A Look into 2015 for Grant and Josh

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Common Thread

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Oh look! A blog post. That’s correct, I’m not dead. Just busy. We’re damn near finished with The Sims 4 at work, which should return some free time to me, and my personal life will hopefully settle down. This past week has been a flurry of births, deaths, and sick pets, which makes it difficult to concentrate on silly things like games.

I had a personal revelation, which is the topic of this post, but before we get to it, we need to go a few years back to my origins as a board game designer.

When I started, I looked up to designers like Vlaada Chvátil due to the absurd breadth of their catalog. Though I’ve ironically only played one of Vlaada’s titles (Tash-Kalar, excellent), I sought to emulate him. Other designers that fit this profile (for me) include Ignacy Trzewiczek and Antoine Bauza. I’ve played their games far more, so it’s very easy to appreciate them as a designer and customer.

I’m also impressed by designers like Stefan Feld, who sticks to euros, but does something quite unique with each of them. Or even Richard Borg. On the surface, yes, many of the Command and Colors games seem quite similar, but once you’ve played a few you’ll be quite impressed (I am) with how distinct each feels with just a few thoughtful changes. It’s very inspirational to me.

After a while, I began to realize that even the most unique designers often have a common thread between their designs. I know a Bauza game or an Ignacy game when I play them. I would have used Ignacy’s last name for consistency’s sake, there, but I’m too lazy to spell it out. That common thread is important for this post. You can see a designer’s finger prints on their work. The special thing they bring to the table because it’s something they love.

At the outset of my print game career I wanted to design wildly different things. Euros, co-ops, solo games, RPGs, war games, social games, party games. I’ve tried to design many of these. I’ve taken good cracks at a Euro and a Co-op to no avail. They were just missing something or in some cases, couldn’t come together at all.

I’m quite stubborn, though, and I kept trying. But, my mind always veered towards other things. Conflict things. Military things. After York I dove head first into Sol Rising. Yeah, Sol is another war game, but it had dice and fleets and was quite different. The two projects I’m researching now? Military. The prototype I’m building now? Military. The prototype I’m testing but don’t talk about much? A heavy dose of conflict.

It isn’t just my design habits, but my purchase habits. In the last 6 months I’ve been selling my euros and similar titles because frankly, they don’t grab my attention. I just don’t want to play them. Instead, I’ve double and tripled down on Combat Commander, Memoir ’44, both Dune AND Rex, Race to the Rhine (not a War Game, but as close to one as a Euro gets), and I have to block GMT’s P500 page in my browser because I want to buy everything sold.

I even invested in a new tabletop miniatures game, Dropzone Commander. Something that requires glue, and paint, and thick rule books with rulers, and effort. I can’t even feel my finger tips any more, yet here I sit painting with my tongue out as I try to add just the right dab of glue.

I’m sick.

It all started me to thinking that perhaps I don’t need to fight it anymore. To thy own self be true, right? I think for the longest time I felt like I needed to design co-op and euro to be a real designer. It’s what so many of my peers enjoy to discuss and design. Nobody wants to be the weirdo off in the corner storming their own beaches. (Editor’s Note: Not a euphemism.)

But, I think war games are what I’m good at. They’re most definitely what I think about, want to design, develop, and play. The reality is that I don’t think I’m going to be Vlaada, at least not in terms of breadth. But, I can tackle the issue of variety and seek to craft fresh experiences within the far more narrow lens of conflict.

This is a very crowded genre, but also room with a great deal of space to still grow. I definitely think it’s a realm where my particular obsessions with shorter play sessions can make a difference. I think my common thread will be a great way to fight and just accepting that is very comforting to me. Moving forward, at least until I change my mind again, my large designs will be war games and my small games will be silly card games, like Farmageddon or Hocus Poker. It’s a good mix.

Or, put another way, it’s the right mix for me.

Do you have a common thread? Do you have a philosophy for the course of your personal works? Share it here. Who are some of your early design idols?

Raising My Bar

Post by: Grant Rodiek

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few more notches on the bar, it seems.

The Roles

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

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

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

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

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

Peer Pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding Thoughts

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

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

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


Hocus Problem Solving Part 2


We could discuss every problem in every version of the game, but we think it best if we focus on the problems we identified and how we fixed them, roughly chronologically, for Hocus Poker as it exists today. If you have follow up questions about a specific portion of this, comment below and we’ll be happy to answer. This is Part 2 in this series. You can read Part 1 Here. 

Josh: We left off last time with the economy in pretty good shape. We had the market more or less sorted out, inflation sorted out, and the end game condition was feeling pretty good and, more importantly, testing well. But we weren’t satisfied yet. There were still concerns nagging at us.

Multi-Round Decisions

Grant: We had the concern that the game didn’t have enough multi-round decisions. It’s something you brought up and it was very insightful.

Every round was too self-contained. We wanted a way for a decision in round 1 to affect round 2, other than points. We brainstormed quite a few things, one of which was the Jokers and black magic mechanic. I miss that. Risk versus reward, but unfortunately too complex for what it gave us.

Here was the gist: If you had a joker, you could play it as a wild card. If you won the hand using it, you had to take a black magic token. This was worth negative points (back before our ultimately solution for the end game). There were some odd issues with risk avoidance and tuning and it was an oddly out of sync feature for what it provided.

