A Story of Rage

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Happy Friday! I have about 3 really good blog posts in the works that I haven’t had time this week to finish. I’ve been very busy with work and Wozzle in my spare time. I wanted to cap off this week with a short story I thought you might enjoy.

GenCon 2012 was my first GenCon, heck, my first board game convention. It was especially memorable because it marked the release of my first published game, Farmageddon, which was on display at my publisher’s booth.

I was very busy during the convention. From 9 am to 6 pm I ran non-stop Farmageddon demos at a table in the dealer hall. I grabbed a quick bite, then from 8 pm to midnight I was testing York in the First Exposure Playtest Hall. I was very tired, but I loved the work so it was really fine. In fact, I vastly prefer a GenCon like this to one where I’m not working.

That’s the context. Fast forward to Sunday afternoon. This is family day, when all the adults bring their children. I’m exhausted at this point and have slept about 5 hours total. A dad that resembled Eugene Levy comes up with two young children, one is about a 7 year old girl, the other about a 9 year old boy. They’re young.

They wanted to play Farmageddon, which is probably a little too advanced, but both children could read and I’m not going to tell them no. I walked them through the instructions and a turn, then stepped aside to watch the main table. I had 2 tables and I felt it better to let them play as a family with me within arm’s reach to answer questions.

About 10 minutes into their game I hear a kerfuffle. The girl is sitting on one side of the long table, the boy directly across from her, and the father is sitting perpendicular at the end. The boy played the Farm Futures card, which lets him draw 2 Crop cards from the top of the deck OR examine another player’s hand and steal 1 card.

Naturally, the boy chose to steal a card from his sibling.

“NO!” she screams. “He can’t have my card.”

The dad, somewhat aloof, asks his son to see the card. He reads it, and quietly notes, “Sweety, the card lets him take one of yours. That’s just how the game is played.”

Pan the camera just to the side to see me nervously standing there running my hands through my hair. I have no clue what is going to happen. Words keep moving to the front of my mouth, but none exit. Really, my mouth is just open and I’m awkwardly leaning towards the table.

“No!” she screams again. “It’s not fair.”

“Dad, it says I get a card.”

“Sweety, he gets a card. Let him see the cards.”

While the girl is looking at her father, the boy identifies his moment and seizes it. He leans across the table and plucks a card randomly from her hand (which isn’t how it works, but at this point, I’m no stickler). The girl turns her head to look at him with absolute murder in her face. She is LIVID.

The dad still doesn’t really care. He is emotionally on a beach somewhere, drinking rum, without children.

The littler girl then does my favorite thing ever. She let out a feral growl and slammed her remaining cards on the table. Then, like an alligator leaving the river to consume a gazelle, she leaps onto the table, flat on her stomach, and begins clawing at her brother. This young, enraged she-beast began scratching, flailing, and sending cards everywhere.

The boy is caught off guard by this maneuver. The dad casually says things like “Now honey” and “Don’t do that,” but she isn’t listening. The boy grabs the cards, desperately, bending them and trying to protect his young face.

My potential customers at the other table and those standing around begin fleeing. People awkwardly stare at my tables and the scene and just keep walking by. Eventually, the dad calms her down, thanks me for the demo, and leaves.

Naturally, they didn’t buy a copy.

It was then I knew that Farmageddon was the best thing I would ever create.

Interview with Jerry Hawthorne

When I began working on Sol Rising, I knew I wanted to make a game with a strong narrative component, more randomness than York (my previous design), and a fun take on scenarios. One of my biggest inspirations is Mice & Mystics, designed by Jerry Hawthorne and published by Plaid Hat Games. 

I’m a big fan of the game, which you can see in my review of Mice & Mystics. When I found out Jerry was taking interviews for the new expansion, Downwood Tales, I immediately contacted him. Here is the result! 

My comments are preceded by HG, with Jerry’s preceded by JH.

Hyperbole Games: For those who don’t know who you are, give us a quick introduction. What makes you tick? What’s something we should know about you?

Jerry Hawthorne: My name is Jerry Hawthorne and I am 46 years old. I have a lovely wife and two awesome kids. I work full time as a busy hair stylist, but I also design board games in my spare time (if you can call it that) as a freelancer. My games are visual, very story focused, family-friendly, and usually involve a healthy amount of luck. That’s just how I roll.

HG: Around 2012 you released a little game called Mice & Mystics that was a huge hit for you and Plaid Hat Games. I finished the first book, Sorrows and Remembrance, earlier this year and it was just a delight. I played it with a friend on lazy Sundays. He’d send me a text and say “bring over Rat Zelda.”

Give us the super quick explanation of what Mice & Mystics is so we’re all on the same page.

JH: Sure. Mice & Mystics is a story that you can play like a game. During the game, you will be playing the role of a human that has been magically transformed into a mouse to escape a treacherous sorceress who has placed your King under a spell and usurped his throne.

Play revolves around completing chapters in a bedtime style story book. As you play, you will also read from the story book and discover the unfolding events which will affect your game. The game was designed to give players a unique experience, and has random elements that ensure no two sessions are the same.

