What’s the Meaning of This?

I started working on a trick taking game and it reminded me of when someone said trick taking games are auction games. I have to agree with that statement. In a trick taking game each player puts a card into the center and the highest value wins. That’s an auction.

When I was trying to come up with a name for the mechanic in my Tempus games because they play like a roll and write but involve no rolling. Paper and pencil games was suggested. That’s such a broad category it hardly means anything. Yahtzee, Pictionary, and D&D could all be described as paper and pencil games. And since games where you reveal a card and then write are generally accepted in the roll and write category, aren’t my games just as roll and writey?

So now I’m wondering what any of these mechanics even mean. Should they be a list or would a tiered system with some parent categories be more appropriate? Why is “crayon rail system” it’s own mechanic and not just part of “route/network building”? Are “commodity speculation” and “stock holding” that different? Isn’t a worker just an action point when it comes down to it?

I like having concrete definitions for things because it makes communication clearer. But that seems pretty impossible with the increasing fluidity of language now. So I guess I’ll keep calling my trick taking game a trick taking game and my roll and write with no dice a roll and write with no dice.

Island Chain Update

Island Chain is a two player card game focused on making big combos to get maximum value out of your turn. It started as a village building game 2 years ago with the main focus being an overflow mechanism that caused villages to become overcrowded and made some villagers leave and start a new village. I worked on it a lot for a few months, modifying mechanism and changing the theme. It was villages on a river, then it was planets in space, then islands. Some times the locations were set, other times they were variable. It was just cards, then it was cards and mats and tokens. 

At its most bloated I think it had 12 different character abilities, most of which caused other abilities to trigger to create the combos. Player’s were taking 10 minute turns in what was supposed to be a short card game. Players liked the combo building but the downtime was killing it. I eventually stopped working on it.

Along with the constant stream of new game ideas I have to deal with, ways to fix old ideas pop up every once in a while. A few months ago an idea to fix Island Chain came to me, make it a two player game. Cutting down the player count would significantly limit downtime, having less opponents to track made the cognitive load easier, and it could be a smaller game fitting into 54 cards, which was a design focus of mine at the time.

While I implemented this change, I also trimmed down the number of characters. Based on previous play tests, I had a good idea of what was fun and what dragged the game out. So it became a trimmed down 9 characters and played pretty well at 2 players. There was one major problem with that version. Some cards relied on the discard pile having cards in it, but players never discarded any cards. So I added a rule and put the Assassin back in the game. I had cut it because it seemed too mean and a way to slow down your opponent. But with only a two player game it was still quick enough and you don’t feel as singled out when you are the only opponent.

The game played well and I had some positive feedback from testers. Maybe because there weren’t any problems to fix, or just my schedule being too full, I drifted away from the design. It just wasn’t grabbing my attention. The other day I had an idea to add a bit to the game, while also simplifying some of the rules confusion that the last version had.

I’m a big fan of Schotten Totten. I like players battling over the row of stones in the center. So I thought of adding a similar system to Island Chain. Before, islands didn’t exist until a player overcrowded one island and caused characters to move and make a new island. So a player’s island chain was very variable and the game ended when a player had 6 islands. The issues people had were understanding when they could make new islands and what happened if all of their characters were gone from that pesky assassin.

Earlier versions had cards that represented islands, either as place holders, or as additional abilities. The first was very bland and the second was very confusing. The new idea is to have a row of islands in the center worth varying amounts of points. Instead of each player making their own islands, they will share the islands. My hope is that this will cause islands to be overcrowded more quickly, and move the game forward, as well as increase player interaction because you will need to pay attention to what characters your opponent has on each island. It should also clear up any of the confusion from islands being created an disappearing. End game scoring should also be simpler. Before, players multiplied their number of islands by the most crowded island. Now it will just be a matter of how many points they get from the islands they control.

I should have the PnP files ready soon and I’ll update the game page here.

An Update on the Tempus Series

The Tempus Series is a collection of print and play games I have been working on. In an earlier post I talked about how I accidentally designed a solo game. Tempus Imperium was that accident, and the first game in the series. The connection between the games is the mechanism of using the date and time to generate a 10 digit number. This number is used to setup a 10×10 grid for the game and determines what action you can perform each turn.