Josh: Man, I still love this idea. It might be my favorite of the various ideas we’ve cut. In general, I really enjoy ambiguity in scoring like this, where you need to consider whether a short-term gain is worth a potential long-term loss. But there were problems with it, issues with how the rule could be written, and some odd incentives. If we could have solved one or the other, it might still be in the game. I still think there’s potentially an expansion in there.

Grant: I wonder if there’s a whole expansion where we just create a meta game out of poker? Both with scoring in examples such as this, but even hands that span rounds more than the “Save 1” notion does now.

Josh: There might be an Arcana suit in it, anyway. The costs/activation of everything are costly and double-edged. What about just having to spend a Rune to activate an Arcana card?

Grant: I’m curious if people would do that? It would need to be very powerful. That would work I think in longer games, but I question the value proposition, at the very least for player perception, in the regular length game.

Fold was the simplest idea that emerged from that conversation and stuck ever since. If you Fold, you can’t earn points. But, you get to Save a card, which gives you a future bonus. Instead of starting the round with 2 cards, you start with 3. The Mechana Suit also does this. Players who Build a Mechana card gain a semi-permanent passive ability, much like constructs in Ascension.

Josh: The nice thing about First Fold (which later became Yield) is that it’s simple and easy to understand, but it adds weight to one of the more significant decisions. We don’t want it to be trivial to decide what to spend your mana on, and we want people to have to at least think about if they stick in the hand at all. But making it only the first player had the fun side effect of lowering the incentives for subsequent players to bail out. That helps ensure that most hands end up in a showdown, which is fun.

There’s another area that we had a close look at, which was reintroducing something like a raise in poker. It was actually inspired by tester par excellence Robin Lees. He was playing a lot of two-player games, and he felt like it was too hard to drive the other player out of hands, that the decision to stay in was always the right decision. And it was basically true: once down to two players, it was very rare for players to drop out. The problem, then, was to ensure that there was still decision pressure even when there were only two people left in the hand.

Grant: We solved this in one way then, and added a new layer recently. With Robin’s help, we came up with Hocus Poker’s version of Raising — Surge. It was originally a 2 player only idea, but we liked it so much and there was no reason to remove it from the rest of the game. Raising provided a few elements to the game:

  • It gave players  a way to punish competitors who were too liberal with their spending. Money management is a subtle, but important part of the game that first time players miss.
  • It gave players a way to increase the pot on a hand in which they were confident. You want to stay in? It’ll cost you.
  • It gave players a way to make it difficult to make a spell they really didn’t want used too expensive. I’m looking at you, Tidal Wave and Swapsies.

The second way we solved it is by adding a simple rule that if the winner of the round wins because everyone else Yields, the winner earns a bonus Rune. This is most effective in 2 player, but still valid in 3+ players. This keeps a single player from constantly folding and saving a card to win big. As he does this, he’s just feeding his opponent.

Josh: This was inspired by the observation that, due to the way the economy is now zero-sum, you can just keep folding over and over in a 2 player game and just seal off the action until you have a saved card you’re happy with. That’s annoying, and it doesn’t make much to make that behavior unprofitable. A single Rune is enough to really defang the Texas Stall ‘Em strategy.

Spell Evolution

Grant: Something else I’d love to discuss is the evolution of Spells. When the game was first tested, every player was dealt 1 permanent spell at the beginning of the game. Then, the rest of the available spells were purely random from the deck.

There was a clear problem in that not all spells were equal. A spell that let one player draw a card, for example, was far superior to the spell that required a very specific situation to be utilized. This led to the suggestion: why don’t you have some spells always be in play?

Summon and Cauldron were the result.

Josh: I never saw the version with the first set of spells, so when I first encountered things, the idea of the basic spells were already in play. It’s a great idea, by the way. It strikes a fine balance between having things be too static and having too much stuff change between turns. That set of four spells available each turn is something that’s been basically constant. I guess in that version, there were only three spells each round in two- and three-player games.

Grant: It also has the subtle benefit of making it so players don’t have to constantly re-learn things. We have SO much content in the game and if everything shifts every round, it can be overwhelming. When I teach the game, I always clearly call out “you don’t need to relearn these. They are going to stay the same.” It’s comforting for new players. I wish the idea for the basic spells was mine. My good friend Matt suggested it.

Josh: In that version, the game still had the notion of players owning spells. One goal of the original design was to try and keep everybody in the game, so the players who were behind were awarded the two Advanced Spells from the middle. They could then use those on subsequent hands, giving them a broader set of choices. That rule had its heart in the right place, but there were a lot of issues with it. Among them: it divided player attention for where they should look for actions, it complicated the interactions in the game, it required additional rules in costs to handle, it provided occasional perverse incentives for players to try and game things to gain a spell, and as a catch-up mechanism, it didn’t really do a whole lot. Despite those issues, it persisted for a while.

Grant: One of the earliest ideas, which mostly died after the first test, was the notion that players were building a tableau of abilities throughout the game. Balance was such a massive issue, though.

Ultimately, the notion of keeping spells died less for the reasons Josh listed (which in hindsight are all fantastic), and mostly because the mechanic simply didn’t provide enough fun for the complexity it added. It required quite a few rules for a variety of edge cases and different player variants. That’s one of my favorite development tools. For any given feature, ask if it provides more than it takes. Provide being fun, the take being complexity. Little complexities over time feel like a death by a thousand cuts.

