Balancing the Asymmetry

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Welcome to the end of Asymmetry week. On Monday we discussed the different types of asymmetric design at a high level. On Wednesday, we discussed how to begin an asymmetric design. Now, let’s discuss ways in which to balance an asymmetric design.

One of the first things you need to recognize with asymmetrical design is that perfect balance may not be attainable. By its very definition an asymmetrical design contains 2 or more unique, unequal elements. Furthermore, the appeal of asymmetry is giving everyone something that is so powerful and special that at times it almost feels like they are cheating.

If you play a game of Rex (or really, any good asymmetric game), you’ll constantly exclaim “UGH, THAT IS SO UNFAIR!” Then you’ll do something unfair and it somehow all balances out. The key is to examine balance from a high level, meta standpoint and evaluate how asymmetrical abilities balance over the course of the game, not in finite moments.

For example, while one player may win more auctions due to his income advantage, another player may even this out over the course of the game in that he can own more buildings overall. In York, one player was able to hold more territories more easily, but another player could move about to take specific, high value territories more surely.

In Rex, one player has an overwhelming number of cards. They constantly have cards. They have a greater hand limit and they are given free cards whenever they make a purchase. Another player gets to view every card before they are purchased, whereas other players must buy them blindly. This player therefore has fewer cards, but they have the best cards (and the knowledge of everyone else’s cards). These things even out over time and it brings attention to one of the simplest form of asymmetry: quantity versus quality.

Quantity may win more battles, but quality will win the more important ones. Quantity may sell more often, but quality will sell at the optimal moments. Remember the roles discussion from the previous post? It’s less important to consider them from the viewpoint of individual moments, but more how they will engage in the entire conflict or economic spectrum.

When balancing for asymmetry, you need to keep track of several stats between games. Think about the actions one can take, or conceive of miniature goals and achievements sprinkled within the game.

For York, I would consider things like:

  • How many territories did each faction claim?
  • How many battles did each faction win?
  • How many battles did each faction lose?
  • How many Cities (important territories) did each faction hold?
  • Which factions won which strategic victories?
  • What was the point spread?
  • Against whom were each faction adjacent (to consider individual pairings)?

In an auction game, you might consider:

  • Who won the most auctions?
  • Who ended the game with the most money?
  • How many points did someone get for selling versus investing?

In Summoner Wars, one might consider:

  • How many Units does a faction tend to kill?
  • How many Champions does a faction tend to summon?
  • How many rounds does it take a faction to win, on average?
  • Who does the faction tend to play best against? Worst against?

Over time, you’ll notice trends, ideal strengths, ideal weaknesses, and less ideal side effects. Naturally, if you’re like me, you’ll just observe this without the data. However, the data is a fantastic thing to point to when trying to solve the problem of balance.

So far we’re considering the macro over the micro and we’re using observation and data to track trends around identified goals. What else?

It’s very important for an asymmetrical game to give every faction player something fantastically fun to chew upon. Everyone must feel special. Everyone should feel a little giddy when they execute a move that is spectacular when compared against their foes. In the rush for balance, don’t strip the screw, as they say. Leave a little roughness that translates to pure fun for your players. I would say it’s better to lose a few percentage points towards perfect balance than to sacrifice something that is just awesome to do.

That’s the joy of asymmetry and I’d argue one of my favorite aspects of games. Asymmetry, like life, isn’t always perfectly reasonable. But, it should be fair.

Finally, when balancing asymmetry, you need to give a cookie to each of your players. Asymmetric content forms a little bit of a funnel for players that constrains their sandbox in some ways. You should be better at some things, worse at others. Building intuitive goals into your game is a great way to improve the accessibility of your asymmetric game, which is important (as many are just overwhelming).

What do I mean by cookies or intuitive goals? Let’s say your game has three methods of scoring: investing in property, selling produced goods, or prestige for having a good business. In an overly simplistic example, let’s say you then had 3 factions, each of which tended to be better at one of those 3 methods of scoring points. From the very start, each player tends to have a bearing for what they should be doing. They have a sense for what good looks like and can begin working against that.

Now, the true strength of your design shows when they don’t HAVE to follow this to win. In fact, for replayability that’s essential. You also want to encourage them to dip their toes in elsewhere, not just to fully take advantage of their engine, but to hinder an opponent. But, as a starting point, in game one, a nice balance goal is to give everyone an intuitive goal they can set for themselves.