The games function like roll and write games where you write on the page based on each turns variable, except the variable is from the date and time. This makes the games feel a bit different than a roll and write. You know exactly what action you can perform each turn of the game. So after the initial setup, there is no randomness. For this same reason it was necessary to have a mechanism to let you change a turn’s action. Otherwise it would be very possible to be entirely locked out of an action for a game.

Tempus Imperium is about building an empire. You must build roads to connect to forests and quarries then use those resources to build farms, markets, forts, and castles. Gold is required for most things, including changing a turn’s action, so a strong economy is key. It has been out for a few weeks now and has received a lot of feedback. It had one major update to balance the scoring. I’m happy with how it is playing now and I’m ready to call it finished.

Tempus Fumus is about building a train line. You must connect your station to coal and iron mines to gain the resources you need, and villages to earn money. The game is very mechanically similar to Tempus Imperium. However, the tighter restrictions on how to build paths and where the things you need to connect to are, makes the game more difficult to play and design. It was released to the public 2 days ago. I believe it still needs a lot of work to give it the variety of strategies that Tempus Imperium has.

The planned third game in the series will be set in space and be about escaping from an alien attack. I have some ideas for new additions that will take advantage of the game’s print and play design. This is still very early though, so anything can happen.

I’m always happy to get feedback on my designs and these are no exception. Also, if anyone else is interested in designing a game using the tempus mechanism, let me know. I’d be happy to share what I’ve learned and would be interested to see what direction other designers could take it.

Lost in Plutocracy

I tried two very different action selection systems for Plutocracy this week. Deck building, which didn’t work very well at all. And simultaneous action selection with bidding for tie breakers, which was better, but fiddly and distracted from the core of the game.

In the discussion after the second test the idea of an autonomous game that plays itself and could be manipulated by the players came up. This is exactly the feeling I want for the game, but I don’t think I fully realized it before.

I have so many ideas of how this could go, all of them very rough. It is possibly a complete restructuring of the game. After more than a year and 16 major versions. In some ways it feels like starting over. But after a year of practice.

This may be an entirely different game. I’m not sure what will come of it. Maybe I should leave well enough alone and just clean up the version people like. But I’m hoping I can catch the feeling of shadowy manipulation that I wanted from the beginning.

Sequels Can Be Tricky

I’ve been working on a follow up to Tempus Imperium using the same time based setup. I think this is the first time I’ve tried to make a sequel to a game.

My first instinct was to try and take the mechanic in a very different direction. My first idea was a sci-fi escape game with no scoring, only a win or lose condition. But I quickly lost what worked about Tempus Imperium.

So I tried to not be too different but change up how things worked. Moving from the original empire building theme to a train game with stocks and route building.

The first few versions were very boring. At first I thought I had gone too different again. But then I remembered that Tempus Imperium’s early versions were very boring. They moved too slowly. Just like this does. So I think I might be on the right track.

I’m cutting the stock aspect for now and focusing more on the route building. Roads were a major part of Tempus Imperium, and in this train theme I’m thinking tracks will be even more central to the game.

The hard part is making the play restrictive enough that it is tense, but fast enough that the game isn’t tedious.

And I’ve had some ideas for the sci-fi game that might be a good next step for the format taking into account the disposable nature of a one sheet PnP write on game.

Scattered Thoughts

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for me so I’ve been having trouble focusing on game design. It’s not that I haven’t been working on it, but when I can’t focus I move from topic to topic. So I’m getting a bit done on a few projects. And because this lack of focus extends to writing this blog I figured I’d just write about what I’m working on. 

First up, Comic Auction. This has been my focus a lot for the past few months. It was getting positive feedback from a lot of testing groups and I finally figured out a balance between a closed economy and letting a bit of new money in to give players a chance. It can still be very unforgiving if you misvalue things. But the play time is down to just under 30 minutes, so I’m ok with it being on the tough side. You usually need a game or two to understand how to properly value things in auction games. 

I think I was starting to lose interest in Comic Auction a bit, but then my friend Derek started helping with it. He had some comic art assets that he put together and did a nice layout for the comics. Actually having art, even if it isn’t final, really helps this game. It’s about collecting comics after all. So that has really revived my interest. He also came up with the bonus goals which add a nice level of complexity to the game. So it has become a co-design and it’s definitely better for it. 