Josh: One problem that dogged us for a long time was interesting spells. I think you’ve kept track of how many spells we’ve cut over the course of the game, but it’s been a lot (Grant Note: We’re at 25 cut spells). And that cut count only counts the spells that actually made it onto the table. There were plenty of spells that never even got to that point, that had issues right out of the gate (Grant Note: As in, ideas we brainstormed but didn’t bother testing).

There are things that all of our quality spells share:

  1. They should be broadly useful and not narrow (so spells with trigger conditions are bad ideas). For example, if a spell is only useful 1 out of 10 rounds, based on a specific layout of cards, it’s not good.
  2. They should be easy to read and understand. At times we’ve gotten carried away with too many conditional statements, such as if, then, and so forth. Our best spells, typically, say: Do this thing.
  3. They should be able to be cast many times in a round. Our spell cost mechanic is based on spells being used multiple times with an increasing cost.
  4. They should be fun. That criteria really narrowed things down. It’s probably worth looking at some spells that got cut and why.

Grant: Good call. I just opened up the Photoshop file to stroll down memory lane.

Some Cut Cards

  • Shared Pain: Essentially, you and a number of other players had to reveal some cards. This wasn’t fun and was rarely useful. If you know somebody’s cards, that doesn’t help you WIN. So why would you pay for information you may not be able to act upon?
  • See Thru: This let you view another player’s hand. Again, sounds great in actual poker, but not useful in Hocus Poker.

Josh: These are both good examples of things that seemed like a better idea on paper than at the table. I think both were fairly early, and it was at a time when we were still in a bit of a poker mentality. It sure seems like it would be tremendous to get a sneak peak at things, but it was pretty much always going to lose out to trying to chase cards for your hand.

Grant: (More Cut Spell Commentary)

  • Chicken: This created a side pot between two wizards. So much complexity and exceptions for a single card. Cut.
  • Bribery: This let you buy runes regardless. But, this defeated the core purpose of the game. Not fun.

Josh: I repeatedly chased this basic idea of things manipulating Runes instead of mana, cards, card state, or other stuff. It sure seems like another interesting thing to play with. It’s a currency in the game, after all, so it seems like you could make trade offs with it. But, compared to winning a hand, getting a small number of Runes was not very interesting. And it’s very important that people have the win-or-nothing mentality which makes the economy go. Softening that in whatever way is mostly a bad idea.

Grant: (More Cut Spell Commentary)

  • Spectral Wild: This card and others introduced the “Last Wizard” mechanic, which was this King of the Hill style activation scheme where only the last person who used the spell gained its benefit. A tracking nightmare and very confusing.
  • Numeras: This let you change the strength of a card, so, I could turn a 2 of Hearts into a King of Hearts. We had quite a few cards that used to change the state of a specific card. This caused a massive tracking issue where multiple people would have to remember what multiple cards changed to. This was a sad cut, but so necessary.

Josh: These were relatively late cuts. We really wanted these to work, because they’re fun and provide for some skillful play. We tried assorted tracking mechanisms, different ways to place cards, different orientations, all kinds of things. None of them worked. We just kept getting feedback from testers that they were confused. Sad, but we finally had to just dump them. They also fed into the problem we’ll talk about below, which was certain hands dominating winning pots.

Grant: (More Cut Spell Commentary)

  • Peek-A-Boo: I loved this spell. It let you flip any card in play to its opposite side. What often happened, though, was that people would reveal all cards in the square, then there’d be nothing left to reveal. If people tried to flip them back down, they’d be automatically revealed at the end of the action phase. It was, more or less, a broken card.
  • Dispatch Goblin: This is a good example of a spell that was fine, but too complicated. You chose another player, who had to pick one card to show just you. You could then tell them to keep it, or you could take it from them in exchange for another card.

Josh: At any given moment, we tried to identify what the weakest spell or two was, and then just be ruthless about it. Even when the spells might have been “good enough”, it was still possible to identify what the worst spell was. The question then became if we could improve it by changing it or replacing it. It strained our creativity times, but it was always worth looking at the runt of the herd.

Grant: For a few weeks, every Friday night would result in an email from one of us that would start with “What do you think about .” I don’t think any spell mentioned in those emails lived until Sunday.

Starter Spells

Grant: Interestingly, some of these problems evolved into other solutions. For example, remember the cards that were one offs, as in, they were only interesting once in a round, therefore violating Rule 3 Josh listed above? We turned them into Starter Spells. For these, we gave every player a single card, all matching, that could be used once per game.

Banish was one of them. Once per game, each player could use Banish to declare a single hand (ex: Flush) that was illegal for the current round. These were neat, but inelegant. They were also somewhat expensive. For each starter spell, we’d have to print 5 cards (1 per player). That meant 2 starter spells were the same as almost a third of our total spells. Not a good use of components.

Josh: I still think that stuff like that might show up as an expansion. Having a one-shot Banish was actually a really interesting strategic decision, and it meant that you could never truly feel safe with your flush if it looked kind of obvious. It gave a nice bit of cross-hand thinking, but component-wise, it was probably just not going to fit in the first go around of the game.

I also think that the notion of manipulating the ranking of Sets is something we’ll play with later, if we’re fortunate enough to be able to add some expansions to things.

Grant: I’d love to add expansions. If the ability were simple enough, we could just use a token instead of a card.

For a moment, we cut the starter spells. Then, Josh came up with the idea of Arcana. These were Suits that were normal cards, plus they had text you could use as specified. We wrote about them extensively here. They were one-off, nuanced abilities that violated 2 of our Spell rules, but that was fine because this was the appropriate medium for them. We cut Starter Spells and doubled down on Arcana.