This concludes Asymmetry Week (and a half). I hope it was interesting and fun. Please share your comments below!

Asymmetric Beginnings

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Maybe it’s the simple fact that I managed to write a post at all, but I was so excited about my asymmetry post from Monday that I decided to make it asymmetry week here at Hyperbole Games! Woohoo!

Now that we’ve discuss asymmetry at a very high level in terms of symmetrical, light asymmetry, content-based asymmetry, rules-based asymmetry, and 2 games in 1, we now have a foundation upon which to craft a design. At least, a theoretical one. For this post, the goal is to discuss how to go about beginning an asymmetrical design.

Therefore, where does one start?

Step 1: Identify Purpose

I think the key to a solid asymmetrical design is thinking about what every role means. What makes it special and unique? Where does it excel? Where does it fall flat? This was fairly simple to answer in York, at least at the outset, due to the clear thematic inspirations from the time period I was sampling.

  • High mobility army: Moves quickly and can reach distant battlefields quickly. Inspired by the Wehrmacht’s Blitzkrieg, Israel during the 6 Day War, or the American army today (carriers that give long reach to distant lands).
  • Highly disciplined, defensive army: Can hold ground better with fewer men. Tough to dislodge, but also, less mobile. Inspired by the British army of the 18th and 19th century or the Japanese in the Pacific Theater of World War II.
  • Guerrilla Army: Can appear and disappear and hit their foes anywhere. No ground is safe. Their mobility is exchanged for difficulty in holding ground. Inspired by the Vietcong or Spanish Guerrillas of the Napoleonic Wars (the origin of the name).
  • Irregular army of peasants. A people’s uprising. The idea is that they would avoid direct conflict, and instead work behind the scenes (assassination, spycraft), or have sudden popular uprisings to disrupt the status quo. This idea was inspired by French and Polish partisans during World War II, the French Revolution, the American Revolution.

If you’ve read my blog, you’ve probably heard me promote the notion of goals early in the design process to preserve focus and move things along. Asymmetry is no different. Now that I had 4 high level ideas, it was far simpler to design content that fit with each of them.

Really, every asymmetrical component should have a very clear purpose or theme. If it doesn’t need to exist, if it doesn’t have a purpose? Cut it and move on. In fact, if you can’t justify the exception at an early phase, and asymmetry is just that — exceptions — you should focus on a symmetrical design.

Step 2: Recognize the Knobs

Remember in the previous article when I discussed the various nobs available to the designer in Summoner Wars for content-based faction? At a very early level, you need to think about the important factors that can be modified through tuning for your game.

If you’re making an economic game, your knobs might be:

  • Selling cost
  • Buying cost
  • Taxation and Upkeep values

If you’re making a game that involves hand management, your knobs might be:

  • Rate of drawing cards
  • Discard rate
  • Modifiers on drawing (ex: draw 2, keep 1)
  • Hand limit
  • Limiting or de-limiting the number of cards that can be played

If you’re making a military game, like Risk, with spatial elements, your knobs might be:

  • Movement properties
  • Army size limitations
  • Number of dice that can be rolled in combat
  • Rate of recruitment

You’ll notice for each of these that I only list a few nobs and if you’re using Content or Rule based asymmetry, you only need a few! Keep it simple! One of the key challenges — and thrills — of asymmetrical design is squeezing blood from the turnip. Seek to fully exploit your systems as they stand without adding too many exceptions and one-offs. Remember that asymmetrical games are fundamentally more difficult to learn for your players than symmetrical games. Keep that in mind as you design.

Therefore, try to identify the parameters you need from the outset. Think about all the different things you can do with them through the lens of your roles.

Step 3: Test the Base First

If asymmetry is a fundamental element of your design, you should test it sooner than later. However, while trying to test your asymmetrical elements you may overlook the fundamental flaws with your core mechanics. Before you test ANY asymmetry, create a single generic faction or force and test your mechanics in a symmetrical environment. At most, your players should deal with Light Asymmetry, which provides them with variable starting positions, differing initial cards, and so forth.

