Focus

I used to enter a lot of game design competitions. I’ve written about the benefits of them before. But eventually I had to cut back on how many I entered because I was always focusing on a new game for the next contest and never finishing anything. 

Once I cut back, I spent a long time focusing almost entirely on Plutocracy. That was an enjoyable experience and got the game a long way towards completion. But for UnPub I wanted to have some shorter games that could get more tests in. So I made a list of some of my partially finished designs, and tried to work on all of them to get them ready for UnPub.

This was not a great idea. I had several games I liked and wanted to work on, but I spread myself too thin. I didn’t get all of the games to a finished enough state to bring. The time I spent on the games that I didn’t finish would have been better used working on the ones I ended up bringing.

It seems this is more of a personality trait and not just connected to entering too many contests. I like to bounce around from idea to idea and have trouble focusing when I’m not in the mood for a certain design.

To a point this is fine and lets me be productive on something, but I have a tendency to just keep adding projects and spreading myself too thin. I really need to be better about project management, and create an organizational system to track progress and keep my focus on a few games moving along.

Do you like to work on multiple games or do you focus on a single game? What are some methods you use for staying organized with multiple projects?

How To Grow as a Designer

This week I’m taking a topic suggestion from C. M. Perry. He asks, What has helped you grow most as a designer. For me, the answer is other designers.

When I started designing games I didn’t know any other designers. My play testers were my family and friends. Who, for the most part, were not very experienced playing games and only knew of what I showed them.

This created an echo chamber with very little new information coming in, usually from podcasts. Once I met more designers, first online and then at design meet ups, there was a ton of new information coming in.

Other designers are a great resource. They have a lot of shared experience from their own game designs, but they also have a lot of different experiences and I think it’s this partial overlap in experience that makes it so easy to gain new knowledge from them.

Go meet other designers. Play their games, have them play yours. Talk about design. Talk about what resources you use. I’m sure you’ll have a lot of the same information, but you’ll also have some different information and sharing that is how we grow as designers.

UnPub 8 Recap

Last weekend I attended UnPub 8 in Maryland. It was my first UnPub and I had a great time. UnPub takes place over 4 days and its primary focus is having the public play board game prototypes. So it seems to work better for very developed games.

I had a lot of trouble focusing on what designs to prepare leading up to UnPub. I was trying to get a lot ready and finally trimmed it down to Plutocracy, Comic Auction, Grab Bag, and Council of Guilds. They were mostly ready to go with Council of Guilds needing the most work. I decided to have Plutocracy and Comic Auction as my main focus and bring out Grab Bag and Council of Guilds if I had some time with designers.

Plutocracy is a 4X game where players don’t have their own faction. Instead they influence all of the factions against each other to gain power and manipulate economies.

Comic Auction is a game of collecting sets of comic characters through auctions, but every comic has 2 characters so your opponents might want the same comics as you.

Grab Bag is a tactile speed game. Players race to blindly pull the most matching shapes out of a bag, without pulling any wrong shapes. With many similar shapes, it can be tough to figure out what you’re actually holding in time.

Council of Guilds is an economic game where players must change who sits on the council in order to make the most money from selling their goods.

Thursday night was a dinner mixer for the designers and VIP testers. It was a chance to meet some people I already knew, people I’ve only talked to online, and entirely new people. After the dinner the game room was open for play testing. I got in a game of Comic Auction. As a result of this game I changed the auction/selling system into a closed auction system instead. It was mostly an improvement but still needs work. I also played Elements of the Gods. It was an interesting game of pushing cubes around the board to achieve different color combinations for scoring opportunities.

Friday started with a few panels on game design and publishing. I only made it to one about self-publishing which was interesting. Then I went and setup my table for my 3-7 slot.

I decided to setup Plutocracy first because it takes the most time. Friday was a pretty slow day for my table. Over the 4 hours I got in one partial game of Plutocracy and one game of Comic Auction. The feedback from Plutocracy was useful and gave me a few ideas to tweak the rules. The game of Comic Auction let me test the changes I had made the night before.