Josh: What it does is gives us a looser set of requirements. After all, an Arcana card is useful on its own — it can form parts of Sets. That’s an extremely powerful base power. So, if the spell associated with it is kind of dodgy, or strange, or hard to deploy, that’s OK, you still have the card to use. It allowed us to unleash some more creativity, which is great.

Dominant Hands

Josh: From fairly early on, there was another thing we both noticed: there were a lot of flushes and especially full houses winning hands. It was somewhat exacerbated by the spell mix we had at the time, but it was still present. At some times in the game, it got to the point where if I didn’t see a flush developing, I’d just fold. That’s really bad.

What was happening, basically, was that if you look at the distribution of probabilities for poker hands, there’s a big gap in probability between full house and four of a kind. As you have access to more cards, four of a kind is still really rare. As a result, accessing more cards tends to bunch the winning hands up right around that cliff, around flush and full house.

I’d like to go into it in a lot more detail in the future, but I had a simulator that I wrote early on in the project to test the probability of various goofball hands (three pairs, two threes of a kind, others). I took a look at the probability of various hands winning in a four player game given certain sizes of hands and community cards, and full house just dominated.

We’ve tried a lot of fixes for this, which is probably worthy of its own post, but for this purpose, what we did eventually is disarm the environment. We took the number of cards in the community down to just three, and took each player’s hand cards down to just two. Without adding additional cards, you only have access to five. So, if you gain a couple cards (through various means), that just puts you back at the familiar seven-card probabilities, which is totally fine for our game.

Grant: I think the simulator you created is incredibly cool and it definitely deserves its own post. Typically designers rely on gut checks, or personally tracking data between tests. With Hocus, we gained the advantage of those two plus hundreds of thousands (not kidding) of simulated hands. It was incredibly useful.

One more thing to note is that although we managed to smooth out the probability of flushes and straights, we never quite solved it for full house. The hand is just too commonly obtained relative to its strength in the hierarchy. We had two choices, really:

Lower the strength of a full house, which is really non-intuitive.

Get a new hand. That is ultimately how we came about with the Crossways. However, I think it took us 2 weeks just to discover it.

Parting Notes

At over 3000 words, though, this post has reached its end. Until next time!

Designer pal Corey Young will be handing out TEN copies of Hocus Poker at the Origins Game Fair. Track him down and request a copy!


Post by: Grant Rodiek

I don’t sit idly well. It drives my girlfriend positively batty and I’m sure my boss will soon fill my yearly review with comments to this regard. I stay busy, often for good, sometimes for ill.

I’m not letting myself touch Wozzle, at least not the version people are testing for us. It’s a good build, it’s testing very well, and it’s important to us that people download it with confidence knowing we won’t just yank it out from under them every 30 seconds with an update. That’s fine with a digital game, but when people take the time to print, cut, and sleeve, we owe them a steady build.

But. The mind wanders. We really want Wozzle to be just awesome. We’ve chased after a few rabbits already. Some entirely fruitless, or mostly fruitless with one tiny benefit. This weekend has revealed yet another rabbit hole.

Naturally, we dove in head first.

Let’s talk about why I chase them.

Note: Forgive the mix of singular (I, me) and plural (us, we) in this document. I’m semi-writing from my own perspective and that of me and my design partner, Joshua Buergel.

What would your favorite publisher do? Or, what would a great publisher do? I had a mental revelation yesterday. When it hit me, it made so much sense that it astounded me it hadn’t guided my thinking prior to this. As I thought on it further, I realized it had influenced me in the past, but not to the same degree. The thought was simply, in regards to Wozzle, “How would Gamewright handle this?”

I think Gamewright is a pretty incredible publisher of games and I own a few of their products. My most recent addition from them, Cube Quest, has already been enjoyed 16 times in the 2 weeks that I’ve owned it. Their games are simple, playful, beautiful, and just fun to own.

I’ve done this with other games in the past. I designed Sol Rising to be something Colby Dauch and Jerry Hawthorne of Plaid Hat Games would enjoy. I have another in-progress prototype that is meant squarely for Portal Games. But, in those cases it was more a high level “who could I pitch this to?” type question.

With Wozzle, it led us to nitpick our rules. Gamewright only publishes a few games a year. They are aimed at a very wide market of parents, families, and children, which means they need to be colorful, clean, easy to learn, and well-refined.

When viewing Wozzle through the same lens, we started asking quite a few questions. Which of these rules add more complexity than they add fun? Which of these rules don’t suit our target audience? Where can we condense and focus the fun?

An example of something we skimped out is the kicker. This is the concept in poker where you have two people tied with, say, a two pair. Neither of them has a higher pair, so you need a kicker. This could be the card in the Community, which means they split the pot, OR a card from somebody’s hand. The problem is, this is a fairly unlikely occurrence. Furthermore, it’s a really complicated thing to explain. Is it so bad in this rare occasion people just split the pot?

No, we determined. The ratio of fun to complexity wasn’t where it needed to be.

In some cases, this process involves us doing a lot of extra work to go from an 85 to an 87 on a quiz, to use an American school system metaphor, but it is what a big, real publisher would do. Therefore, shouldn’t we hold ourselves to that same standard? Another change is that I re-made all 30 cards to not change the mechanic, but the presentation. Why? We think it’ll be more accessible. It was a pain, but it’s what a AAA publisher would do.