Sol Rising, a game that features light asymmetry and scenario-based asymmetry, was tested 30+ times before I created a single scenario. I had to validate the core knobs of movement, dice for combat, formations, and ship abilities.

Likewise, York was tested 30+ times before a single faction was introduced. Now, earlier in York’s life I didn’t even know it was going to be a faction game. But, once that became apparent, I still had to ensure my systems of Tactics, Reinforcements, Movement, and Scoring were relatively solid.

Asymmetry is a fundamental pillar for your game, but it’s not the foundation. Design the foundation with asymmetry in mind, but don’t chase the variation too soon. It’s like redecorating your house while it’s on fire.

Step 4: Test 2 sides first

I’m fairly certain Colby Dauch knew he wanted multiple factions for Summoner Wars relatively early. But, he built and tested the game with just two factions to begin with (Shadow Elves and…one other?). In the same way you don’t want to test the core game with asymmetry before you know the core game works, you don’t want to spend design cycles on most assuredly bad content before you have a few examples of “what good looks like.”

As you design and test a few factions, you’ll get a feel for a few key things. How many variations and twists should the faction have? What kinds of things, at a high level, should every faction have? Much of this design work is organic and will be discovered through development and experience.

For example, while testing York, I began to recognize a framework for every faction.

  • A strong, passive quality/ability.
  • At least 1 Offensive Tactic.
  • At least 1 Defensive Tactic.
  • At least 1 Support Tactic.
  • 4 Factions total.

I began to work within these constraints. Initially, I didn’t even have Defensive tactics. But, I realized they were not only essential for the experience, but another knob. Out of this, my defensive/disciplined faction was born. Support tactics emerged due to the need to change things outside of battles. Had I attempted to design all the factions to begin with, I would have spent an extensive amount of time, much of which would have been wasted. Furthermore, updating all of those factions per testing input would have been laborious and would have only slowed improvement in a game when rapid iteration was needed.

Similarly, to create scenarios for Sol, I designed a single one first. I tested it about 15 times before I designed other scenarios. By focusing on one, I learned about troop distribution setup, approximately balance of forces, how to create objectives and persistent effects, how to design dynamic events, and how to write the story.

Identify what good looks like, then spread it to other pieces of content.

Here’s my attempt at creating an early road map for asymmetric design. What do you think? Useful? Where would you start? Leave your comments below!

Apples and Oranges: Joyous Asymmetry

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Last week at game night I was able to enjoy a second game of Rex: Final Days of an Empire, Fantasy Flight Game’s revision of the classic Dune. Once again, I was blown away by the beautiful level of asymmetry, player interaction, the amount of tension, and how often people smile because of their player bonuses.

Asymmetry is one of my favorite elements in a game. It gives you something new to enjoy every game, something special and unique that only you have, and forces you to learn not only how to play to your strengths, but exploit your opponents’ weaknesses.

Many of my favorite games are asymmetrical and the new design I’m working on now is also significantly asymmetrical. This led me to ask: what are the different types of asymmetry available to a designer and what are the implications of such types? I conducted this exercise when thinking about scenario and campaign design, as well as faction design, and I found it very useful for my efforts. It’s a good thought exercise.

This is a bit of an academic or philosophical post, so use that as you will.

Let’s Explore the Different Types of Asymmetry! It is important to note that a game doesn’t have to be, and often won’t be, just one of these. These are very loose, high level categories. Think of this as a Venn Diagram.

Symmetrical Design: It makes sense, to me, to discuss the clear exception first, which is symmetrical design. To me, a symmetrical design is one in which both players have equal opportunities, the same choices, and an identical set of rules which they must follow. Naturally, these games evolve so that options differ, but both players began with equal footing.

In chess, both players begin with equal units, and all units act identically. In Dominion, all players begin with an identical starting hand of cards and have identical options of cards to obtain. Naturally, the games evolve immediately as choices are made.

Examples include Chess, Monopoly, Stratego, Star Realms, Dominion

Light Asymmetry: I define Light Asymmetry as players having identical rules to follow and equal opportunities, but their initial options are varied slightly to differ their paths or provide variation.

You may see this as splitting hairs, but in every hand of Texas Hold ‘Em, every player has a different hand to act against. In trick taking games, players are dealt out hands at random, which are the players’ options for the trick. Or, in euros like Alien Frontiers, players are given varying initial resources, but also unique Alien Tech cards at the beginning. You can also look at a game like Ascending Empires, where the probability of the planets in your sector tend to guide your technology path in a subtle way.