HG: To toss in my perspective as a player to complement your note, in addition to all of that, the game is a light, scenario driven dungeon crawler. Scenarios feature unique, thematic experiences driven by the story and these moments are strung together with a dicey combat mechanic.

Heart of Glorm, the first expansion, came out last year. It’s a great, small box with a few characters and a few new chapters. I’ve heard Downwood Tales is WAY bigger. What can we expect for this new expansion?


JH: The new expansion really adds a lot to the game. You get three new characters: A gecko named Jackobe who is hired to guide your mice through the forest. Ansel, a pure hearted warden sworn to protect the forest creatures. And Ditty, a shrew scamp who strums her magical fiddle to help the party. There are new bad guys to fight and new devious bosses, including an arrogant aristocratic bullfrog and a predatory snake named Hesster

The story is somewhat more involved, with an even stronger emphasis being placed on campaign play. There are branching story arcs and many twists and surprises, but it continues the story of Collin and gang as they are strangers in this new land. The heroes bring courage and correctness to a forest filled with dangers and double crossers.

The box is stuffed with 8 new 2 sided outdoor tiles depicting the forest floor, the burrows and tunnels under the forest, and also the trees and branches where the mice will need to go to traverse the terrain challenges in their path. There are also a bunch of new figures, 60 new search cards, and about 30 new abilities.

HG: Can you comment further on the branching play, perhaps with a tiny example? This was something I sought to do with Sol Rising to try to address the comment that scenario games are only fun once. But, also, I wanted to give players a little agency over their story.

How did you tackle this challenge?

JH: It was very challenging because the story has to come around to the same place eventually. I’ll give an example: At the end of chapter 1, there are two possible outcomes. The story splits and there is a chapter 2a and 2b. There are also two possible outcomes for chapter 2a, one will have you playing 2b, the other allows you to advance to chapter 3.

Wow, that sounds more complicated than it is. Anyway, these were very difficult to write because the events have to feel as though they fit story wise. I think we accomplished it quite well.

HG: As a designer and player I love expansions. They are a great opportunity to explore new avenues. What was the number one thing you wanted to do with Downwood Tales?

JH: With Downwood Tales, I wanted to give the players a more epic story that would seamlessly continue the adventure. I wanted to provide more bad guys with challenging abilities. I also wanted to take cinematic game play to the next level.

In Downwood Tales your party might come to an impassable chasm in the forest. There could be a variety of options the players would need to discuss. Do you go around by exploring to another tile? Do you climb a nearby tree and use a leaf to float down to the other side? Or do you have a wild figure in your party who knows which vines might allow you to climb down into the chasm and continue in the tunnels known as the Underwood?

HG: I really like this opportunity for group discussion. It definitely has that “Lord of the Rings” element of “where do we go from here?” Could you give an example of the more challenging enemies? How did you up the challenge with the bad guys?



JH: Sure! We have frogs that leap around, newts that shoot flaming arrows, fearies that fly and they can curse you, bullfrogs who can zap you with their tongue, weasels that clobber you, and Hesster the snake who is this story’s equivalent of Brodie.

HG: I prefer cats to snakes. Much like Indiana Jones.


Expansions are also a great way to address rough spots or merely improve things that, in retrospect, you wanted to be better. Did you have any of those? Does Downwood Tales really improve something from the base game?

JH: I’m not a person who dwells too much on past failings or tries to use expansions as fixes. Mice & Mystics has resonated with its fans because it is an approachable game that really puts the story first. I wanted to give more of that stuff. The game is the same, the environment has changed for the mice. There are a lot of things to discover.

HG: How did you want to advance the story? Was there anything in particular you wanted to accomplish?

JH: I wanted to tell a story about growing up, rising to your expectations, the weight and responsibility of authority. These are very much a topic in my household, but can be applied to global events as well. As always, the story is light and filled with the same silly humor that you come to expect from jokers like Nez and Filch. But there are tender moments and contemplative moments as well.

HG: I’m trying to estimate the percentage of tenderness that came from Lord Bistro…

You have some really clever story and mechanical moments in Sorrows and Remembrance. I loved gambling with the rats and trying to keep Vurst on my side as we went through the sewers was really neat. Do you have any really cool set pieces in Downwood Tales?

JH: Yeah, this is just something you all can expect from Mice & Mystics. Each chapter will have a completely new and different set of challenges, and not all of them will involve fighting. There is an entire stealth chapter that the playtesters were raving about. There is a “Last of the Mohicans” style ambush chapter that is a lot of fun, and even a race down a babbling brook on boats made from fallen leaves.



HG: I like the idea of the ambush. It’s such a unique element to warfare games often miss. It’s usually just a straightforward fight. Finding ways to spice up every battle is really appreciated.

Different games need different testers. For something like Summoner Wars you want someone like James Sitz who is incredibly analytical and competitive. Mice & Mystics is such an experience though, if that makes sense. Yes, balance is important so it isn’t too easy or difficult, but I feel like you’re testing its soul more than its stats. Have you found it difficult to test the game and find the right people?

