Why I Back

I wasn’t sure what to write about this week so I asked the wisdom of Twitter and got a lot of good ideas. I’ll start with the first one from Odin Phong (@PhongOdin). What makes me back a Kickstarter?

I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts about good Kickstarter creator practices and how to get people to back your Kickstarter. But I never really thought about why I personally back a Kickstarter.

The first game I backed was Tiny Epic Galaxies back in February of 2015. I had only been active in the board game hobby for about 10 months at that point. I was hesitant to back a Kickstarter because of stories of projects that never delivered or had long delays. Tiny Epic Galaxies was only $26 with all the extras and shipping from a company that had delivered Kickstarters before. So it seemed like a safe bet. Also the theme was interesting and it seemed like a fun game.

Once I backed that first project it was easier to back more. Next I backed Vault Wars because I used to watch Storage Wars and it seemed like a fun theme. I paid the extra for the metal coins because I didn’t want to miss out on anything. Fear of missing out will be a reoccurring theme here.

I backed some games because I liked previous games by the designers and they weren’t that expensive. Everything I backed was from $10-$30 with a few times I backed $1 to friends’ projects.

So I would usually back a project if it was less than $30 and seemed fun. I started backing Button Shy wallet games when I entered their first design contest. As I become more involved with Button Shy and the other designers my reason for backing shifted from “It’s an interesting game for a few bucks” to “supporting friends who have an interesting game for a few bucks”. Now on top of that there is an element of collecting involved and I have to make sure I get every interesting game for a few bucks made by friends.

I backed Pack O Games Set 2 because I regretted missing Set 1. Which was almost my first backed project, but waiting for months for a game didn’t seem worth it.

Karmaka was at the Boston Festival of Indie Games when I went and looked interesting so I backed it. Villages of Valeria was talked about on Going Last and sounded interesting so I backed it. One Deck Dungeon was getting some complaints because it had all female characters. Being able to support that design choice made me back it. Heroes and Tricks looked fun and I recently found out I liked trick taking games and owned none, so I backed it. Dice of Crowns and Blend Off were light dice games I like custom dice. So I backed them. All of this stuck to my under $30 and looks interesting rule.

Then Xia came out with an expansion. I had played Xia over my friends house a few times. I really enjoyed it and wanted my own copy, but they weren’t easy to come by for a reasonable price. So when the expansion went on Kickstarter with the option of getting the base game too, I backed it. This was $135. Way past my previous limit, but it was a game I knew I liked and I had to get all the extras. This entered me into phase two of my Kickstarter backing. I was no longer hesitant of spending over $30 if I liked a game. I was still more concerned about more expensive projects being delivered but I didn’t want to miss out on big games with exclusive content.

I continued backing smaller interesting games but I started getting some big ones I was interested in. Near and Far got $77 from me, I love Above and Below and also had to get the extras. Empires of the Void II also got me because Red Raven Games is good at what they do.

I regretted missing Blood Rage on Kickstarter so I was all in for Rising Sun (except the art book). Some games that fell below the $30 threshold got extra money from me by bundling older games I wanted with them. Which I regret in hind site because I had to wait months for a game that was already in retail.

Dinosaur Island looked interesting but I was starting to slow down my game buying because I had no shelf space left. But when I saw the deluxe version was a Kickstarter exclusive I couldn’t resist.

I heard so many great things about Gloomhaven after the first campaign so when it had a second edition I backed it right away.

Meeple Source got me by having upgrades for all of my Red Raven Games. Star Realms got me because I’m a completionist.

Spy Club got me because I think my wife will really enjoy the theme.

Sunset Over Water got me with Beth Sobel’s beautiful art.

After 3 years of backing Kickstarters I’ve become a superbacker and gotten more games than I can play or store. I’ve cut back my backing a lot recently and usually back for $1 to support projects but not have to find a place to store a game.

But as to why I back, I’m grabbed by an interesting theme, nice art, and a low price. Or by a big name title that I know will be worth the money. And as much as I hate it, Kickstarter exclusives can push me if I’m on the fence about a game. But early bird deals that I missed will usually make me not back at all.

Kickstarter is an interesting place to be involved with games and have some input into their development. But it can be a dangerous place for anyone worried about missing out on an exclusive. But those metal coins in Dinosaur Island are really nice.

Audience

When designing a game it’s important to know your audience. No game is for everyone. You must know the capabilities of your audience when it comes to your game. If you are designing a game for young children, it would be a bad idea to rely on text. If your audience likes deep narrative, they would be ok with a hundred page story book being part of the game.