After 7 was open gaming. I managed to get in one game of Council of Guilds which I realized late had become a 3 player minimum game. Luckily we found a third player. The game went well. It needs work but there is definitely something there. Then I had a chance to play Gerrymandering and Brain Freeze. Gerrymandering was a neat 2 player, spacial puzzle. Trying to gerrymander and win the most districts. The puzzle was a lot of fun, but the cards need to be streamlined more to ease play. Brain Freeze was an interesting game of trying to read your opponents and possibly team up to score just the right amount of points. A quick game with some good table talk and distrust.

Because I had the Friday night slot I also had the Saturday morning slot. So I was in to setup at 9:30am. I went with Grab Bag first this time. It has a decent amount of table presence when you pour out the piles of bits. And it plays fast, so I was hoping to get in a bunch of games. Saturday was a busier day and Grab Bag was a good choice. I had a few groups play and it went over very well. These were my very first plays of Grab Bag, so the fact that it worked was exciting.

After a few games of Grab Bag I put Comic Auction back on the table. I got a few games in and tested out some different things. Then I managed to get in a partial game of Council of Guilds. I again forgot it was 3 players and only had one other player. So we played a few turns and mostly just talked over the mechanisms.

I had hoped to get a chance to play some more games by other designers in the second block of the day, but my time quickly got taken up by eating and recording podcasts.

Sunday morning I got to play Sniper Vs. Thieves. A fun one vs many dice drafting game of trying to collect money from a heist and escape in time, all while a sniper is shooting at you and setting traps. The game was enjoyable and had a nice tension of trying to escape and also controlling the dice pool to slow down your opponents. The game went a bit long, which is something the designers were trying to improve, I think with a bit more movement it should be an enjoyable 45 minutes.

Before leaving I was able to get in one more game of Comic Auction and Grab Bag, both of which confirmed my feedback from earlier.

There are really two distinct aspects of UnPub in my mind, play testing games and socializing.

For play testing games, it went well. I had some trouble getting groups to the table sometimes. I think the way it is setup, shorter games and games with good table presence have a better chance of getting played. I did get useful feedback on everything I played.

Plutocracy will get some tweaks to let missions continue even after they aren’t worth points to prevent the game from stalling out in certain situations.

Comic Auction needs something else in it. I’m not quite sure yet, but some hidden information so the economy isn’t calculable or some alternate options for players.

Grab Bag went very well and I even thought up a theme for it that should really push it over the top. If I can get it working the way I envision, it could be a great candidate for mass market retail.

Council of Guilds was even rougher than I realized, but I still got some great feedback and ideas for moving forward. I’ll probably end up cutting the auction aspect. It was usually pretty boring and caused more problems than it fixed. I’ll also expand the interactions with the council since that is the enjoyable part of the game and needs to be more of a focus. I’m thinking of making it a simultaneous action selection game which I almost did before.

Overall it was a lot of great testing. I wish I had gotten in some more plays of Plutocracy, but at 90 minutes plus rules and setup, it didn’t fit into the schedule so well.

For socializing it was a fantastic time. The game design community is a bunch of great people. Playing other people’s games, talking about design, podcasting, eating, and meeting new people. It’s a whirlwind of activity. The worst part is that there isn’t time for everything.

I’d say my first UnPub was a success. And I won a free table for UnPub 9 in a raffle, so I’ll definitely be back next year. Hopefully a bit better prepared. Thanks to everyone who played games and hung out with me. I hope to see you next year.

Numbers Are Relative

The numbers in your game are most likely relative. Their value only matters in relationship to each other. So having a card worth 2 victory points and a card worth 4 victory points could be functionally the same as having cards worth 4 and 8. Because of this you can have a lot of freedom in changing all of your numbers with minimal mechanical affect.

But what numbers should you use? Personally I like smaller numbers because the math is easier for people to deal with. So in the example above I would change it to 1 and 2 if possible.

But sometimes it’s not the percentage change between points, like doubling above, but rather the difference that matters. So 1 & 2, 2 & 4, and 4 & 8 are not the same if you care about the difference. In a system where the difference matters I would still lower the numbers by finding the lowest number, reducing it to 1, then subtracting the same from all other numbers.

Pay attention to the numbers you use, their relation to each other, and see if you can simplify them in anyway.

Getting Ready for UnPub

The past few weeks my focus was supposed to be getting ready for UnPub. A lot of my focus has been on dealing with storms and other household issues instead. So it’s been tough to focus on creation.

