Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Modular vs Integrated expansions

Having recently done an expansion for Crusaders, and having done 3 expansions for Eminent Domain and one for Isle of Trains as well, I have noticed a particular style I like to use when creating expansions, and I've identified two distinct types of expansions: Modular and Integrated.

Modularity

A modular expansion is one with several distinct modules that can be added in various combinations. These can be good because they allow the players to use the modules they enjoy, and simply ignore the ones they don't care for. It allows players to customize their experience. Undoubtedly, this is something that some players will appreciate.

However, it also requires playing each module at least once to determine if it works well for your group, and it requires some effort to curate the expansion content to provide that perfect customized experience. For a group that loves a game and plays it all the time, one that's willing to put in the effort and plays to find the perfect combination of modules, this could be fine. But in today's market, I wonder if players will put in that time and effort? Or would they prefer to just buy a curated expansion, where the "best combination of modules" is the only thing provided?

Another down side to a modular expansion is that because of that modularity, the pieces of the expansion may feel bolted together and disparate rather than feeling like a seamless experience.

Integration

An integrated expansion is one where the new parts play off of each other and off of the original content. When done well, this type of content fits seamlessly with the base game, and it can be difficult to differentiate the new stuff from the old.

This loses the opportunity for customization provided by a modular expansion, but it gains the curated feel, and doesn't require any work on the part of the player to get to the "best" configuration.

Another down side to integrating an expansion is that it may be more difficult to remove the content when you want to play the game with new players. For an insular group who plays the same game many times, an integrated expansion may be preferable, while for a group where new players come and go with each play, it may be more difficult to pop the expansion content in and out.

My personal preference

It's probably clear in the above paragraphs that modular expansions aren't my preferred format. Well integrated, expansion content fits together with the base game in such a way that it feels like it was always there, or like it belongs. I find something attractive in the thought that the expansion integrates so well that a new player might not be able to identify the new content from the old.

Looking at the expansions I've done, I think it's clear I've attempted to go for integration over modularity:

In the Eminent Domain expansions, you simply add the new tech cards, shuffle the new planets into the deck, and the Fleet, Mining, and Political Influence tiles tie it all together.

When I first played Isle of Trains: All Aboard (which hasn't been published... yet) with the publisher, they were skeptical going into it that the game really needed an expansion. After we played, they said they were surprised how well integrated the expansion was, and that it was not obvious the expansion content wasn't just part of the base game in the first place.

Crusaders: Divine Influence is about to ship from China, so not many have played it yet, but my goal with that one was to seamlessly integrate the new content with the old. I replaced the Influence action with something more involved, and I added new buildings and a few factions. If you know the rules of the base game already, then playing with the new content should be easy to pick up. Learning the game for the first time with the expansion content included will be a bit more complicated than learning just the base game, but I have had some success teaching the game that way most of the times I have played the expansion with strangers.

Conclusion

There might be a temptation to make expansions modular, because as a designer it can be easy to think that's what players want, and it abdicates the responsibility of curating the expansion to the players. My advice for designers is to consider the game you are expanding, and that game's audience. In this day and age, with thousands of new titles coming out every year, is modularity really the best format for your expansion? Or would your audience be better served with a well integrated, curated expansion? For most of the games I work on, I think it's the latter.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Apotheosis - recent challenges and possible solutions

I have been testing Apotheosis quite a bit lately, and on a coarse grained scale, I think it's going pretty well. The structure of the game works and has improved with iteration, and the game action is fun (for me at least). One of my regular testers doesn't seem to love it (I don't think it's really his type of game), but the others still seem to enjoy it.

But games don't get finished on a "coarse grained scale." At least, they shouldn't! When talking about some of the finer details of the game, there are some challenges I'm still facing with it. Until these challenges are overcome, I cannot call the game finished. However I do think these challenges are overcome-able! Here are some of the bigger challenges I'm currently facing, and what I'm planning to try to do about them:

Challenge number 1: The Endgame

One of the biggest problems this game has been facing is an end game dynamic that is disappointing. The game is basically a race up some tracks, and players can see how many turns it will take them to "finish" the race, and can sometimes tell whether anybody can stop them. It's super anticlimactic to hear your opponent say "I can win in 6 turns. Can anybody do better than that, or should we just stop now?"

