Thursday, August 31, 2017

GenCon report

Last week I returned from GenCon 50, my annual pilgrimage to Indianapolis, which started about 7 years ago when TMG was a fledgling publisher.

I fondly remember our improbable endcap booth... here's an excerpt from my blog post after he fact:

Michael, Erin and I went to Gen Con a few weeks ago. I have never been, I've always thought of it as more of a commercial event. I don't like he idea of going to (and paying for) a gaming convention and then having to pay extra to play in events, or simply to get into the Open Gaming room! However, this year I didn't attend the con in the capacity I normally attend game cons - We attended as Tasty Minstrel Games. We had a booth, and brought 6 different games to sell, including Eminent DomainBelfortMartian DiceTrain of ThoughtJab: Realtime Boxing, and Homesteaders 2nd Edition. Our booth was rather busy all 4 days of the con, and we did many, many demos. Looking up and down our booth at all 6 of our offerings I noted that, while no game is for everybody... within their target demographic, each of our games is really very good. They are the highest quality game, and the art and production (now that we've moved to Panda) are also the highest quality. I felt proud to stand behind each and every one of them! Even Martian Dice, which is the type of game that generally doesn't interest me at all, is really very good for what it is - I heard people saying it was better than Zombie Dice (a similar quick filler).

One of the best feelings was when someone who had bought EmDo or Belfort the day before would stop by and tell us how much fun it was or how much they liked it when they played it that evening! Another high point for me was when 2 different people stopped by our booth with a copy of Terra Prime asking me to sign it, and telling me how much they like the game! We also had a number of EmDo Kickstarter supporters stop by tell us they were anxious to get their copy of the game.

That was 2011. Fast forward to 2017, the 50th anniversary of the convention, and the first time in history that they sold out badges. First, the 4-day badges sold out. Then, in the weeks leading up to the convention, even the 1-day badges started selling out. For a long time now GenCon attendees have had trouble getting hotel rooms in the byzantine lottery system they use, but now it seems tickets to the show themselves will start to be a hot commodity as well.

To be honest though, I didn't feel like the dealer room was any more crowded than usual. I didn't spend much time outside the dealer room, but the halls and the little food court area nearby didn't feel more crowded to me either. I've long since sworn off trying to go to a group outing at a restaurant at mealtime, but the Noodles place, and the food court at the nearby mall, both had short lines when I went (which was often at normal mealtime). Only Steak & Shake seemed to be slow, but I think that's not unusual for them anyway -- as Michael said, GenCon seems to take them by surprise every year!

This year TMG has utilized the services of Envoy, who provides demo staff to help in the booth. That's been pretty great, though it's possible we underestimated the number of staff needed for GenCon. I spent a little time in the booth, giving demos of Okey Dokey and Joraku, two new small box imports from Michael's trips to Tokyo Game Market.

Most years at GenCon, Andy and I end up with meetings with designers, back-to-back-to-back every 30 minutes. This time our schedule was a little more relaxed. I'm not sure if that's because we did a better job of pre-screening, if we scheduled in 1 hour blocks instead of 30 minutes, or if fewer designers tried to schedule appointments with us. I got smart and as soon as Andy had set up our page, I scheduled up the 12:00 hour each day for lunch :)

Even still, we did end up with a fair number of meetings with designers, and listened to a fair number of pitches. Some were not for us, some were submissions we'd already seen and had made suggestions for changes. Some were even from the two Designer Speed Dating events (one Thursday night and one Saturday night). I've been pretty down on Publisher Speed Dating lately. I like the idea of the event, but the signal to noise ratio has been so low for me that I was starting to feel like it was a waste of time. However, Andy and I have economized the effort by splitting up and each sitting through 1/2 of the pitches, then if we see anything we think the other should check out, we revisit that pitch. It seemed to me that the average level of designs in these particular speed dating events were higher than usual, and indeed, we asked several of the designers if they'd like to meet with us and show us more about their game. One we even took home with us!

In fact, we brought home a number of prototypes to evaluate -- 6 or 7 I think. That's a huge number, usually it's 1 or 2. Of the four I took home with me, one was from speed dating, one was from a designer we knew, and two were games we'd seen before and had asked for change before resubmitting. Another submission we played in our hotel Sunday night, and a few others Andy took back to Utah with him.

I got a chance to play 3 of those last weekend, and one was very well received by the players. It may be one of the rare "accept and publish as-is" types of submissions!

This year, Andy and I were able to take some of our meetings in our booth, which was very nice. I hope we can find a way to make that a standard. A few years ago we actually had a demo room, which was great -- I'd love to gt back to that!

