Monday, September 25, 2017

Casual Q&A post #4

About a month and a half ago I did another installment of my Casual Q&A series. I got a few more questions in the comments on that one, so here they are now.

I welcome more questions, the more I get, the more often I'll do posts like these!

Michael Brown asks:

"How did you submit your first game to a publisher?"

Good question... in my case I feel like I sidestepped the system a little bit with my published designs.

Before TMG started, I did try pitching games a couple of times. After basically winning a contest, I asked a representative of Days of Wonder if I could submit All For One, even though their policy was that they didn't accept outside submissions. He told me to send a 1-sheet description of the game, which I did. In the end they told me that since they do so few games, they don't like to revisit themes, and they already had a game based on The Three Musketeers.

The next real pitch would have been Jay Tummelson at a Protospiel event at Gamestorm in 2007 or something like that. I pitched Wizard's Tower (too abstract), and Terra Prime (didn't interest him). I expected the response on Wizard's Tower, but I was legitimately surprised that Terra Prime didn't excite him AT ALL, because I felt like it was right in line with a lot of the titles Rio Grande put out.

It wasn't MY game, so I didn't want to use up my pitch time on it, but later that weekend Jay did see a few minutes of a game of Homesteaders, and he was very interested. He took the prototype home with him, and handed it off to his 3rd party developers, who told me they "recommended it." However, just about then Dominion happened, so I think Homesteaders got shelved for a few years, until I asked for it back when Michael wanted to launch TMG.

The only other time I really submitted a game was Exhibit, with a European publisher I met with at Essen. They liked the game, and took home a prototype. They were interested in publishing it and even offered a contract. However, some outside, largely unrelated factor came up, and as a result they decided they didn't want to move forward (and I don't blame them). They told me there were no hard feelings, and that I should feel free to submit games to them in the future, but it was a bummer to have that process curtailed.

Zedior asks:
"I feel like we (as in budding designers) get a lot of "get it to the table fast" advice, but I personally have a lot of problem going from the idea stage to a prototype. It's partly about the "ideas can't fail" mindset (which is often addressed), but mostly because an idea for a clever mechanism or two still needs a theme, and a dozen more other small things before it is prototypeable. Could you talk about that part of the design process, for you? How do you go from "I want deck-building to represent learning" to have a version with enough stuff to be playable?"

I agree, getting from idea to prototype is one of the big hurdles for me as well. It can be tough, especially if the game requires a bunch of diverse content.

Sometimes I just (eventually) get myself hyped up and at my computer, and I just start laying out cards or something. Sometimes doing that, the whole presentation will change from my initial idea as I see what it actually looks like.

Other times (and I suspect other designers) create content by making a spreadsheet. I did this with my most recent project (Automatown), mostly because I wanted to try datamerge as a way to cut down on work for myself.

A trick you can use, and I think this was one of Matthew Dunstan's nuggets of wisdom that I posted recently, is to create just 1/4 of what you need, print 4 copies each, and start testing with that.

For Eminent Domain it was kind of easy, I only needed 6 different cards to play. However, the tech deck and planet deck were a little harder. I tend to go for symmetry, so for example I started the planet deck with a planet that provided each role symbol. Each type of planet was supposed to be good at 2 different things, so I made metallic planets that had a Survey symbol (x3), a warfare symbol (x3), Hand Size +1 (x2), and nothing but extra points (x1). Similar format for Advanced and Fertile planets.

I tend to make elements that affect each part of the game. Like in Terra Prime, you mostly find and colonize planets, pick-up and deliver resources, and fight aliens. So there are techs that let you move easier, carry more cargo/colonies, fight aliens better, and reward you for delivering more, as well as one that just lets you do more stuff.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Recent testing: EmDice

Looking through my blog, it appears that it's been a full 4 years or more, I think, since I have played my Eminent Domain dice game, affectionately titled EmDice, though I could use a better before going to print.


I had considered the game "basically done," and figured it would eventually get the green light from TMG to go into production. I even got some manufacturing quotes, including one as recently as January of this year. Now that my big projects are finally done out of my hands (Pioneer Days and Harvest debuting at EssenCrusaders and Oblivion in production), it's about time to prioritize what to work on, and revisit some of these older titles to see if they're up to par.

So for the first time in ages (it was not trivial to actually find the prototype!), I got EmDice to the table. One player surprised me by saying that he liked it better than the card game!