In an effort to keep this from happening, I was looking for a way to add uncertainty to the end game. I thought I had found something, but in my first attempt I implemented it wrong so it didn't work. But after trying it, I started to think it wouldn't be quite right even if implemented better.

My next attempt was a more subtle thing, which won't stop a player from figuring out how many turns it'll take them to "finish," but might obfuscate whether or not someone else can beat them to it (thereby keeping the game interesting enough to play out the last few rounds):

  1. Give players a face-down adventure which they could do instead of one of the face-up ones. This way you can't be sure whether your opponent can advance on a track, or what they need to be able to do so.
  2. Try player screens to hide resources, so it's harder to tell what your opponents can do.
  3. With player screens, maybe add more instances of getting things at random (resource cubes, equipment, Side Quest cards, etc) so that it's not all Hidden Trackable Information (HTI). There are already random equipment draws currently, and we could easily hide the Side Quests in hand, maybe that's enough.
In addition, we required a Tier 3 adventure to actually win the game. That way the final push to win couldn't be sort of cheesed with a surprise bump from a side quest (because that's kind of anticlimactic), or using the worker space that inefficiently moves you up a track (because that's not only anticlimactic, but also basically unblockable, which means you can see it coming several turns ahead, leading to the problem I'm looking to solve)

Having tried this format once so far, I think it has helped a little bit, but may not have completely solved the problem.

One thing that occurred to me as I was thinking about this challenge is that there are games -- popular, well received games -- that have a similar dynamic. Just about every time I played the 2014 title Istanbul, by Rudiger Dorn, I was able to see that I could "finish" the race to 5 gems in 4 or 5 turns, and often I could see whether or not anybody could stop me or beat me to it. That made the last 4 turns or so feel like something of a slog, but the game hasn't seemed to suffer from it.

So maybe I'm overly concerned about this "problem" in my game. I think if you can call the game in 4 turns or so, it wouldn't be so bad, but 6-8 turns out i maybe too much. So maybe I don't need to solve the problem 100%, but rather make sure that if it DOES happen, it only happens within 4-5 turns of the end of the game.

Challenge number 2: Equipment not pulling its weight

Equipment in this game is basically a secondary resource, a little harder to get, and useful mostly for one particular aspect (an aspect that players could mostly neglect if they wanted to, but theoretically is more efficient if they don't). I think Equipment is nice thematically, but the mechanisms for getting it are a bit overblown and maybe too random for the relatively small role they play.

One solution is to cut Equipment altogether, reducing the number of resources (by 4, technically, since there are 4 types of equipment). Some of my testers seem to think there are too many resources in the game, and cutting equipment would certainly help that. But I fear that would just mean you use the stuff you're already collecting to pay for the valuable stuff Equipment was supposed to buy you, which seems lame to me.

Another solution is to make Equipment a bigger deal in the game. My first attempt at this, partly to try and salvage Equipment, and partly because removing it would mean I'd need to do more updating to the prototype and design work before testing again (and I had other things to test), had to do with the attempt mentioned above to add some uncertainty to the end game. That may work in some format, but having tried it, I'm not sure I like it as much as I'd hoped.

My next attempt was to add Equipment as a cost for the 3rd adventure tier. The 3rd tier requires a few worker levels of any type in addition to what's needed for tier 2, and currently has no additional resource cost (but I think it should). The rewards are a handful of Blessings (which are a flexible commodity), and a track bump (vp) of your choice. Originally, instead of Blessings, the reward was a Spoils -- a special resource you need to do a certain thing (it's kind of like 2 points and a power). The only other way to get those is by (a) Side Quest cards, which cost Equipment, or (b) spending a large number of blessings (which is hopefully inefficient by comparison). So maybe putting the reward back to a Spoils instead of Blessings (which is kind of thematic anyway), and adding an Equipment cost, then it makes some sense: Equipment is always for getting Spoils -- if you do it through an Adventure, then you also get VP, if you do it through a Side Quest, then you maybe get something else with it.