So that was basically GenCon. I got to see some industry friends -- my brother-in-law volunteered with my friend Sara over at Renegade, and my friends over at Iello traded me a copy of Bunny Kingdom (which Michelle and I are enjoying so far, but I think we'll both like it better with more than 2 players). I got one of my prototypes played (but only 1), and I played a couple of other prototypes after hours by the blue noodle (unofficial unpub area). I played a couple of published games (Photosynthesis and Jump Drive) there with some of my game designer friends as well.

And then, just like that... 5 days, 20 hours of sleep, 3 trips each to the Noodle place and Steak & Shake, and 1 dead car battery later, I was back home. Sadly, I won't be attending Essen this year, but I will return in the future. Which means my convention trips for the rest of the year will be RinCon at the end of September (Friday only, then I'm off to a wedding in California), Sasquatch at the beginning of November, and BGGcon around Thanksgiving time. See you there!

Friday, August 25, 2017

Two upcoming TMG titles: Harvest and Pioneer Days

Two of the games I did a lot of development work on are finally coming out!


At Essen in October, TMG will be debuting Harvest, by Trey Chambers:

Harvest is a compact worker placement game set in the lighthearted fantasy world of Harbour. Take on the role of one of the denizens of Gullsbottom, and put together the best harvest of the season!

A game of Harvest lasts just 5 rounds. In each round you will:
  1. Reveal new cards with new worker spaces for the round.
  2. Draft an initiative card, which will give you your turn order for the round, as well as some bonus resources or action. The earlier turn order you get, the less of a bonus will come with it.
  3. Place 2 farmers on actions, resolving each immediately.
In addition to the initiative bonus and two actions for the turn, your character card will confer an additional power or option to take advantage of. So even with only 2 worker pawns and 5 rounds of play, you can get quite a bit done!

Over the course of the game you will obtain and plant seeds, tend your fields, and harvest crops to make room for more planting. You will also build helpful structures for more abilities or bonus scoring.

I really enjoy Harvest, and I could see it being a big hit due to the fun and interesting decisions packed into the simplicity and compactness of the game.


Also coming this year from TMG is Pioneer Days, by Matthew Dunstan and Chris Marling. I've been working on Pioneer Days for quite some time, and I'm glad to finally see it getting printed!

In Pioneer Days, you take on the role of a pioneer heading out west along the Oregon trail, collecting cattle and townsfolk, panning for gold, and dealing with different disasters that befall you on your journey. I was intrigued by this game from the start due to its clever dice drafting mechanism, as well as the way it really evokes the old Oregon Trail computer game.

Each round in Pioneer Days you'll roll some dice -- 1 more than the number of players in the game. On your turn, you'll choose one die and do one of three things with it: take income, take a townsfolk, or take an action. After each player has chosen a die, the remaining one indicates a disaster based on its color. That disaster track is advanced, and when it reaches the end, the disaster strikes, and each player must contend with the disaster as best they can!

I've put a lot of work into these games myself, and I know the designers have as well. If games from TMG, or these designers, or with me as a developer excite you, then keep your eyes peeled for Harvest and Pioneer Days -- coming soon to a FLGS near you!

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Alter Ego insight

On the up-side, I have found someone willing to print and play a couple of my games. He's an amateur designer himself, and so far he's played a handful of Automatown, and also 2 games of Alter Ego (one 2p with his wife, and another 4p with his co-workers).

I had said I was worried the game may be too easy, but so far he hasn't seen that to be the case, he's lost both times. So maybe I'm overthinking that aspect. Maybe it's easy for me due to familiarity or something.

One thing that happened in his 4p game, and I've seen this happen before as well, is that they felt like they were doing fine... only 1 yellow hostage had been taken (leaving 4 remaining), when in 1 round, 5 more yellow hostages were taken, and they lost.

I don't know how common that would be, or how easily it could be avoided (perhaps they didn't have any choice in the matter, or perhaps those of them that did felt safe choosing a henchman who takes a yellow hostage, since the only way they could lose is if they ALL chose that AND one was an Alarmist, who takes 2 hostages). What I do know is that it's not fun to feel like you're in control or safe, then instantly be told "sorry, you lose" -- even if you COULD have avoided it.

So that's a problem that needs fixing, for sure. But how? Perhaps that happening needs to count as 1 strike against you, and it takes 2-3 strikes to actually lose the game?

Maybe what I need is a 4th type of Civilian token (black or whatever), of which there are only 2. When you must take a blue/red/yellow hostage and there are none left, take a black one instead. When black hostages are rescued, remove them from the game rather than returning them to the supply. THEN if you cannot take a hostage, the game is over.

Think that would help the situation? If that makes things too easy, I could ratchet up the difficulty elsewhere.

Just wanted to get this idea down so I don't forget! Now, off to GenCon...