One thing that sometimes bugged me about the game was that when re-rolling dice when dissenting, because you don't have good options or don't like your hand, you could easily end up with an equally bad hand over and over again. I guess that's how dice games work, but the thought crossed my hand that perhaps when dissenting you should be able to EITHER re-roll all dice of 1 face (as currently is the rule), OR choose any 1 of your active dice,, and change the face to what you want. My players didn't think that was necessary, perhaps it could be a tech ability or something, but maybe it's not needed as a basic rule.

NOTE: Try some power as "When dissenting, instead of re-rolling dice, you may change 1 active die to any face."

I made 2 more observations while playing...

Warfare leader bonus
In EmDo, the leader bonus for Warfare is that you get an additional Warfare symbol, and you get the option of attacking a planet instead of collecting fighters. Other players generally cannot attack when following Warfare, only as an action, or when they are leading the role. In the dice game, there aren't actions, so you ARE allowed to attack when following, which I think is the right call. It follows then that the leader bonus should be 1 warfare icon OR -1 Warfare cost. You still have to choose to either collect Fighters OR attack, but as the leader, when you attack you get a discount.

A way to represent that a little more concisely is to say that the leader bonus for Warfare is actually just "+1 Fighter" (not a Warfare symbol or a discount). That's effectively the same in the case you're collecting fighters, and it's about the same in the case you're spending fighters to attack as well. The only real downside is if you want to attack, need the "discount," and there's exactly 1 fighter in the supply, and you don't want the game to end (you're about to spend Fighters after all). But maybe that's so rare I shouldn't worry about it. Russell also suggested it might be more clear to keep the delineation of either getting fighters, or spending them. This more concise bonus allows you to get 1 Fighter then attack at the same time, which is potentially less clear cut for some players.

NOTE: Try Warfare leader bonus: "+1 Fighter"

Combine Produce and Trade
Something that ended up being a big breakthrough in EmDo was realizing that Produce and Trade was a terribly swingy and risky strategy when those two actions were each on their own card. The game became much better when they were combined into 1 card. It occurred to me as we played the other day that I had put Produce and Trade icons on their own die faces, causing the same problem here as it did in the card game!

The problem wasn't quite as pronounced in EmDice as it was in the card game, probably due to the Dissent rule allowing you to re-roll unneeded die faces. But it was still there, and frankly I was embarrassed I had gone that route!

The obvious solution is to combine Produce and Trade icons onto the same die face. In the card game, this left me with 5 basic card types, but there are 6 faces to each die, so I would need to fill 1 more die face. My first thought was to add a 2nd Survey symbol to each die, since that's pretty important. But why not borrow from the base game yet again, by adding a Politics icon to the die?

That makes sense, the die faces would then be Survey, Warfare, Colonize, Produce/Trade, Research, Politics. But what would Politics do? In the card game, Politics cards in your starting deck were sort of Pseudo-wild. You removed them from the game, replacing them with the role card of your choice. Making the politics icon COMPLETELY wild seemed way too strong, but maybe pseudo-wild would be ok. My first thought was "2 POL = any 1 icon", making POL icons bad unless you have them in pairs, then they're good. But that's probably too harsh - often times you'd have only 1, and it would be useless. I had also thought of allowing all POL icons to be re-rolled during a dissent, in addition to whatever you chose, but that's just adding more rules as band aids.

My next thought seemed better - discard a Politics die to change another active die to whatever you want. Maybe this addresses the concern I had at the beginning of this post as well.

Dave had a concern that it would remove much of the interaction in the game -- looking around the table to see what people are capable of. If you happen to have 3 POL icons, then you could follow any role you want! Of course, you could only do it for a maximum of 3, and you'd be completely out of dice after that. So I might try it, but with an eye toward Dave's concern, to see if it degrades the game at all.

Other thoughts on what Politics could do...

  • Agendas: a set of cards, deal 3 out during setup. They have actions on them, and on your turn you spend Politics icons to do that action. This could add variety to the game,a s the cards could be different from game to game.
  • Another version of pseudo-wild: "You can always spend X POL icons as X-1 of anything else."
  • Add a politics role, in which you spend Politics icons similar to how you spend Survey icons, buying Clout tokens from a display (mirror the Survey/Planet display, but with Clout tokens). This adds another track, and another bag of tokens though, which isn't ideal.

Of those, I think I'll start with "Discard POL to change another active die."

NOTE: Try combining Produce and Trade into 1 die face, and add Politics die face.
NOTE: Try Politics: Discard this die to change another of your active dice to any face.

So, while I thought EmDice was "basically done," it turns out I can see a few tweaks worth making. I think I will update my prototype and get it to the table again next week, maybe I can finish it up and get it into production before it slides back onto the shelf!