In addition, I added some worker placement spaces that care only about your worker's class (that was partly to address some other issue I was worried about), and one of them lets you get Equipment, so now there are a few ways to get equipment, and a few ways to spend it. Since you can't always guarantee you get the TYPE of equipment you want, I also added the option at one of the worker spots to trade in any 2 equipment for the one you want.

So far I think this is promising, so I'll try it again. I'm sure those same playtesters will still complain there are too many different resources :)

Related to Spoils, it might be nice if  there were 1 more thing you could do with it. Because currently you only need a maximum of 4 or 5 in the game, and you can technically finish (though I don't know if you could realistically win) with only 1. I don't know if I like being able to buy them with Blessings, because that means you can avoid dealing with Equipment altogether. Is that OK?

Monday, January 27, 2020

Making steps forward ("killing your darlings")

In a few of my games I have started with a specific mechanism or idea that, over the course of the game, has had to drop out, or change significantly. I'd venture a guess this happens in many, if not most, designer's games.

For example, in my first published title, Terra Prime, I began with a "great" idea for a supply/demand mechanism for the value of resources you deliver. Based on Power Grid's fuel market, you would get paid more for delivering Bluium if there hadn't been any delivered yet than you would if there were already some Bluium sitting there on the ships, ready to send back to Earth. Every once in a while, the ships would take off, and the resources on them would clear off, resetting the demand (and therefore the price). Each resource was supposed to have a different curve - maybe Yellium was worth 7 the first time it's delivered, then 4, then 1... so it's super valuable, but goes down fast. On the contrary, maybe Bluium would range from 5 down to 3, and be a lot more steady:


I forget the exact details, but the bottom line is that while I liked the idea, the mechanism just wasn't working in Terra Prime.

In the end I (thankfully) decided to replace the whole thing with a Demand Tile mechanism. Much more simply, each resource had a price, and tiles indicated how many were required. Once all the blue spaces were filled, the demand for Bluium dries up, no more can be delivered. As soon as one of the tiles fills up, it goes away and a new one comes up, which may bring back some demand for Bluium.

This worked a LOT better, and I'm happy that's how I ended up going in that game.

The point of that story is to show how a major mechanism that I really liked ended up changing because it wasn't right for the game. Recently, that dynamic has showed up again on one of my current active designs: Apotheosis.

One of the instigating ideas for Apotheosis was that your workers would level up when played, like the cards in Solforge. The crux of the game was intended to be whether you play out all of your workers before recalling, and leveling up your entire workforce evenly, versus playing just a couple of workers then recalling them and playing them again, and ending up with a few high level workers while the rest remain at low level. That idea being the whole point, survived the first several revisions, and many playtests. However, as of last week, I tried a new version -- instead of leveling up every worker you have played when you recall them, we said you could only level up one worker.

I was hesitant to try this, but I was hopeful it would fix certain issues I was having with the game. As we began the first game with that rule, I missed being able to play an extra worker before recalling in order to level them up, but pretty quickly I could see how certain aspects of the game seemed to be tighter and work better. All told, you're still choosing whether to recall early to level more often, or play more workers first for their effects.

One concern with only leveling one worker at a time was that it slowed things down, but that's just a matter of balancing costs, and could be easily fixed. However, in an effort to try something in between "level one worker" and "level all workers," we tried something that amounted to "level some workers." I had expected that to be better, with some of the benefits of the restricted leveling, and some of the benefits of the original idea. But in practice I found that it didn't really work as well, and it became clear that just leveling once per recall (and maybe a few special rewards for things could get you an extra level-up) is the way to go.

So there you go -- once again I've had to "kill a darling," so to speak, and remove or significantly change an instigating mechanism for a game.

As a side note on this topic, my friend Gil Hova (of Formal Ferret games) has a particularly aggressive auction mechanism from an old, unpublished game of his called Wag The Wolf (one which I thought was good!) that he keeps designing games around. He used it in Battle Merchants, but in the end cut the mechanism. He used it again in The Networks, and again cut the mechanism before the game was finished. And I believe he started his latest game, High Rise, with that mechanism, and eventually cut it from that game too!