You could make your game and find the audience after, based on who enjoys playing it, but it’s much easier to decide who you want your audience to be and design for them.

Knowing your audience while you design can help focus your work and make decisions easier when you need to cut or add features. Always ask “is this what my audience wants?” This is similar to having a design goal for your game at the start to guide you. It could even be a part of that goal. And just like a design goal you are allowed to change your target audience if you feel it will make the game better.

Part of making an elegant game is making sure your players and game fit each other.

2d6

I love dice games. The feel of rolling dice is very satisfying and they can simplify a lot of mechanics into quicker playing games. Custom dice are great. Rolling a huge handful of dice for a big attack is exciting. The many combinations of polyhedrals for RPGs is fascinating. But my favorite use of dice is 2d6. That’s two standard six sided dice.

I love using 2d6 because it provides a nice bell curve of possibilities while remaining in a relatively tight space of results from 2 to 12.

The 2 and 12 are exciting rarities, each occurring less than 3% of the time. While a 7 is common, occurring almost 17% of the time. The numbers in between are easy to estimate while playing. The closer to 7 the easier it is to get.

In Catan players can easily see which resources will hit more often and use that knowledge to value their trade potential.

Can’t Stop uses 4 dice that then must be paired to make two 2d6 results. Choosing how to pair them gives you some choice in the game. And the board layout balances the difficulty of rolling certain numbers with the length of the path for those numbers. So you could try for the easy 6, 7, and 8 but you will need to hit them a lot more than taking the shorter but riskier 2 and 12 paths.

Machi Koro lets you choose which buildings to build that will trigger on different numbers. You can build a lot of things to trigger on common numbers or spread out your abilities so you always get something.

Even Monopoly uses 2d6 creating a somewhat predictable pattern of movement which you could study to improve your odds if you felt like investing the time.

2d6 provide an interesting design space where you can be somewhat sure of the results over time as opposed to the pure randomness of a single die but not have to deal with the more complex math of larger amounts of dice. For me, it’s the perfect balance of chaos and control.

Dead Ends and Going Back

As you work on a game design you identify problems, formulate solutions, test, and repeat. Sometimes the solution is right and you move forward, other times the solution is wrong and you try something else.

However, sometimes several successful iterations can hit a dead end. In these situations trying to fix a problem and move forward can be impossible. You can waste a lot of time and energy trying, but the only solution is to go back and take a different path.

Sometimes you’ll have to go back several iterations and this can feel like all of those versions were a waste of time. But any thought put into a design is not wasted. You either learn something that works or you learn something that doesn’t.

Things that you incorporated while on that dead end path could still become useful on your new path. Lessons learned can still apply and things that didn’t work before may have a new chance to work.

I recently went down a dead end path with Plutocracy. I’ve written before about my idea to add player pawns to give players a more definite sense of who they are in the game. While this solution did exactly what it was intended to do, a side effect was that it changed the feel of the game.

Player interaction was almost entirely lost. Economic manipulation was no longer a thing. Combat was never entered intentionally. Even though the core of the game is about not being tied to a single empire, players usually chose one empire and just worked with that one. Each exploring out in a different direction and gathering points until the game ended.

I was very tempted to move forward and fix the problem. I started working on grand design changes that would essentially make a different game. Then I stopped. I realized my solution wasn’t really what I wanted this game to be. So I’m backing up a few steps to before players had pawns on the board. I’m incorporating some of the things I learned along that path and trying to fix the original problem of player incentives in a different way.

Game design isn’t a linear path that you travel down from idea to completion. It is an endlessly splitting labyrinth with many dead ends and many possible exits. Don’t be afraid to back up and try a different path.

How Small Can A Game Be?

This is a tough question without some parameters. First, when I talk about a game’s size I’m not necessarily referring to its physical dimensions. Anything can be made pretty small. So the more practical question would be what is the minimum number of pieces needed to make a game?

The answer to that is zero pieces. Many games exist as simply a physical or verbal act. Some of these are even based on rules that are remembered instead of written. So there are no pieces at all.

But let’s say we want to sell a game with very few pieces, but more than zero, because people are hesitant to pay for nothing.

What are the fewest pieces we can make a game with where the pieces add value to the game experience that could not be achieved without them.

I want to say the answer is one. I tried making a small game a while back. I tried working with a single die and a single card. It didn’t really work out for me. Then I worked towards using a single tile. I made Flipped. Game play consisted of flipping the tile and then performing the challenge that was pointing at you. Each challenge involved using the tile to perform some dexterous feat. So the game was all about this one integral piece. Except that it needed a rules sheet to explain what all the challenges were. And since players earned points, you really needed to keep track with some coins or tokens. So 1 tile, rules, and a handful of tokens. Not the single piece game I hoped for.