But I work best under pressure from a lifetime of procrastination. So the next week should be an impressive amount of work.

Part of my issue is deciding what games to bring. I have a lot of current projects that could be a good fit for UnPub, but nothing that is ready to play. And my Game Crafter order looks like it will be arriving just a little too late for me to take those games with me.

That’s enough writing, back to game design.

If you’re at UnPub say hi.

Two Mindsets

In game design, and really any creative endeavor, you need two mindsets. And the ability to switch between these two mindsets is very useful.

You need to be confident. When designing your game, pitching your game, or demoing your game you need to be completely confident that it is the best game. You need to be confident in your game so that the potential players and publishers you talk to are confident in your game. They don’t want to waste their time with a game that the creator doesn’t even think is great. And if you don’t think it’s great, why are you wasting your time on it?

So the first mindset is confidence. The second is humbleness. You need to be humble when play testers give you feedback and when developers suggest changes. You need to know that it isn’t the best game ever. You can’t achieve perfection on your own. You need help and input from other people. You should be appreciative that people are taking the time to help you. Then you have to switch back to confident to implement the changes, and promote the absolute best game.

TotalCon 2018 Recap

Last weekend I went to TotalCon, one of my local gaming conventions. It was a fun time seeing friends, playing prototypes, and even playing published games. Here’s a recap of the weekend as best I can remember.

Thursday

The Mines of Mi Otal

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This game was originally designed for a Game Crafter contest. One of the people who played it back then was James, who enjoyed it and asked me about it after I had shelved it. So when I saw James I knew I had to play the new version with him. This was the first test of the new version which changed a lot from the original. It was incredibly unbalanced and I lost by a lot. It was a great test though that gave me a baseline of what was worth fixing and what was not.

I’ve now had 3 tests of it and the game is coming together. There were a few elements I left out from the original that I’m going to put back, they helped mitigate some of the randomness.

Circle the Wagons

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After testing Mines James taught me Circle the Wagons. A nice two player wallet game from Button Shy. I managed to win with a long wagon train. This game is quick to learn and has a lot of variety with the different scoring methods.

Comic Auction

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This started as a 15 card micro game of auctions and set collection. I added more variety and extra cards for tracking player’s debt so it’s around 108 cards now. The game is a continuous auction for groups of comics. Each comic has a unique combination of two characters. For scoring players must make sets of comics all containing the same character. So players could be fighting over the same comic for different sets. Players can only go so far into debt though. Then they have to sell off comics.

This was the first test of this since I updated it. My friend Steph really enjoyed it and the group had a lot of great suggestions. Some of which we tested out. A big thing I need to figure out for this is how to value the comic sets so that it’s worth bidding high to make larger sets, but doesn’t grow so much that one extra card wins the game.

Bunny Kingdoms

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Back to published games. This was a fun card drafting and area control game. You draft cards to take control of spaces on a grid map, build building and add special features. You score each round for the number of towers you control times the number of different resources you control. The scoring started off so small, I think I made 3 points the first round. It seemed like it wouldn’t be possible to make a larger area. But it quickly escalated with special abilities and growing my area. By the last round my kingdom was earning me 55 points. The drafting was fun, and I enjoyed trying to balance between expanding my territory to connect more areas and building up what I had to increase the multipliers. This was my favorite published game of the weekend.

Dinosaur Island

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Building a dinosaur theme park is fun. I was not so good at it though. I was tempted by the goal cards and raced to get one but neglected to build up my park. I didn’t have time to build up for points before the game ended. 2 goals were similar and could be completed by the same action so the game ended pretty fast. It was fun, but I definitely need to work on my strategy.

Friday

Circle the Wagons

Since I had learned Circle the Wagons from James I was able to teach it to Steph. I’m still not good at working on building areas. But it has a fun decision space with what you can score. And I always want to tuck cards under, but you can’t.

Comic Auction

One of the suggestions from Thursday was to add an additional character to the game. Since I was going home each night instead of staying at the hotel, I had a chance to print up additional cards. The larger deck worked well and I introduced some bonus scoring. We played around with the numbers and came up with a cleaner method of selling comics mid game. Really coming along.