JH: For Downwood Tales, I gathered a small group who I call my ‘creative core.’ These guys helped me ensure that the chapters had the same compelling quality as the base game and that they offered a play experience that was cinematic and charming. The second playtest phase involved a huge group of volunteers who put in about 500 tests. This helps balance the challenge level. Some chapters may be harder than others (that’s just the nature of designing around a story), but none of them are unfairly tough.

HG: I spent the past year working on a story-driven tactical game, which was greatly inspired by your work on Mice & Mystics. Working on the narrative in a way that made sense and paired with the game was really difficult. What is something you’ve learned working on Mice & Mystics about story-driven games? What were some of your biggest challenges?

JH: Well, I’m glad you see how tough it is. I really have to say that it was an exhausting, grey hair inducing roller coaster. But I have gotten better at it. The trick is to portion out your story beforehand in equal chunks (chapters) that each rise and fall like an independent story within a story.

As an example, the first chapter of Downwood Tales has the mice traveling from Barksburg to a town called Headfall Hollow, that is located deep in the Downwood. This is rather easy. The story starts at Barksburg and ends at Headfall Hollow. What happens in-between gets filled in like using crayons to color the stuff between the black lines of a picture in a coloring book.

HG: I agree to this approach. With Sol Rising I created mini-arcs of about 3 missions apiece that contributed to the entire story. Thinking about the big points was not too difficult, but coloring in the spaces? Not so easy.

What are some of your favorite games to play? How, if at all, did they inspire you?

JH: Everyone knows I love Heroquest, and that Mice & Mystics was heavily inspired by it. Heroscape also holds a prominent portion of my heart.

Recently, I have had the opportunity to play the finalized version of Dead of Winter. I can’t wait to play it again. It is a game that offers an experience so incredibly close to its aim, that I can’t imagine anybody ever getting tired of it. It perfectly creates the same emotional response from players as you’d expect from a real desperate group survival scenario. Every choice seems so important… It’s blissfully agonizing.

HG: I played an earlier version of Dead of Winter when Colby and Isaac visited San Francisco. Pretty entertaining! The pre-order is still available, actually.

This just occurred to me writing the questions, but would you ever want to create another experience within the Mice & Mystics universe? For example, managing the mouse city and the goings on, or playing the game from the perspective of the bad guys. Would that even appeal to you? Have you thought of something like this?

JH: I’m actually currently working on another game in the Mice & Mystics world. I can’t talk about it yet, but I am very interested in exploring the potential of the Mice & Mystics world.

HG: Excellent! Some of your first design projects were on Heroscape. Mice & Mystics has a similar heft – simple combat, clean abilities, simple movement. What are some of the most important things you learned working on Heroscape?

JH: I learned that theme can be supported with simple game mechanics. As an example, Jackobe the gecko in Downwood Tales uses a boomerang. To convey the odd way that boomerangs work, I wrote an ability for it that allows it to curve around and hit an enemy from behind should he miss with the initial throw.

Simple but thematic, and that is exactly how Heroscape is.

HG: Are you able to comment on when we can expect to purchase, approximately, Downwood Tales?

JH: I don’t have that info yet, but I should have a better guess in a few days.

HG: Anything else you want to add?

JH: I’d like to thank you for taking the time to do this Q&A. Also, thank you for your fantastic blog. I really enjoy reading your thoughts on game design. I find myself needing these perspectives from others who enjoy the thematic game sub-genre as much as I do. Most blogs on game design are directed at the more structured nuts and bolts stuff that I find so dry.

HG: The pleasure is all mine. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this.

Titanfall Got me Thinking

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Update: I was able to play Titanfall at lunch. This game is the real deal. Respawn did it again.

I don’t typically talk much about video games on this blog. My personal design passion is for print games and besides, I spend my entire work week developing PC games. I’ve seen how the sausage is made, as they say, so when it’s my personal time, I prefer board games.

But, Titanfall released this week and I just can’t ignore it. Yes, it has beautiful graphics, MECHS, parkour like movement, and tight, small-scale infantry combat. And mechs. But, the things that have me excited most are its lineage and its scope.

Respawn Entertainment is primarily comprised of former Infinity Ward employees. Before that, they were a part of EA LA, responsible for arguably the best Medal of Honor games. These things mean a lot to me, but they may not, to you. Let me walk you through their titles.

  • Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (2002)
  • Call of Duty (2003)
  • Call of Duty 2 (2005)
  • Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007)
  • Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (2009)
  • Titanfall (2014)

Now, you might roll your eyes at that series of sequels and games that share a genre: first person shooter. I get that it’s your first inclination, so go on, be snarky. You done? Cool.

Before Call of Duty, most games made you, the player, a one man army. You’d kill thousands of Nazis, zombies, tanks, fly airplanes, and generally be this god of war. It was fun, mostly, until you found yourself crawling through the same level trying to optimize your next dart for a health pack. It just became redundant and stale. These are the guys that helped fix it (alongside studios like Bungie with Halo).