Monday, August 14, 2017

Automatown rules post

A game of assembling automa armies
by Seth Jaffee
2-4 players, 45-60 minutes, ages 14+
V3.0 8-3-17


1 Start player marker
4 Reference cards – 1 per player
21 Worker spot cards (poker size)
30 Blueprint cards (1/2 poker size)
1 Basic action card
36 Worker pawns
140 resource cubes:
   20 white
   10 each in pink, natural, light blue, and gray
   10 each in red, yellow, blue, and black
   10 each in clear red, clear yellow, clear blue, and clear black


  1. Shuffle the blueprint cards to create a deck. Place the deck near the turn order card, then deal out 3 blueprint cards face up in a line to the right of the deck. This is the supply of blueprints available.
  2. From the blueprint deck, deal 1 blueprint card to each player. You may look at your blueprints whenever you like, but don’t show your opponents.
  3. Shuffle the worker spot cards to create a deck. Place this deck below the blueprint deck, then deal N+1 worker spot cards face up in a line to the right of the deck, where N is the number of players in the game. These are the available worker actions.
  4. Place the basic action card to the left of the worker deck. This card is available every round.
  5. Randomly determine a start player and give that player the start player marker. This marker will pass clockwise at the end of each round.
  6. Sort the resource cubes by type and place them within reach of all players.
  7. Give each player a reference card and 3 worker pawns. Place the rest of the pawns in a supply pile within reach of all players. Return unused reference cards to the box.

You are ready to begin!

Gameplay Overview

You are a criminal mastermind, determined to take over the city, and then the world! To achieve this goal you will build an army of automata to do your bidding. As you complete robots, you will put them to work building more of your army. The first player to amass a force strong enough to take over the city will be victorious!

Turn Order

The game is played in a series of rounds. In each round, players take turns collecting, upgrading, and exchanging resources until they have used all of their workers and have passed. After all players have passed, the round ends, and you’ll have a chance to spend your resources building new automata.

A Game Turn

Placement Phase: Send automata to collect, upgrade, swap, and trade resources

On your turn, you will place 1 or more automata onto a worker spot card, your reference card, or the basic action card and resolve its effect immediately.

  • Worker spot cards have 3 tiers, and when sending your automata to a card, you must use the lowest unoccupied tier. [NEW: No you don't!] The first tier requires 1 worker pawn, the 2nd tier requires 2 worker pawns, and the 3rd tier requires 3 worker pawns. When sending workers here, resolve the effect of the tier immediately. Each tier on a worker card has a similar effect, but gets stronger at the higher tiers.
  • Reference cards also have 3 tiers. The first tier requires 1 worker pawn, the 2nd tier requires 2 worker pawns, and the 3rd tier requires 3 worker pawns. When sending workers here, take one of the available blueprint cards into your hand and replace it from the deck so that there are always 3 blueprints available.
  • The basic action card does not have tiers, and is not limited – any number of worker pawns may be placed here. Unlike other worker cards, you only ever place 1 worker pawn at a time on the basic action card. When placing here, immediately take one of the available rewards of your choice: 1 white cube, 1 swap, or 1 upgrade.

When placing automata, you may also use the abilities of your built blueprint cards, at most 1 card per automata placed. Turn the card sideways to indicate it’s been used.

When you are out of workers to place, you must pass. When all players have passed, the round is over.

Build Phase: Spend resources to build automata

All players may play the build phase simultaneously. Each blueprint card has a resource cost on it. You may discard those resources and place the blueprint face up in front of you. This represents an automata you have built. It counts as strength toward your score, gives you an ability to use and allows you to use more worker pawns in future rounds.

Note that the cost always includes 1 cube in each of 4 types of low/medium/high quality:
Pink/Red/Clear Red: Head

Natural/Yellow/Clear Yellow: Arms

Light Blue/Blue/Clear Blue: Torso
Gray/Black/Clear Black: Feet
White = scrap

For example, a red cube represents a medium quality head component.

Each card can instead be built using 4 white cubes. In this case, place the blueprint card face down in front of you. This represents a basic automata which provides 1 worker, 1 strength, and no abilities.

Note that for any given color, you may “overpay” by using a better quality resource of that color. For example, a “pink” cost indicates a low quality head piece. This cost may be paid with a pink resource, or a red resource (medium quality), or a clear red resource (high quality).

On the same note, a black resource may be used to pay a cost requiring black, gray, or white, but not clear black, and not yellow.

This also means that the “4 white” cost on the back side of the blueprint cards can be paid with ANY 4 cubes.

You may build as many automa from your hand as you can afford during the build phase.

[NEW: Try allowing builds whenever you want, so doing it during a round would get you a new worker pawn immediately!]