To break it down simply, this can come about from the hand you’ve been dealt, starting resources, a simple character card (like in the DC Deckbuilder).

Examples include: Poker, trick taking games like Chronicle, Ascending Empires, or Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy.

Content-Based Asymmetry: I define Content-Based Asymmetry as giving all players a symmetrical foundation of rules and mechanics, layered with asymmetrical content, like cards, that tweak the core rules to create a set of advantages and disadvantages.

Content-Based Asymmetry is driven largely by manipulating the tuning variables. This means it’s VERY important that you fully consider the variables your core rule set has to offer. A good example of Content-Based Asymmetry is Summoner Wars. Every player in the game follows the same phases of play. However, each player has a unique army, represented by a deck of cards, filled with a unique Summoner, 3 Champions, and 20 (is that right?) Commons. To further illustrate these variables, let me illustrate the tools the designer has to create asymmetrical content.

  • Move Properties: This includes the number of spaces, moving diagonally (it’s typically just orthogonal), moving in just a single direction, moving through other characters, moving through walls.
  • Spawning: This includes spawning next to enemy walls, certain characters or types, being removed from the board to reappear, or summoning on top of an existing character (ex: The Filth).
  • Attack Properties: Hitting on a different dice value, being able to roll extra dice in some circumstances, gaining or losing hits in some circumstances, gaining re-rolls, gaining bonuses for using Melee versus Range, being able to shoot through other characters, damage multiple characters with one shot (straight line, orthogonal), or shoot through walls.
  • Magic Properties: Discard for extra magic, summon freely in certain circumstances, provide extra or negative magic for the one who destroys it.

As you can see, with just a few high level variables, you can squeeze and extensive amount of content variation out of a game. Content-Based Asymmetry is one of the more accessible forms of asymmetry as players don’t have to re-learn the rules between experiences. These are also highly expandable and provide incredible replayability due to all the combinations in your play experience.

You don’t have to go as far as unique decks and armies. Games like 1812: Invasion of Canada and 1775: Rebellion fully convey the sense of factions and asymmetric play purely by manipulating dice probabilities.

Examples include: Summoner Wars, Theseus: The Dark Orbit, Twilight Struggle, Magic: The Gathering, Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends, Neuroshima Hex, 7 Wonders, and X-Wing Miniatures Game.

Rules-Based Asymmetry: I define rules based asymmetry as giving players unique strengths and weakness primarily through modifications of core rules and mechanics. This is more difficult to pull off, especially due to balance concerns. Furthermore, it’s a challenge to not go hog wild and create a game that is incredibly difficult to learn and play. Just because you CAN create new rules, doesn’t mean you should.

A favorite game of mine to demonstrate this is Dune, which has a new version called Rex: Final Days of an Empire. This game takes advantage of content-based asymmetry, altering some of the tuning values, but it also gives players entirely new rules, immunity, and so forth to make every players’ experience entirely different.

The other poster child for this type of asymmetry, which is one of the best selling games around right now, is Netrunner. In this game, the Runner adheres to one set of rules, whereas the Corp player adheres to another. Their decks have different types of cards, their phases are different, they have alternate victory paths, and different deckbuilding requirements. Netrunner’s learning curve is understandably steep, but the pay off in depth is just monstrous. This is demonstrated by its sales!

Although I could make an argument for it belonging to content (and really, who cares?), I think Cosmic Encounter would belong in the Rules-Based asymmetry category. The shifts are so big and distinct that I think it is more appropriate here.

Examples include: Dune/Rex, Netrunner, Cosmic Encounter, The Ares Project.

Two Games in One: This may not be asymmetry as much as it is mechanical fusion, but I feel it bears mentioning in this article. Some games are so asymmetrical that different players are playing different games. In Ladies and Gentlemen, one partner in the team is playing a light chit-pulling real-time game. The other partner is playing a set collection drafting game.

Whereas rule-based asymmetry alters mechanics to varying degrees, cases like this create two entirely different sets that somehow talk to each other, but are distant cousins, at best, instead of siblings. For example, in Netrunner, the Corp and Runners are still clearly members of the same family. They just hate each other.