Hit the Jackpot

A prototype by my friend Chip. It’s a deck builder where you play 3 cards a turn to a slot machine trying to get symbols to match for bonuses and scoring. I was surprised how the theme of slot machines worked so well with a deck builder. But they both have the randomness and hope of getting combos. I think the game needs more chances to cut cards from your deck but it was interesting over all and I look forward to playing it again.

Plutocracy

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Chip and Emerson played part of a game of Plutocracy. Chip had to leave so they couldn’t finish, but they played enough to give me some great feedback. Including the question of why I had action costs that I wrote about last week. I was hoping to get some tests in to check the game before I printed it at the Game Crafter. The changes from this test required more reworking of the components than I expected, but I think the game is better for it.

Cockroach Poker

I love the bluffing and trying to read your opponents. It plays quick and is easy to teach. A nice way to finish the night.

Saturday

In Vino Morte

My game published by Button Shy currently available for preorder. We had a few minutes to kill while we waited for a player, so I pulled out In Vino Morte. It’s so easy to teach and you can get several games in quickly. One of the players was even interested in buying it so yay me for marketing.

Adrenaline

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When I first showed up Saturday my friend Mike asked if I was looking for a game. He was starting up Adrenaline. Once the 5th player we were waiting for arrived, we started. I’d heard a lot about this game. An area control game themed as a shooter video game. Everything about it played to the theme, variety of cool weapons, picking up ammo, running around to shoot your opponents and not get shot in return. The only problem was the long downtime of 5 players. You really lose the flow of action when you have to wait for other players to take turns. But everything else works so well. I enjoyed it but would like to try it with only 3 players to see if it feels smoother.

Rajas of the Ganges

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I had scheduled a play test with my friend Derek for a game he was helping test. But we had to wait for another player. To fill the time he taught Rajas of the Ganges. This was a neat worker placement game with lots of different things going on. I love the win condition of having a money and fame track going in opposite directions and when you cross your piece on the other track you win. The dice system was interesting and kept making me have to try and reroll as efficiently as possible to get stuff done. I didn’t do very well but it was enjoyable.

Post Human Saga

This was the game Derek was testing. It had a lot going on. A full on adventure game with a lot of detail, like tracking the health of my bat. In its current form it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do. We played for 2 hours and didn’t really get much into the game. Some interesting mechanics and story elements but I think it needs to be streamlined a lot.

Vanilla

Derek, Angela and I went to get some dinner and played my new version of Vanilla. The updates worked well but I still have a lot of balancing to do. Angela said she wanted more engine building in the game to have a sense of progression. I completely agree. So I’ll be working on how to implement that in the future.

Clank! In! Space!

We got back from dinner and Derek and I joined a game of Clank! In! Space!. I enjoy deck builders and Clank sounded interesting. I haven’t played the original but heard Space was an improved version. I liked almost everything about this game except two things. There wasn’t much culling, so my deck got very bloated and inefficient. And the fact that I died one space from the scoring area with a huge point lead. The randomness worked against me on a few parts that made my inefficient deck even more frustrating. I’d be willing to try it again now that I understand how important movement cards are.

Plutocracy

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It was already past midnight but I was able to get two players for a test of Plutocracy. I was glad to have a chance to test the changes before I had a copy printed. The game dragged a bit, but the changes I made had no negative affects. Still need to adjust numbers to get the play time right. This was the first two player game in a while.

And that was my time at TotalCon 2018. Even though it’s local, it’s over an hour drive for me. I’m thinking about staying at the hotel next year so I can get more gaming in.

My next Con will be the Granite Games Summit in Nashua, NH next weekend. If you’re there come and play in the In Vino Morte tournament Saturday night.

Another Step Forward

Short one today because I’m at TotalCon. If you’re attending find me and say hi.

A while back I wrote about play testers asking “what if you don’t?” That happened again today with a test of Plutocracy. Specifically they asked what if you don’t have costs for actions.

Out of the 5 actions, 2 already don’t have a cost. For 2 more the cost can be moved into the action itself, so they will remain the same mechanically. The only action that would change is moving. Moving would no longer cost 1 influence.

In the game paying one influence is a very small thing. It is unlikely to shift anyone’s score. Players start with 5 crystals that work as a wild influence for paying costs, and they earn more from exploring new planets. So it is very rare that a player would be unable to take a move action because they didn’t have the correct influence.