Reset Phase: Reset the game for the next round
Do the following to prepare for the next round:
  1. Remove all worker pawns from the worker cards and return them to the supply.
  2. Discard the rightmost worker card, slide the rest to the right 1 space, and deal a new card from the deck in the last space. In a 4 player game, instead discard the last 2 cards and replace them.
  3. Count the number of workers on your blueprint cards in play and take that number of worker pawns from the supply -- plus 3.
  4. Count the strength of each player’s army. If anyone has reached 15 or more strength, then the next round will be the last.

Game End and Scoring

At the end of each round, count the strength of each player’s army. When a player has 15 or more strength, the game will end at the end of the following round. At that time, count your strength again.

The player with the highest total strength wins! In the case of a tie, the victory is shared.

[NEW: Maybe end immediately, if you can build whenever?]

Guy from Raytheon (v1.0)
Tony Ewing (v1.0, V2.0)
John Haremza (v1.1)
Michael Brown (v1.1, 2.0, 3.0)
John Heder (v2.0)
Becky Pusch (v2.0)
Staci (v3.0)
Jordan (v3.0)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Automatown progress

I played two more 3p games of Automatown today with the latest card set.

This game is feeling pretty smooth so far, and it's lasting about 6 rounds (which feels OK). It's clear some of the cards aren't balanced correctly, but that's to be expected at this point... for example, there's 1 card that costs 16 (highest possible), counts as 3 workers, and is worth 0 strength (vp). I had thought all those workers would get you so much value it would make up for being worth 0 strength, but I may have overvalued that.

Here are a few changes I'll be exploring based on today's games (I tried some of this already, and so far it' seems ok):

* Generic robots may get the ability "Swap x1" - so if you build a robot face down, instead of 1 strength and no ability, it'll have 1 strength and the ability to swap cubes (different color, same level). I don't THINK this will make them too good, and if it does, I can just power up the other robots a little to compensate.

* Allow skipping tiers - currently you have to take the lowest available tier, even if you'd prefer a higher one. I tried removing this restriction, and so far it seems OK. After all, the way the cards are set up, it's a little less efficient (total-value-wise) to do that, so why not let people?

* Build whenever you want - Instead of building at the end of the round, what if you could just build a robot whenever you wanted, and get the worker pawn from it right away? That could be fun and interesting, and would remove a little bookkeeping at the end of the round.

I will implement those changes in the next games I play (like at GenCon next week!) and see how it goes. I already tried the Swap on generic robots and skipping tiers, and they seemed to work alright.

I still need to post a better description and rules to this game, which I'll get around to eventually.

Alter Ego: first test in 2 years

So... Today I got in a (2p) game of Alter Ego with one of my testers. David had played an earlier version, but it's been several years... I haven't even touched the game since updated the rules in August of 2015 (see previous post. I'd link it, but I'm on my phone, and that's too annoying to do right now)!

David remembered that he didn't like the game last time he'd played, and that he generally doesn't care for cooperative games at all, but he did enjoy it this time, and he said it did feel like we were cooperating - especially with the teamwork tokens. So that's good.

The game took about 60-75 minutes, including rules. We brought the Anarchist into play, and it was the version where we needed triple wits over and over to beat him, which is the one with the fewest tokens (5 tokens for 2 players). We really didn't have much trouble building up, getting rid of all the henchmen and staying on top of that situation. We got the Anarchist in play without fear of bringing anyone else in too, and we won pretty handily.

The game worked, but I fear it may be too easy. That's one of the issues I've had - either it's trivially easy, or you just lose all of a sudden. I wonder if there's any loss that doesn't feel sorta lame. I guess Pandemic is like that to an extent.

The overall structure of the game is solid, and works well. There are some details that need to be addressed though:

* Strength curve. Ideally, I'd like the Arch Villain to come into play JUST when the players are ABOUT to get on top of the henchmen situation... earlier if they play poorly, and never later (because later means it's trivial to win).

* Teamwork. I think it works well now, but could use more testing. A Teamwork token allows a player to join your "team" for the turn, and players on a team may spend their fight icons together as one unit to take out henchmen or hit the Arch Villain. Currently, the Teamwork token also gives you a fight icon of your choice. I'm not sure why I decided on that, it seems a bit extraneous. Maybe at one point it seemed hard to get the right mix of icons to beat bad guys or something. I'd like it if that didn't need to be the case. Maybe removing that rule would address the "game is to easy" issue.