There are a lot of small games out there. Many are a single card, but they also require some tokens or dice. Or the card is really just a set of rules for a game that needs no pieces.

When you add a few more cards or pieces, the world of micro games opens up. But I’m going to continue trying to make a single piece game.

Patreon Fee Changes

By now you have probably heard of the changes Patreon is making to its fee structure this month. Patreon says they are changing the structure so patrons pay the fees and creators get a larger percentage of the pledge. The more accurate version is that they are having patrons pay the fees and adding a 35 cent fee to each pledge. So with this change, at lower pledge levels, if you include the fees in the math, creators are getting a lower percentage of the price a patron pays.

This is an especially big change for people that support a lot of creators for 1 or 2 dollars a month. If you make 20 $1 pledges each month your price will jump from $20 to $27.60. If this is a financial burden for you, you would need to stop supporting 6 creators to lower your pledges to the previous level. That’s 6 creators that are losing a piece of their community.

Here is a useful comparison chart posted by Ben Wolfe.

 

Because the changes are not as drastic for larger pledges I think this may be a bigger hit to creators’ communities than their finances, though that really depends on the distribution of their patrons.

Right now it looks like creators and patrons are upset about the change and many are looking for alternative ways to financially support creators. Hopefully everyone can find a way to continue supporting and creating. And if you do find yourself dropping support for a creator that you still enjoy, reach out and let them know that you still enjoy their content. For many creators, myself included, a kind word about their hard work is worth much more than a dollar.

Your Game is Harder Than You Think

If you’ve been reading the blog or following me on social media you are familiar with my game Plutocracy. I’ve been working on it for about a year now and it has been a difficult problem to solve, but one that is so intriguing I can’t let it go. I’ve written about the trouble of making player incentives and my attempts at streamlining the rules. My dead ends and my redirections. This post isn’t about Plutocracy, though my play test of it last night is the inspiration and will serve as an example. This post is about how difficult it is for a designer to understand how complex their game is because they understand the complexity of their game.

I wrote previously about my idea to give players a better stake in the game by adding pawns that represent the player and limit their area of influence. I implemented this change for last night’s test. This was the major change of this version. It also had a different board structure and modified scoring, but the majority of mechanics were almost identical to previous versions.

The group play testing was one of my regular groups. They have all played Plutocracy many times before. They are all game designers and experienced players. I had high hopes for this version. I felt it would solve the incentive problem and allow me to move forward to adjusting numbers to fine tune the game. So I was surprised when the game mechanics gave them so much trouble.

As I said, the majority of mechanics hadn’t changed. They just had a pawn on the board that meant they couldn’t affect planets too far away. But this one change made the game different to them. So they kept questioning how things worked and my answer was usually, “The same as it did in the last version.”

In the end, the game went alright. It did a lot of what I wanted, but there were some big issues with the initial setup that caused some problems for the whole game. The concept I was reminded of during our discussion was that when you design a game, it makes sense to you in a way that no other person can quite grasp. This can lead to the issue I had.

The changes I made were minor to me, the game still had the same mechanics, but a game is much more complicated to anyone who is not the creator of it. So if you make a design and it is simple and clear in your head, everything fits together, is intuitive, and flows well. It’s probably more complicated for players than you realize.

It’s hard to notice because it’s a matter of perspective that you, as the designer, can’t have. Perhaps putting a design away for a year or two so you completely forget about it could help. But I think the best thing to do is realize it will happen, and play test until it works for your audience, not just you.

Board Game Sales

It’s Black Friday and pretty much every retailer is having some kind of sale. This includes game stores and game websites. When I first entered the hobby a few years ago I was a sucker for board games on sale. I would buy anything that seemed vaguely interesting and had a big discount. For the most part these ended up being OK games from big publishers. I’m sure most of you are familiar with the Queen Games’ sales on Amazon.

I never had time to play all of these games. So now I have more games than I can store and I’m not particularly interested in playing the OK ones when I’ve also been paying full price for some great games. Now I have a few piles of games I’ll be trading, selling, and giving away.

Besides cluttering my house with unplayed games, what is the result of board game sales? The MSRP of a game is usually as low as it can be to cover the production, transport, marketing, and sale of a game, and allow for some profit at each stage. So there isn’t a very large margin to lower for a sale. The discount is also usually at the retailers step.

