Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Origins 2019 -- playtests and interesting pitches

Due to Corbin being born, I missed all of the conventions last year, so I was excited to get back to them this summer. Last week I flew to Columbus for the first big convention of the season, Origins.

Origins has been growing in the last few years, and it seems to me like more exhibitors are launching games at the convention. I think that with GenCon pretty much outgrowing Indianapolis, people are sick of not being able to get a hotel room, and are starting to attend Origins instead. This has led me to my hypothesis that Origins is the new GenCon.

For the time being, that's great! The convention is still much smaller than the behemoth in Indianapolis, so the crowds aren't so bad, hotels are still obtainable, and restaurants don't ALL have a horrendous wait at all hours. Sales won't be as high as at GenCon, but as they expand their dealer hall, and more and more publishers launch games there, I suspect it is very worthwhile to have a booth. I don't know that I'd recommend Origins as a publisher instead of GenCon, but I think things are moving in such a direction that pretty soon, that trade off won't seems so crazy.

Interesting Pitches

Andy and I scheduled a dozen or so pitch meetings with designers. We are getting better at weeding out unlikely candidates, so we're getting a higher rate of pitches that are interesting to us. We ended up seeing several interesting ones, and Andy took a few back to the office to test out.

Game discovery is tricky though. A good pitch can make even a bland game sound interesting, so it's important to remember that no matter how good a game sounds, no matter how good the story of the game is, you really can't make a good decision about it until you actually play, often more than once, and possibly with various different groups of people.


I managed a few tests of two of the games I've been working on:

* Sails & Sorcery x3 (Mike's game that I'm helping develop)
Most if the time, I go to conventions with a bag full of prototypes, and between booth stuff, meetings, and everything else going on, it can sometimes be like pulling teeth to get the TMG guys to play them with me. This time was different. One of the prototypes I'm working on is Michael's game, which I'm calling Sails & Sorcery for lack of a better title. Which meant Michael was interested in it, and he encouraged several playtests.

In total, the game got played 3 times at Origins, with varying levels of success. I was fairly happy with the state of the game in my recent tests with my regular playtesters (note: mostly 3p lately), so I was pretty disappointed with the first play (4p) with Andy, Michael, and Michael's friend when a few problems reared their head:

- The downtime was too much

The current format of the game was that you take turns doing 2 roles at a time. To be honest, that format felt a little old fashioned, but I had convinced myself it wasn't that bad, and that in this type of game, some downtime and AP potential is common. But playing with people less familiar with the game (because they haven't been playing weekly like we had) was a harsh reminder that new players will suffer those effects much more than experienced players. The game took far too long, and much of that time was spent waiting for your turn to roll around.

In some of the later playtests of the weekend, we tried breaking the rounds into twice around affairs, with players getting 1 turn at a time. Initially I didn't like the sound of that, so I hadn't tried it yet, but it did help decrease down time. I'll have ti investigate that some more and figure out how to do it and maintain some of the other aspects of the round structure.

- Plunder was too prevalent,

Sails & Sorcery is an area control game, where you deploy your pirates to islands and build structures in order to vie for the most influence in the scoring areas. One of the things you can do is Plunder other pirates, removing them from the board, and collecting a bounty for doing so. If you are behind in an area, you can take the lead by adding more of your pirates, or by plundering your opponents' pirates. Plundering scores you some treasure, and the short term benefit of taking the majority in the area, but the plundered pirates go back to their owner's ship to be re-deployed later. On the other hand, adding pirates to the board not only helps take over majority, but those pirates stick around to continue to have an effect on the board. So there's a theoretical balance there, and in my recent tests (mostly 3p), the balance was holding fairly well.

However, in that 4p game, plunder was far too prevalent! The rewards were a little too high, or the costs were a little too low, or the cost to recruit and deploy pirates were a little too high in comparison, so everybody went heavily into plunder, and nobody deployed pirates to the board, which meant that all pirates were swept off the board pretty much the whole game.

Some of that may have been down to groupthink, and I would have liked to see what would have happened if a player did some big recruit/deploy actions. But even still, it was clear the balance was not correct. I had some adjustments in mind already, but had previously thought they might not be necessary -- now I will definitely try them out.

- The game appeared too tactical.

In this game, there are a number of areas, and originally they all scored once in the midgame and again at the end of the game. When I first played the game, I was immediately turned off by the tedium of counting up and scoring all the areas at once, and I developed a different way to do it -- first simplifying the scoring values (now you just grab a few gold and silver coins), and also scoring just a couple of areas every round rather than all of them at once. They still all scored at the end of the game, but as a sort of final scoring phase I didn't have as big a problem with that.