In the software world, we often branch our builds. This is often for the purpose of a demo at a convention like E3 or Gamescom. We branch, isolate, and polish a build for the show. Meanwhile, the majority of the team continues to work on the actual, shipping software.

Another, more recent phenomenon is the notion of A/B testing. Pioneered (I think) by free to play game developers, different tuning variables, art, UI layout, or even mechanics will be shown between different sample groups, called cohorts. The purpose is to find out which solution works the best and propagate it to every build.

We’ve branched Wozzle before with minor changes and now we have not one, not two, but three rules documents that we’re testing and pondering. Why? For the same reason our nefarious government overlords have R&D. We want to see if we can learn anything from our branched skunk works projects that can make the main line better. There’s a pretty high chance that these branches will result in fruitless dead ends. But, by chasing these windmills we’re able to determine that the mainline is in fact the superior solution OR, just maybe, find something even better.

I realize all of this sounds like the indecisive spinning of a mad man. But, we’re not! If anything, I think this is some of the most sophisticated, mature development I’ve ever put into a personal project. I’ve personally taken inspiration from other sources around me lately.

At work, we had a few key features “locked down.” We thought they were done. Then, someone asked if they should really be locked down. We all grumbled, sighed, and then thought about it. Like the multiple stages of grief, we soon found ourselves at acceptance. No, it wasn’t as good as it could be. Yes, it can be better. The result? We made it better.

In another case, I have a beloved elder project that I thought was pretty good. As it turns out, the foundation was pretty good. The core was good. But the details? Not incredible and not as good as they could be. I’ve had all of my beliefs and assertions challenged and it has led to a great leap forward.

There’s acceptance of the known and the embrace of potential. Potential, though, like ideas, is everywhere and sometimes just hot air.

Calculated, thoughtful questioning may be the best thing for your design. If you make an B game, is that good enough? Can you make it a B+? Then an A-? The line for when to stop and when enough is enough is really fuzzy. I clearly haven’t found it, or I simply haven’t been able to identify it.

Who then, can show us the line?

Our players and loyal testers are potentially the greatest line identifiers. With each rabbit hole we’ve engaged a mixture of our most dedicated testers, team members, and peers. The response hasn’t been universal yet and I never expect it will be.

Twice, today, we had our survey return with an answer of “No! Don’t do that!” In a sense, it’s an incredible compliment. What the hell are you doing? Don’t touch it. I like what you’ve done. It’s comforting to know both that people like what we already have enough to yell at us AND that we’re humble enough to return from the depths of our rabbit hole, hats in hands, with nothing but shrugs and mud speckled grins.

The lesson I aim to share is this: when you think your rules are done, take another pass. When you think you have the best set of cards, identify your 3 weakest ones and try to replace them. If your mind conjures an alternate mechanic, branch and test. At least discuss it.

When you walk past the cute girl at the park, turn around. Introduce yourself. She may be involved with someone, or she may become the love of your life. That’s a bit hyperbolic, I agree. But, look around. Yeah, that’s right. I chose that name for a reason.

Hyperbole Greatest Hits


Post by: Grant Rodiek

To celebrate Labor Day 2013, I thought it’d be fun to share and link to some of my favorite interviews, guest columns, and posts over the past few years. You might have missed them! Enjoy and tell me what you liked.

Interviews Aplenty

Jamey Stegmaier is very well known for his incredibly thorough blog that focuses heavily on Kickstarter advice. Around the time of his second game, Euphoria, I interviewed him. Or did I? Jamey turned the tables on me and this one-way chat became a full blown, two part conversation. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

I interviewed designer Gil Hova a short while ago about his latest game, Battle Merchants. Gil is someone with a lot of strong, thoughtful opinions and we dove headfirst into many a design discussion. This is one of my favorite interviews.

I interviewed Sam Liberty and Kevin Spak about their Shakespearean RPG, Forsooth! This is something I didn’t know much about and I loved our conversation. One day I’d love to design a game like this, so it was just great overall.

The Best Guests

Jesse Catron wrote a post about feedback loops and it really stuck with me. Honestly, it’s in my head every time I work on my game. This is a must-read for serious designers.

Corey Young, a designer whose first published game, Gravwell, dominated my feed after GenCon, wrote about pitching to publishers. You should read this. Not only is it feedback I use constantly, it helped him get his second game picked up. That’s two!

The most recent guest column, but also one of the best, frequent contributor Jay Treat wrote about How to Teach your Game. This should be read by designers heading to cons or promoting their game in general.

Finally, the very first post on Hyperbole Games was this inspirational post written by my friend/co-worker/design mentor, Ray Mazza. It’s about finding your holy grail in game design.

Pardon my Ego

These are posts written by me. I’m trying to select ones that intersect the line between things I liked, things others told me they liked, and things that had good traffic.

My post on designing towards a strong theme seemed to resonate with a lot of people. It’s short and to the point.

My post titled “The Great Game Molecules” detailed many of the things I think are essential for a great game. What do you think?

I wrote briefly about working with artists, some dos, some don’ts. This is very much intended for new designers and aspiring publishers.

One of my posts about a new idea that went away is still a neat post. I had the idea to craft an alternate history game. Re-reading this post now, I want to revive this!

I wrote a love-letter to my favorite game component, cards. It’s fascinating to see how in some ways my opinions have, and have not, changed.