Call of Duty put you onto the battlefield. You were one member of a larger army fighting an enemy army. Unlike other games with a squad, you didn’t have to control everyone. The game took care of that for you. Your job, private, was to avoid getting shot and join the charge. Suddenly, the Assault on Brecourt Manner, the Battle of Stalingrad, climbing Pont du Hoc? Completely new. Overwhelmingly epic. Just incredible. The smoke, the sounds, y our commander shouting at you…I still vividly remember the P-51s saving my butt right as that German Panzer was about to push us off of our defensive position.

Infinity Ward didn’t stop with cool, massive battles. With Modern Warfare, they reduced some of the battles to elite, 3 or 4 man teams. You weren’t alone and they made every moment cool. It was around Modern Warfare that they really began pushing our expectations of what defines a scripted game experience. They began introducing more interesting story moments, like when I was killed in a nuclear blast as a foot soldier. They killed me! I couldn’t believe that.  They began creating really incredible one-off experiences, like when me and my sniper partner infiltrated this massive army outpost and, after he was injured, I pulled him to safety.

Modern Warfare 2 went batty with one-off moments. Ice climbing. Getting airlifted out of a subterranean prison right as the ground beneath me exploded. Setting up gun turrets to defend an American fast food restaurant from Russian assault. Retaking the white house. Or having a shoot out like the shower scene from The Rock.

Infinity Ward put me into the game better than anyone before. Without them, I’m not sure games like Unchartedwhich took it to the next levelwould exist.

While they were making incredible progress towards the ultimate scripted experience, they also did some really cool things in multiplayer. They weren’t the first to add persistent stats to a multiplayer FPS, but their Perk system was incredibly innovative and let players easily create the character build they wanted. I didn’t always love the community, but there is some great design there.

Now, Titanfall. The game is intimate. Where so many games keep going massive, Titanfall pits a small number of players together in intimate combat. Instead of dozens of vehicles, each with a unique control scheme, the game gives you powerful mech walkers that are intuitive to control and wield. Titanfall also introduces a parkour-style of movement, including wall running and other fluid environmental manipulation. And jetpacks. Yes, we’ve seen this before in games like Tribes and Mirror’s Edge, or even conc-jumping in Team Fortress, but these experiences were often incredibly difficult to pull off and weren’t designed from the ground up to be the game. And Mirror’s Edge was purely single player.

The game also oozes personality. The experience shines through. It’s packed with cool moments, like ripping another Titan pilot directly out of his mech, watching the console light up as you boot in, or the rush of launching from your ship. These guys took the lessons they learned from single player and infused them into multiplayer.

Finally, in a day and age when ever game has to have a huge single player, and co-op, and multiplayer, and free to play, and…Titanfall gives us one killer mode. I cannot tell you how cool that is. As a PC developer, if someone said “do this one thing super well” I would kiss them with joy. Respawn, as a new company, really doubled down on this. Hopefully, Titanfall is a huge success and they expand the universe with new experiences.

But for now, I’m happy to fight against other players. As we know, man is the greatest opponent. FPS muliplayer games like Titanfall may not be your cup of tea, but there are some great people there doing some really cool stuff. It isn’t just another FPS. I can’t wait to strap in.

Disclaimer: I work for EA, but I’ve had nothing to do with Titanfall or any of the games above. I’m not even in the same division — I work for Maxis on The Sims 4. My opinions on this blog are my own. I’ve been a long-time fan of the work of this studio and I wanted to talk about it.

Posted in Blog | Tagged fps, , genre, innovation, shooters, , titanfall, video games | Leave a reply

An Interview with Ty Franck

James S.A. Corey is the writer of The Expanse trilogy of sci-fi books, beginning with Leviathan Wakes, continue with Caliban’s War (my personal favorite of the trilogy), and ending with the recent Abaddon’s Gate. I recommend these books as strongly as I am able. If you love great stories and characters, read them.

The problem is, Corey doesn’t exist for me to interview. It turns out, Corey is the pen name for a duo of writers, one of whom is Ty Franck. Franck is not only half the writing team for one of my favorite books ever, but he has experience writing for games.

One of my goals for Mars Rising is to create a narrative for two friends to enjoy together. Franck’s experience with both games and stories made him someone I very much wanted to interview.

My questions are marked by Hyperbole Games (HG), with Franck’s responses following (TF).

Hyperbole Games: What do you think of the current use of story in games, print or digital? Have you encountered any that are particularly impressive to you?

Ty Franck: I think digital gaming is experiencing a golden age of storytelling. Gamers have told developers, with their buying dollars, that graphics and game play are less important than a compelling story.

Telltale recently won pretty much every game of the year award there is for a graphically primitive media tie-in game entirely because the game had an incredible story.

My favorite games of the last few years were Dragon Age: Origins, Mass Effect, and Last of Us. All games with strong narratives and powerfully told stories with great characters.

HG: I haven’t yet played Last of Us, but I have played Naughty Dog’s other PS3 titles and I think they are masters of interactive fiction. I’ve enjoyed most of Bioware’s efforts, as well.