One potential problem with this is that some players feel forced to fight for whichever area is scoring this round, and there's not much in the way of strategic, or long term, planning. I'm not sure that's 100% true, but even if it's not, that's what many players will feel when they first play. I'll have to watch out for this to make sure the game isn't entirely tactical, because Michael and I both want there to be a strategic aspect.

So there were some issues with that one, and I've got a list of changes I'll be trying to address some of that.

* Worker Learning x1 (Mike suggested Apotheosis as a title)

My latest game design is a worker placement game where your workers level up and get better as you play them. I had this idea a while ago, but got busy and stalled out on creating a prototype, so I recruited a friend to help co-design the game, and he was able to get a prototype together and test it, and even iterate the design a few times. Now I've been testing it and iterating a bit as well, and I got one play in at Origins.

The game worked, but wasn't well loved by the players (I played a 3p game with And and one other designer in the Unpub room). Some of the changes I already intended to try would address some of the issues the players had, and I've tried a few of those since Origins, and I think I've made some progress in that regard. I'll probably post separately about this game, so stay tuned if you're interested in more info.

Wednesday, May 08, 2019

Recent playtesting - Sails and Sorcery: some details

The last few weeks, my Saturday playtest sessions have been spent playing Michael's game, Sails and Sorcery. It's kind of a mashup of my game Eminent Domain and the area control classic El Grande.

In Sails and Sorcery you are a pirate captain, sailing your ship from island to island, recruiting and deploying pirates, building structures, and summoning monsters in an attempt to make off with the lion's share of treasure when it's found in those areas.

Michael had been working on it for a while, he talked about it on the TMG podcast last year. In October, Mike figured it was time to get my input, so he brought the prototype to town with him for Rincon, we played a few times, and he left it with me to work on.

Role Selection

Because it was based on Eminent Domain, the game had a role selection mechanism (where opponents can follow your role). Michael had noticed an issue with that however, and he had disallowed following in the last round of the game. The issue was that if I make a play -- putting pieces on the board, or moving them around -- it's really easy for other players to undo my play by simply following. Disallowing the follow in the last round didn't fix the issue in the other scoring rounds earlier in the game though.

So one thing I suggested as we played was that maybe it should not be a role selection game at all. In other words, maybe there doesn't need to be following in the game. Role selection (the lead-follow dynamic) is the entirety of the player interaction in Eminent Domain, but in this game there is interaction on the board as players vie for control of different areas by having the most pieces there. With that interaction, the role selection isn't as necessary, so we tried it without.

However, without being able to act on other players turns, we wouldn't be able to get as much accomplished. So in place of following, we just did an additional role each turn (I'm going to continue using the term "role" here to mean "thing you get to boost with other cards," even though the terminology isn't as accurate any more. "Action" simply means playing 1 card for it's effect, no boosting). This seemed to work fine, and so the first few tests I did recently continued to use 1 action and 2 roles per turn, in that order.

One of my playtesters really wanted a more flexible turn order, because frequently you want to do your 2 roles in different locations (you act in the location where your ship is located), and so he wanted to do role/action/role, using the action to move his ship. I was hesitant to try this because Michael and I had said the same thing back in October, and we tried it, and I immediately did not like the results. This was partly because the "action" part of your turn was really resolving your whole ship, which had multiple things you could do.

However, I acquiesced to try it again, but with a simplified ship such that your abilities from your ship we're more static (like role icons), so it was just the card action you would be doing "out of order." We tried it, and it wasn't too bad, but I still didn't like it, maybe because I prefer the organized turn structure.

Then that player had an additional suggestion, to replace the action with another role. Most of the actions are miniature (1-icon) versions of the role anyway, so if we didn't have actions and just did 3 roles, then a bunch of rules overhead drops out, and the turn flexibility increases without feeling too weird or out of order. In addition, we said that taking a card for the role from the stacks (another aspect based on Eminent Domain) was optional. If you did it, then you'd have an additional icon for the turn, and another card in your deck. If you didn't, then you would miss out on that icon, but you could avoid bloating your deck with the card if you wanted. You only have so many cards in your hand, so often times one of your roles will only be for 1-2 icons. In that respect, the role/role/role format isn't really all that different from action/role/role after all.

We tried this new format once, and I was skeptical. I thought it would produce too much AP, or have other issues. However the first play with that format didn't take any longer on the clock than the game we had just finished using the old format. So I'll try it again next time.

Monsters and their cost

Another aspect I've been tinkering with is the monsters in the game. Originally, you could use a build role to build a building, which gave you permanent influence in an area, and unlocked some ability (like the buildings in Crusaders), or summon a monster, which had some cool effect, but was otherwise similar to a building. Michael had envisioned pieces like in Blood Rage - large miniatures with player colored bases that you could snap on to show who had summoned the monster. You needed to know that, because often times the monster counted as influence toward scoring (just like your buildings did).

