The Terror of Pitching

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I haven’t had to pitch a game since January 2012. It was 7 months ago when 5th Street Games licensed Farmageddon for publication. Since then, I’ve been working on the Farmageddon expansion, Poor Abby (shelved), and now, the glorious Empire Reborn. Pitching your game to a publisher is miserable, terrifying, and bound to be full of disappointment. Hooray for me, I’m about to jump head first into that fun again!

I’ve been crunching away on Empire Reborn for a few reasons. One, I really like the game and I’m delighted to finally have another title that isn’t painfully bad (game design is hard). Secondly, I know from experience that sending emails is a fool’s errand and GenCon is an amazing, 4 day opportunity to demonstrate the game in person and at the very least, get much faster turn around on that “nope.”

I learned quite a bit in my search to find a publisher for Farmageddon. Most importantly, don’t pitch your game to publishers who will have no interest in publishing it. Farmageddon is a casual card game. GMT, for example, will NEVER publish a game like Farmageddon. No, I wasn’t that dumb, but honestly, there were times when I was close. I won’t be the first to say it, but I’ll say it again as it’s worth mentioning: Only pitch to people who care to hear it. Pitch to the right publishers. 

For Empire Reborn, this is an interesting list. It’s a war game with some area control strategy elements. It’s based (currently) in a fictional, approximately19th century world. There isn’t a “ah, yeah, THAT publisher.” In retrospect, THAT publisher for Farmageddon is 5th Street and Gamewright. Those are the two.

I’m also torn because, unlike Farmageddon, I’m not paying for the art this time. Therefore, I’m not controlling it. I don’t recommend it per se, but I paid for the majority of the art on Farmageddon and that made things strange in some cases. This time, I haven’t done any art. In fact, I’ve merely explored layout for cards and basic materials. It saddens me that it’s almost entirely assured the art I want to do isn’t the art that will be done if I’m published. If you want complete control, self-publication is the only way. Unfortunately, I cannot afford to self-publish, nor do I have the know-how to do so.

Most ominous, though, is the inevitable string of “no, not for us” responses I will receive. It is  easy, for me at least, to put my game in front of random testers and take in all sorts of difficult feedback. That’s testing and design and it’s 100% within my control. But, when I’m asking a publisher to take a big risk on my game, see the potential, and believe in me as a designer, that’s out of my hands. What if someone pitches a game they like more? What if they are in a bad mood? What if I said something stupid at some point? What if Russia invades and a subtle theme in my game becomes taboo?

Gah! It’s like trying to figure out if the girl likes you or not. You know what would make pitching a game simpler? If I could send them a handwritten note that said:

“Do you like my light to medium war game?” Answers: Yes/No/Maybe

But, I’ve learned a lot. It’s been a good year and I’m developing my craft. I’ll find a publisher for Empire Reborn. After all, this war won’t fight itself.

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.

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!

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.