish it.

When designing with cards, keep your art costs in mind. Try to find ways to tastefully re-use art, find ways to do things with a small set of icons and symbols, and more. Yes, this is and should be a component of your design process. Don’t wait for a publisher rejection to think about this.

Cards encourage exceptions galore (naughty designer!). Wait…a positive and a minus! That’s right. Just because you can fill your game with exceptions doesn’t mean you should. Long time Magic players will freely admit that at times the Wizards of the Coast R&D department has gone off the deep end with crazy exceptions and ridiculously fiddly cards.

Be smart about your exceptions. Make each one matter, be useful, and be clear. If it doesn’t really improve the game, don’t add complexity for nothing.

Cards lack the tactile qualities of dice, meeples, and tokens. There’s something fun about moving your token around the Monopoly board or rolling that beautiful wooden set of custom dice in Memoir ’44. In most instances, holding a handful of paper cards, no matter how well crafted (linen, matte finish, yum), just don’t match up to a hefty set of dice. Yes, games like Gloom, with its transparent plastic cards and clever mechanics, show you can do something special even still with cards.

When it makes sense, use all the tools at your disposal. People loving chucking dice and making irritating tapping noises while waiting for their turn with tokens. Or, stick with cards and know you might be missing a little something. Perhaps you could create a mechanic based upon shuffling?

Cards tempt designers to write flavor text everywhere. Again, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Designers love flavor text. I’m not sure what it is, but there are so many times when I open a new game to find a card with .08 font size functional text and a wall of useless, italicized flavor text. Incursion comes to mind immediately.

Your focus must first be on functional text and symbols. Be sure to write everything in a reasonable font size so that it’s easily legible for players of all ages and eye site quality. Once you do this, your next step should be to ensure there’s room for great art. A picture is worth 1000 words and a great picture is worth far more. It’s more interesting to let the player create a story in their head.

If you solve those two priorities and STILL have room to spare, sure, maybe, consider some flavor text. But, I’d still encourage you to focus on great art and great gameplay. The rule booklet is a better place for flavor text, even better, your website with supplemental materials. I know I’m being overly pessimistic, but good designers aren’t necessarily good writers. It’s key to not get bogged down with distractions. That goes the same for what you show your players.

What’s your favorite game component? Where was I right above? Where was I wrong? Note it in the comments below!

Faction Design

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I wanted to give you a bit of reprieve from Field Marshals, especially as it has been the topic of so many columns lately. However, when I was fishing for column ideas, the most excellent Eric of the great blog Games & Grub asked me for tips on designing factions and balancing them. This has been my focus for a few weeks now on Field Marshals and I want to help where possible.

I’m not an expert on faction design. Really, if anyone is it’s Colby Dauch and crew with Summoner Wars.  I have learned a few things and I will try to abstract it somewhat so that it’s useful even if you aren’t designing a war game. There are a few key points I wish to make:

  • The key to designing a faction is knowing which knobs you can twist.
  • Only make a faction as complicated as it needs to be and nothing more.
  • Make the factions unique at a high level before designing the details.
  • Every faction should have a strength and a weakness.

What do I mean by factions? By faction, I mean different entities within the game that follow different rule sets. These could be a character class (ex: Rogue, Ranger, Warrior) or in the case of Field Marshals, different armies. The Summoner Wars Master Set ships with 8 factions.

Factions can be e a great addition to your game because they provide a great deal of variety. Just when you think you can’t lose with the Orcs, take a chance playing as the Elves only to find you need to relearn the game somewhat. Factions also cater to different play styles. Some players prefer stealth and subtlety, others go straight for the throat. From an aesthetic standpoint, factions give you an opportunity to appeal to players with different visuals, tell new stories, and generally expand and enrich your game world.

However, factions aren’t always the right solution and shouldn’t be approached without deliberate intent. They can quickly expand your game content out of hand, add a great deal of complexity to an otherwise simple rule set, and will most assuredly create a balance headache for you.

The key to designing factions is knowing which knobs you can twist. Factions are essentially exceptions and variants built upon a core, refined rule set. You do not want to design factions within a completely open sandbox as you’ll begin creating ridiculous things! Only begin faction design once you have a very firm understanding of your game.

It’s like grammar. Know the rules backwards and forwards so that you can break them at the right moment.

