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.

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. 

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. 

The In Vino Morte Story

In Vino Morte was my first published game. I actually promised to write about it here a long time ago before I was posting regularly. So I’m finally fulfilling that. It has a somewhat unique story of how it came to be a Button Shy Wallet game.

I recently came across my first notes on the game. They are dated March 11, 2015. The very first version was a 2 player only game with two cards, one wine and one poison. One player would choose who got which card face down and the other would choose to swap cards or not. Then they drink and whoever had poison loses. It was inspired by the battle of wits in The Princess Bride and the game Win, Lose, Banana. It was an absurdly simple idea. 

I then made it multiplayer. You could have more players just by having more cards. The dealer chooses for everyone and then each other player gets a chance to swap with someone. In the first multiplayer rules there were 12 wine and 6 poison. At this point it was a single round and everyone who had wine won. 

I never made a prototype. I never tested it. I pretty much forgot about it. About a year later Button Shy had their first wallet game contest. I got really sucked into designing for the wallet game format. I came up with a lot of ideas. I prototyped many of them and play tested some of them. I didn’t have any play test groups at the time, so I was only able to test what I could get my family to play. 

I never play tested In Vino Morte for the contest. The only changes I made from my original idea were, having it be an even 9 wine and 9 poison, having multiple rounds so there is only one winner, and coming up with the name. I submitted it to the contest along with 9 other games. I didn’t think it had much of a chance. But it was a complete game, unlike some of the others I had worked on and not submitted. 

None of my games made the finals. Most were underdeveloped because I was working on so many different games. However, one judge, Josh Edwards,  was interested enough in In Vino Morte that he made a copy and took it to the finalist judging day to play. As far as I know Josh was the first person to ever play the game. 

That made enough of an impression that Jason Tagmire, owner of Button Shy, asked to publish it as a nano game in the board game of the month club. The nano game version had 4 wine, 4 poison and a rule card. It came out in the July 2016 Board Game of the Month Club. That was my first published game and very exciting. Once I got my designer copies, I finally played it for the first time. Turns out it was pretty good. This could have been the end of the story. But the lucky breaks kept coming.

In February of 2017 Jason had some room in a print run and asked if I wanted In Vino Morte to become a wallet game. Obviously I said yes. It went to Kickstarter in November and is now delivered to backers and available on teh Button Shy website. It was the first Button Shy game to sell out at Pax East this year. 

I never expected much from it as a design. I thought it was too simple to even bother play testing. But there is something about it that makes it more interesting than the sum of its parts. I guess the lesson is that you really need to play a game to understand what it is. And getting published takes a lot of luck.

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.

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.

Plutocracy Continues

I’ve been working on Plutocracy a lot lately to get it submitted to the Cardboard Edison Award. With the changes added last week it really seems like the major design portion is complete and now it needs development. I’m happy with the game arc, the player incentives, the timing, even the theme has become more specific.

I just found my first design document for it, which I started on December 13, 2016. The very first line of my design notes is “Currency manipulation 4x ish political intrigue.” That was the core of what I wanted the game to be.

It began life as an action card drafting game with a modular board. Players manipulated 4 tracks; economy, military, technology, and culture, for 3 kingdoms. It was supposed to have a lot of area control to push combat, but the economy manipulation was so rewarding no one did anything else. From that first design through player decks, rondels, static and modular boards, and buildings I’ve come to the current version which is still very much the “Currency manipulation 4x ish political intrigue” idea I had back then. Though the currency is influence and the political intrigue is very high level inter-faction conflict, it is more solidly a 4X game.

Games can change drastically during design. When you start a design, make one simple, solid guidepost. Use that as an idea to build everything else off of. In a creative endeavor that can easily circle back around on itself it’s helpful to be able to see where you started from.

That guidepost can change, but if the guidepost changes I would say you are designing a different game, which is fine. Sometimes one game design is the inspiration you need for another game. But always check what your game has become against that original idea.

Here is some Plutocracy stuff, since I worked so hard on it.

Plutocracy Rules

When Things Work

It’s nice when a design finally clicks. The pieces come together and it can start to handle the pressure of players pushing the game.

Last night I had two play tests of Plutocracy. In the second game one player kept completing missions. Completing a mission gives you a point and expands your abilities for the future. My thought was that players would complete a roughly equal number of missions each game.

While this player was grabbing up all the missions I was worried that it would break the game and I would have to find a way to fix it, again. But in the end he lost by 2 points. While this is only one instance and the game will need to continue being stress tested, it was nice that it managed to pull through without a runaway winner.

The reason it held together was that missions have diminishing returns. They are always worth 1 point but the extra actions you gain from them become less useful as you get more. And there are other parts of the game that will earn you more points than the missions as the game progresses.

You probably have an idea of how you want players to play your game, and if you have good incentives, players should generally follow your plan. But be aware of other things players could do and if those things would be a dominant strategy.