Derek is also interested in working on Vanilla which I haven’t touched in months. So hopefully he can help breath new life into that. 

Next, Plutocracy. I used to talk about Plutocracy all the time. Then I stopped working on it. Pretty much right after I had The Game Crafter version made. It looks great, needs a few minor tweaks for legibility. But I stopped testing once I ordered the new version. And during that break I started working on other things so it hasn’t gotten much attention. 

I was kind of forced to bring it back out because it got into the curation process at the Boston Game Makers’ Guild. It involves a few levels of more intensive play testing. So I brought it to one meeting to refresh myself on it. Then brought it to its first intensive test. This was also the first 5 player test with this version. It went well. Several of the players had played earlier versions and liked how much smoother it played. It still has the issue of a slow start. But after the test I thought of a possible solution which I hope to have ready soon. 

Island Chain was getting a good amount of feedback from the PnP I shared. It even got on a Twitch show which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. But I haven’t played it in a while. I think because it has been working well there isn’t anything to fix yet. So I was more interested in other projects. 

Grab Bag is also in limbo with positive play tests but it’s still missing something. 

Tempus Imperium, which I wrote about last week has been taking up most of my design time. It’s a solo, single sheet, PnP game. So it has been really easy to prototype and test. I’ve been really wanting to release it for public testing. But even though the game plays well I am having a lot of trouble writing the rules. It’s very hard to explain in text only and making rules examples is slow. I tried recording a how to video, which is easier to explain, but I made a few mistakes and need to re-record it. So hopefully that is out soon. Maybe even this weekend. 

On top of all this I listened to the Board Game Design Lab about dexterity games today and it made me want to work on my old dexterity idea that I bought all the tools and wood to make, but never got around to. Think crokinole with magnets. Certainly a time consuming prototype. 

So lots of things to work on and very little focus to get any one of them done. I keep saying my schedule will clear up in July and I’ll get stuff done. But I’ve been saying that every few months for a couple of years now. Wish me luck. 

I Accidentally Designed a Solo Game

Last week I had a new game idea. That’s not uncommon, I usually come up with a few game ideas every week, but this was one of those ideas that sticks with you and you can’t help but start to design it, even before you write anything down.

The initial idea was a simple concept, a roll and write with no dice. And I don’t mean just using cards instead. The idea was that on each player’s turn they would just choose some of the available actions and every player would get to perform those actions. My thought was that having other people select what was best for their plan isn’t too different from the randomness of dice.

I decided on a civilization building theme for the game and players would work on filling a 10 by 10 grid with different buildings and roads.

While working on the first version I decided that it would be good to have a solo variant. Having a player just decide what to do and drawing a map didn’t seem like it would be any fun. So I needed some randomization element. Dice were tempting, but adding dice would be against the main concept of the game.

I decided to have a random set up of the board to make it a challenge. I just needed a way for a player to get a random 10 digit number without using dice. Then they would use that number to fill the board and have to play around the starting enemies and resources.

I decided to use the date and time as the random number. If you use two digits for each; month, day, year, hour, and minute gives you a 10 digit number. They would use this to determine the placement with one square filled in each column and then one filled in each row. So 20 of the 100 squares would be filled with target resources and enemies that would cause problems.

This is the version I first tested. Two things came out of it. The first is that the random setup was great and I decided to use it for the solo and multiplayer games. The second was that letting the player freely choose their actions was boring. There wasn’t any struggle. So I needed a way to randomize the player’s actions to give them a challenge. I already had a 10 digit “random” number, so I just assigned number ranges to each action and those determined the actions a player had and the order they used them in.

That was it. The game really came together. I gave up on any multiplayer game. It was now solo only. Originally I didn’t care what date and time format people used. But I realized standardizing the formatting let me get more accurate statistics of what a board setup could be and how likely certain actions would be. Over the last version I’ve refined how enemies work and now it seems to be working well.

I hope to get the rules written up soon and I’ll add a link here as well as share it on Twitter @BlueCubeBGs.

Edit: I still haven’t written the rules, but I made a How to Play Video. The print & play file and video are here.