My opinion was that the monsters and buildings were too similar, so I suggested making them more different from each other. Buildings give you influence and power ups, so I thought monsters should give you some awesome immediate effect, and then stay in play with some global effect for everyone, like it or not. I liked the image of summoning a force of nature and then being unable to control it.

My first draft of the monsters was to make them the high end of the build role. For 2 or 3, you build a building. I tried the monsters costing 5 (and if you were really interested in summoning them, there's a way to get a build icon from one if your buildings). This was too high a cost, by the time we were ready to summon the monsters, the game was over. Michael wants them to see play every game, not just some of them, and not just maybe, and not just at the end. And I agree with him.

I also thought it was weird that the same resource both built you buildings and summoned monsters. So I made 2 changes... First, I separated the roles. You use build roles to place buildings for influence and abilities, and you use summon roles to summon monsters. I set the summon cost of the monsters to be 2 summon icons, plus 1 more for each time that monster has been summoned in the past. This is easily tracked by dropping a token on the monster card after you summon it.

I have iterated through a few versions of each monster, but I am now super happy with this format and the current effects of the monsters. Splitting up the resources was great, and this cost structure is perfect. The monsters all start out cheap, so they get used. Then they get more expensive over time so that in the late game it's hard to afford them if you haven't been summoning all game long.


The monster cost structure worked so well, I wanted to try it with the buildings too. The buildings on your player board (your ship) are in 4 rows of 2 columns, and for each row you must build left to right, just like Crusaders. Originally, the buildings in the left column cost 2 build icons, and the buildings in the right column cost 3. Additionally, each area had a certain number of build spaces (usually 2 or 3), and no more than that number of buildings could be built there.

Thinking about the escalating monster cost, I tried eliminating the build limit and old cost structure, and instead tried "buildings cost 2 icons, plus 1 more for each building already in that area. This way, you can build cheaply if you spend time sailing around or get to an area first, but once there are 2 buildings in an area, you will have a hard time building there again if you haven't specialized in it a bit, either by investing in the building that gives you a build icon, or by obtaining a number of build cards into your deck.

This works well because each building also increases the value of the area for the 1st place player during scoring.

The effects you unlock from moving these buildings off of your player board have also changed a bit. Originally, some of them were static effects, such as a role icon, or a hand size increase, and some were additional actions you could do at the beginning of your turn. While it was fun to do an extra action at the beginning of your turn, it often wasn't as useful as you wanted it to be. A free deploy doesn't help if you need to recruit pirates. A free plunder doesn't help if there aren't any opponents where your ship is. This is the kind of frustration that prompted the desire for a more flexible turn structure, but it's also the reason the more flexible turn structure was problematic. The game action happens with the card play, so it made sense to me that the buildings could all be static effects rather than additional free actions. Removing the game action from there made the flexible turn structure a lot more acceptable feeling. I've been tweaking and trying different combinations of unlock abilities, but most of them are the same as they were back in October. I'm trying to make sure there are a variety of strategic paths available in the abilities, but also make sure that you aren't forced to build a certain way (or at all) in order to succeed. Like the technology in EmDo, I expect players will build at least a little each game, and if they concentrate on it, maybe they'll build a lot. I expect most players to end the game having built anywhere between 2 and 6 of the 8 buildings and still be able to be competitive.

There are a bunch of other details I've been working on, but these were some of the biggest (and most recent) changes I've tried. Perhaps I'll post again later about other aspects, such as the scoring round format :)

Tuesday, April 02, 2019

AZ Game Fair 2019

Last weekend I attended AZ Game Fair 2019 in Mesa. It's just up the road from Tucson, and as a "special guest" I get a free badge, so it's usually a very inexpensive weekend of gaming. However, this year my wife and baby came with, which meant a full price hotel room for 2 nights, so it wasn't so cheap after all.

I did not arrive at the convention until 10pm on Friday, so I might as well have just come up Saturday morning and saved the cost of the room that first night... oh well.

Saturday and Sunday, however, I did manage to spend a lot of time at the convention, and actually play some games for once!

Old Favorites

Puerto Rico
After hopping into a game or two of The Resistance with Sean Ramirez of The Dukes Of Dice podcast, I taught his friends Puerto Rico, which sat at the top of the "best games" list for a decade (and with good reason). Sean and I had played before, so of course it boiled down to a contest between him and me. I haven't played that game in years, but it's definitely one of my favorites, and I pulled out the victory.

