Tuesday, June 19, 2012

GM Conference, Fiasco! And beyond...

Last Sunday SAGA hosted its GM Conference at which a number of speakers gave presentations - about 30 minutes apiece - about some aspect of running a roleplaying or storytelling game. I missed the first half, but managed to catch the presentations after the lunch break. In fact, I caught them on video! Currently the videos are about 5GB each, and as soon as I can find a way to reduce them to a reasonable size, I'll post them online.

After the conference I was invited to my friend Brian's house for an RPG. If you read my blog regularly, you probably know that I'm not much into role playing... I played some Dungeons and Dragons in junior high, tried it again in college, but while I liked the idea of it, the experience never panned out the way I would have liked it to. More recently, Brian has introduced me to some of the more modern indie RPGs, most of which don't appear to me to really qualify as "Role Playing Games" so much as "Collaborative Storytelling Games." Many don't even have a GM. At one of SAGA's RPG days I sat in on a session of Yesterday's Tomorrow!, a sort of retro-sci-fi storytelling game based on speculative future... what did people in the past think the future would be like? So the stories you make will resemble old, dated pulp sci-fi such as Flash Gordon.

A few years ago I learned about a Storytelling game called Fiasco. When it came out I heard about it from several people, read about it a bit, and watched Brian and friends play a session of it. The idea is pretty cool - the game sets you up to tell a story in the vein of those Fiasco movies such as Fargo, Burn After Reading, or Blood Simple... you know, those movies where people get in over their heads, and everything seems to go wrong. The game's tagline is "A game of powerful ambition and poor impulse control." It was Fiasco that we played at Brian's house the other night.

I really like the way the game structures a web of interconnections between characters and encourages their stories to overlap and be at odds with each other. I had a pretty good time with it - even though it took about 5 hours rather than the advertised 2. With all it's good points though, there are some aspects of that game I'm not too happy with... For one thing, the game goes out of its way to encourage failure. The book goes on and on about it, and people who like the game seem to like it at times merely because it's a foregone conclusion that pretty much everybody's going to die at the end. Any goal your character may have? Forget about it - you'll be lucky if you're still walking when the credits roll. I agree that it can make for a more interesting story if everything doesn't simply go the characters' way all the time. Part of the reason Indiana Jones is such a fun hero to watch is that he fails constantly! But then he perseveres and succeeds in the end. But it's as if whoever wrote this game (or at least some proponents of it) thought "well, if failure makes a better story, then if ALL the players fail ALL the time, then it'll be the best story EVAR!"

I don't agree with that. JC Lawrence said something insightful in a short Twitter discussion yesterday:

"The narrative requirement isn't success, but personal growth thru travail. The growth needn't connect to orig goal."
I think a good story can result from a game of Fiasco, but I don't think that in order for that to happen, all players must meet with disaster. I think it's enough that the game sets the characters up to be in conflict with each other from the outset, so it's not possible for every character to succeed all the time. I might go a step farther and suggest that instead of requiring just 1 "Need" for the group (which is what the game rules suggest), that each character be assigned a "Need" of their own, so each character has their own ambition, and because of how it's set up, that ambition will bring the characters into conflict with each other.

So that's my beef with Fiasco. I have another, smaller issue with the game, but it's not really something that I would say is wrong with the game so much as I simply don't like a particular dynamic that comes along with the way that game does a shared narrative. The same thing is true of Improv Comedy to an extent. When I have an idea for a story, it's not a simple action by a character... for a choice or action to even make sense a lot of times it depends on other things happening in the future. If a storyline gets re-routed before the initial idea plays out, then it fails to even make sense anymore, and makes for a disjointed, unfulfilling story for me. Instead, the way to go is NOT to plan ahead at all, just be reactive and live in the moment, so that it doesn't matter what direction the story takes, it won't dismantle what you were going for. That's fine, it's just not the way I want to tell a story - I'd personally prefer a bit more control over at least my character and what I want to do with him.