The key element that distinguishes games from other platforms (books, movies) is interactivity. Do you personally prefer to experience a game story that is told to you (ex: Call of Duty), or do you prefer to affect and create your own story (The Sims, Skyrim)?

TF: I don’t like sandbox games. Never have. Honestly, after a few hours playing I get bored. I need a compelling narrative to truly engage with a game. If a game tells me I can do anything I want, it has also told me that nothing I do actually matters. Now, if a game can match a strong narrative to a feeling of making important choices, like Dragon Age did for me, then I’m hooked. That’s the perfect structure for making me love a game.

HG: In my prototype Mars Rising, I’m trying to provide some narrative for each scenario to set the scene for the players. What are some of your preferred methods to quickly establish a scene?

TF: Sensory details and familiar situations.

A man walks into his dining room. His wife is sitting at the table, a cup in front of her and the bitter burnt smell of coffee that’s gone cold filling the air. Her eyes are red, her face tracked with tears that have long since dried. She says, “We need to talk.”

Four sentences, a bit of sensory detail, a situation we can all relate to, and the reader will immediately fill in all the bits you left blank with their imagination. No matter how outrageous the setting, anchoring it with the familiar engages the reader. If the dining room above is the galley of a space cruiser, it doesn’t change the familiarity of the moment or the tension of the scene.

HG: That’s fantastic and simple, thank you! One of your main characters in Caliban’s War, Chrisjen Avasarala, is such a rich and hilarious character. What makes a great character for you?

TF: Honestly? It’s pretty simple. They want things. The things they want are hard to get. They work hard to get them, in spite of all obstacles. Along the way, they act like real humans act.

HG: The execution required for that seems quite difficult to pull off, but the guiding note is again, quite simple. Thank you.

You write collaboratively with a partner, which to me doesn’t seem terribly common. Could you briefly describe your process?

TF: Short version is, we plot together, we outline together, we split the actual writing with each person doing half the book, we edit each others work along the way.

HG: You and your writing partner chose a technological level for The Expanse that seems “realistic.” Far more so than the more fantastical technology of Star Trek, for example. Why?

TF: Because we wanted to write stories that focused on the humans, not on the tech. And if the setting is incredibly exotic, it’s easy for the human stories to get lost in it.

HG: Do you have any favorite stories from other mediums that you’d like to see as games?

TF: If somebody figures out how to do a Jack Vance Dying Earth or Roger Zelazny Lord of Light game that respects the original source material, they can have all of my money forever.

HG: I just bought both of these as I realized I’ve never read them. Who knows, maybe I’ll earn all of your money forever?

The Expanse trilogy is full of so many experiences. In Leviathan Wakes (the first novel), we read about shoot outs, limited ship-to-ship engagements, some sci-fi horror, some detective business, and even a love story. Do you have a particular element you would want to play as a game?

TF: We’ve had lots of space flight games, including some great ones. We’ve had lots of SF RPG games. I want to play a game that does both well. I want to fly my spaceship from planet to planet, getting in space battles with pirates, then get off the ship and walk around having adventures. I know for a developer it’s like making two completely separate games, but I’d love to play it if someone does it.

HG: That would be very fun. I have friends who play the new Fantasy Flight Star Wars RPG, but when they are in space they use the X-Wing Miniatures game system.

Do you have anything you’d like to add?

TF: Thanks for the Mars Rising game. We need more space battle games.

HG: I certainly hope I can find a publisher who shares your sentiment! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions.

Find your Smeech

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve had a very creative few months and in them, I think I’ve done some of my best creative work. By creative, I specifically mean idea generation and the more conceptual side of design. This is the aspect of design with which I struggle the most, as I’m a stronger developer by nature. It has been a fun few months. I think we can all agree it feels good to improve in an area where you are weakest.

A great deal of my efforts have been spent on Draftaria (the development side of my brain is busy with Mars Rising), which is an idea that entered my consciousness as Drafty Dungeon and has evolved constantly. I just passed the stage during which I create my goals for the game. This is one of the most important milestones for each of my designs.

When I decide upon the goals for a game, they aren’t set in stone, but  I tend to stick to them. My goals focus on a mechanic I want to use, an experience I want to provide, or a demographic to whom I wish to appeal. For Farmageddon, my goals were to make a highly interactive and short farming game that was better than Farmville. For Battle for York, my goals were to make a war game that didn’t use dice, played in approximately an hour, and played with more than 2 players.

For Draftaria, the first goal I decided was that I wanted to have a strong focus on drafting. It’s a mechanic I love and one I’ve long wanted to use. Drafting is so beautifully simple; pick a card and pass. It really pairs nicely with my current obsession to create simpler games. I very much want to grow this hobby and one way in which I can contribute to that is to craft more accessible games.

Another goal is that I wanted to design a game with a strong sense of adventure. Originally, this was a dungeon crawler. Then, a sprawling, Skyrim style epic. Now, it’s a little bit of Zelda, a little bit of Harry Potter, and a dose of goofy, wandering fantasy. It should present you with a sense of discovery and magic and a world a little outside your control.