Game Design Panel
After that, I was on a game design panel with another local designer, David Short, as well as Canadian special guest Daryl Andrews, and the guest of honor from Italy, Vital Lacerda. The panel was called The Secret Lives of Board Game Designers, but had no real direction or moderator, so I tried to sort of direct traffic. We mostly took questions from the audience.

Railroad Tycoon
After the panel, my friend Hoss was running a game of Railways of the World (FKA Railroad Tycoon). There were only 3 of us, Hoss, myself, and a new player Hoss had just taught how to play. We used a map of Great Britain, which I'd not seen before. I kinda liked the map. It was a tight game, and in the last round I had to go to the bathroom, so I made my last 3 plays out of turn (they didn't affect anybody else anyway) and ran off. When I got back, they'd just finished counting points, and Hoss had won by 1 point! I don't know if I trust him though, the first thing he said that game was that I should be banker because he was bad at counting, and the first thing he did in the game was grab $10k bills in lieu of $1k bills... :)

New Hotness

Underwater Cities
In addition to those old favorites, I got a chance to try a few of the new, hot games. Saturday night Hoss and I sat down to figure out Underwater Cities. The rulebook took about 45 mins to learn from, mostly because they repeated the "play a card and place a worker, and if your card color matches, you get the bonus" text at least 4 times.

I was enjoying Underwater Cities while we played, but thinking about it afterwards, I am not sure I'd want to play it more than maybe twice. The "play a card and place a worker, and if your card color matches, you get the bonus" thing is cute. I did feel like I never really wanted to play an off-colored card, even though I had something in play that gave me a consolation prize when I did that (though I probably should have done it once or twice).

We had to stop 1 turn before the end because they closed up, so I don't actually know how my strategy turned out, but I got a pretty good feel for it. I saw maybe 2 real paths I'd want to try (the one I did, and 1 other). I'm sure there's more, but it wasn't obvious what else you could really do.
The collect-cards-in-play part was a lot like Terraforming Mars, and I definitely liked this A LOT more than I like Terraforming Mars.

Wingspan was solid. I enjoyed most of it. Probably the only thing that I thought was weird was the random-and-variable resource pool. You need resources (in 5 types) to pay for playing bird cards, and there's an action where you take some resources (you can upgrade that so you take multiples, 1 at a time). The resource pool is 5 dice, rolled into a supply. When you take a resource, you remove the die from the supply, reducing what's available. Caveat, if all remaining dice in the supply match (there's only 1 resource option available to you), then you may choose to re-roll all of the dice, resetting the whole pool to 5 random things before taking one.

I could see wanting a random resource pool, and I could see wanting a competitive resource pool (like dice drafting), but I'm not sure the way they're combined here is the best way to do the job.
One of the types of reasons I don't like it is because there are a bunch of card effects that are like "take a [specific resource] from the supply, if it's there" - which is therefore super variable, based not just on what's rolled, but also based on how many dice happen to remain in the supply. Worse, there's a card type that says "when [X happens and succeeds], take a die from the supply," where the likelihood of X happening depends on what opponents do (which is fine), but the likelihood of X succeeding increases as the number of dice remaining decreases... so while it looks like this card gives you flexibility when it hits (you choose a die rather than get a specific resource), in reality, this card is not likely to hit at all, and if it does, you probably get some random resource, not a real choice. I could argue that's just a lame card effect, but I think it's a symptom of a lame resource system.

But other than that, I thought the game was fun, and solid.

Just One
Not as hyped as the previous two games I mentioned, Just One is a hot new cooperative party game where the goal is to get one of your teammates to guess a word by giving 1-word clues. The catch is that after each player writes down their 1-word clue (but before the guesser sees then), any matching clues cancel out. So it's scary to use the obvious clues, because if someone else does that, you don't get them, but then everybody avoids the obvious clues, and you still don't use them!

It's a fun party game, would play again, even at 2 in the morning :)

My Own Games and Prototypes

Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done
Crusaders came out just a few months ago, and so far it seems to be very well received. The production is very nice, and several people approached me at the convention to tell me how much they were enjoying the game play!

One guy who had backed the Deluxified version of the game was trying to read the rules while his friends played another game, so I offered to teach. In the end it was just 2 of them (the other 2 kept playing that other game), so I sat in and made it a 3 player game.

It's been a while since I've played Crusaders, but I still liked it a lot!

Crusaders: Divine Influence
I had made an expansion to Crusaders about a year ago, and I had thought it was probably done. I sent it to Utah with Michael in October so the TMG team could play it, and I just got it back about a week ago.

Ben and his daughter were looking to play one of my prototypes, and so as the last game of the convention, I taught them Divine Influence. Emma had not played Crusaders before, but she picked the game up just fine, even with the extra expansion rules. It went well, though I think the free movement from the Influence action is too fiddly, hard to visualize, easy to forget, and usually unnecessary. I should either cut it, or make it simpler -- maybe something like "you may freely move between adjacent hexes with your influence marker on them" (a dynamic known as "railroading" in some games). Maybe better would be to simply cut it, and save having to make components for influence.

