The Lifestyle


Post by: Grant Rodiek

Today is November 1, 2013, which means people are beginning National Novel Writing Month, National Game Design Month, and prepping for turkey festivities (in the states, at least). The premise for these is that you’ll write a novel or design a game in the month of November. You’ll be encouraged and pushed by your friends and peers, who are also doing it, and you’ll just get your feet wet.

I think this is cool, mostly. But, I want to share three really good blog posts from people I very much respect that point out why it’s not all sweet, sweet Halloween candy.

  • How to Fix National Game Design Month by Gil Hova
  • Just Say No to NaNoWriMo by Sarah Rodriguez Pratt
  • Writing: Find the Time or Don’t by John Scalzi

You should really read all of these. They’re all short and make really good points. Sarah compares this month to a New Year’s Resolution. How many people actually go on to lose weight? And Scalzi very pointedly notes you either want to write, or you don’t, both of which are fine, but don’t confuse yourself or others.

It’s dangerous to dissuade creativity or sit on a throne of superiority and tell others they aren’t good enough, or aren’t hardcore enough. That’s not what any of these people are saying, nor is it something I espouse.

Here is the point I’m trying to make: If you want to be creative, you should be creative. Realize that you are unlikely to get published, especially quickly. It takes time to learn what you are doing, time to get good, and time to network with the people who will want to work with you. You also need to be a little lucky. While this time is passing by, be actively creative.

Use NaNoWriMo or NaGaDeMon to kickstart your creative lifestyle. Use them as jump off points to begin your craft, but do so with no firm expectations of completion or quality. Just get started and join the rest of us in this awful creative struggle we choose to inflict upon ourselves.

Being actively creative doesn’t mean you go home and write rules every night, or that you go home and fill a white board with ideas. It doesn’t mean you tune 60 cards every night. I try to work on game design most days of the week, but doing so, for me, entails:

  • Brainstorming while walking my dog or running errands.
  • Listening to podcasts on my commute from experts to gain inspiration.
  • Reading novels and works of history for inspiration and research.
  • Using Photoshop to build cards, boards, and other elements of my games.
  • Arts and crafts! Cutting, sketching, gluing, and taping my games together.
  • Rules writing and editing, both useful, and both use different parts of my mind.
  • Game testing.
  • Blogging about my games.
  • Game iteration based on testing or other desires.
  • Painting miniatures for a prototype.
  • Playing other games to learn and be inspired.
  • Calling a friend to discuss our designs and spitball ideas.
Miniatures for a new prototype.

Miniatures for a new prototype.

All of these things improve my craft and are generally fun and exciting for me. You should identify things that you want to learn, ideally to support the games or novels you want to write, and add them to your own personal list. Last night I edited the narrative for my third scenario of Mars Rising, tuned which ships will be used (and where they start), and designed bonus campaign objectives and unique events. I also applied a primer and base coat to minis for my next game.

I began designing games in my free time about 4 or so years ago. In that time, I have at least 11 games (that I can remember) that I’ve designed, prototyped, and tested. I have about 5 or more where I spent significant design time but never built. Then piles of ideas. I have a single game published, and I would argue that of all those games and all that work, only 3 are any good.

Of my friends who are published few have more than 1 game published, and fewer still have 2 or more. But, those of us who do this regularly love to create and we push ourselves for those few successes.

This sounds overwhelming, so I suggest you dip your toes in lightly and see what works. And I suggest you use NaNoWriMo or NaGaDeMon as your wading pool. Be creative often and constantly. Begin to apply focus to your efforts and strive to execute and create, not just imagine. The work requires both facets and many of our drive by peers never exit the “it would be cool if” lane.

If you enjoy the work, and find you’re enjoying it often, begin to think about your goals. You can create for the sake of creation, which is the easiest and least stressful. You can create for self-publication and the very modest success that brings, which is also relatively easy. There are so many Print-On-Demand services these days for both books and games. If you really love it, try to get published. It means more failure, but also the greatest rewards.

Regardless of your choice, use this month to become a part of the community. Use it to switch up your lifestyle and create something. Good luck!

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.