I realized I wanted something lighter, sillier (but not a joke), and more colorful. I’d rather have the world of Pandora from Avatar than the cover of a heavy metal album.

The third goal, and the topic of this post (at long last, the crowd rejoices!), is the third goal. Lately, I’ve been completely focused on creating more thematic, story-driven experiences. This is not a “design theme first” argument, I’m merely noting that it’s more and more important, to me, that the end result of my designs is a strong theme. I also want players to enjoy a story together. No, it isn’t a story-telling game, but I want the mechanics to drive exciting, memorable moments.

I think we can all agree that the preceding paragraph is a pile of cliches. Yes, it’s true. But, nonetheless, it’s a goal. I’m willing to decrease the strategy required to play and encourage players more to do things that seem cool, or exciting, or interesting. I want to reward a little risk and exploration. Calculation be damned. Those are conscious philosophical decisions I’m making.

I really cemented this decision recently when I was in the shower, a place of great creativity for me. Ladies. Without really thinking about it too deeply, I found myself carrying on a conversation between two characters aloud. One character stood out, and I began conceiving mechanical and thematic ideas from him. His name is Headmaster Smeech, and he will be players’ first experience in the game.

I realized that I wanted Smeech to teach the game to my players, which means I needed to violate a rule I hold most dear; don’t mix flavor and instruction.

If you’ve ever received rules feedback from me, there’s a strong chance I left a comment about unnecessary flavor text within your rules. Because, as I probably noted, rules are meant to concisely instruct. I still agree with this, but I challenged myself to craft a rule set that is fun, compelling, and instructive. It’s an El Dorado, for sure, but one should challenge himself for every new design, yes?

Can my rules begin your story? Can they teach you how to play the game and introduce you to the world? Can they set the tone and put your hearts and minds in the right place?

Obviously, the rules are just the initial experience, but I’ve found writing them as Smeech (and his assistants) to be incredibly instructive for my design efforts.

I’m deep in the midst of that uncomfortable, prickly, sun bleached creative gulch where I have about 3 out of 5 big questions for the game mostly answered (sort of). But, the last questions are really difficult and were they multiple choice I would have probably just answered “C” at this point. Plus, even though the answer to Question 2 was “Cards,” I still have to make all of those cards. Really, question 2 is about 100 small questions.

I tire of this metaphor. The summary is that I’m almost there and I’m resolving my difficulties with the help of Smeech, a crusty old wizard who resides in my head.

As I write the rules in the character of Headmaster Smeech and explore his character and his world, I find it informing mechanical direction. I wasn’t expecting that, nor for it to be fruitful. Ideas are plentiful, but it’s finding good ones that’s key. I find Smeech helping me design cards, be it their names, function, or types of magic. He knows the ancient arts well.

I find Smeech guiding the level of complexity I want to put before my players. There are times when I find it difficult to explain a rule within framework of the world, so I take a step back and think about it further. How can I make it more intuitive? How can I make it interesting without being complicated? Smeech is, after all, a headmaster, and is used to teaching headstrong young wizards their craft. Right?

The results have been very surprising. One of my two primary mechanics emerged as a result. It should be a nice, refreshing twist on a few established mechanics. The visuals of the mechanic also paint a very clear picture and support the fiction of your role as a player in the world.

The process is fascinating for me. New game, new methods.

A great deal of what I’ve said is vague and bereft of specific examples. I’m hesitant to reveal too much as too many details are still in flux. They may also turn out to be simply dreadful. Plus, that’s not the purpose of this post. The point I’m trying to make is that if you find yourself creatively stuck against a wall or in need of a jolt to your process, consider the following:

  • Place yourself in the world you are crafting and answer the classic questions of a journalist: who, what, where, when, and why. Be it Agricola or Arkham Horror, you can recognize the needs of your setting.
  • Take yourself out of your comfort zone, either by focusing on mechanics or theme first. Either way, try a path unique to yourself.
  • Think about ways you can excite and entice players from the beginning.
  • Consider ways to craft a simple, intuitive experience from the ground floor.
  • Ask how a character in your game would do the things you tell your players to do.
  • Find your game’s Smeech.

Who is your game’s Smeech? Have you tried any new processes lately? Leave notes in the comments below!

Writing Flavor Text


Post by: Grant Rodiek

A friend and peer recently asked about writing flavor text for games. We had a brief discussion via email on the topic and I thought it was interesting enough to reprise it as a blog post. For many, the notion of flavor text is best witnessed in Magic: The Gathering. It is a game most of us have played or have at least been exposed to. Most cards in the game have flavor text, therefore, many people assume that their game involving cards needs flavor text.

But, how does one do it? What is key to keep in mind when writing flavor text? I have some ideas I’d like to share.

Why Flavor Text

Flavor text is a hint into the world and grand story of your game. Every game can have a story of sorts, because it excites the players’ imaginations and gives meaning to their actions. An ideal use-case for flavor text consumption is that someone examines their hand of cards while waiting for their turn and notices a few flourishes of text that are interesting and pique their curiosity. It is the slight catalyst that lets them imagine a grander world beyond just laying tiles and rolling dice.