David's doggo card game
Late Saturday night I played one of David's quick card game prototypes. It's intended to be a sort of follow up to AEG's Cat Lady. Indeed, much of it was super similar to Cat Lady (collecting similar types of sets from a 3x3 grid), however this game was a step up in complexity, as you could buy upgrades to the patterns of cards you're allowed to pick up.

I gave him some feedback, hopefully it was helpful. Mostly it was "once a player replenishes the board, their turn should be over," which I think he agreed with in the end. The rest was about a special card called "fetch," which did something thematic that David liked, but I thought should probably instead just be "get a card from the discard pile," which also seemed thematic to me. The way David wanted to do it, in my mind, subverted the main mechanism in the game, which is something I don't like doing. The recent game Noria does that, and I wish it didn't.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Prototype feast or famine

Ever since Corbin was born (last summer), I have felt like I've been in a relative famine with regards to playtesting (and gaming in general). I have tried to make up for that with online play at,,, etc.

In October, Michael was in town for Rincon, and I manages to get a couple of plays in with him. Then I sent 4 of my prototypes to Utah with him in hopes that they would get played in the TMG office.

Finally, after 8 or 9 months off, my playtesting group is back up and running again! This was great news, and it came just in time to finish up last minute development on Eminent Domain Origins, the reboot of my first game, Terra Prime.

Now that that's done however, I've run into a problem. All my prototypes are in Utah, what do I test next? Fortunately, I had something. TMG is doing a Deluxified version of Emperor's Choice (I'm in charge of the art direction and rules updating, like I did for Yokohama), and someone suggested we add a 2 player variant to that 3-5 player auction game. So I came up with something, and the last couple of weeks we've been testing that.

Yesterday, I came home to a box at my door containing my prototypes! They appear to be in fine condition, and now I've got the opposite problem: which of these should I test next?

* Crusaders: Divine Influence (expansion)
* Deities and Demigods (now Olympus on the Serengeti)
* Eminent Domain: Chaos Theory (dice game)
* Alter Ego
* Sails and Sorcery (Michael's mash-up of EmDo and El Grande)

In addition to that, pretty soon I'll have a version of Worker Learning to test as well!

Crusaders: Divine Influence (expansion)

Since Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done arrived a couple of months ago, it seems to be very well received. This makes a perfect window for a Deluxified expansion to go on Kickstarter, along with the opportunity to get the Deluxified base game again, later this year. In anticipation of this, I designed an expansion before my playtesting haiatus, and I'm pretty happy with it so far.
Divine Influence adds 4 new building tracks (16 more buildings per player), a revamped (more involved) Influence action, and a few new knight orders to go with them.

Olympus on the Serengeti (fka Deities and Demigods)

I posted before about the theme of Deities and Demigods changing to re-imagine Greek mythology in an animals of Africa setting. Art is underway on this one, and I'm a little worried how it will turn out. I think that, like Eminent Domain's title, when players see everything in context, it will work well.

This one doesn't really need more testing, unless I want to add that Hades module to the game.

Eminent Domain: Chaos Theory

Last I checked, with the final tweak to 5p (and maybe 4p) games (everyone starts with 1 tech advance), I think this one is ready to go. It is in line to get art done after the more pressing Divine Influence, which will start as soon as we wrap up art for Eminent Domain Origins which is happening right now (about a month late, which means it probably won't make GenCon, unfortunately).

Alter Ego

I finally hired an artist and a graphic designer for this age old prototype, though I haven't seen anything from them yet. The game could use some finishing touches, but nothing that would change the major art pieces, so I figured starting art would be ok. There's no deadlude for this one at the moment per se, so maybe starting art now will mean when it comes time, I'll actually make it for once!

Sails and Sorcery

Michael impressed me with the thoroughness he was putting into his mash-up of EmDo and El Grande when he talked about it on the TMG podcast. He didn't really have a title, so I made this one up for now. He didn't want to let me in on the game until he'd gotten it far enough along - perhaps for fear I'd sort of take over the design (that's kind if my MO). In October, he brought the game with him and we played a few times. I think it was an excellent start! He was ready to let me start doing my thing...

Right away I had a few course grained suggestions, some of which we implemented on the spot. Others Michael didn't necessarily agree with. He left the game with me to work on, but my testing was on hiatus at the time, so beyond editing the rules to include what I wanted to try, I wasn't able to do anything.

Come December, Michael was in town again for the holidays, and I sent his prototype back with him, with my rules edit inside, so they could try it in Utah. I don't think they ever got to it though.