Finally, one of my favorite posts, and one that comes up often, is my defense of Monopoly.

Enjoy, and happy Labor Day!

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Interview/Kickstarter Promotion Policy


Policy by: Grant Rodiek

If you create a blog that has more than 3 readers, you start receiving monthly emails from this really shady advertising company that wants to pay you $40 yearly to post full page ads about Disney Cruises and such.

If you create a blog about board games that has more than 3 readers, you start receiving weekly emails from (sometimes) well-meaning Kickstarter designers who want to promote their latest project. I get it. I really do.

I’m not interested in either and I’m writing this policy so that moving forward I can point people towards this link. I created this blog to write about design, games I love, and designers I find interesting. The thing is, if I don’t know you or your game, I’m not sure what we’re going to talk about in our interview.

I may only have a few readers, but I want them to trust me. That’s about as high as a horse as I can get on due to my stubby legs.

Here are the rules you should know:

  • If I want to interview you for this site, I will contact you.
  • I do not have time or interest in making your PNP. I’m desperately scrounging for hours to make my own games. If you really care, send a copy to bloggers you deem influential. You must respect our time.
  • You should get to know me before asking me for favors. It’s not hard. I’m on Twitter all day, every day.

I think that covers it. As always, feel free to comment below or .

Blockade Crazy Idea


Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve just had a flurry of what I think are good ideas for Blockade. If you’ve played the game, please read this because I want your input. The first idea is simple, but it led to a bigger idea. The idea is to allow for synced, focused fire. Here’s the rule:

If your activated squadron attacks an enemy that is within range of a second squadron you control, you may roll dice for BOTH units up to the cap of dice.

The reason for this is to reward good maneuvering and thinking ahead. You only activate one unit at a time, so you’ll need to think a few turns ahead to corner a unit. It also rewards you for not getting stuck in between two enemy ships.

Secondly, it lets you fire more dice, which makes the game more explosive, decisive, and faster, but it caps out (3 critical dice, 4 greens, 5 yellows). It’ll be a clear advantage, but not ridiculous.

Finally, it puts even more pressure on the player to properly arrange his formation. If you open up, and I mean really open up, you better be ready to suffer hot, laser death from all sides.

If you’re with me at this point, you see my mind is abuzz with intergalactic, metallic warfare. Things should explode and quickly. Let’s continue.

I was browsing Shapeways after this, mostly because I love miniatures and starships and losing money. Irrational Designs is one of my favorite sculptors with such a great collection of models. I kept wondering how I could get ships like these into Blockade (mostly for a prototype, they are cost prohibitive for a published version), but kept running into a few issues:

  • The number of ships needed
  • The ships don’t convey any information
  • The shapes don’t work with my formation mechanic

I started pondering this. One of the issues with the current game is that the board gets crowded. Plus, moving around all three pieces in formation can sometimes be a tinge fiddly. I’m also balancing these thoughts with the fact that I’ve been pushed to add more customization to the ships/fleets, potentially more functionality, and I need to rework the components. Pegs and wooden blocks aren’t going to work necessarily.

I had a few thought cycles.

  • What if squadrons were instead one ship? Instead of moving ships around, you moved shields around to more or less change weapon output/defense. (I didn’t like this. Fictionally odd and confusing).
  • What if squadrons were represented by a single ship on the board, but individual ships were represented by cards? Oh…go on…

Here’s the idea.

  • Squadrons are represented by an individual token/model/block on the board. 
  • Players have 1-3 cards arranged in formation order in front of them for each squadron. This will be identical to how the ships work currently.
  • Instead of the block manipulation, you simply re-arrange your cards. No knocking over ships or making a mess.
  • To track damage, just put damage counters on top of the cards, like Summoner Wars. Simply flip the cards for destroyed ships over.
  • Instead of conveying all info through symbols, cards give you a little more flexibility to explain movement and weapons. You get more space to convey this info instead of tiny dots.
  • Cards also give you the ability to introduce more complex concepts to allow for advanced play and more intricate fleet arranging…this is something I’ve pondered, but never been able to do with just the blocks to convey everything.

So, to refresh, this is what this means: There is still the same spatial arrangement mechanic, but you represent your ship’s location and facing with a single piece and do the specific manipulation on the cards in front of you. Other players don’t really need to know what you can fire, but they DO need to know where your weakspots are. I’ll either need to make this clearly visible on the cards or perhaps there will be a token you place on the board to say “I’m weak here.”

Because I’m using cards, I can add more precise and clear information on the cards themselves (ex: Move: 3 or Damage: X, X, Y, Y) AND add advanced complexity for fleet building and advanced play.


Does this all make sense? Poke and ask questions if you’re unclear. I think this is “the next big step” I’ve needed for the game. It’s purely a presentation issue, but it opens up so many possibilities.

Good Theme

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Theme in board games is arguably the most misunderstood and conversational topics in our design space. Ignoring the “theme versus mechanics” approach to design argument, many designers, myself included, are constantly flustered and left head scratching when someone says one game is so thematic, yet another is soulless and empty. Or worse, the dreaded “the theme is pasted on” comment.

What does it mean for a game to be thematic? What are the components or decisions one needs to make to ensure he or she avoids the label of “abstract?” I have some ideas and after I share them, I’m curious to know what you think.

Your game should be a theme that people like. People love to joke “add zombies” when commenting on theme. And they are right.