I’ve spent several months testing Field Marshals with a single Army. Every player used the same Army with the same Tactics. As a result, I’ve been able to focus on the map layout, add things such as Fortresses and Seaports, refine victory conditions, player turns, movement, turn order, and more. I always knew I wanted to consider factions at some point, but I avoided the distraction for a very long time.

As a result, I now know what features are available to allow me to craft a compelling faction.

  • Factions can have unique Tactics: Tactics are the core of Field Marshals. They are separated into Offensive, Defensive, and Support Tactics. Defensive and Offensive Tactics modify the otherwise non-random aspects of battle and Support Tactics let you do things like taking an additional Move or building a Fortress.
  • Factions can Reinforce differently.
  • Factions can battle differently. Better “fighting” armies may have a more favorable attrition rate in direct battle.
  • Factions can move differently.

One thing that I should note is that I’m not using all of these things. In fact, 90% of faction play will be entirely manifested in an Army’s Tactics. I’m making a slight tweak to Reinforcements such that 2 factions will do it one way and the other 2 will do it another way. That’s it. If I’m successful, I may craft additional factions that further bend the rules.

For now, I don’t want to add more complexity simply because I can! I want players to be able to shift between factions relatively easily. The difficulty (and fun) should come through learning to master the faction. If every faction required players read 4 pages of rules, they’d quickly set my game on fire.

Only make a faction as complicated as it needs to be and nothing more. This is a continuation of a previous point, but it’s worth stating again and again. Just because you are able doesn’t mean you should design several wholly unique rule sets. If your factions can be unique and meaningful with just 2 rules, then you’ve done your job. Factions are one of the best ways to over complicate and ruin your game if you aren’t careful.

I was worried initially that I would need completely new iconography for the different factions. I was also worried that I’d need to design 8 Tactics for each Army (which was the number the vanilla army had in the previous iteration). However, as I dove into the actual implementation, I conceived of some clever ways to deliver on the fiction and keep the iconography universal between every faction. I also found that 4 unique Tactics were more than sufficient for each faction.

With only 4 unique Factions, that means, at most, there are 4 players, 4 Armies, and 16 total Tactics in a single game. That’s not an insane number, which means it should be possible for players to follow and, within reason, anticipate the moves of their opponents. Only testing will verify this hypothesis, but I believe I’m moving in the right direction.

Make the factions unique at a high level before designing the details. I’m designing a war game with historical footing in 19th century European warfare. It was relatively easy for me to create 4 unique factions using this backdrop for inspiration. I planned the factions at a high level initially to ensure they were distinct and unique. With faction play, especially early in your game’s life cycle, there is no room for subtlety. Be bold.

If you cannot create something unique at a high level, don’t bother fiddling with the rules or implementation. The unique rules and variations for each faction need to be obvious for your players. The conceit needs to be plausible, else your players will be consulting the rules or ignoring your over-designed implementations. Minor tuning changes may not be sufficient for creating unique factions.

My current 4 factions are as follows (Don’t worry too much about the names. I’m still fiddling with story/world development).

  • Imperial Army: They are designed to be the basic, well-balanced Army. They are inspired by the professional regular armies of Prussia and Britain. The Imperial Army are essentially the Terrans from Starcraft, if that helps.
  • Yorkan Clans: The clans are heavily inspired by the Native American tribes during the Indian Wars of the American West, the Spanish Guerrillas during the Peninsular War, and the Vietcong. They are a guerrilla Army focused on hit and run tactics, Ambushes, and not getting caught in a head to head battle.
  • Royal Brigade: This is a highly mobile, cavalry based Army. They are honestly more inspired by the Blitzkrieg tactics pioneered by the German Army in World War II. Speed, mobility, encirclement, and hitting the enemy in his flank.
  • Republik Militia: These are the rabble that have risen up under the promise of a better, democratic government. They are ill-trained and led by politicians turned Generals. They don’t fight well, but they have large numbers and can manipulate their opponents through political means.

One thing that helped me visualize these four factions is that the Army I have been testing featured many of the same Tactics. Now, the Tactics are distributed such that each Army has a very small, but unique subset of powerful choices that make them unique.

Every faction should have a strength and weakness. After you conceive the base idea for your faction, you should immediately begin to answer the following two questions: What is this faction good at? What is this faction bad at?