The games that go on sale are therefore games that the retailer wants to get rid of at a lower profit or even at a loss to recoup some money and free up retail or storage space. So the majority of games on sale are not that good. This is why I bought so many OK games on sale. The good games didn’t need to be discounted to sell.

But there is another reason games go on sale besides not being good enough to sell. Sometimes more are produced than the market cares to buy. So you have very good games end up with steep discounts so stores can free up space.

A problem that arises from these two different reasons for a sale is that the perceived value of a game can be lowered. If a $60 MSRP game is regularly available for $30 it isn’t a $60 game anymore even if it’s a great game. In the ongoing struggle of online stores vs brick and mortar stores this is the biggest divide. Online stores have much lower overhead to pay for, so they can manage a larger discount and still make a profit. Brick and mortar stores usually can’t afford to match that discount even on games they want to get rid of. And no one wants to pay $50 for a now $30 game. This can also be applied to other, similar games. Game X and game Y are of similar weight and quality. Game X is on sale at 50% of MSRP. So game Y is also worth only 50% of MSRP. So an over production of game X can lower the perceived value of game Y. This can be quite frustrating to the producers of game Y.

These steep discounts can also lead to buyer’s remorse. For example, I preordered Seafall.

I’m still looking forward to playing it, but my copy is still in shrink and it’s now selling for half price. Some companies like Fantasy Flight Games have introduced minimum sale prices for their games to protect the games’ perceived value and help brick and mortar stores. Does this actually help? I’m not sure.

In short getting things you want cheaper is great. But be careful of buying things only because they are cheap and be aware of how discounts can warp the perceived value of designer’s and publisher’s hard work in creating a game.

Who are you?

I’ve been thinking a lot about player incentives in Plutocracy lately. At Metatopia I got similar feedback to what I have been getting from my local play tests. The core of the game, players not controlling a single empire, grabs people’s attention. This part of the description was the reason some people chose to try it out. The mechanisms work well, at this point they are pretty streamlined. But players continue not to care about any of their actions. It becomes a repetitive slog of “what is the most beneficial move on this turn?”

I’ve written about player incentives a few times before and specifically in Plutocracy where it has always been a problem. I believe this is the secret to getting Plutocracy to the next level.

Unique hook that goes against traditional game systems + Actually making it work when people play = Success. The question is, how can I get people to care?

A question I have heard asked about many games is “who are you?” Who are the players in the game? This is an integral part of building immersion and key to having players care about their actions. If they have an avatar in the game that could succeed or fail, they are more likely to care about the consequences of their actions than if they are just a decision making entity removed from the narrative.

In Plutocracy I’ve always known who the players are. They are powerful influencers working from the shadows to sway the fate of empires to their own benefit. It sounded great in my head, but when people sit down to play, they are just a decision making entity removed from the narrative. They have no representation of themselves in the game, and as a result don’t have an emotional connection to the events. The strongest attachment I saw was a player that liked blue, so they worked to improve the blue empire. This was not ideal.

So my next step is to put the players in the game. They will lose their current godlike powers of manipulating the galaxy. Instead, they will have much more restricted influence over a smaller area of the game based on the location of their character. They will need to make more personal decisions for their character in order to influence the galaxy.

Hopefully this can start to make the connection with players that the game is missing.

When it comes to player incentives, it seems that winning the game is too abstract of a concept to build engagement. The way you win the game needs to be thematically linked to who the players are and what they want as characters. So, define who your players are then define what those characters want. Only then will you know what incentives you need to use.

What if you don’t?

Game design is an iterative process. You have an idea, you build a prototype, you test it, and repeat. Usually many times. Through this process it’s easy to forget to remove pieces that no longer belong. A rule that was a fix for a mechanism that is no longer there or a clever idea of how to distribute resources when you no longer need resources. It becomes an artifact of the game design. You forget why the piece is there. It’s become part of the design and that’s just how it is. 
Several times with my designs I have gotten feedback from testers that starts with some variation of “What if you don’t…”. It’s usually in reference to one of these artifacts of game design. You had become so accustomed to it being there, but a new perspective can easily see that it doesn’t fit.

This has been some of the most revolutionary feedback I have received. It’s a moment of clarity when a player says “What if you don’t have credits? They just add a step to exchanges.” Credits made sense before. But the thing that made them matter had already been removed. The game had always had credits though, I couldn’t fathom a world in which it didn’t have credits. But as soon as someone mentioned it, it all made sense. 

Make sure you look critically at every aspect of your game, and have new players look at your game with fresh eyes. They may notice something you’ve missed.