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The List - January 2020

Last month I reviewed The List, but I think I have enough of an update that it's worth taking another look. I'm adding a new section for games I've recruited (or am recruiting) co-designers for:

Published Games:
Terra Prime (BGG)
Eminent Domain (BGG)
Eminent Domain: Escalation (BGG) (expansion)
Eminent Domain: Exotica (BGG) (expansion)
Eminent Domain: Oblivion (BGG) (expansion)
Eminent Domain: Microcosm (BGG)
Isle of Trains (BGG)
Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done (BGG)
Crusaders: Divine Influence (BGG) (expansion) [In manufacturing]
Dungeon Roll: Winter Heroes (BGG)
- Gold West: Bandits promo (BGG)
- Gold West: Trading Post promo (BGG)
- Yokohama: Achievements & Free Agents promo (BGG)
Brainfreeze

Finished But Unpublished Games:
Eminent Domain Origins [Ready to print]
- Crusaders: Crimson Knight (expansion) [Ready to print]
- Crusaders: Amber Knight (expansion) [Ready to print]
- Olympus on the Serengeti  (FKA Deities and Demigods) [Art starting]
Exhibit (BGG) [Unlikely to be published due to conflict]
Eminent Domain: Chaos Theory (dice game) [In line for art]
Dice Works (BGG)
Wizard's Tower (BGG)
- Isle of Trains: All Aboard (expansion)
Suburban Sprawl
Watch It Played [Abandoned]
Now Boarding [Abandoned]

Current Active Designs:
Alter Ego (BGG)
Apotheosis (Co-Design with Rick Holzgrafe)
All For One (BGG) (Co-Design with David Brain)
Riders of the Pony Express (BGG)
- Isle Of Trains: The Board Game (Co-Design with Dan Keltner)

Designs I'm Recruiting A Co-Designer For:
Well established designs that I could use help finishing:
Automatown [a designer has showed interest]
Odysseus: Winds of Fate (BGG) [a designer has showed interest]

Established designs that still need work:
Reading Railroad
Moctezuma's Revenge

Early stage designs that still need a lot of work:
Rondel Role Selection
Kilauea [a designer has showed interest]
Joan of Arc [a designer has showed interest]

Idea stage designs that sound promising:
Dynasty
-Scourge of the High Seas

Old Standbys - games which have been around, 1/2 done and untouched, for years:
8/7 Central
Hot & Fresh

Old Ideas that Haven't Gone Anywhere (Yet) - some of these have been getting stale as well:
Investigative/Tabloid Journalism
Red Colony
- Clash of the Kingpins
Time = Money
Dating Game
Ticket Please
- Cruise line game
The Untouchables
Day labor game based on craps

Misc and Really Old Stuff:
9-Ball
Blockade Runner
- Roman Emperors (my version of someone else's game)
- Admirals of the Spanish Main (my version of someone else's game)

Let's take a closer look at some of the updates:

Crusaders expansions:
Crusaders: Divine Influence (BGG) (expansion) [In manufacturing]
- Crusaders: Crimson Knight (expansion) [Ready to print]
- Crusaders: Amber Knight (expansion) [Ready to print]
The first expansion to Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done (BGGhas been printed, and is about to ship from the manufacturer. The 2nd/3rd expansions are almost identical to each other, they each add one additional player: a red player, and a yellow player. The retail version art is done for both of them, and they're expected to release in October, 2020. I'm not sure exactly how we will support those who got the Deluxified base game, we will either make Deluxified versions of these expansions, or we'll offer some kind of upgrade pack.

Isle of Trains: the Board Game:
The publisher of Isle of Trains told Dan and I that instead of (or possibly in addition to?) an expansion to the card game, they would like to do a bigger box board game that's like Isle of Trains. So Dan and I have been working on a re-design of the game given the new constraints. We've made a little progress so far, and Dan has a prototype under construction, it'll probably see play soon.

Odysseus: Winds of Fate (BGG):
A designer friend of mine in Seattle has expressed interest in coming on board as a co-designer. After so many years and iterations, I'm excited to see if he can help get this one across the finish line. He tells me he's got a prototype built and plans to give it a try soon!

Automatown:
A designer in Utah who had printed and played an earlier prototype of Automatown has expressed interest in coming on board as a co-designer. I'm excited to see this one move forward, because I'm sure it would have taken me a long time to get back to it. I got word that he'd played the latest version already, and has some specific changes he's going to try next!