* Penalties. Currently, if you don't play a job/family/community card, then you get a penalty token for that phase, and if you get enough penalty tokens, then you are penalized -- you're required to take a card of that type from the stacks instead of a hero card. This is supposed to be bad in the short term because you can't fight as well next turn, and in the long term because it waters down your deck a little bit. But frankly, I'm not sure this penalty is doing the job. David suggested that as you pile up penalty markers, you should LOSE icons, which would be a more consistent, more palpable penalty. Then maybe taking that card from the stack (or playing it from hand) could remove penalty markers, restoring your abilities.

For example: For every 2 Penalty markers, you get -1 income/AE card/henchman icon, which means you get less money (to buy and use equipment), fewer cards to choose from for next turn, and fewer henchmen to choose from - minimum 1, you must always bring a henchman into play, and it's pretty bad to be "off the top" (without any choice)... so if you pile up 4 penalty tokens on the Community phase, then you're at -2 icons, meaning if you want to even draw 2 and choose 1 henchmen, you'd need 4 icons.

I like the sound of that, and I might say that anytime you DO play job/family/community cards, you remove a penalty counter (or 1 per card, maybe, so you can take a turn off of fighting to really clear out some penalties?) or maybe not... maybe the penalties stick around for the most part, and you temporarily remove their effect by playing cards?

I could see it working both ways, need to try it to decide... either you only collect penalties, or else you either remove or add 1 penalty marker each turn (depending on whether you played a card of that type or didn't).

* Family phase/card draw timing. Currently the phases are 1. Income, 2. Support (where you draw cards for next turn), 3. Patrol, 4. Fight, 5. Recoup (where you play cards drawn in phase 2 for next turn). It has been suggested that the Support phase move to just before recoup, so that you never have cards in hand, you just draw some, play some, and discard the rest.

I've been happy with the phases as-is, because you can get Teamwork tokens before fighting this way, and you can use Events (cards played from hand) this turn. But maybe I should make the Events into cards you put into your display (or I could say you put them in play, and they don't count against your display limit), and the teamwork tokens would just be delayed until next turn.

It also means you wouldn't know what you may be playing next turn until after you've made all your fighting decisions... is that good or bad?

* Equipment/Events. Are they too strong in general? Should the events be played from hand as current rules say)? Go into your display? Get played like display but not count against your limit? I might try mixing this up and seeing which feels cleanest.

I look forward to playing again. I don't think I'll change the prototype just yet, but I can try different penalty rules and I can nerf that Teamwork token thing and see how that goes.

Off to the store. Maybe someone will be there to play with me!

Friday, August 11, 2017

Alter Ego revisited, a lesson in keeping prototypes up to date

In the last week you may have seen a tweet or two from me about Alter Ego. Looking back, the last update was made almost exactly 2 years ago!

I've been thinking about this game a lot lately, wondering why it's been so long since I've gotten it to the table. The answer isn't really anything to do with the game, more to do with other projects taking precedence or pushing their way onto the front burner.

I'm about to head out to the local shop to do some playtesting (just 2p today, I think), and after re-reading the latest version of the rules, I gathered up my Alter Ego prototype bits and took a look at them. Sure enough, after my not-so-recent posts, I had fully updated my prototype, and it's ready to go!

Imagine if I hadn't. Especially in this case, as my posts don't detail the changes I'd made to add simultaneous play. I'd have a heck of a time now trying to re-invent that particular wheel. But since my rules and player boards have been updated this whole time, the game is ready for me to test on a moment's notice!

I cannot recommend enough keeping your prototypes up to date. You never know when a project will get shelved and sit for a time, in this case over 2 years since the last playtest!

Monday, August 07, 2017

Casual Q&A post #3

A couple of times now I've posted inviting people to ask questions that I could answer, like an AMA, but not confined to a short timeframe, and not on Reddit. In the last installment, I got a few more questions from another reader, and I answered them in the comments, but I suspect that could be easily missed. So here's a post repeating them. Questions are compliments of "Patricio:"

How much of an impact do you think board game reviewers have on board game sales?

I think popular reviewers have a decently large impact on the gamerati - the influencers that are deeply entrenched in the industry. However, unless they're on the level of Wil Wheaton (spoilers: they're not), their impact on the larger market is a bit limited.

So for games targeted at the hobby market, the Vasels, Rahdos, Eddys, Vikings, etc have a decent impact on launch (or on a kickstarter project), which is important. But it's not the be-all-end-all of board game sales.

Do you think companies that already have the funds to make a game should use Kickstarter as a pre-sale tool?

I think those things are not mutually exclusive. Kickstarter is a tool that can be leveraged for cash flow and advertising, and it has pluses and minuses. The question is meaningless -- everyone can "have the funds to make a game" through money in their pocket, loans, investors, or whatever. Kickstarter is just another way to get that funding.

Cash flow is different than simply having funds or not, and kickstarter helps with cash flow tremendously.