Now that I'm playtesting again, I asked for this prototype back, so we could give it some plays.

Worker Learning

I think I've mentioned that I recruited my friend Rick to help co-design one of my more promising ideas. After some good discussion back and forth, some solo testing on his part, and a couple revisions of the prototype, Rick tells me this game just got its first live playtest! Sounds like it went well, and generated good feedback. Rick will be bringing an updated version to Gamestorm next weekend, and after incorporating that feedback, I'll make a prototype and bring it to my group.

I'm excited to see this game in action! But some of the others have a little higher priority, so it might be several weeks before I get to try this one.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Recent gaming -- online

In the past, I've spent a little time playing online versions of board games, from Puerto Rico on to Vinci on, to Magic: the Gathering on MTG online, but I usually lose interest after a while. I much prefer irl board gaming, face to face with real people.

I recently posted that my game Eminent Domain is available for free online play at, and that I'd been exploring some of online boardgames that site has to offer:

Well, I've been continuing to play games online -- my current makes that much more viable than getting to a live game night. I mostly play 2p games late at night with my friend Steve. I like 2p best, since otherwise it can take a frustratingly long time for my turn to roll around, and I will have forgotten what was going on in the game.

Games I've been playing since my last post include:
  • Caylus - an old favorite, still a great game, but not a very modern feeling one
  • Hawaii - a neat game I'd played once before, a long time ago
  • In the Year of the Dragon - one of my all time favorite games. 2p is weird because turn order can be such a big deal
  • Penny Press - a neat auction sort of game, but feels a bit one dimensional (after only 1 play)
  • Ponte de Diavolo - an abstract game that it turns out I'd played before, but forgotten. Not my type of game
  • Race for the Galaxy - I haven't played much RftG irl since EmDo became a thing. It's a solid game, and I like 2p better than multiplayer because I feel like playing 2 cards at a time gives me more agency and feels more fun
  • Seasons - a decent card combo-y game, but one I got a little bored with after a handful of plays
  • Signorie - a "heavy"-ish game that got good buzz. It's OK, I guess, but I really didn't feel like there were different approaches like there appeared to be
  • Takenoko - a very nice, very fun game by Antoine Bauza. Works well with 2, and didn't really seem to get old
  • Tokaido - another very pleasant, very good game by Antoine Bauza. 2p has a neutral pawn that the player farthest ahead gets to control, which is a really neat aspect. The game is great, but many of the player powers seem lackluster (at least in 2p) because they're so narrow and easily blocked. Still a great game though!
  • Tash Kalar - a largely abstract game, which is usually not my thing, but this one is pretty interesting. Cool how the scoring goals (Tasks) are what's important more than simply placing pieces and taking opposing pieces (Nexus Ops had some of that going on, and I guess Twilight Imperium did too)
And I've started a game of The Castles of Burgundy on with Steve. I like that game, but when I play it in real life I feel like it takes too long. I'd REALLY like the game if it only took an hour, but it consistently takes 2 hours when playing with 4 players. So maybe it's better online? So far, yes and no. It's nice to log in, think about your turn, and do it... but it's real easy for me to ignore my opponent and play solitaire that way, which has hurt me in this game. Also, just like irl, the game has the dice luck that can really be annoying sometimes.

I'm having a lot of fun playing these games online, though it'll never be as good as playing in real life. It's especially fun to play and chat in real time, though with my schedule I can never commit to actual real time games, just turn based ones where we take our turns in quick succession for a while.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Eminent Domain Origins playtests - 2p and 4p

Today I got a couple more "last minute" tests of Eminent Domain Origins in, one 4-player (using the 2-5p starting cards), and one 2p (turns out I hadn't tested 2p since making all these updates and changes).

In the 4p game, Dan joined Dave, Jesse, and me. He played the game once about a year ago, so was basically a new player, so I asked him to just play normally and let me know what was fiddly, odd, hard to understand, or easy to forget. Dave and Jesse each tried the new 4-5p starting cards (Jesse started with a colony marker loaded, an energy, and $10; Dave started with 2 crystal and an energy). I decided to try alien hunting, since I hadn't seen it much lately, and so started with a weapon and a crystal. I gave Dan a basic $30 starting card.

In the end, the game was quite close, with Dave winning out 60-50-50-49. I may have missed a round or two, but I counted 17 rounds -- I thought I remembered Terra Prime lasting more like 20-24 or so. Jump starting the game a little bit by giving players starting resources and cutting the phase 1 reward cards, and allowing colony spots (planets) to exist in adjacent sectors, may have sped the game up a little bit, but I DID add 3 tiles to the phase III rewards, so we were only really net down 1 reward tile total. It's likely players just did more scoring actions (colonizing and defeating aliens) than what sometimes happens so the game was on the short end.