On top of this cost being essentially negligible, we also kept forgetting to pay it. So a rule that is easy to forget and has a minimal affect on the game. I can see the benefits of cutting it. Streamline the rules more. Free up space on the player board. And if moving doesn’t cost anything, it really removes the need for crystals at all. So dropping crystals saves on components and again simplifies the rules.

This seems like another step towards the game being the best it can be.

Short-Term Goals

Short-term goals are important in life and in games. In my experience, people are extraordinarily bad at long term planning and “seeing the big picture”. Perhaps it’s an evolutionary hold over from the immediate need for survival. For whatever reason people can get lost if the goal is too far away or too immense to fathom. In games this can lead players to become disengaged, take excessively long turns, or just be confused.

If your game is short, then winning can be the short-term goal. But if your game goes on for more than 30 minutes, I think you would do well to have some intermediate goals for your players. These give them something to work towards without overtaxing their ability to plan.

Short-term goals offer a few benefits in your game. They can allow a player to build their strategy over time. If players need to think over their entire game plan at the start they will need to take some time to do that. However if they only need to plan to their first short-term goal it is much more approachable.

They allow new players to get into the game more easily. Especially if the initial goals are straight forward. They don’t need to understand every rule yet, just the few rules that let them get to their first goal. Then they can learn more to get to their second goal.

They allow players to roughly gauge how much progress they are making in the game. While a lot of games keep who is winning intentionally nebulous, knowing how many goals you’ve completed compared to your opponents can give you a rough idea of how you are doing in the game. Though goals do not have to be equal, 3 goals for one player may be more than 5 goals to another.

A variety of short-term goals can allow a player to map out their strategy. This is how many tech trees work in games. If I want to be able to use lasers, I have to first learn optics and electricity, but I can ignore cooking and gambling. Again, this can simplify an otherwise overwhelming game by allowing players to ignore sections of the game and focus on their strategy.

Having multiple paths of short-term goals to win a game helps the game to be more replayable. After wining one way players can try and win in a variety of other ways.

Give your players many things they can work towards and achieve in a game. Even if they don’t win, they will have a sense of accomplishment from completing short term goals.

Auction Mechanics

I’m currently working on 4 games with auction mechanics. This wasn’t intentional. After getting Plutocracy complete enough for the Cardboard Edison Award I started working on getting things ready for UnPub. My focus lately has been finishing games I’ve already started designing instead of following shiny new ideas. The 4 games I’m working on were all started at different times and coincidentally all have auction mechanics. So auctions have been on my mind a lot.

Auctions can be a tricky thing to design with because they give a lot of power to the players. If you have a very open auction where players are bidding on things that they do not know the value of, the results can be very lopsided. Even worse is when one player does know the value of things, they can easily get things cheaper than they should.

If the things being auctioned are very integral to gameplay and a player’s ability to win, it’s important that they understand the relative value of things before the auction. This could be as simple as listing the rarity of each item, so players know to bid higher to get the rare piece they need. Or having enough auctions in the game, so that messing up on a few will not ruin your chances.

Another consideration for auctions is how much you allow players to ruin their own chances of winning the game. If players can bid any amount of money on an auction, they can easily over pay and be out of the running. This can be held in check by giving players specific amounts they can bid.

The type of auction also has an impact on how much players can sway the game.

A once around auction gives players more information to use the later they are in the bid order. So earlier players will have to bid higher to try and win an auction if they think a later player also wants it. While the last player knows exactly how much they need to bid to win. It’s important that bid order changes in a game with once around auctions.

A blind auction can have a similar feel to a once around auction, but everyone is going first. So no player has the advantage of information before their bid. For this reason you can get a lot of higher bids if players think they are competing on an auction. You also need a way to deal with ties in a blind auction.

A continuous auction allows players to always outbid someone else. So prices can get much higher if two or more players are fighting over something. These auctions can take a lot longer, especially if players are allowed to make small incremental increases. This removes a lot of the player order advantage found in a once around auction. It can also incentivize players to bid on items they don’t want just to force another player to pay more. This can introduce a push your luck aspect because they must be careful not to get stuck paying for the item they don’t want.

Whatever type of auction you use, try to establish some boundaries to control the players. These could be visible boundaries like predetermined price limits or invisible boundaries like a very tightly controlled economy that doesn’t allow any player to be too far ahead in cash for an auction.