Conclusion: Later this week I may discuss how I’m going to mix some of these elements for my personal design. Or, go off in another direction. Hopefully this was interesting and useful to your efforts. Share any comments below!

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. 

If you want to try Hocus Poker, you can get the PNP here and read the rules 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!

If you want to try Hocus Poker, you can get the PNP here and read the rules here.

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!

Flippin’ Sweet

Post by: Grant Rodiek

My last few weeks have been a frenzy of prototyping. Upgrading components (Sol Rising), re-balancing and improving the design (Sol Rising, Flipped), and experimenting with new ideas (not ready to talk about yet). It has been a lot of fun and I’m ready to test again. Before that, however, I’d like to write about how I’ve improved Flipped, both to share with folks and hopefully impart some of the wisdom I’ve gained as a result.

Flipped is intended to be a simple, very accessible light-euro fueled primarily by a worker placement mechanic. It plays 2-5 players in under an hour, typically 45 minutes. I had a few months where I couldn’t work on it, which let me think deeply on the game and really examine what needed to improve.

Let’s cover the basics, first.

To simplify the typical resource complexity of some of these games, I baked it all into the workers. Your workers are essentially your actions and your resources. Instead of the typical “Place 1 worker, get X output,” which you then spend, in Flipped it is Place N workers, gain asset or take action.” Very similar, just a light twist.

The game features an area majority mechanic where, if you build out a certain neighborhood in a certain way, you will score points at the end of the game. For example, a client who wants a rich luxury neighborhood will give you points if there is no infrastructure (i.e. power plant) in the neighborhood. It’ll be up to you to make that happen.

Both of these mechanics have been done before. Thankfully, I have what I think is a simple and fun unique hook. The theme of the game is that you’re rebuilding a city that’s down on its luck. The demands and needs of the city are dynamic. After all, every game would be the same otherwise. This dynamic demand curve influences many things in the game, most notably, points. If you manipulate the needs of Business clients to drive up the Infrastructure demand, you can then build for those clients to score big points.

This was all mostly working, but I had some issues.

Previously, the demand model was very fiddly, mostly from a player updating standpoint. Players had to constantly place chits onto the board and it took time and was just annoying. It felt, to me, like counting out money in Monopoly. I realized that I could simplify this by just tracking the demand with a much smaller chart. Players could then simply pull tokens out of a bag based on the demand number. Easy!

I also realized the game had far more little complexities than it needed. Some of these included:

  • 2 slightly different methods to obtain Client cards.
  • Lots of symbols on the board that could be distilled and eliminated.
  • A few Client requirements that didn’t make sense and slowed the game.
  • A few end game scoring mechanics that always drew confusion from players.
  • Too much info on clients.
  • Too many minor details in setup that didn’t need to be there.

The effect of these tiny complexities was somewhat akin to the death by a thousand cuts. Furthermore, all of them took away from my hook. If my dynamic demand model is the cool feature in my game, then it needs to be THE feature in the game. It needs to power everything, so I set about doing so.

As a result, I baked in quite a few simple changes:

  • One method to gain clients, which is a bit of a push your luck. You choose how many options you want up front.
  • When you build, you don’t get pre-defined points based on the Client. You get points based on the demand curve. If you satisfy higher demands, you tend to make more points.
  • The beginning of the game is more randomly setup. It’ll be equal and fair, but also faster to get going.
  • Client cards have been simplified.

This all shaved about 3 pages out of the rules, simplified the game, and focused everything towards the hook. This is a lesson we should all take to heart every time we make a game. What is your unique hook? What is your theme? What is the best part of your game? Focus all of your efforts towards that and distill and cull the rest. If your game is about battle, simplify the mechanic about giving your soldiers food. If your game is about building the castle? Decrease the time players spend building an army.

Focus focus focus.

Other concepts

I sought input and entertained a few ideas from others. Paul Imboden of Split Second Games suggested I add a few more properties and remove a number of them at random every game. This means you don’t know what’ll come up for sale. I really liked that idea and incorporated it.

I talked to peers Danny Devine and Phil Kilcrease about adding in new bonuses, like gaining free specialized workers, gaining extra clients, or adding in a more detailed infrastructure layer. They all listened and chimed in, but ultimately these things just complicated the game in a bad way.