For the guerrilla Army, they are good at appearing in unexpected places of the map and hit and run tactics. They are everywhere you don’t want them to be. However, they are very bad at straight up fights. If you pin them down, they will be in trouble. It’s key to move them and time your strikes well, because going toe to to with the Imperial Army may result in failure.You may find at this stage that your answers sound very similar for different factions. If this is the case, you may want to take a step back and revisit the high level concepts.

Quick Recap. Know your overall game before you being fiddling with factions. Treat factions as exceptions to the core rules. Design within a limited framework and seek at all times to limit complexity. Focus on boldly unique entities. Subtle blends should be reserved for “down the line.” Every faction should have a strength and a weakness.

Did this help? Did this answer any questions? If not, post your additional questions below in comments. I always want to improve my content, so if I could have explained a point better, please tell me!

Blood from the Turnip

Post by: Grant Rodiek

One of the best environments for great creative output is one of strict limitations. One of my favorite aspects of Twitter is the fact that I’m only allowed 140 characters with which to present a meaningful thought. Others quickly resort to bastardized ‘net English, but I relish the challenge of culling back the unnecessary characters until I fit within the unwavering limit.

My friends and co-workers in the digital game design realm often ask about the differences between print and digital. How does video game design differ from board game design?

My first response is always “forced simplicity.” By this, I mean that in a board game you cannot hide anything “under the hood.” For example, in  even the most basic first-person shooter the enemies run an AI routine that makes them appear convincing and conniving, or at the very least, fun to explode. In a board game, however, everything is defined by clear, hopefully simple and repetitive rules. The information needs to be visible on the board or on a tiny card.

I think this is a beautiful distinction and it’s one that draws me to print games. One of the first mistakes of the new designer is to over-complicate something. Lately, it seems that the digital realm is trying to over-complicate everything, which is probably why the mobile game market is growing so rapidly!

Simplify is often the rallying cry of many designers. It’s a drum I love to beat, but it’s also one that you see Reiner Knizia bring up often. Some are quick to dismiss this thought because they prefer games with significantly more heft. This is a mistake, especially for designers.

I believe that two descriptors for outstanding games are simple and deep. No, simple and deep are not polar opposites. A game that embraces these descriptors is The Princes of Florence. The worst place to be, in my opinion, is shallow and complex. A game that embraces these descriptors is Fortune and Glory.

Here, I made a handy chart for you!

I’m going to elaborate on these statements now. Princes of Florence is a game that combines several very simple, elegant mechanics. It is absurdly deep!

  • Players bid over features to add to their tableau. Each player can only win a single item and can only bid the money they have.
  • Players place items within the confinements of a very simple rule set on their tableau.
  • Players take two Actions, chosen from a small subset of actions. Some of these actions are unavailable because the player doesn’t have the means by which to do them.

Euro designers like Kramer and Feld are masters of simplicity. They find the easiest, simplest ways to do something interesting. They then combine these refined elements into a broader cohesive experience. The depth comes through in how you use your limited choices, scarce resources, and maximize your options versus those of your opponents.

Even Trajan, which is a beast of a game, is fundamentally simple. The mancala bowls, worker placement, hand management, and other mechanics are all incredibly simple and elegant. The game is just incredibly broad and therefore becomes a brain burner very quickly.

Fortune and Glory, on the other hand, is an incredibly complex game. The game features several decks, which means you’re constantly referencing the rules to find which deck you draw for each situation. Different situations require different dice rolls and different outcomes for those dice rolls. Feedback isn’t immediate. Instead, you must draw a card on the subsequent round to find how you must resolve your failure. The game features co-op and competitive rules and a slew of one-offs. As a result, you have a game that isn’t remotely intuitive and is very complex.

But, this complexity doesn’t lead to meaningful decisions or depth. Instead, the game presents the player with some of the most convoluted, purely random dice rolling possible.  I would argue that the game, which seems to be more focused on theme than mechanics, would better serve its customers by simplifying its mechanics and getting to the fun more quickly!

For the sake of brevity I’m focusing on these two extremes. Yes, it’s okay to allow complex mechanics into your design. Star Trek: Fleet Captains is a game full of one-off mechanics, like transporting an away team to an enemy ship, Tribbles, and system events. However, the game manages to be fun, provide interesting choices, and be true to the Star Trek IP. My own game, Farmageddon, has a relatively simple core mechanic, but has 12 Action cards. This definitely adds a bit of complexity to an otherwise very simple game.