Kilauea:
Based on my blog post, a designer I'm not too familiar with has expressed interest in coming on board as a co-designer. I've sent him my descriptions of the game and the rules I had written... we'll see if he can do anything with that.

Joan of Arc [a designer has showed interest]
Another designer I'm not familiar with expressed interest in Joan of Arc. I need to revisit that one and see what info I can send him on it.

Friday, January 17, 2020

2018-2019: a playtesting retrospective

Back in late 2017 I started formally tracking my weekly playtest sessions in a google doc. One up-side of this is that I can go back now and review what was played each week, by whom, and what aspect I was looking to test that day. It's also interesting to see how much time we dedicated to each game, or how much time passed in between playtests of a game.

I'd like to use this post as a sort of retrospective on the last two years (or 28 months) of playtesting. Let's take a little trip down memory lane...

2017

Late August 2017 was the first session I'd logged, and that day we were evaluating 3 games I'd brought home from GenCon for TMG: Margrave, by Stan Kordonskiy, which turned into Old West Empresario, Rolled West, by Daniel Newman, and Embark, by Philip duBarry. Not only did we end up signing each of these, but all three are on store shelves now!

In September of that year we continued evaluating games: Pixel Factory was a neat one, but ultimately TMG did not sign it. Back to Earth was also neat, and we did sign it, but due to unrelated circumstances we ended up releasing it later. Railways is a game by some British designer friends of mine, and I liked it, but it needed some work. We did suggest the new title: Railblazers. My understanding is that at this point it has improved greatly, but the main mechanism which I was interested in (like the Mancala-rondel in Crusaders) has changed completely.

October saw us switch gears a bit. We spent a lot of time playing my games: Eminent Domain Origins (a Terra Prime reboot) and Eminent Domain: Chaos Theory (a dice game version of EmDo -- I should add those to the BGG database). This went on into November as well.

December was spent almost entirely on a dozen games of Embark, which had been signed by that point. I also see a lone play of Eminent Domain Origins at about Christmas time.

2018

We started off the new year with 2 more games of EDO, but then spent the rest of January, February, March, and half of April playing about 3 dozen (!) games of Old West Empresario, working on game balance and player powers. The only other playtests in those months were a few games of Harvest to test some potential expansion characters (unfortunately, we never did do an expansion to Harvest).

Late April through mid-May we tested the Crusaders: Divine Influence expansion, which was in pretty good shape to begin with, but we hammered out a few details. That one has now been printed, and is about to ship from the manufacturer in China and should be out later this year.

My son was born at the end of May, and my playtest sessions went on  hiatus. The only other testing that happened in 2018 was at Rincon -- Michael was in town and we played a game of Deities & Demigods (now Olympus on the Serengeti), and several games of Imminent Domain (now Sails & Sorcery, but that title might not be final either), which is the game Michael designed based on the deck learning of Eminent Domain and the area control of El Grande.

2019

After an extended hiatus, I finally got back to regular playtest sessions in February of 2019, and we spent that first month back playing Eminent Domain Origins some more, fine tuning some last details.

March was spent on Emperor's Choice. TMG is doing a Deluxified version of that game, and we developed a 2 player variant which went over well with Richard Ham of Rahdo Runs Through, who famously only plays games with his wife.

April and May were dedicated almost entirely to developing Sails & Sorcery, changing up the format so it would play better, but keeping the core ideas of the game.

June was spent working on a new design of mine, Apotheosis. We iterated through several big changes as we quickly honed in on what worked and what didn't.

We started out July with a quick couple tests of a 5/6 player expansion to Crusaders. This worked out well, and we've got art done, but this won't come out until October. Then it was back to Sails & Sorcery through August. Most of the game was pretty solid by that point, but we were trying to fix this one niggling dynamic that just didn't work right.

We switched gears again and spent September and half of October playing Alter Ego, my co-operative deck learning game. We played quite a few games considering that one of my main testers doesn't like co-op games!

We ended October and spent most of November working on expansion content for Pioneer Days that we got from the designers.

We revisited Alter Ego once in November and once in December, and spent the rest of December testing Eminent Domain: Chaos Theory, and another one of my games: Riders of the Pony Express. Riders was in pretty good shape, but was a bit fiddly. We fixed a couple of small issues, and brainstormed how to remove some of the process a little bit.