Focus focus focus.


You can read the rules for Flipped here. Comments are allowed in the document, or you can email me.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a city to build.

Reverse Engineering

Post by: Grant Rodiek

A story theme I enjoy in science fiction is when a supreme species gives a lesser species a technology to wield. The lesser species doesn’t understand the technology. They can’t recreate it or repair it. They just know how to use it and often, with disastrous consequences.

Game designers are often the lesser species. We imitate without understanding.

A great deal of game design is derivative. It just is, and that’s fine. The key is to add a twist, craft a unique whole, or abstract things differently. For example, I saw a opportunity to create a shorter, multiplayer war-game and York, a game with many unique elements, emerged. Will it win an innovation award? No. Well, it might, but I would cock an eyebrow at the nomination.

As we design and create new experiences based on or inspired by existing mechanics, it is essential that we fully understand the source material. To reverse engineer something, you must fundamentally understand the original. You cannot be the foolish lesser species.

This requires patience, study, and thoughtful examination. You can essentially tuck it in with so many other design lessons that are learned through experience, failure, and trying again.

Far too often, especially with the recent explosion in our design community, I play far too many games that just seem to miss the point. I’m guilty of it myself! My first design was a horrid conglomeration of RiskMonopoly, and Catan, but it didn’t pay proper homage to any of them. It was a shallow farce. Blockade used a ridiculous dice mechanic that has nothing to do with space combat and it was so confusing for players. Eventually, I had to recognize what it was, what it wasn’t, and evolve accordingly.

Likewise, in the wake of Dominion came an avalanche of shallow, derivative games that didn’t understand why Dominion is great. Same with the  post-Magic CCGs. You can find this in worker placement, set collection, you name it.

Therefore, how do we reverse engineer properly? How do we gain an understanding of our inspirations?

Firstly, you must play games in that genre to a great extent. Play many of them. Play them repeatedly. You will begin to see a common thread that links the good ones. You’ll also begin to understand the extremes of the mechanic. War games, for example, range from weekend-long, rigorous simulations of a real life battle. They can also focus on a few fictional space fighter craft duking it out during a half hour. Both of these experiences are derived from the same point and it’s important to understand both, at least somewhat, before you can jump in the middle with your own creation.

Secondly, look to the point of decision in these games. Look at where a player is making a choice and what their choice entails. Let’s look at some examples. Note that I’m making some quick, succinct generalizations for the sake of brevity.

  • In a push-your-luck dice game, (Zombie Dice, King of Tokyo), a player is choosing what dice to keep and whether to roll for something risky. They are managing chaos. The joy from these games comes from the adrenaline of “oh my god I rolled that!” and “Should I try to roll for that?”
  • In a worker placement game (Caylus, Lords of Waterdeep), a player is choosing what they want most versus what their opponent needs most. The tension that emerges from potentially losing the spot you desire and the joy of accomplishing a series of unlikely placements is important to preserve.
  • In a CCG (Netrunner, Magic: The Gathering), players experience joy from crafting a deck that matches their style or personality. Players love “breaking” the game and finding exploits. A good CCG should cause someone to shout “I can’t believe this combo exists!”
  • In a tactics game (Memoir ’44, Summoner Wars, Krosmaster: Arena), players enjoy directing a limited number of units to outmaneuver and outwit an enemy. Choices focus on who to move, when, who to target, and in many games, what special (and limited) resources to spend. If you have one devastating artillery barrage, when is the right time to use it?

That is an entirely incomplete listing of game types and it surely isn’t the final word on those game types. But hopefully, I’ve begun to make my point?

Thirdly, you need to examine how your hook or unique twist leverages, strengthens, and preserves the core elements that makes the experience delightful. Your improvements won’t be, ideally, cheap layers, complexity, and fluff.

If your mouse trap still just captures a mouse, but now requires a buffet of 6 different cheeses, a wine pairing, and a velvet coated trap, you haven’t made a better mouse trap. You’ve just added window dressing and complexity. As you reverse engineer, never forget the original intent of the device. Be sure that your new and improved widget accomplishes the same thing but newly so. New doesn’t mean more. New doesn’t mean added complexity.