I get a little irritated when people complain that someone is "using kickstarter wrong"... do those same people complain when someone uses a screwdriver to pry a nail out of the wall instead of using the back of a hammer?

Kickstarter is a tool, and there are costs and benefits to using it. If it makes sense for your company to use that tool, then yes, that company should use that tool. It would be foolish not to.

Do you have a board game designer you saw as an inspiration and influence when you began to design board games?

Yes and no...

I was always impressed with how prolific Knizia was, and I really liked the simplicity and elegance of some Leo Colvini designs. But mostly I lumped published designers into a group, and aspired to be like that group.

Thanks for the questions, Patricio!

I welcome more questions in the comments below, I'll answer them in a future post. The more questions I'm asked, the more frequently I'll do these posts!

Nuggets of game design advice from designer Matthew Dunstan (Relic Runners, Elysium, Pioneer Days, Professor Evil and The Citadel of Time)

A while ago on Twitter, people were posting in a format such as "for every like this tweet receives, I'll post a nugget of wisdom." As a result, a few threads of potentially useful information appeared, but as is the nature of Twitter, those threads were relatively easy to read in passing, but difficult to reference, copy,/paste, or be otherwise useful in the long term. As such, they're probably effectively lost to the annals of history, only to be stumbled upon via random google search every now and again.

One of my friends, renowned game designer Matthew Dunstan, did one of these threads, stating:

I left it open in a tab, but hadn't gotten around to reading it until now, and I realized that the a tweetstorm may not be the best format for reliable access to good advice, so I took a few minutes to copy, paste, and clean up the list. I'm presenting it here (with permission, of course). And I took the liberty of correcting some of Matthews British misspellings..:

Nuggets of game design advice from designer Matthew Dunstan

1. Where possible, start your design with pen and paper - it's much easier and quicker to get started, and forces you to simplify.

2. Ideas may be cheap, but that doesn't mean you have to be wasteful. Give your ideas enough time and effort to find their best form.

3. There are no excuses for not trying a new prototype as soon as possible - most games can be played solo perfectly well. Don't put it off!

4. Find information about new games deeply and often, especially games you don't think you'll like. The best inspiration can come that way.

5. It can be very easy to get caught up with a cool new mechanic or system and forget why the players should care or notice each other.

6. Try to have each decision point in your game have several different consequences - the game will be just as strategic but quicker.

7. When starting out in game design, be very careful of starting too many projects without actually finishing one, even if it feels easier.

8. If you have rounds or upkeep in your game, ask yourself whether you need them. Can you fold these parts into the regular player actions?

9. Having actions in a game which are the inverse of each other (and mixing this ratio) mean players can be in control of the game flow.

10. Game design isn't a solitary pursuit. Even at the start, cultivating communities that you can be a part of and contribute to is vital.

11. Follow @CardboardEdison - they do a great job hunting down game design content so you don't have to!

12. When you start on a new game, you really want to do it. Don't give up when it becomes something more like work, both stages are needed.

13. Game design is like any other skill: to improve you need to practice often. Even if the game doesn't work, you'll get better.

14. For me, the best way of pitching games is at conventions; it also allows you to get to know editors which can lead to opportunities.

15. Write down feedback from playtesters as soon as you get it. You will forget it otherwise, and it shows your testers respect.

16. Good games are easy to design, but the best games require struggle and doubt in their inception.

17. Never underestimate the joy that players get from the physicality of board games, and try and find ways to make the most of it.

18. If you have to design a game with abilities or special effects, first design 1/4 of what you need, make 4 copies of each, and test.

19. If you want to get published, recognize that there is a lot of work beyond a contract. Development, editing and promotion are important.

20. Entering design competitions are a great motivation to finish games, and provide useful feedback (sometimes) - use them!

21. Design progress = # iterations/ time.

22. Watch @britishgaming Game Makers Toolkit on YouTube. While based on video games, very thought provoking for tabletop design as well.

23. Find software that has Data Merge, and read @DanielSolis articles on how to use it. Big time saver for iterating on card games.

24. Have a prototype on you at all times. You never know when you'll have a playtest opportunity (eg. At the film festival this week).

25. Wherever possible, insist on an advance payment in contracts, even if it's small.

26. Constraints-based design is a great way to turn ideas into a first prototype. How can I turn theme X if I only had Y cards?

27. Avoid requiring players to make decisions that effect future turns, but giving them no way of knowing what is a good choice now.

28. Any change to a design that simultaneously solves multiple problems is probably the right change to make.

29. Keeping up with trends can be useful; both by knowing what has already been done and what publishers might be looking for.

30. Try co-designing a game at least once. At worst it's a learning experience. At best you'll make better games, and new friendships!