On that note, the other day I was thinking about how a game like Fiasco could allow for more player control over their own character's story, and I came up with an idea that may have merit. I'm not familiar with many of these storytelling games, so it's possible something like this already exists - I wouldn't know. I'll preface by saying that I very much enjoy movies like Pulp Fiction, with multiple separate, distinct story arcs which occasionally cross paths, and are not necessarily told in order. In my storytelling game, of course, there would be an overall setting, and probably some overall attributes like there are in Fiasco (important locations for example). Each player would be in control of a Story Arc, which would have a main character, possibly a supporting character, and probably some sort of goal or ambition. Also like Fiasco, the players would have inter-relationships between themselves and other players at the table.

The storytelling in the game would take place in 2 Acts. In the first Act, scenes would alternate between Monologue scenes, and Interactive scenes:
  1. Player 1 would start with a short Monologue scene, basically telling part of their Story Arc - what happens to the characters that they're in charge of - up to a point at which their Arc crosses paths with another player's Arc. 
  2. At that point, those players play out an Interactive scene together, shaping their stories based on what happens between them.
  3. After the Interactive scene is resolved, that second player gets a chance to do a Monologue scene following their own Arc, probably a chronological continuation informed by the previous Interactive scene.
  4. The second player's story will then cross paths with a 3rd player's Arc, initiating another Interactive scene, this time between players 2 and 3.
  5. ... And so on until the last player's Monologue scene collides with player 1's Arc, ending the round with an interactive scene between PX and P1.
In Act II, the players return to the beginning of the overall story chronology, and players 2 and 3 (who's Story Arcs have not yet crossed) will do an Interactive Scene, filling in a gap in the story leading up to the first Interactive scene of the game. It'd be like "while player 1's Monologue scene was going on, Players 2 and 3 were doing this." And the end of that scene leads up to the Interactive scene between Players 1 and 2 (the first one of the game). Then we get to see what was going on in Player 3's Arc while P1 and P2 were having their Interactive scene... etc.

That probably sounds a bit confusing, I have a graphic that makes a bit more sense (click for bigger image):

Anyway, I haven't tried this and I don't know if I ever will get a chance to, but I think the Monologue scenes would offer the control I'd prefer to see. I also think the constrained end conditions of Act 2 scenes (they have to set up scenes from Act 1) could be really interesting. And with a setup like Fiasco's where the characters all have ambitions that will force conflict, then there will be an appropriate amount of failure going around.

Gamesmiths - 6/18/12

Last night's Gamesmiths meeting was poorly attended. While there was a new face there, none of the regulars were in attendance, only myself, Ben Butterfield (who's Rail net we played last month), and Aaron (referred by Ethan Myerson).

I had a few different games I wanted to test for various reasons, and I wasn't sure which to go with. I brought Alter Ego, which needs some work, but I could not find the player boards. I also brought a submission called Panic which TMG is considering, and a game TMG is committed to for next year which really needs to get back into the development rotation.

While it was just the 3 of us, I suggested we start with something short and see if anyone else would arrive. So I brought out Panic.


Panic is a quick, light game by James Ernest, Greg Parsons, and Mick Sullivan. There's a blog post about its inception (linked above), which is a pretty interesting read. It's about stock trading and set collection, sort of - or as James put it: the last 5 minutes of Trading Places. There are cards in different suits (where suits are commodities), and players begin with a hand of 9. There are also 9 cards (3 sets of 3) face down in "the market" - the center of the table. Players will bid for the right to peek at the face down cards, pass cards from their hand to their opponents, and eventually dump cards from their hand to the market, and by the end of the round, players will end up with a hand of 5 cards. The value of each commodity will depend on what's in the market - the commodities of which there are the most in the market are in plentiful supply, and therefore aren't worth much. The commodities of which there is not much supply are in high demand, and are therefore worth more.