Dave's winning 60 points came on the back of quite a lot of delivering. He used his 2 crystal start to quickly (turn 4 or 5) get a Matter Converter, and soon after delivered a bunch of cubes for a fistful of credits and bought 2 Thrusters in one turn. Dave is usually partial to Afterburners, but I guess he decided he didn't have the energy economy for it this time. In any case, he had 5 actions while the rest of us ad only 3 for a while. Dan and Jesse eventually got Thrusters of their own, for some reason I didn't bother, which may have been my downfall. The verdict on the starting card is that it's probably fine. The verdict on Matter Converter is that it's potentially very strong, probably not a problem, but might ought to be worded such that you still have to carry the correct cubes according to your holds, and then deliver/upgrade as if they're wild, rather than letting you convert them to whatever you want whenever you want, which just encourages you to visit your own places.

Jesse's downfall may have been poor rolls combined with potentially ill advised pathing. He kept crashing into asteroids, and hadn't bought shields first. This cost him 3vp on more than 1 occasion. Had he just rolled a little better (or spent the action and $20 to get and charge shields), he could have been neck and neck with Dave in the end. Never mind that one of the collisions cost him an engine, about 1/2 way through the game, putting him out maybe 7 or 8 actions! However, his start was strong, Starting with a loaded colony marker was pretty great, it allowed him to usurp a colony spot from player 1 (Dan, who might have been better off doing something a little bit different), and as Jesse pointed out, irrespective of turn order, starting with a loaded colony means that he's the ONLY player who could colonize 2 spaces from TP on turn 1. It also means that players earlier in turn order have to be a bit more careful and hedge their bets if they're not colonizing on turn 1, lest their colony get sniped. That's probably OK, but we decided to take away the energy, so that if there's an asteroid in the way, at least you have to risk losing 3 points to do that.

I tried to do some alien hunting, and I did an alright job, my big errors were getting an early Battle Station instead of selling cubes to afford a Thruster, and not setting up any accessible early game colonies for other players to use. The only planet 1 step from TP was a green one off to one side, and since Dan didn't take it, I decided to colonize it on turn 1. Nobody used it all game, and I didn't drop any colonies in high traffic areas, so I didn't get to leach any points off of other players.

Any way you look at it, that score was pretty darn close all around.

After Dan left, I mentioned the board scaling for 2 players (2 fewer tiles in each row, and only 1 of each tech upgrade), and it occurred to me that I hadn't played 2p in this new version of the game. So I had Jesse and Dave play 2p while I watched. They ended up choosing the sort of standard $20 and $30 for starting resources, and while I lost count half way through the game, I'm pretty sure it lasted about 20 rounds -- just a few more than the 4 player game. I noticed that in the mid-game, both players spent time upgrading their ship rather than dropping colonies or killing aliens, which dragged the game out a little bit, but also was fun for the players to really pursue a strategy. Dave ended up with a Thruster and 2 Afterburners (with Additional Module Slots), so was doing 8 actions per turn. Jesse had 2 Thrusters for 5 actions per turn. Both geared up for alien hunting, but neither did a whole lot of it until the end of the game. Between the two of them, they explored every tile, but they also left a lot of maybe lower scoring colony spaces alone... had either of them grabbed a Cryo Chamber (or Cargo upgrade) and started dropping multiple colonies per trip, the game could have been considerably shorter (on par with the 4p game perhaps).

The verdict was that the 2p game seemed fine. I think we don't need to do any further scaling such as removing any reward cards. It felt like the game dragged a little, but that was because (a) players drew it out a bit, and (b) Dave's turns started taking incredibly long as he hemmed and hawed over planning out his 8 actions!

All in all, I think it was a fine test day. I made a tweak to one of the starting cards (take the energy off the loaded colony marker one), and I might tweak the wording on Matter Converter. I might also add a reward card or two (probably double up on existing ones) just to make sure there's enough time in a 5 player game for players' strategies to develop.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Deities & Demigods face lift - need a new title!

When getting serious about the production of Deities & Demigods, I had to face certain realities about the theme:

Tropes vs Cliches

On one hand, using a familiar theme is useful, because tropes are like pictures -- worth 1000 words. People can recognize things like "Ares is the one that moves your troops" because of what they already know about the Greek gods. Knowing that information up front reduces the cognitive load on the player, who can spend their cycles thinking about whether they want to build stuff rather than having to think "wait, what does Hephaestus do again?" Read this whole twitter thread for a good, technical description of what I've been thinking for years, but didn't have the knowledge or vocabulary to express properly:

On the other hand, gamers tend to complain when a theme is overused. To be honest, while that complaint does come up at times, I suspect it's more of a complaint that the theme was used poorly than that it's really overused, because there are several popular themes that occur in many, many games every year that don't receive that complaint. However, a bigger issue may be presentation...

