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.

The Mines of Mi Otal

Topic suggested by CM Perry (@BHFuturist).

The Mines of Mi Otal is a worker placement game that I started designing for The Game Crafter Worker Placement Challenge which was due the end of May 2016. So I probably started it a month or two earlier.

Thinking back on it, this design and contest were responsible for me meeting a few designers. I started talking to the judge for the contest once my game made it to the finals. Since then he has been on my podcast a few times. And months after the contest I met the contest winner at a local convention. It turned out we lived pretty close to each other and he was looking to start up a play test group. So I’ve met a great group of people through that who I may not have met if I didn’t design this game.

As for the game. This was my first attempt at designing a worker placement game and at the time I hadn’t actually played many. So I wasn’t so familiar with the variety of ways it has been done.

The initial idea was inspired by the game Ryu. I’ve never played Ryu,but I heard a review of it on a podcast. If I remember correctly a mechanic in Ryu was drawing cubes from a bag and hoping to get the right color for what you wanted to do. That’s what I took away from the description anyway. I thought that this mechanic would fit well with a building theme where you would try to gather a resource, say stone, and would get to pull some number of cubes from the bag and keep all the stones. The rest would be treated as nothing for that pull and go back in the bag. This first version was focused on using the resources to build new buildings and locations that let you pull more cubes or trade cubes and generally mitigate the randomness of the bag pulls. Another important aspect was the rarity of different resources in the bag. You could easily pull wood and stone, but gold was much harder to get.

The first version made it to prototype, but it wasn’t ever played. This was before I had joined any play test groups. So it sat around unfinished. Then the worker placement contest came along. I hit on the idea of mining as a theme and crafting items with the different resources.

So the version of the game I submitted to the contest had a bag of chits that were iron, silver, gold, and diamond. Each had a different rarity. Players would place a worker on a specific mine space, for instance the silver mine, and pull 6 chits from the bag. They would keep all of the silver and put the rest back. So players could go to the iron mine and have a good chance of getting some iron or try for the diamond mine and often get nothing. In addition to these mines were some mine spaces that had a random assortment of resources that you could see. Placing a worker there let you take any two resources, but once they were empty they stayed empty.

After collecting enough resources a player could put a worker on the forge and trade resources in to forge an item. Each item required a unique combination of 3 resources and could be sold for double the value of the original resources. Resources could also be sold at the market to get some quick money if you needed it.

Money was important for the other main mechanic in the game. Every round you had to hire your workers. Each player had one worker they kept to prevent them from being totally locked out but, any additional workers had to be hired from a worker pool at the start of the round. The pool only had 8 workers available, so if the players before you hired all 8 you were out of luck. So going first could be important. However, the more workers you hired the more money it cost per worker. So you could hire a single worker for 2 coins. Or, you could hire all 8 workers for 44 coins. This would give you a huge advantage of actions in the round but at that cost you were almost certainly throwing away the game. The more tense situations came from the middle ground where the last player could be blocked out of getting any workers if earlier players spent enough. But money could be very tight, especially in the early game.

The game played pretty well and got some interest from various people I tested with. But I abandoned the design not too long after the contest to start working on other contest submissions. But I eventually started thinking about the game again and ways to improve it. I reworked the hiring mechanic into an auction for my game Vanilla. So the basic concept of having to pay more to hire more workers was there but as an auction players could more freely choose how much they were willing to pay but the highest bidder could still take all of the workers for a round.

I plan on focusing on The Mines of Mi Otal once I finish up Plutocracy. The original design was very limited by the contest’s price constraint. So without that I’m thinking it can be a larger game with each player being able to upgrade their forge and workshop. One of the complaints with the last version was how random the available items to craft could be. Sometimes players just got lucky having the right resources. I’m thinking private contracts, similar to tickets in Ticket to Ride, would be better than a public row of items that players raced for. The changes to hiring workers I used in Vanilla have been further refined and I think it will work really well in this new version.

These new ideas have me really excited to get back to work on this design after such a long break. Only the fast approaching deadline for Plutocracy getting into the Cardboard Edison Award is holding me back. So once that’s done you’ll probably see a lot of posts from me about The Mines of Mi Otal.

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For more game design discussion listen to The Board Game Workshop.

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.