31. Try to find out what situation or activity best stimulates the game design part of your brain (mine is going for a walk).

32. Whenever you sit down to design, no matter how much time you have, set a goal. It makes the process much less daunting.

33. Be aware of absolute versus relative values. Having a range of 1-4 (points, resources) can be very different to a range of 2-5.

34. In open systems, giving players some direction early is important. Starting quests, special powers etc are only some ways of doing this.

35. The best special player powers are ones that make the player feel powerful, but not restricted to only one strategy.

36. Adjusting the level of randomness is a good way to make a cooperative game more resilient to alpha players.

37. Try to give every game an arc. Even if it's a short game, try and make the start, middle and beginning feel different to play.

38. Some of the best games keep players involved even when it's not their turn, e.g. Catan. Keep your players engaged as much as possible.

39. Collaborating is much like theater sports - designs progress more quickly if you always say yes to different ideas and viewpoints.

40. Once in a while, try designing a game in an unfamiliar genre. It's good exercise for your design brain.

41. Where possible, encourage the publishers of your games to include characters of diverse backgrounds and gender.

42. Don't put off updating your design - the longer you wait the more chance you will miss the opportunity to playtest the changes.

43. Be professional at all times, with publishers, developers, designers and players. You never know where an opportunity might come from.

44. Elegance in game design often comes from simple systems with interesting and deep interactions between players. Interaction is key.

45. Early in a design, don't be afraid to make large changes. Exploring more of the design space makes it possible to find the right fit.

46. If you are going to pitch to publishers, know their games, and know how your games could fit their line. Respect their time.

47. Don't spend too much time turning an idea over in your head. It will all change once you play it, and you won't know how beforehand.

48. Even if you're not led by theme in a new design, finding a good theme early ensures a close match between experience and setting.

49. Don't settle for a mechanic or part of your game that is 'good enough'. It will be found out sooner or later.

50. Down time is as important as active  time. Sometimes when you step away from a problem the answer comes when you least expect it.

51. Use the 2:3 rule - whenever  you design a game where you upgrade actions, the upgrade should double its cost and triple its effect.

52. Think about how your game can have memorable moments for a player, things they will remember many weeks and many games later.

53. For majority games, use prime numbers for the number of different majorities, it means that players will be forced to compete.

54. Having a mix of short and longer term goals keeps players having to weigh tactical vs strategic considerations.

55. Beyond making a game with multiple paths to victory, try to make the experience of these paths feel different, not just the label.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Life imitates life - the beginnings of a designer diary for Automatown

A few months ago (circa April 2017) I was responding to interview questions for Initiative Magazine. I was being featured in the June issue of their Game Mechanics section in an interview by Robert Nolan about refining games. It's not a free magazine, or I'd just link right to the article so you could read it.

I may have gotten a little carried away with some of my responses, in particular to the question about what it means to be "finished" with a game. At the time I had ants in my pants about people cavalierly saying "I designed a game," in the past tense, implying that they'd finished a process, when what they mean is that they've only started that process. I may be in a pedantic minority here, but I feel like conflating "I designed a game" with "I conceived of a game idea" really belittles and diminishes the hard work of game design. As a game designer (as well as a developer and a publisher), I stand firmly against anything that minimizes the work of design, and especially development.

Aside: Really, the crux of it is agreeing on where "design" (invention) stops and "development" begins. We don't really have sufficient (or sufficiently agreed upon) vocabulary for this, so as long as the word "design" is used to refer to both a finished game design, as well as just the initial, unfinished game idea, we're going to have a communication problem, one which I maintain is bad, as it leads to people putting unfinished, underdeveloped games up on Kickstarter and therefore out into the wild.

Here's an excerpt from my response to the question I mentioned above:

It's a lot of fun to brainstorm a game idea, come up with the story for a game, maybe suggest a loose framework for how might go, and leave it at that:
"It would be cool to have a game about building automatons to do your bidding! You should have assistants to help you, so maybe it's a worker placement game. Oh! And When you finish an automaton, you could put it to work for you as an additional assistant! Your assistants would gather materials to make automatons, study ways to make better automatons, and eventually your army of automatons would grow in strength until you can take over the world.”

That was right off the top of my head as sit here replying to these questions. It might have taken me 3 minutes. It's an OK idea for a game, it could work, but it’s obviously not finished as you can't sit down and play it! But it was fun to think about. I would not say at this point "I have designed a worker placement game about building automatons." Rather, have come up with an idea for a game. The next step would be figuring out rules of the game. What do you do on your turn? What do the worker placement spaces do? What does it cost to build an automaton? What constitutes a “better automaton"? What does it mean to "take over the world"?