This may seem like an overly preachy post focused on semantics. But, the call for simplicity is so very key for making better games, reaching new players, and becoming more than a niche hobby. Your focus as a designer should be to craft a FUN, thought-provoking, and thematic experience (or some subset of those 3). Your focus should be on the end experience and the best way to do that is to refine the cogs such that players spend their time loving your game, not consulting the rules.

A good mental exercise is designing a dice only game. Dice. Only. How much depth can you bring about in a game that does not feature a board, or meeples, or cards? I’ve been pursuing this exercise myself and hope to share my dice game idea in the near future!

Squeeze blood from the turnip! Maximize your creations with as little as possible.

Field Marshals Checkup #3

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I really love working on Field Marshals. I spent so much time on Frontier Scoundrels, Poor Abby Farnsworth, and other failed designs, so finally landing on something worthwhile is good for the creative soul. I imagine it’s somewhat akin to the satisfaction Wellington felt after the battle of Waterloo? That may be a tinge hyperbolic…

Nevertheless, it’s fun to watch players thinking about their turns and trying to make the most out of their options. It’s fun to watch them pull out powerful tactics only to see their opponent counter them. It’s neat that it’s becoming a game.

To cut to the chase, here are the new rules for Field Marshals. Below, I’m going to discuss the changes I’ve made as a result of testing, followed by a quick examination of some of the map development I’ve done. Note: Map development is REALLY DIFFICULT.

Testing Changes

In the latest test of Field Marshals, I tested a few key things:

  • Revised Tactics, especially new options for the defender in a battle. Previously the battles favored the aggressor entirely, which just isn’t accurate for the time period OR fun.
  • New conscript mechanic, which determined a player’s turn order and maximum Units.

Defensive Tactics

The revised tactics were definitely a step in the right direction. However, the value proposition for defenders just wasn’t there. Essentially, a defender would need to spend 3 cards (out of a hand of 5) for a marginally useful ability. By spending those 3 cards as a defender, he wouldn’t get to use them on his turn, meaning his round was relatively horked. Furthermore, the Ambush mechanic, which wasn’t a Tactic, was poorly integrated. It created clunkiness and confusion.

Now, all defensive tactics are activated with one card. For all 3 Tactics, playing the card is a definite trade off, but it won’t ruin the defensive player’s entire round AND it gives them a chance to turn the tide of the battle. I believe it’s the right direction. Ambush is now a tactic, which means it’s fully integrated into the system and it’s consistent across all defensive tactics.

Conscript Mechanic (Part 1)

The conscript mechanic was also a step in the right direction. Non-random turn order is better, having to decide how to build your Unit pool is good, and in general, the design needed a little breadth to deepen the strategy. However, the mechanic as implemented added a great deal of components and the dynamic turn order was too static for my tastes.

Before I explain my changes for the conscript mechanic, it makes sense for me to discuss the updates to the map first. They are very closely tied together.

The Map

In addition to the two features discussed above, some of the map’s current problems really became apparent. Fundamentally, too many map elements encouraged players to separate and spread out instead of fighting over scarce resources. For example, players start from the center and move to the outskirts to accomplish goals. There are too many coal territories, which means they don’t need to be fought over.

As a result, I’ve shifted a few things. The changes weren’t difficult to make, but I think they’ll have a huge impact on the quality of the game.

  • There are no longer Secret Orders that direct players to conquer Seaports. I don’t want players rushing to the edge. Seaports are now just a tool to use, a means to an end.
  • I’ve condensed the map slightly so that there are fewer overall territories.
  • There are now 3 coal territories instead of 4.
  • Coal territories are located in the center of the board. Player Headquarters are located on the outskirts.

Here is the map I just tested:

Here is the update:

Conscript Mechanic (Part 2)

Instead of adding conscript tokens to normal territories on the board for players to obtain, conscripts will now simply be tied to controlling territory. The previous mechanic had a few problems:

  • It added 12 new tokens and cluttered the board.
  • It encouraged players to sprint around the map to collect tokens. It rewarded mobility, not holding territory (which is fictionally strange and bad for the game).
  • It encouraged players to separate instead of competing for scarce resources.