Fourthly, after your game is relatively settled with core mechanics and a decent tuning pass, sit down and play it side-by-side to your favorite similar game. Discuss with your testers whether you hit the right notes and drive the right emotions.

This is a difficult topic to convey, and frankly I’m not convinced I’ve conveyed it. Perhaps a summary statement will cap this properly?

Seek to understand your inspirations fully. Do not mimic cheaply or thoughtlessly, but embrace that which makes them special and enhance in a meaningful way.

Expansion Design, with a Case Study

Post by: Grant Rodiek

Today, I shall be discussing two things very near and dear to my heart and related such that pairing them in a single article just made sense. Today, we shall discuss expansion design and use the impending Livestocked and Loaded as a case study.

For those curious, Livestocked and Loaded is art complete. The final file preparations are taking place and we’re perusing the rules and cards for final edits, typos, and clarity. It shall be sent to the printer shortly.

Expansions, Generally Speaking

I’m a massive fan of game expansions for many reasons. For publishers, they offer an additional revenue source for an existing product and fan base that is less risky than creating an entirely new game. Expansions give fans so inclined additional content and mechanics at a (typically) lower price point. Finally, expansions provide designers a reasonable opportunity to expand an experience they love with meaningful, substantive additions.

A good expansion should not alter the core experience of the base game. If your game has a 5 step turn structure, you shouldn’t re-arrange the steps or add a 6th without a really good reason. Remember, players will need to learn the expansion. Don’t make them unwind and re-learn the base game as well!

A good expansion should offer new strategies and experiences to the players. New paths should be revealed to players. A good expansion does more than just offer more stuff. Adding new Action cards alone isn’t sufficient. Keep in mind that you shouldn’t use an expansion to add in the kitchen sink. If it was removed from the base game because it wasn’t good enough or didn’t fit, be sure to run that same check past it during the expansion.

A good expansion should fill in gaps, holes, or resolve minor issues with the original game. Ideally, your game didn’t ship with dead ends and gross imbalance. The expansion isn’t a patch, but a smoother.

A good expansion should bring people back to the base game, liven it up, and make them fall in love again. Typically, a small percentage of the people who bought the base game will purchase the base game. Let’s say 20-40%. That means you can, with reasonable safety, assume those who buy your expansion really enjoy your base game, or like it enough that they think it’ll be great with one more twist.

A good expansion integrates as smoothly into the base game as possible. People shouldn’t be scratching their heads as they figure out how to snap the new module into the original game. Just because you’re dealing with experienced players doesn’t mean you should set accessibility and a smooth learning curve aside.

Some of my favorite expansions include Kaispeicher for The Speicherstadt, the X-Wing Miniatures ships, Memoir ’44‘s expansions, and Summoner Wars. I own others, but I haven’t played them, or not enough, to list them.

Now, let’s apply these things to my design of Livestocked and Loaded

I was originally fairly apprehensive about creating the expansion. I knew I could create one and that the base game could support it, but we didn’t begin our Kickstarter with an expansion in mind. Now that the expansion is almost finished, I’m really glad it exists. I really enjoy the layers it adds to the original experience and it’ll be launched to a game that has sold pretty dang well for a new, tiny publisher.

When I began work on L&L, I set out to use Weather and Livestock as primary components, purely because they are rich reservoirs of content and mechanical inspiration. They also fit some of my mechanical goals for the game.

The art for one of the weather cards.

Weather: I made the assumption that by the time people received the expansion, they would need some new spice to liven up the experience. Weather could serve as this spice, just like it does for farmers in real life. However, unlike real weather, I deliberately set out to make the Weather present more of an opportunity (most often) than an unexpected penalty.

My friend, Cole Medeiros, designed Gubs: A Game of Wit and Luck, published by Gamewright. Event cards are a big part of that experience. They are drawn and, more often than not, they greatly alter the state of the game. While they work for Gubs, I didn’t want to introduce more chaos into Farmageddon. There are 10 Weather cards in the expansion. Every game, you randomly select 5 and seed them approximately evenly throughout the Crop deck. When drawn, they present an opportunity or something to shift the game.

Two examples:

  1. One card lets every player draw an Action card. Then, in order, the players must play them if possible.
  2. Another card lets every player immediately fertilize and harvest any crops in front of them.