Many designers get to this point in a design. I have several rule sets in my notebooks that seem fully fleshed out, and need to be tested before going any further. Since you’ve got a fully written rule set, it's tempting at this point to say “I’ve designed a game!” But as most designers have probably experienced, the first time you test a game, it doesn’t necessarily go as planned. Game design requires testing and iteration. So, even with a complete rule set written down for the automaton placement game described above, I still wouldn't say “I have designed a worker placement game about building automatons," because I'm not done yet.

Now that we have rules, the next big hurdle is to create a physical prototype and test the game. Sometimes this is as simple as creating a deck of cards; other times there's a lot more arts and crafts involved. For the aforementioned automaton placement game, I would need to gather some pieces to use as assistants, resources, maybe victory points as well, and create a board where worker placement spaces exist. This does not need to be very fancy, and if geography doesn't matter, it could just be a simple grid of spaces. Again, I'm assuming the goal is to create a game to pitch to publishers, not to self-publish. Either way, art and graphic design come later.

Once I have cobbled together a physical prototype, I STILL haven’t designed a game! I'm no further along than the last step until I've tried the game. Upon playing the game - either solo or with other people - we are sure to find details that don't work, aren’t ideal, or could use improvement. This is where the nitty-gritty work of design and development come in: iteration. We make improvements and we test. Make more improvements and test again. Each time, presumably, making the game better and closer to finished. 
As you see, buried in the response to that question, I came up with the seed of a game idea. A pretty neat game idea, one that stuck with me and might be fun to work on. Let's fast forward to July 2017...

Since I was attracted to the idea, this automaton game idea swam around in my head, and eventually made it into my design notebook, along with many other game ideas. In the middle of the night one night I had an epiphany about how a certain part of the game could work, so I went downstairs, got on my computer, and filled out some spreadsheets, and the next day I scrounged for bits and pieces to use, and cobbled together a prototype.

That Friday at RocketCon (a local game day my friend hosted on Raytheon campus), I got a chance to try the first draft of the game. As predicted in my quoted passage above, "it didn't go as planned." We made a couple of audibles during the game, and I immediately had ideas about what needed to change. But the players and I all felt like the game had potential.

1/2 a new prototype later, I played again the next day at a store, revealing more information about what I'd changed, and what still needed to be addressed. A twitter follower was nice enough to volunteer to print and play the game, and he returned feedback that very night, leading to decent design conversation over the next few days, and further updates to the prototype.

The following weekend (we're up to last Friday now), I took yet another version to a local game day and played two more 4 player games. I was homing on on how I wanted the different aspects of the game to work. Yesterday I finished another version of the prototype, and I'm ready to test again - though I think I ought to update the rules before I forget anything.

I think it's amusing how an off the cuff idea for a game that I spit out as an example for an interview question turned out to be something I was inspired to work on, and something that seems to work fairly well. I think it's even more amusing that the process of designing and developing this game has mirrored the narrative of my interview response almost exactly!

In my next post I'll describe the game as it stands. Maybe one day I'll finally be able to say "I have designed a worker placement game about building automatons to take over the world."

Quick post: The FULL List?

Every once in a while I do a blog post to check in on "The List" - a list of my published games, current active designs, designs on the back burner, and "old standbys," or game ideas that I'd like to get back to one day.

Mostly those posts are intended to highlight progress or changes of status in some of the designs. For example, yesterday I updated the status of:

* Isle of Trains: All Aboard (coming to KS early 2018, or so I'm told),
* Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done (on Kickstarter now),
* Eminent Domain: Oblivion (pre-production copy should be waiting at my house while I type this),
* Deities & Demigods (moved to active, because it's about done),
* Joan of Arc (a recent design added to active designs), and
* Automatown (a brand new design added to active designs), and a few other adjustments to better reflect the status of some of my projects.

And I updated the descriptions of some of the ones I had more detail on to reflect the current status as well. But that list isn't really complete.

In actual fact, I've got a lot more designs at various stages, from ideas in a notebook, to playable first draft prototypes, to games I've actually played several times, but that I'm not really focusing on right now. I sometimes wonder if that's the type of thing people would be interested in reading about, and whether I should expand The List to cover all of my projects more comprehensively.

I usually say that I write these blog posts for my own benefit, so maybe the better question is whether that would help ME out or not. But in truth, I do like it when people read my posts and comment, so if a lengthy diatribe about all of my various ideas sounds like a turn-off, then I'd like that to weigh into my decision.

Also, is it enough to just categorize the games into various categories (such as "Currently Active, Back Burner, Old Standby, etc)? Or is the descriptive status helpful/enjoyable to read?

Let me know what you think. The next time I look at The List, maybe it will have a lot more entries!