Blockade’s Story Development


Post by: Grant Rodiek

Crafting an exciting, coherent story is something very important to me for Blockade. I honestly believe the game can stand on its own without such a feature, but I think the game lends itself to scenario gameplay and therefore, why not try to craft a story? It’s a creative challenge I wish to undertake and a way to differentiate my offering.

RPG gamers will giggle and scoff at my efforts as they’ve been embracing story for decades. But, it’s still not a terribly common feature for many board games. The games I’ve played that incorporate story heavily are:

  • Risk Legacy
  • Mice and Mystics
  • Memoir ’44

All of them do so in a very different way, so before we move forward, I’m going to succinctly break them down.


Risk Legacy’s story is built entirely by the players. The designer brilliantly crafted plot points, laid the foundation, then put it on the players to enjoy it and experience it. YOU are the characters and villains. In the game, when specified events take place, you crack open envelopes that permanently change the world and introduce new mechanics and scenarios. Little fiction is presented in the traditional sense, but it wholeheartedly embraces the notion that the game is an interactive experience and instead of telling you the story, you are the story.

Mice and Mystics is probably the most traditional example of game storytelling out of these three. You control characters who are a part of the story and move through a predetermined narrative path. Now, being great designers, Plaid Hat fills the story with opportunities for variance. You’ll fight different enemies, the dice will cause you to fail dramatically or succeed decisively. You’ll alter the makeup of your adventuring party. My favorite, is that you’ll have epic boss fights, like the appearance of Brodie the cat, or be given side-path opportunities within the mission.


You can see the score sheets and mission trees for Memoir.

Memoir ’44 is an interesting hybrid of pre-determined narrative structure and mechanical variance. The game is historically based, but the historical scenarios could be swapped with the fictional stories of Mice and Mystics. Where Memoir is most interesting is that, like Risk, there is persistence between your missions. Mice and Mystics is largely binary: you move forward or you don’t. In Memoir, your performance will dictate the next scenario in how many extra units you can bring forth, as well as your need to gain more points (play riskily and aggressively) or play it slowly (more conservatively).

For Blockade, I seek to merge a bit of a mix of Mice and Mystics’ narrative style and optional objectives with Memoir’s streamlined, persistent progression. As much as I love Risk, I want to be a bit more heavy handed with my narrative AND avoid the “one time use” component issue (which didn’t bother me as a consumer, for what it’s worth).

Here are the details and style choices I’m working with so far.

  • I will create nameless main characters who have ranks (to recognize them), but no gender or names. My hope is that YOU feel it’s YOUR story.
  • The point of view may alter between sides. Sometimes it’ll be from the perspective of the Martian player, others the Terran player. And perhaps, even other characters, like members of the Jovian Confederation and so forth.
  • Other characters in the game WILL have names. I will try to make you care about them so that if I kill them (from your actions), it means something.
  • Every mission will be designed to be played by two players squaring off, or 2 teams of 2 players. In some cases, I may alter the tuning to be more fun for more players (typically just more Units to control).
  • There will be (hopefully) 2 main campaigns. Each campaign will feature a series of 3-4 short stories, which will be 3-4 scenarios apiece.
  • I intend to design more campaigns over time. Even better, I’d love to work with a community to do so as well (wishful thinking?).
  • When you play a campaign, you will play the designed missions in order.
  • Players can play these short stories individually or full campaigns that tie them all together.
  • Your decisions and performance in previous mission will alter these missions. So, you start with Mission 1, then you’ll play Mission 2a or 2b, then play Mission 3a or 3b or 3c, and so forth.
  • Variations can be pre-defined (you get this many ships because you won) or varied (roll this many dice, for every direct hit, add a gun emplacement to the map). My design goal is to reward you for your successes and add reasons to replay the scenarios. Note I don’t intend to have a runaway leader issue.
  • The scenarios will be made available in a PDF or, depending on manufacturing options, in a book. Players will scan/copy the pages and mark them up to log progress and info as it’ll factor into the campaign.
  • Scenarios will vary gameplay by altering fleet compositions and starting positions, objectives, environmental affects (asteroids blocking sections, hitting ships, nebula scrambling radars), new objects (merchant ships, a ship to salvage or capture, defense platforms, star bases).
  • I’ll be using games like Starcraft and TIE Fighter as inspirations to alter the scenarios in tiny ways. The game will still revolve around blowing up enemy ships, but with simple twists.
  • Setup time will be quick. Place these ships. Place this small handful of environmental things. GO.