In my experience, when someone says “this game has great theme,” what they are really saying is “This game happens to have a theme I enjoy.” I designed York from the ground up with Napoleonic Warfare guiding every decision. I know this time-period isn’t for everyone, but I feel it’s thematic.

One of my testers once told me the game was “rather abstract.” I had multiple phone calls with him discussing this, trying to get at the root of the problem. Eventually, I found out he just didn’t like the Napoleonic stuff. For a few months the game became the science fiction game Dawn Sector. Changing nothing other than the background story (i.e. instead of a civil war on a Russia-like continent it is factions fighting over a new planet), he suddenly said “great theme!”

People like Cthuhlu, zombies, mechs, super heroes and orcs. If you’re going for theme, if that is a goal, consider using a theme that is widely recognized as something theme-oriented people love. I’ll tell you right now, I’m the only person who considers York thematic as a Napoleonic game and that’s because I’ve read extensively on both the history and fiction of the time. It’s thematic to me. Were it zombies? My game would be more thematic. It’s science.

Have great art. I believe strongly that great art is essential for any game, but having great art strengthens a player’s thematic resonance with a game. Board games can and should present players with a story of sorts that is interactive. Imagery helps fill the pages of that story in your players’ heads.

Look at games like Mice and Mystics. There is so much art and it is so good that it just reinforces the thematic nature of the game. Your cards, board, box, and rules are all opportunities to begin the story that your players will experience.

Make sure your art is detailed. Create scenes, characters, and moments. For example, look at the detail on the soldier below, illustrated by John Ariosa. Look at his wrapped shoes and tattered cloak. Look at his beard with dabs of gray. Look at his eyes, on the verge of tears, and creases in his face. This guy has been through the ringer. He has a story.


Another game with outstanding art is Gubs from Gamewright. This game tells a story with every card.

On the other hand, here’s a card from Ginkopolis. Beautiful, but it’s just a building. I’m not sure what its story is or why I should care.

Games with theme have great art filled with great characters and moments.

Mechanics exist for a fictional reason. This is difficult to do, and may lead to a fiddly experience, but your mechanics should exist for a fictional reason. They need to be rooted in some sort of fiction or reality (if you’re creating a simulation). This might be a subtle difference.

  • Thematically bad: Players lose 1 coin every round to make the game harder.
  • Thematically good: Players lose 1 coin to pay rent every round. It costs money to live in NYC and create art.

That’s a lazy, quickly thrown together example but perhaps you get my point?

Sometimes this is something you handle in the conceptual stage of a game. Sometimes it is merely a layer you add while refining how to present the experience. Sometimes, for the sake of the experience, you need to create mechanics that may not be as fictionally rooted.

For example, I created a rule in York where players could not build forts on city tiles. This was needed for the fun of the game. However, it’s a bit strange fictionally. If not a fort, couldn’t militants fortify a street in a city? It happens in Les Miserable, right?

There are also cases where a mechanic exists for a fictional reason but the way in which you implement it causes some thematic disconnect. Again, in York, the guerrilla faction has the ability to essentially move units across the map rapidly. This is an abstraction of cave networks seen in places like Afghanistan and Vietnam, but also, it’s an abstraction of the notion that guerrilla militants are always where you least expect them. I think the effect is fictionally sound, but the step-by-step implementation is definitely off-putting to some. “Why can these guys teleport?” testers ask. Le sigh!

Here’s how I tend to go about this question for my games. I consider the setting, the actions someone in that setting would take, then I try to think of the simplest and most mechanically interesting way that could be presented. It’s a bit of a hybrid that I think serves me well, but also won’t earn me either thematic praise or thematic slams. I think I tend to fall in the middle?

It’s a slider. If you create something more for the story, you’ll probably earn more theme points. If you create something more for the mechanics, you’ll probably be less thematic. The goal is to hit the sweet spot of something that’s thematic, but also fun to play and easy to learn.

Give players a clearly established character or point of view. Make it clear through your rules/introduction and also the decisions a player makes that they are a character in the world. Give them a reasonable point of view.

In Ginkgopolis I’m apparently a city builder, but nothing about the minute to minute mechanics really reinforces this. It isn’t a great thematic connection.

But, in Farmageddon, I think it’s clear that every player is a farmer. Plant crops, harvest crops, screw with your neighbors. In Memoir ’44 you feel like a captain guiding your men. In Mice and Mystics you are one of the characters fighting through the story. In Modern Art, you are an art collector trying to profit from buying and selling works. I think Modern Art is actually really thematic, but it isn’t a “fun” theme and its art is a tinge dry, but man, you feel like an art buyer.

Give players a point of view that’s relevant, that’s backed up by the actions you give the player, and makes sense.

Use fun components. People love to rail against miniatures, but they work. So do custom dice, custom cut meeples, and anything remotely 3 Dimensional for your board (see: King of Tokyo). The more you can get away from bland cubes, the more toy-like an experience, the greater your chance for a thematic game.

I will argue that people who tend to be thematically oriented are also component fiends. Look at Fantasy Flight’s core consumer and you know what I’m talking about. Their production values are off the charts and they don’t release anything that’s remotely abstract.

Plaid Hat Games also takes their components and theme very seriously. Look at Mice and Mystics or City of Remnants. Tons of custom dice, miniatures, glorious art, and more.

If you take your theme seriously, be prepared for a bump in MSRP. Experiment with cool components. Find ways to go beyond the cube. One potential publisher for York suggested we use punchboard squares to represent units. For one, it helps on the price somewhat, but secondly, with every square we can draw the Unit. Think about how thematic and cool Smallworld is visually.