The structure of the game is quick and easy. You bid to gain information about the makeup of the market (the winner gets to peek at a face down stack of cards), and you pay for your bid by locking cards into your final hand (face up so opponents can see). Each round after bidding players pass some cards to their neighbor in an attempt to improve their hand. After the 3rd round, each player discards 4 of their 9 cards into the market, finalizing their scoring hand. The market is sorted by commodity and the value of each commodity is determined (ranging from -2 to 2 for example). The idea is to keep cards that are worth positive points and not cards that are worth negative points.

I have played this game a couple of times now, and the response as been pretty universal - it's interesting and kinda fun, but it seems like too much of the market comes out at the final discard. So much that it overshadows any information you may have received from bidding. And being able to discard your unwanted cards completely insulates you from being passed cards you do not want to deal with. However, these are things which could only be an issue with certain groups, and they may be easily addressed without really changing the game much.

Last night's game has solidified a few questions and comments I'd like to discuss with the designer before deciding whether this is a game we should pursue further.

Captains of Industry

Captains of Industry is the new name for the game I'm developing for TMG that was originally called Titans of Industry. We had to change it when another Titans of Industry popped up on Kickstarter. It's been a while since I have played the game, and I have not yet used the newest small changes.

The 3 player game went smoothly, taking a total of about 2.5 hours including rules explanation. One player was slower than average, and I hope that the average game time turns out to be less than that session would indicate.

Comments after the game centered around some details of the technologies, such as maybe a tech which increases your demand (exportation) should occur earlier in the game so that it pays off more, or perhaps tech should cost more if someone has already purchased it. Other comments included:
* Rules questions such as Do you score your Titan card (Captain card?) if you are tied for "most" on something? and a component question about the new 1st Facilities (is that a production cost or an OVERTIME production cost printed there? Answer: Overtime. Designer changed icons on me!)
* Are the Titan cards well balanced? Especially the ones that reward Real Estate - which (a) you have other incentive to buy, and (b) accelerates the game, making other cards harder to score.
* Why is there no tech which gives a bonus for selling the higher level goods? (maybe Age 2, +1 Market Share, or at least + $$ per Machine/Oil/Corn sold)
The thing that concerned me the most was a comment that perhaps the ages end too abruptly. I like the Age timer mechanism a lot, but it might be true that once the 2nd Real Estate is bought, players are further encouraged to buy the third, and that ramps up the speed of the Age considerably. It might not actually be an issue, but it's one of the main things I'll be watching out for in future playtests.

We discussed some of the other potential new titles for this game, and a couple came up that we had not yet considered:
Masters of Capital
Captains of Capital

Overall a useful Gamesmiths, even if poorly attended. Hopefully next month's session will be better.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Game Auction on BGG

I have posted a Game Auction on BGG, selling off pretty much every game I own (save a few that I actually expect to play soon or often).

Some of my favorite games are on that list, but I figure if it hasn't hit the table in over a year, it's hard to argue that I need to keep it!

So take a look, and if there's something you like, feel free to bid!

Somebody asked me about donations. I hate the thought of asking for handouts, which is why I thought it was better to sell off these games, but if you are so inclined I suppose I wouldn't turn it down. Maybe the best way to handle that is with the donation link at the Board Game Designer's Forum. I pay for that every month, so any donations there will help me directly and would be much appreciated!

Thanks everyone for your support. I feel kinda like a jerk complaining about my robbery when other people have real problems (like when their house got destroyed by a natural disaster, or their child died). But I appreciate the help all the same!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Robbery Relief Game Auction

I posted an auction list at BGG - feel free to check it out, and if something interests you then place a bid.


Fundraising Game Auction

I apologize in advance for this off topic and sort of whiny post.

If you follow my FB or Twitter stuff then you already know that yesterday my house was broken into and I was robbed of a great deal of cash as well as my iPad and a few other little things. I am no stranger to theft and loss - over the years I have had wallets stolen (out of my jacket, out of my car, out of my backpack) as well as bicycles (3 in a 6 month period)... but the value of this particular loss was about an order of magnitude larger than all the rest combined, and because much of it was cash, it won't be covered by insurance.