It’s a caption, not a novel.

Good flavor text can encourage investment in the premise you’ve presented. It’s not the only tool at your disposal, but it’s a clever and economical one that may satisfy your literate players. Even better, unless done poorly, it won’t detract from the experience. Those not interested are free to ignore it.

The Execution

One of the first things you need to do is decide the medium by which the text is delivered. Is your flavor text a series of quotes spoken by the characters controlled by the players? Is it a passage from a historical text or law governing the world? First person? Third person omniscient?

You don’t need to be rigid and use only quotes, or only historical passages, but you shouldn’t skip about wildly. Think about your presentation holistically and try to be consistent. Introduce exceptions when they add value. Bad exceptions are distracting and therefore detracting.

To continue on the topic of consistency, this means in style and presentation. It doesn’t mean every character speaks the same way. If you have a blunt Scottish guy and a precise German guy, they should speak differently and exhibit different mannerisms.

You must also be mindful of the tone. Is your game playful? Serious? The text must again reinforce your intent. Be careful with jokes, as they will get old. Instead, create a character who is generally silly. Use sarcasm and subtlety to reinforce “this guy is a joker,” not “So two Rabbis walk into a bar.” One has legs, one doesn’t.

And now I’m thinking about legless rabbis…

Decide what the text is cataloging. Is it a dictation of what is taking place in the game, by the players, right now? Is it a reference to supplemental elements that explain why the players are doing what they are doing? Is it a hint of the future? For example:

  • Fireball: I describe the action of hurling the fireball right now.
  • Fireball: I discuss the power of the fireball, perhaps from the viewpoint of a professor at the school of wizardry.
  • Fireball: I generally describe the use of violent magic, which includes the fireball.

You’ll need to do some worldbuilding to really sell this. No, you don’t need to create multiple languages and tomes of history like Tolkien, but you need to understand your world, its people, and the reasons behind their actions.

I tend to be a fan of worldbuilding. I like creating a narrator of sorts to give hints and roots to the actions players are taking. I don’t personally like to use commentary to narrate the current events. I want players to have the flexibility to tell and interpret their own stories. I think, for the sake of flavor text, you can take the Lost approach and reveal something for which you don’t have an explanation, or don’t intend to explain.

To counter, or at least moderate this point, be aware of the rules for your world. Establish the rules of your universe, such as how magic is conceived, who hates whom, and so forth, and do not break them. If you constantly throw fictional spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks, don’t be surprised to find your players lose interest. If it feels like you don’t care, they won’t care. Therefore, feel comfortable to create without the strictest responsibility to logic, but don’t become wanton.

I don’t often write flavor text for my games, but I try to make my cards interesting. I try to root them to something beyond “move cubes.” For example, all of the ship abilities in Mars Rising now have names tied to the equipment or maneuver. I want people to say “I’m launching countermeasures!” and roll for their lives.

In Battle for York, I’ve seen people slap down cards excitedly and go “Dig in boys!” and it’s because the name of the ability had a very action-oriented verb. The text easily lent itself to their imaginations. They leaned in, which is the sign the text worked. Other things I did for York included writing battle cries for the various factions (a catch phrase) and writing small introductory paragraphs in the rules. I needed to establish a motive, then I let the players tell the story of the war.

In Flipped, I can see myself doing flavor text for the clients. I want to help drive the theme and sense of you building a city for people with needs. I’ll probably have the clients list quotes for what they’re looking for in a home or property. These will be little humorous quips about avoiding bad neighborhoods and their hopes for the future. My hope is that you think “Ah, I’m building a home for a family,” not “Ah, I’m gathering cubes for points.” It’s light, but the text and art should help add a little much needed life to this euro.

Bad Flavor

Many designers seemingly view flavor text as “slap on a quick quote everywhere!” It must be pursued and implemented thoughtfully and with intent. Consider its purpose and presentation at the outset.

Writing is very difficult. A great deal of flavor text is lazy writing penned by someone without experience. You know when you read fan-fic and it leaves you a bit queasy? Bad flavor text does the same. Be sure to take several passes on every piece of text, no matter how short. The proper combination of strong verbs that build the scene and clever diction that reinforces the personalities of the characters is key. It’s difficult to do. Take the time and do it correctly.

Another issue is that the layout and presentation of the text often dwarfs the functionality and intent of the card. Flavor text needs to be subdued, italicized, tucked away, something, so that it’s ultimately an accent, not the prevalent feature of a card. Flavor text is a character actor. It doesn’t get the leading role in a summer blockbuster.

Finally, and this is a pet peeve, DO NOT write “Grrsssaaaaaa!” on an card to represent a beast or dying gasp or battle yell. No! Such things do not add to the narrative or world. You just typed out a sound.

The First Steps

Here are some action items for you to begin building your world and write text.