The new mechanic allows players to increase their maximum Unit pool merely by controlling territory. However, there’s a twist. For each territory connected to his Headquarters a player controls, he can increase his max Unit pool by a set amount. Note that each individual territory doesn’t need to be connected, it’s that the set of connected, contiguous territories must ultimately be connected to the Headquarters.

In addition to adding Units, connected territories are worth more points at the end of the game than disconnected stragglers. And, if you notice the map above, there isn’t enough space for everyone to have all of the territories to hit the max pool easily. Plus, there are coal territories to conquer, fortresses to build…

Other Changes

  • Players will now earn points for Battle Trophies
  • Players will now earn points for controlling an opponent’s HQ
  • I’ve made slight tweaks to the card distribution in the decks.
  • I’ve modified the cards required to activate Tactics as well as some of the numbers on the tactics (See snapshot of the player reference board below to see what I’m talking about).
  • Assorted reference board improvements.

GenCon is quickly approaching, which means I need to polish off these changes and order some prototypes. I also hope to have some blind testing feedback before I pitch, which is also pressing. Deadlines lead to good decision making! We’ll see how it rounds out.

As always, questions, comments, and feedback are appreciated.

Testing Well

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I believe testing is the most important aspect of game design. Perhaps it’s because I lack the brilliance of Feld or Don X., so I require testing to improve my ideas. Ah, if only I were brilliant. Nonetheless, I fundamentally believe that an idea is just that until it’s proven with actual players.

Many people don’t test enough. In my past, I haven’t tested enough. However, testing is one of the few things within our control throughout this process.

We cannot control the opinions and tastes of our players. We cannot dictate the whims of consumers and the environment in which people play our game. But, through testing we can ensure we have perfect rules, streamlined mechanics, and focused games for our players. Here are some of the things I’ve learned through testing. Note that some comments pertain to iteration, but I often link testing and iteration as one.

Know your game and your goals for it. Do not implement a tester’s feedback because they gave it. I don’t know the exact quote, but Matt Leacock said that many games meander for years because they lack focus. Don’t meander!  Implement and adhere to suggestions because they are right for your game.

Every tester has a different favorite mechanic (“I love drafting. Have you thought of that!”), favorite way of doing things, or something they hate in games (“Ugh, luck? I hate luck.”). Keep this in mind. If you chase after every tester’s favorite thing, your game will become a hodge podge of mismatched mechanics. Use their input to make your vision better and more fun.

Here’s a favorite tactic of mine: When a tester says “I didn’t like this mechanic,” instead of telling them they are wrong, I explain to them why it exists. My exact phrasing is often “Here’s the reason I did that. Perhaps you can help me improve it?”

For example, in a recent test of Field Marshals I was told the math for calculating the results of a battle was clunky (truth). They suggested something that was indeed simpler, but it did away with the attrition model (based on the Franco-Prussian War, among others) I sought to recreate. I explained my goals and through this we arrived at an implementation that was far simpler and met my goals for the feature.

If you’re curious, here are my guiding goals for Field Marshals:

  • Create a highly accessible war game ( i.e not much more difficult than Memoir ’44)
  • Plays in an hour or less
  • Plays with 2 or more players (many war games are just 2 players)
  • Use a card driven mechanic (instead of dice)
  • Leverage the tactics and weaponry of the 19th century

Know the difference between a goal of yours and a bad feature. This comment is meant to balance the previous one. If you let yourself, you can counter every tester suggestion with “that conflicts with my vision.” Don’t sell yourself on the superiority of your own ideas. Listen to your testers, ask questions to understand their perspective and comments, and evaluate it as openly and reasonably as possible. Use the data, don’t thrash against it.

Do not insult your testers or let them feel insulted. Nobody wants to test for a jerk. Don’t get angry when you receive harsh feedback. Instead, push yourself to make the game much better. People will only tell you they love they game if they fear you won’t accept their criticism. Make sure they feel comfortable and appreciated for telling you what you really need to hear. Trust me, you need to hear it. As a side note, I feel incredibly blessed to be surrounded by an awesome group of testers. I’ve been a professional game developer for 7 years, so I have a fantastic group of about 10 people who are incredibly enthusiastic about games, are well-versed in design, and aren’t afraid to be honest with me. 