In addition, we played a few non-playtest games including Tapestry (which did not go over well), In the Year of the Dragon (my favorite Feld game), and we tested a game for one of my playtesters (we actually did this a couple of other times, but I hadn't recorded those). Also, I took my players out for an annual Playtester Appreciation Day to see the new Star Wars movie (we saw Solo last year, and Episode VIII the year before that) -- only one of them could make it though.

Finally, we capped off the year reviving my oldest game design that was any good: All For One! I initially got involved in that co-design 17 years ago, and it had been so long since the last playtest (2012?) that I didn't try any changes, we played straight from the rulebook. It was great to revive this old classic, and we started off 2020 with some significant changes to All For One, which worked well and felt great!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Recruiting Co-designers / Assembling a Design Team

Ever since I recruited my friend Rick to work on Apotheosis (FKA Worker Learning), that game has made a lot of progress where it would certainly still be sitting in my notebook otherwise. That arrangement is working so well that I would really like to recruit other designers to help me progress my other stalled or (or un-started but promising) designs.

Here are a few of the designs I could imagine handing off to another designer at this point and letting them run with for a while, or working together with another designer on...

Well established designs that I could use help finishing:
* Automatown - worker placement/resource management game about building an army of robots (which are your workers)
* Odysseus: Winds of Fate - Adventure game about Odysseus on his way from Troy to Ithaca. Play as the Fates, who don't care what happens to Odysseus, but pass the time by betting on his progress (and then influencing it)

Established designs that still need work:
* Reading Railroad - Build words (a la Scrabble) to earn coins, spend coins to build track. Connect cities to earn pieces of set collection scoring

* Moctezuma's Revenge - push your luck / deduction game about looting temples, but some are cursed

Early stage designs that still need a lot of work:
* Rondel Role Selection - Shared rondel / resource management / Role Selection game about splicing DNA to make hybrid creatures such as Hippogriffs
* Kilauea - Mancala game about spreading your people across an island, and sacrificing them to the volcano gods to control the lava flow
* Joan of Arc - Bag building game with shared piece movement. Play as a voice in Joan of Arc's head, vying to get her to accomplish your goals.

Idea stage designs that sound promising:
* Dynasty - Spread your villages across China, upgrade them to Cities, and fill your player board with Culture. You'll assimilate other players' culture, and they yours. When someone becomes Emperor, the winner is the player who's culture is best represented.
* Scourge of the High Seas - Deckbuilder along the lines of Ascension, with 2 buy rows (Tortuga, where you buy crew, equipment and ship upgrades, and the High Seas, where you spend crew and equipment to plunder ships)


Any takers?

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

R.I.P. Matthew Frederick, one of the great unpublished game designers

Some time ago -- almost 2 decades now -- I stumbled across a website called the Board Game Designers Forum. At the time I had recently graduated college and gotten a job, many of my friends had moved away, and I was looking for something to fill my time. It was a perfect storm that led to my eventual career in game design, development, and publishing, and it all started on that fateful forum.

In the early days of BGDF, I read a lot of posts, I wrote a lot of posts, and I spent a lot of time in the IRC chat room with some of the forum regulars. Several of those regulars have gone on to see great success in the game industry as designers, artists, or publishers (or all three)!

One of those regulars, an admin in fact, went by the handle FastLearner. His name was Matthew Frederick. Matthew was ever-present, always insightful, and always made sure the forums were going strong. He's the one that created this BGDF logo:


A logo I placed on the back of the box for both Terra Prime and Eminent Domain, as a nod to the role the forums played in the design of those games.

One of my favorite aspects of the site was something called the Game Design Showdown, which turned into a monthly design challenge where, given a week and a theme, component restriction, or other guidelines, you could submit an entry. Entries were posted anonymously, and then voted on. There was no prize, and the submissions were not intended to be finished, tested games anyway, but the challenge was a good way to exercise the design muscles, and I know of several ideas from the GDS that went on to become fully fleshed out (and in some cases published) games. I say that's what the GDS turned into, but it started as a sort of real time challenge in the chat room, run by FastLearner, where instead of a week to come up with a game idea, you had just minutes! We only did that a couple of times, but it was great fun, and it opened the door to the larger Game Design Showdown, which still runs today if I'm not mistaken.