I previously sought to create an incredibly open, varied, choose your own adventure style campaign. Unfortunately, this just wasn’t very feasible for a variety of reasons. I wrote the first three missions, which I’ll now edit and modify to work with the new direction. If you want to read them, with the understanding they are works in progress, feel free to do so here!

Read the Current Campaign

Thoughts? Concerns? Questions?

The Idea Machine

When I wrote Chasing Inspiration last week, I almost thought of it as a throwaway post. I almost didn’t put it on the site. However, the reaction to it was incredibly strong (check out the comments). Writer and game designer Todd Edwards, who is a peer of mine, fellow San Franciscan, and occasional running partner, wrote this follow-up to my original post. 

I thought his post was so well written, thoughtful, and interesting that I had to give its own space on the blog. Conceiving great ideas is half the battle and I for one am glad for every weapon I can add to my arsenal.

Guest Column by: Todd Edwards (

When I started writing my first novel 18 years ago, I didn’t have any idea what I was doing, but I was good at research. I read lots of books on writing back then, and when I read Grant’s article Chasing Inspiration, one particular bit of advice jumped to mind. Orson Scott Card (of Ender’s Game fame) wrote a wonderful book on writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. One section was all about ideas. His method was to jot down ideas as he got them and then put the slips of paper in a box. If an idea ever flashed in his mind, he wrote it down. Ideas are everywhere, and by writing down every fleeting one, he trained his Idea Machine to always be on the lookout. I forget exactly what he called it, but the “Idea Machine” is what I call it.

Most of his ideas were incomplete, cliché, or boring. The magic happened when, periodically, he dumped out the box and read all the accumulated ideas. His point was that no one idea was great enough to carry a novel, but if he combined a few unrelated ideas, he would come up with something amazing and original. And by training himself to constantly be on the lookout, he had plenty of ideas to work with.

To put it in gamer terms, it’s like training yourself to see everything as potential parts for your prototyping collection. “Oh, those chopstick holders would make great walls for my wargame!” Editor’s Note: I plan to write an entire post on just this point.

I went through a sci fi/thriller phase. To train my Idea Machine, I read science news articles every day. When one sparked a plot idea, I summarized the punchline and jotted down my idea in a long-since-abandoned blog. I just checked, and it is still around:

It turns out that I kept at it for almost two years. Most of what I read didn’t lead to ideas, but I have 80ish plot ideas stored there. And even if I never use them, the process of writing them down trained my Idea Machine. Now I see stories every time I hear the news, overhear a bit of conversation at the airport, etc. Just about everything sparks a plot idea.

When my daughter asked me to make up a bedtime story for her one fateful night, it was easy to tell her something original on the spot. I kept doing it until I stumbled on the story that eventually became my first kid’s book. Then more stories which became the second book, and so on.

The bottom line is that if you train your Idea Machine for game design, soon you’ll have more ideas than you know what to do with. Granted, most will be incomplete, cliché, or boring, but some will be golden. Or maybe you’ll pull several together and you’ll come up with the Next Great Mechanic.

But that is all general touchy feely rhetoric. Here is a concrete plan of action. I’ll spare you the bullet points though. Every day, starting tomorrow, create a quick pitch for a game. It doesn’t have to be complete like an elevator pitch (see Pitch Like a Pro); you just want the core game nugget of interest. Don’t worry about implementation, balance, etc.  All you need is a quick pitch. Also, don’t limit yourself. Pitch all sorts of games. Mobile, board, browser, social, card, RPG, sport, kids, etc. Focus on themes sometimes, and focus on mechanics other times. You never know which two ideas will fit together perfectly.

Here’s my quicky idea to get the ball rolling: A wargame for kids. Consonants vs. Vowels. Consonants are more plentiful but weaker. Vowels are few but strong. W and Y are mercenaries that will fight for either side. [Note: You don't have to post your ideas here, but do write them down. In your head doesn't count.]

Editor’s Note: If you need another prompt, consider participating in the April 2012 Game Design Showdown on the Board Game Designer’s Forum.