Finding Contributors

Last week I talked about the struggles of content creation. This week I’m talking about what I’ve been trying to do to make it easier for me.

The most complicated content creation I’m a part of is my podcast. I have discussions with usually 3 other people about various game design topics. The three people change from episode to episode. So I had to come up with a topic, or crowd source one, and schedule a recording time with 4 people, usually in different time zones.

To help ease the burden of scheduling I decided to try and get some contributors. They would record their own segments and then I would assemble them. So no more trying to get 4 people online at the same time.

My early attempts to get contributors didn’t garner a lot of interest. The few people that did start segments were people I already knew. I liked the new content and the variety of topics and voices the show gained.

But, I hadn’t managed to build a large enough group for the contributor episodes to fill a full hour. And if someone wasn’t able to get a segment in, the show was even shorter.

I gained a few more contributors since that initial search, but the episodes are still on the shorter side.

It turns out this contributor system is actually even more work than the round table episodes. The recording is easier, but I’m actually managing more people and have more editing to do. But the variety of topics and people is great. So I put out another call for contributors.

This time I got a lot of responses and it looks like many new voices will be joining the show over the next few months.

A few things were different from the last time I asked for contributors. First, the show has grown in popularity, so it has a bit more recognition and reach. Second, I’ve been networking a lot since that first search, so I have more recognition and reach. Finally, and most importantly, when I asked for contributors on twitter I didn’t just let the tweet fade into the aether. I tagged a few people who I thought would be a good fit for making a segment. It’s still an open call and anyone can submit an idea, but tagging people in a tweet turns it into a conversation and that builds traction. The tweet got a lot of likes and shares from the people I tagged and my followers. Then it started getting shares from people I didn’t know. And I got more people interested in submitting.

Twitter is a strange place, but it is my preferred social media hangout. And figuring out how to get traction on a tweet has been a big help.

If you’re interested in submitting a segment, DM me @BlueCubeBGs. If you want to listen, head over to www.theboardgameworkshop.com.

Content Creation is Hard

Sometimes I have a topic that I can write a lot about easily. Other times there just isn’t much to say. I’m not sure how much the length of a post matters but my gut instinct is that a lot of people won’t bother reading a very long post. Conversely, I feel like it at least has to be longer than a tweet. And for me in particular, it has to be decently longer than the preview text that goes out on Twitter and Facebook. If you came across a preview and at the end it said (3 more words) would you bother clicking? I supposed I could construct it so those last few words were a big reveal. Maybe that would get more people to click. But my goal with this blog isn’t to get clicks. Though getting them is nice. This is more a personal goal of sticking to a weekly content schedule.

Scheduling and content creation are tough. With this blog and my podcast (www.theboardgameworkshop.com) I usually get to a point right before writing, editing or scheduling that I think about skipping this one. But I know if I skip one it allows me to justify skipping another.

If I have a topic that I have a lot to say about it can be quick and easy. But usually coming up with an idea is tough. And it isn’t until after I write it that I realize I don’t have much to say about it. And I get a short blog post.

So in short, content creation is hard and I didn’t have a topic this week.

Live Streaming a Play Test

Last night @BeatdaRobinsons played my prototype of Island Chain on their Twitch stream. It was an interesting way to experience a play test. 

It wasn’t quite a blind play test. I was watching the live stream and answering questions, but there was some delay and not physically being in the room made it feel different than a regular play test. I think it would be similar to having a play testing room with a two-way mirror. 

A big benefit of a live stream play test is the social aspect. Other people can find out about the game which can get you more play testers. Also other testers can watch it and possibly learn something from seeing a different group play the game.

During last night’s stream one of the other play testers, @KevNishimoto, was watching. During the stream the question came up of wether or not a Judge’s ability could make a new island. It turns out this is a commonly misunderstand rule that I need to clear up. Because he was watching, @KevNishimoto let me know that he was also misplaying that rule. 

The Judge’s ability can make a new island, if you were wondering.

I wonder if streaming my own plays of a prototype would be beneficial. It could still boost awareness and live viewers could bring up questions. Though it might not be any more useful than a demo video.

Overall it was a very useful play test and I think the format offers some unique benefits.