As it happens, Matthew lived in Phoenix, AZ -- just up the street from my hometown of Tucson. A couple of times I drove up and got together with Matthew... we talked about our game designs, even played each other's games. Matthew was one of the players who I wrangled into may first two playtests of UK designer David Brain's prototype: All For One, and we did a prototype swap (I left 8/7 Central with him, and brought home his mountain climbing themed game: Everest). I recall several of Matthew's games that I played, and they were all very good:

Everest was a middle-weight euro-style game about drafting a team of climbers (with sponsorship from various countries), and climbing Mount Everest. There were different terrain types to navigate, and your climbers were better at some than others. You could set up camps along the way where you could rest your team. There were rewards for reaching certain elevations first, including a large reward for reaching the top of the mountain. It was a real, honest to goodness game, on par with a lot of the stuff I've played off store shelves.

Velociracers was a card driven game where you, a Velociraptor, raced around an island grabbing up eggs and trying to keep ahead of the T-rex that was hot on your heels. Each turn you would play one of your cards, and you wouldn't get them back until you did a special "rest" action. There were mechanisms in place to keep the dinos bunched in a pack -- a headwind to keep the front runners from getting too far ahead, and cards that let you advance more the farther back in the pack you were. Fall too far behind and the T-rex will hurt you, much like taking damage in Snow Tails. Like all of Matthew's games, this felt fully fleshed out, even if he wasn't happy with it.

Elvencraft was another excellent design, where you would move around an Elven village in the trees, connected by bridges (which I think you would build, if I remember correctly), collecting items and crafting them into better items. I don't remember all the details of this one, but I do recall it feeling like a real game as well.

Cow Tipping was a small, Rummy-style card game that a nascent TMG considered publishing. It had adorable art and a cute theme of gangs of cows taking revenge on people by tipping over vehicles stopped in traffic. Motorcycles required a smaller gang (set or run) of cows to tip, but are worth fewer points. Buses were the most valuable, but of course required the largest gangs to tip. I recently re-read my email threads with Matthew about this game.

As a neophyte developer, I was perhaps overzealous about wanting to change Cow Tipping a lot. In the end, TMG did not publish that game, but Matthew gave me some important feedback that I still need to take to heart at times- he said something to the effect of "with all those changes, what exactly are you licencing from me?" That is a significant question for a few reasons. Not only was it a wake up call to me as I stepped into the game industry as a professional developer, but it also stands in stark contrast to some of the sentiments I've seen in modern designers who might submit an unfinished game with the expectation that the publisher will finish it for them. In contrast, all of Matthew's games were fully fleshed out, thoroughly tested, and more complete than many submissions I've received over the years.

About a decade ago, I lost touch with Matthew. I wasn't hanging out in the BGDF forums anymore, and I didn't travel to Phoenix very often. I didn't have much occasion to reach out to him, and from what I could gather, he had a very busy life, sometimes plagued with additional hardships outside his own control. I did follow Matthew on Twitter, and occasionally saw some snippet of his life scroll through my timeline, and every time it made me wonder "what ever happened to that guy?"

Back in October, just a few months ago, Matthew sent me a Twitter DM, seemingly out of the blue. It was a very complimentary message, just saying that he was pleased and impressed to hear how well I'm respected in the industry. Apparently Matthew had followed my career, or was at least aware of it. He followed that with another message:

Perhaps one day we’ll get together again and reminisce about the old days and talk about what’s happened in the intervening years.
Two months later, I was sad to hear that Matthew was gone. I had gathered from tweets I'd seen that Matthew was sick -- fighting some kind of cancer. I know now that his message to me was something of a "goodbye," and I'm sorry I didn't drop everything right then and there and drive up to Phoenix to see him one last time, maybe play a game, or do that reminiscing he mentioned.

Matthew, I'd like to thank you for being the man that you were. The pillar of the game design community which brought me from a casual Magic player to a professional game designer. You are far and away the best designer I know, and the gaming world is poorer now that you're gone.

You will be missed.