Here’s the Summary: Thematic games look great, are full of design elements driven by the setting and story more than mechanics and are typically about a theme loved by people who love theme.

What do you think?

Hot for Teacher

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Beginning August 5, 2013, I’m teaching a class on card game design on the website Skillshare. You can visit the class page here. Skillshare is a very modern concept. Regular people, typically creative people, teach a class on a very specific topic. Classes are a series of recorded videos and forum communication that lets people learn remotely and at their own pace. Because it’s the internet, the “cost” of the class is essentially one’s experience and time. Instead of teaching English 101 for thousands of incoming freshmen, you can teach a class for 20 interested people. Perhaps more?

This is a really interesting and new thing for me. I wanted to share with you a bit of information on how I ended up teaching an online class, what I hope to teach, provide a justification for the cost, AND most importantly, provide you, my loyal readers, with a discount code.

Discount Code! 

In a time when tuition is rising in real colleges, I want to give you a deal to attend my fake one. Especially those of you reading my blog! If you enter the code “HYPCLASS” (no quotation marks), you’ll receive 50% off. That means the class is $10. This offer is limited to a certain number of people and only for a week and a half, so if you’re interested, take it!

I’m going to reference this post for the next month as I work to promote the class. If you come here and the code is down, use THIS LINK to enroll in the class. If you do, I get a larger percentage of the enrollment fee. If you don’t like me, feel free to enroll via the site. Really, I just want you participating!

How did we end up here? 

A friend and peer was approached by Skillshare to teach this course. He declined, but recommended they speak to me instead. The recruiter checked out my design blog, liked what he saw, and we had a phone call a few Fridays ago. I thought it all sounded awesome.

Firstly, any time anyone comes to you for any reason, even if they heard you clean a mean toilet, it feels pretty good. My ego was inflated (slightly). Don’t worry, I quickly found a way to bring myself back to equilibrium (damn game design). Secondly, this is something I’ve been wanting to do. Not teach an online class per se, but really take this “discuss game design” thing more seriously and sit down to craft an eBook. Something with defined chapters, heaps of examples, studies, discussions with other great designers, and more. This class came at just the right time. I figure if I can put together a great class that people like, then perhaps I can put together a great book.

In summary, if you bribe me enough, I’ll tell you whose fault this really is.

Open your folders to the syllabus…

Now, I know what you’re thinking! “Why should I buy the cow,” you mutter, “when I’m already getting the game design milk for free?” Firstly, this milk is high in fat content. Secondly, although I’m sure you’ll hear some similar thoughts in this class as you read on my blog (I am still me), I’m creating all new material for it.

In fact, I’m creating a game entirely for this class. It may be AWFUL. In fact, that might be the most instructive thing I can do! Skillshare classes tend to have projects. It’s a great hands on approach where you actually use what you learn. The project for my class is to create a card game. I’m going to design a new game and build it for the class. I’ll use it as my primary example (as well as others) and hopefully it’s inspirational, useful, interesting, and fun.

You can read about my high level notes on the Skillshare page for my class, but I’ll go over them again here.

  1. I’m going to talk about card games and a little about games in general. This is arguably more for folks who have never done this before, but I’ll try to make it interesting for everyone. You’ll hear about why I think card games are great, some mechanics I love, and other things to get folks started.
  2. I’m going to talk about brainstorming, coming up with ideas, and using inspiration. I’m going to try to distill this into actionable ways you can improve this process and come out the other side better than before.
  3. I’m going to talk about piecing this all together. Taking ideas and turning it into a prototype. Something you can hold, look at, and actually play. This can be a terrifying first step for new folks. I want to make it simpler.
  4. I’m going to talk about identifying issues, focusing on your goals, iteration, and testing your design. Good designers know how to identify problems and fix them. Design doesn’t end when you build the prototype — it’s just the beginning. Plus, taking feedback can be difficult. I want to make it less so.

About the money…

I must admit it was weird for me to think about charging at first. I didn’t create this blog to earn money. I can’t even say I’m designing games for the money. If so, I’m doing it incorrectly. In 2013 it’s strange asking for money to teach a class when people read the New York Times for free, but here we are.

This Skillshare thing is not an income substitute. It’s not a job. I’m not going to nickel and dime you. But, it’s money that supports me in this hobby. I may earn $8 with this class. Perhaps I’ll earn a few thousand (which is crazy talk). Either way, I’m putting this money towards creating prototypes, hiring artists for games like Battle for York and Farmageddon, both of which I covered out of pocket, and attending conventions like GenCon and Protospiel.

This is going to be my focus for the next few weeks as I create the game, write lesson plans, rehearse them, and record them. I’d like to think this will be some of my best stuff, so if you like my blog, if you have a favorite post, I’m hoping this is the best so far. Then, when the class goes live, it will be my absolute pleasure to work with folks in the class to brainstorm and improve their own games. I’ve been providing rules feedback and testing games for my fellow designers for years. I’m going to keep doing that with this class.

If you have questions about this, please ask me. I promise I’m doing my best to give you the best value for your money.

Your input is desired!

If there is something in particular you want to know about in the class, a question you want answered, a topic you want discussed, share it with me below. Or, . This class isn’t for me to talk, but to help people make better games. And for all of us who love games to have fun with something we, well, love.

Thanks for reading. I hope to see you in class!