It's been a bummer to say the least, and to make matters worse, it happened while I was out negotiating a deal on a car...

In an effort to recoup some of that money (which was to be my down payment), I have decided to host a game auction on BGG. I have an awful lot of games, many of which I never play. With the exception of a few favorites, I think I'll put them all up and see if I can get any interest in any of them. I could really use the money!

So if you are interested in buying a game and helping me out, stay tuned - I'll probably put up that geeklist in the next couple of days.

And to be at least a little bit on-topic...

I have played an awful lot of Lords of Waterdeep lately. With two caveats, I find it's a very solid game and I like t very much.
Caveat #1: Remove Mandatory Quests - The Mandatory Quests are a bummer pretty much all the time - often you don't want to draw it, because it does not net you anything, and it sucks to have a Mandatory Quest played on you, because (especially if it's in the last round or two) it can keep you from scoring a large VP Quest that you've spent multiple turns building up to. Nobody I know likes those cards, so I simply leave them in the box when I play.
Caveat #2: Remove the Lord which rewards buildings - In some games I think it's fair and balanced, but with a Quest, a Building, and several Intrigue cards which allow a player to build even if the building space is occupied, in some games I think that Buildings are too available, making that Lord too easy to dominate with. So I simply leave it in the box to ensure a more fair game.

I just got Castles of Burgundy and I've played it a number of times already. I enjoy it more as I play more and discover strategies and tactical tricks. However, I do think it takes too long, and much like Martin Wallace's London, I'm surprised at the degree to which you cannot plan your turn ahead of time in this day and age.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

KublaPros and KublaCons

Last weekend I attended KublaCon, as I've done every Memorial day since 2005. Most years I log about 30-40 games played, and I've developed a long list of people who I see only once or twice a year. It's been a few years since I've been eligible to enter the Kublacon Game Design Contest (or as I call it, the "KublaContest") - but I still choose KublaCon for my Memorial Day convention over the closer, cheaper to get to, Gamex convention in Los Angeles. This year KublaCon was a little different for me - here's a brief account of some of the pros and cons of my trip this year:

Right off the bat I had a nice opportunity - I had bought a direct light to SFO, and they said they needed someone to bump. I generally don't like to do that at the beginning of my vacations because I want to get where I'm going. This time however thy were able to route me through LAX with a short layover (which gave me time to eat), and for $311 in flight vouchers I arrived just an hour or so later than originally planned!

I got to visit with a number of friends who I never get to see - this year that included Andrew, Paul, Rick, Helen, Marlin, Fred, Miguel, Peter Hansell (TableStar games), Leah and Matt, Ceej, Chris and Susan McKinley Ross.

This year I got to spend a lot more time than usual talking to James Ernest, which was fun (he's a funny guy!), and I met the special guest from the convention, Martin Wallace. I've never met Martin before, and for some reason I expected him to be standoffish or something. I don't know why I thought that, but I'm happy to report that Mr. Wallace was a really nice and friendly guy! I also met the Game Whisperer himself, Richard Bliss, and spoke briefly with Doug Garret and Scott Alden as well. I even met Evan Denbaum, who would have been a part time employee of Tasty Minstrel Games, if not for receiving a position at Electronic Arts. Finally, I met Dennis, a $250 supporter of Eminent Domain (he named a planet after his daughter: Echo Rose).

Oh, and I got a chance to see a game by Candy Weber which sounds like it will be published soon! Congrats Candy!

I don't mean to complain, but this year was not the best for me. Mostly it's my own fault - I feel like I was underprepared for the con this year. First off, the night before every convention nowadays I seem to have trouble sleeping. I don't know if it's anxiety, or anticipation, or what. This time I was up all night creating a final art prototype of Ground Floor to take with me, and I only got 2 hours of sleep (if that). With how little sleep I tend to get at conventions, it would be nice if I could at least get a good night's sleep before the convention!