Looking at the many Greek mythology themed games out there, they all look exactly the same! The typical (maybe stereotypical) depiction of the Greek pantheon may be a good example of a "trope" that has become "cliche." It's difficult to tell any one of those games from another just looking at the artwork. Santorini does a good job of setting itself apart, with the awesome chibi-style artwork, but that's a rare exception:

The chibi style is cute, and works very well for that game, but (a) I'm not sure that kind of style would work as well for Deities & Demigods, and (b) it's been done already!

So how do I make Deities & Demigods stand out from the crowd? I had a few ideas about this...

1. Allocate a large art budget, so that if the game had to look like other, similar games, maybe it could look better. However, looking at some of the Greek mythology art from recent games, it appears they've already done that!

2. Change pantheons, moving from Greek mythology to something less commonly used, such as Egyptian mythology. For a while I thought this would be the right decision, as the art could look different, and people could comment on the unusual theme rather than the same-old same-old of the overused Greek setting. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that while the outfits would look different, the artwork would still probably look similar to the Greek games, and I wasn't finding Egyptian gods that fit as well with the game action.

3. Find a new style, like Santorini did. I came across the art for SPQF in the portfolio of one of the artists I was considering, and it got me thinking. SPQF is a card based civilization building game, with very nice art of anthropomorphic animals. There have been a couple other games with anthropomorphized animals lately -- one might even say it's the start of a trend, however I don't think we're there yet. This led me to consider a cross between Clash of the Titans and The Lion King... what if we re-imagined the Greek pantheon as animals of the African plain?

Clash of the Titans meets The Lion King

In the end, I liked the sound of this third option best, and have decided to go that route -- re-imagining the pantheon as anthropomorphic animals. This allows us to keep the tropes of Greek mythology, but use art that differs significantly from other Greek themed games, and could look pretty cool.

Photo of SPQF cards by BGG user lovemyfire
My initial picks for animals to represent each deity looked like this:
Zeus (king of the gods) -- the obvious choice is a lion
Hermes (messenger of the gods) -- a macaw seemed like a good choice
Ares (god of war) -- an elephant, or possibly a wild boar
Hephaestus (blacksmith to the gods) -- an ape of some kind (the opposable thumbs could help him build)
Hera (Zeus' wife) -- at first I thought maybe a peacock, but probably better would be a tiger, jaguar, leopard, or cheetah

With a change of theme, a few details will have to change as well. For example, animals have no use for gold, so perhaps food would be a better thing with which to show devotion. That said, perhaps Artemis (goddess of the hunt) would make more sense than Hermes, and as an added bonus it would get more goddesses into the game (something I'd been wanting to do anyway). To represent Artemis, perhaps a bird of prey would make sense.

For the player boards, I figure smaller animals would make sense, something like meerkats, gazelles, monkeys, and I don't know, some bird species perhaps. These are animals that are found in packs or groups, so it would make sense that you have 12 of them under your control. To represent your troops on the board, a regular meeple doesn't really evoke animals, so I've been thinking of something better. One thought is a sort of generic "animeeple" -- a 4 legged something-or-other which is not necessarily related to any of the player boards. The graphic designer suggested a paw shape, which could be cute, and would stack well, but might not be as fun for players to move around the board.

I'm open to suggestions for a meeple shape that would be good. I don't think it can really relate to the player board animals, or else (a) the player who insists on playing red all the time would always have to be meerkats, and (b) if we add more player boards with player powers in an expansion or something, we'd have to add 12 meeples to go with it!

What's in a name?

Deities and Demigods was a title I was kind of OK with, but it was always only a placeholder. 90% of the people who play the game point out that there's an old Dungeons and Dragons sourcebook with that title, which I don't actually think matters. In any case, I've always wanted a better title.

About 4 months ago, I finally put some effort into finding a better title, but didn't come up with anything fantastic. Some of the options were:

Titan's Tribute
Divine Interest
Quid Pro Quo (change pantheon to Roman deities)
Chrysos (Greek for "gold")
Favor of Olympus
Buy The Gods (pretty good, but maybe too "cute" for a real/serious title)

And for a good laugh:
In Gods We Trust
Invest In Vesta

However, now that the game is about animals in the African plains or Savannah, I don't think any of those would really work anyway. I could really use a title for this game, and the sooner the better so the graphic designer can make a logo for it! Please comment with your suggestions.

So far, the only idea I've had that I like at all is Pantheon of the Plains, but I'm sure there could be something better...