  1. Brainstorm the world. Roughly chart out its landmasses, cultures, pivotal historic moments, how the magic works, and the reason for the current conflict.
  2. Brainstorm the characters. Who is the protagonist? The antagonist? What is the canonical, over-arching narrative you plan to drive?
  3. What’s the next major action in the world towards which you can hint?
  4. What are some of your favorite works of fiction? How do they tell their stories? Do they use a witty first person perspective? A third person narrator? Begin writing using a voice you both love and with which you are comfortable.

The hope is that, as a result of your efforts, people have more fun when they play. They speak their actions aloud. They lean in and grin, knowing their soldiers (err, cubes) are taking a bold final stand. Use your text to fill your players’ heads with voices (the good kind) and enrich their experience.

Inspirations of Late

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I’ve been inspired by a few standout games lately. It’s a bit shocking to me when I read interviews with super famous designers who note they are too busy testing their own games to play games from others. I love playing other games to learn about new mechanics, see clever component tricks, and even just find ways to diversify my personal designs.

I find my tastes are changing quite a bit. In the past I was far more mechanically focused. Lately, I find myself far more focused on some fuzzy aspects and holistic product design. Things like the experience, the components, and the vibe I want to convey.

There are a few constants I have always sought in all of my designs:

  • Hour or less play time.
  • Low complexity. I fail here often, but I try. It’s something I pursue constantly.
  • Interesting card play. So far, this has meant dual-use cards for me.

Here are the things I’m challenging myself to think about more and more as my tastes shift.

  • Story! By this, I mean compelling characters, a fiction and developed universe/world, and persistence. For example, can my choices in one scenario affect another? Note: I want to be careful to say I’m trying to make games more thematic. I feel that adjective is tossed around a bit erroneously. I’d like to tell stories.
  • Dice! I’ve dabbled with dice in a few designs (Frontier Scoundrels, Poor Abby Farnsworth), but they’ve never been front and center. I want to grow creatively and change that. Dice allow for uncertainty and calculated risk. They allow for EPIC moments. They are also a great way to make your game more accessible, something I’ve learned from Dawn Sector, where the majority of the outcomes in the game are certain (and therefore nerve-wracking for new players). That being said, LOTS of randomness doesn’t necessarily excite me. I like to find ways to use it in a compelling fashion.
  • Miniatures! Or, perhaps more accurately (and vaguely), neat components. In my personal play habits I find I’m way more inclined to get a game with neat pieces instead of, say, cube fest. More and more I’m a “eurotrash” guy — I want elegance and strategy in the design with fun presentation. Many scoff at miniatures for being that component that nets millions on Kickstarter. But for me, personally, and for many of my friends, they make things more exciting.

Krosmaster Arena: Visually stimulating!

Bora Bora: Not visually stimulating!

  • Toy-like! This is somewhat related to the miniatures property above, but is more abstract and difficult to precisely describe. Sometimes a great game shares more in common with a favorite child hood toy in that it ignites your imagination. You find yourself making sound effects and “moving” the pieces like a total kid. Toy-like also means it’s delightful to hold and feel. It’s something a video game can’t do.

A few games have really stood out to me lately to inform these new design desires.

X-Wing Miniatures Game: A poster child for awesome components and quality design. Super toy-like as well! The game is filled with constant, simple choices and is visceral. You move pieces, roll clunky dice. It looks and feels great.

Risk Legacy: A story you and your friends write every game. The stickers are also incredibly fun. The take on this has been 50/50 from my friends, but it really hit home for me.

Mice and Mystics: Story, persistence, presentation, and dice, oh my. Honestly, Plaid Hat Games is a poster child for beautiful games that have crazy pieces and relatively smooth gameplay. Mice and Mystics is just a goofy toy chest.

Rory’s Story Cubes and The Extraordinaires Design Studio: These creations from Rory O’Connor and Anita Murphy are just awesome. The simply look delightful, are fun to hold, and immediately broaden the imagination.

My hope is to demonstrate these qualities with my latest game, which I’m tentatively calling Blockade. You can read about my early thoughts and brainstorms here and here. The physicality of Blockade will hopefully stand out immediately. Big blocks stacked next to and on top of each other. A pile of colorful dice. And cards with awesome, colorful, highly stylized characters. Maybe like these?

Can’t you imagine a stuffy admiral with a big mustache and this glorious noggin’? I can.

Speaking of the admirals (and others), they’ll have names. Stories. Their abilities will be extensions of their personalities and they will live and die gloriously as you play through their stories. You’ll have moments of fanfare and seconds of terror. Well, mild, completely manageable amounts of board game terror.

So really, little terror.

Perhaps it’s due to my job, which is overly stressful lately, or the fact I find it so difficult to get my friends interested in more serious fare. Maybe it’s a byproduct of my frustrations in developing Dawn Sector? There’s something about the need to create something playful, even at the expense of being a serious game, that is moving me forward.

It’s an evolution and an interesting one at that. It seems I’m returning more to my roots (Farmageddon), at least for now.

How do you evolve as a designer? How have you changed? What excites you lately? Anything I should be playing to reference?