I normally head out to KublaCon on Thursday night, so that I can enjoy the con all day Friday. By contrast, the Strategicon conventions in L.A. tend to not really get started until late Friday afternoon. I suspect that's what I had in mind when I was shopping for plane tickets, and I ended up with a flight arriving at about 4pm on Friday. When I arrived at the hotel (about 5:30pm - see above) it occurred to me that I was actually a day later than normal, and I'd missed out on most of Friday!

For the second time in a row now I appear to have forgotten to pre-register for the convention!

While this convention was a good one for me socially, it turned out not to be a very good one game-ially. I only played about 8 games, 2 of which were Yahtzee Free-For-All, and none of which were on my list of games I really wanted to play while I was there. Here's what I played at KublaCon:
Battle Line with Miguel
Alter Ego playtest with Miguel
Castles of Burgundy with Evan Denbaum
Eat Poop you cat with Miguel and company
Yahtzee Free-For-All with Chris and Susan McKinley Ross
Yahtzee Free-For-All with Andrew, Elmer, and Andrews other friend
Glory to Rome with Andrew, Elmer, and Andrews other friend
Unpublished Martin Wallace game

In addition I did demo Ground Floor several times, and Eminent Domain: Escalation once. But while it's important, demoing games is not the same as playing games!

I would have preferred to be better prepared going into the convention - if I'm going to demo games, it's better to get them on the schedule, have specific times for the demos. Also maybe I'll try harder to arrange specific games if I want to play them - I didn't really play anything on my list this time. It never seemed to be a problem before, but I think there are more demands on my time nowadays, so I would do better to plan ahead a little more.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Monthly recap - May 2012

I think I'll try a new thing... I have this dry erase calendar at work, and when I erase it and reset it for the next month I'll try posting a recap of the previous month of my life. Let's see if this idea lasts...

May 2012

I don't have much written on the calendar on the first 1/2 of the month, but I think that's because I was lax in updating it more than because I didn't do anything. It does appear that the month was somewhat uneventful though.

5/11 I drove up to Phoenix to meet with Patrick Nickell of Crash Games (as well as Fred McKenzie of Clever Mojo, Tory Neimann, and Nathan Kohatsu). We played some games and that was fun. The next day I stopped by and had lunch with my old friends Chris and Becky, who I hadn't seen since way before their second daughter was born (she's like 2 or 3 years old now).

5/19 the Ides of Gaming event that I run at Espresso Art on campus was bigger and better than it has been in recent history - more people and more fun all around.

5/25 - 5/28 I went to Burlingame, CA for KublaCon. KublaCon is a lot of fun, and I normally get to play a lot of games. This time however I was under-prepared as far as gaming is concerned, so I barely played anything at all. I did however get to meet Martin Wallace, attend several interesting seminars by Wallace, James Ernest, and Richard Bliss, listen to (and participate in) a live recording of a podcast (part 1 part 2), and visit with some friends.

I demo'ed Ground Floor (14 hours left on the Kickstarter! Will it break $100k?) three times, and got to play one of my prototypes once, and one of Martin Wallace's as well. I played only a couple of commercial games (Castles of Burgundy, Glory to Rome, Yahtzee Free-For-All, and Battle Line) and I played 1 game of Eat Poop You Cat (AKA Paper Telephone or Telestrations). Not a whole lot of gaming for a con at which I used to log 40 plays of various things!

I did take the airline up on its offer to pay me $311 in flight vouchers in exchange for bumping to a different flight. So I flew through LAX (instead of direct), had time to eat at McDonald's, and arrived about an hour or so later than originally scheduled. Seems like a good deal to me!

That's about it for May! See you next month...

Saturday, June 02, 2012

How to get into game design

I was offered the opportunity to write something up for Why I Design Games - Collected essays from established game designers on the theory, art, and compulsion of board game design. 

 I was excited about the opportunity, but when considering why I design games, I found my thoughts coalescing more toward the question "how does one get into the game design hobby?" So I answered that question instead. Have a look, and leave a comment (here or there) - I'm interested in what you think!