Enter your tests with a purpose. Try not to change everything before a new test. Obviously, game design isn’t science, but the closer we can move towards a “control” environment with a few variables, the better our data will be. If you change everything, it’ll be really difficult to know what worked, what didn’t, and more importantly, why for either.

If possible, have a tester read your rules, then explain them to the group. This more closely emulates the real world playing of your game. Most people learn to play a game after one person reads the rules. Unfortunately, you don’t ship with each copy of your game that’s sold. If you cannot find a tester to read the rules beforehand, try to explain the game in the same order of your rules. This will help you get a feel for how to better organize the rules. Plus, when people ask questions like “How do I use that thing you just mentioned,” you’ll get the tip to bring that information forward in the rules.

Test with a wide variety of people, including people you think will love your game, hate your game, and somewhere in between. One of the most interesting tests I’ve held for Field Marshals so far was with two incredibly competitive gamers. That’s not the type of gamer I am, nor is it really my focus when developing games. But, observing how they viewed the game and broke down every element to maximize their chances for victory was fascinating. Had I only tested with casual, lightweight gamers (like me), I would have missed out on this perspectives.

If someone asks a question, take a note of it. Questions and confusion are a great indication that a feature was poorly explained or may need to be streamlined. Before I put Poor Abby on hold, I conducted a test with my new shiny prototype. The tester asked questions on the Argument cards for a solid 5 minutes. He just did not get them! My takeaway wasn’t that he was dense. Instead, I realized that if this veteran, hardcore board gamer couldn’t grasp the mechanic, perhaps it was due for a complete reconsideration.

It’s not you, it’s me.

Take notes on what features/mechanics/player actions are used and which ones are ignored. If a feature is ignored by the majority of your testers, it is either too clunky or doesn’t clearly provide enough value. I’ve found that 9 times out of 10, testers will take a less ideal move using a mechanic that’s more clear. If it’s confusing, they’ll just ignore it. Regarding the value comment, Sid Meier often notes that when balancing a game, either double the value, or cut it in half. If nobody is using a feature or action, you may need to double its value. This tip has been ridiculously useful in refining the cards in Poor Abby and picking which Tactics to list for Field Marshals.

Review your notes with the testers at the end of a test. I always like to quickly read over all the things I observed and changes I intend to make. This serves a few purposes. One, it demonstrates to them that you intend to make changes based on their feedback and didn’t just waste their time. It also gives them a second chance to ponder and think about things you may have been discussing the entire time. You shouldn’t end a test without discussing the mechanics, the flow of the game, and everyone’s opinion. This is a good way to start that conversation.

Blind Test. In case you aren’t familiar with the term, a blind test is when you send your game to someone who isn’t familiar with the game, has to read the rules to learn to play on their own, and ideally, doesn’t even know you. A blind test is as close to a live fire exercise.  I found blind testing on Farmageddon to not only be invaluable for improving my rules, but often, when you have a stranger play your game, they’ll be frank with you. I typically found my blind testers by checking to see who was interested in Farmageddon. People would mark the game as “Want to Play” or “Want in Trade” on BGG. I would send them a message and if they were interested, a copy of the game.

Be willing to kill your favorite features. When you enter a test, do so with the resolution that nothing is sacred. Wait, that’s wrong. What’s sacred is that your game should be fun and that nothing should hinder that. I had this nifty random turn order mechanic for Field Marshals that I kept trying to tweak, streamline, and improve. Unfortunately, after a dozen or so tests it was clear that, while the rest of the game was really improving, the turn order mechanic wasn’t the sharpest tack. I finally threw it away and re-examined how to determine player turn order. Guess what? The new mechanic actually adds depth and strategy to the game. Shocking!

Test Hunches. You want to be careful about fiddling just to fiddle. The majority of the time, you want to make changes based on problems you witness in tests. You want to fix issues, not create new ones. However. While you’re testing, if you have a hunch or think something might improve the game, try it. For example, I was curious whether changing a player’s limit of “play 4 cards per turn” to “play 3 cards” would improve the game. In reality, it made the game significantly worse. Now I know! I also better understand why it made sense to not just revert to 4 cards, but modify a few things and make it 5 cards (with other changes). My bad idea led to the right idea.

What have I missed? Care to add anything?