Livestock: Farmageddon is a very tactical game. You’re rarely planning more than 2 turns in advance, though careful management of your Actions and Crop cards will be the element that mitigates the luck and leads you to victory. I saw an opportunity to introduce more strategy and long-term planning to the game without sacrificing what makes the original fun.

Oola von Heifer, the $20 animal.

There are now four animals, which are played in the center near the unclaimed fields. They are worth $5, $10, $15, and $20 respectively, which makes the $20 animal the single most valuable card in the game (Wary Squash is worth $15).

To interact with the animals, I added a new activity players can take on their turns: feeding. Any planted crop a player controls can be fed to one of the four animals. The crop is then destroyed and one of 6 feed cards are played to the fed animal. This makes the Sassy Wheat crop far more valuable. It will now be a great Fertilizer and a great Feed crop!

When fed, all of the animals, except the $20 animal, offer a powerful ability. These help you mitigate luck and pursue new strategies. The abilities are:

  • Draw 2 Crop cards
  • You may play a 3rd Action card during the current turn
  • You may discard any number of your Action cards face down into your Harvest pile. They are worth $1 at the end of the game.

In the base game, players should always play two Action cards per turn. If you aren’t using them, you are missing out on the fun and you’ll let your opponents run wild. However, there are some cases where one might have excess cards. Now, you can feed an animal to dump those cards for bonus points. I’ve seen someone use that ability brilliantly to win the game.

Sauce the Pig

The Feed cards will slowly add up to the animals over the course of the game. The player with the most feed cards on an animal will win it and its points at the end of the game. This means players need to carefully balance opportunities in planting and livestock. It adds quite a bit to the experience.

Naturally, as the game has added a new feature (livestock), I knew it would need new Action cards to take advantage of this. I began the game with 6 Action cards, but ultimately whittled this down to 3 Cards.

  • The Blue Ribbon: This can be played to any animal to permanently increase its value by $5. This is a very powerful card.
  • The Corgalohts: This lets you move an opponent’s Feed OR remove a feed of yours from an animal. This is useful for obvious reasons. But, if you don’t have any feed, you can’t feed animals. You can use this card to remove a feed from an animal that is a lost cause, re-feed, get to use the bonus ability, and vie for another animal.
  • Farmer’s Market: This card exists to let you mitigate the luck of the draw of Action cards. If you’re pursuing a crop-focused strategy, you don’t need a Corgalohts, for example. With Farmer’s Market, you draw 4 Action cards, pick one, and discard the rest. This has the side effect of letting you get rid of cards you don’t want in play.

Some Challenges with L&L

Remember when I said you shouldn’t alter the core experience with your expansion? Originally, the Animal related Action cards and Weather cards were unique decks. There were also new choices and turn choices related to using them. A friend of mine and long-term Farmageddon tester said “NO.” He reminded me that the game had a nice rhythm of draw crops, do stuff, draw Actions to end. This was a good reminder. As a result, the Actions are now just Actions and the Weather cards are a part of the Crop deck.

Balancing the power of the abilities with the value of the Animals was a big problem that was thankfully easy to solve. Early on, all four animals had really good abilities. My testers noted that it always made the best sense to just feed the most valuable animal. To spice things up, I made it such that the least valuable animal had the best ability. Furthermore, the most valuable animal had no ability. Want to win that Cow? Go ahead. You won’t get any bonuses on the way.

I’ve learned a great deal since I created Farmageddon. One of which is creating more systematic cards with fewer exceptions. At times, it was challenging to introduce Weather cards, new FrankenCrops, Animals, and new Action cards that played nice with everything in the original. Were I to do it all over, there are definitely some terms and cards I’d revise to work better. Don’t worry — we already have an FAQ prepped for the 1 or 2 cases that may cause confusion. Otherwise, we’ve worked really hard to make this smooth and clear.

Finally, as you read above, the game had 6 Action cards at one point. Originally, all of the cards had incredibly narrow, focused utility. I had forgotten that one of the things that makes Farmageddon fun is how so many of the Action cards pair well with each other or have varying utility in different situations. By refining and massaging the cards, I added 3 cards that all need to be in the game and really make it better.

Ending Thoughts

What do you think makes a good expansion? What are some of your favorites? Any questions on the Farmageddon expansion, Livestocked and Loaded?

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!