Recent testing: Alter Ego

After bringing Alter Ego back to the table after 2 full years, I wanted to keep it in rotation, lest it find its way back to the shelf for another couple of years. So we played a 4 player game of it last Friday, and I incorporated 3 changes since the last playtest:

  • I nerfed the Teamwork tokens -- they didn't give us an additional fight icon anymore
  • I changed the penalty system to the one I described in my previous post (linked above) -- for every 2 penalty tokens, you lose 1 icon. The only way to remove penalty tokens is through one of the few equipment that does that.
  • I included the new insight I had recently about a 2 civilian "safety net" -- instead of losing immediately when you're out of a civilian color that you need, you take one of the black tokens. Black civ tokens never get returned to the supply. This way you have to lose 3 times that way in order to actually lose the game.

That last one was great, I could tell immediately that it was a perfect solution to that particular problem.

The penalty system was interesting, and Dave thought it was certainly an improvement over the previous version. I'd like to see it in action a little more before I weigh in on whether I'm happy with it.

The nerfed Teamwork tokens were a bit of a problem, I think. With the costs the way they are now (henchmen basically cost 2-5 icons), it's quite difficult to defeat the expensive henchmen without teamwork, and since their costs are specific, it's still difficult. The additional icon of your choice that the TW token used to give you helped a lot with that, but it also kind of made defeating the cheaper henchmen sort of trivial. Also, it seemed weird to say "I'm spending this TW token so you'll fight on my team, but I don't actually need any of your icons, I just need the one from the TW token."

So what probably has to happen is that I need to re-cost the henchmen, possibly with a max cost of 4 icons (or possibly not). Also, I think the henchmen costs need to be more heavily in one icon or another, like AAABB, rather than ABCDE, so that you can reasonably build your deck toward defeating them!

In other news, it's come up so often that I probably need to re-order the turn sequence so that the Family phase is AFTER the fight phase. Maybe I an incorporate it into the Recoup phase, slightly simplifying the overall turn:

  1. Job phase: Collect money (penalty for not playing Job cards)
  2. Patrol phase: Bring henchmen into play (penalty for not playing Community cards)
  3. Fight phase: Spend icons to fight henchmen
  4. Family phase: Discard display, draw cards (penalty for not playing Family cards), choose card from stacks, fill display from hand, discard remaining cards.
In this new scheme, I suppose it makes the most sense to play any Events in addition to your regular 5-card display, and then discard them when you use them during the following Fight phase (or maybe leave them in play until you use them, so if you didn't need it that turn, it'll still be there the next turn).

One other thing that came up was the idea of having a simple board. Suppose there were 5 locations, each bearing one of the 5 fight icons. Then suppose the Henchmen costs were reduced by 1, but cost the icon of the location they're at in addition to their printed cost. This would give the henchmen a sort of variable cost, and could maybe add some potentially interesting board play to the game. I don't know if that's really necessary, but it could potentially add to the theme.

Recent testing: Deities & Demigods

It's been about 3 months since anything has happened with Deities & Demigods. The last changes I made were adding Hera cards to determine start player each round (instead of the Olympus track), and on Matthew's suggestion I added 1 Demeter card to the Olympus deck -- when Demeter comes up, each player individually chooses any deity to either show devotion to or to activate. I also created a whole bunch of player powers to try out, but before using those, I really felt I needed people who knew the game.

So a couple of weeks ago I decided to teach my new group of regular playtesters the game (without player powers). The first time we played, we used Demeter, and I'm a little unsure about that card. It does add some interesting dynamics to the game, but it also makes the game a lot longer, and it allows all players to get a LOT more done, to the point where I fear it feels too much like everyone can do everything. One solution could be to make things cost more (quests harder to achieve, etc). Another is to just not have Demeter (I've played dozens of games without him, and the game seemed fine), though that does miss out on the interesting aspects of adding him. He could be a sort of promo card (a single card that makes a significant difference in the game).

The following week, we played again - this time without Demeter. I still feel like he added interesting things, but I'm not sure I really missed him either.

A bigger problem is that I worry buildings are too strong (and therefore Hephaestus is too important), at least relative to the other deities. One reason might be because the Favor of Hephaestus rewards you for building, and buildings are worth points. By contrast, Hermes favor rewards you for having high devotion, which is decidedly NOT worth points, and therefore ought to be worth a lot more (maybe 0/2/4 instead of 0/1/2 for example). Ares rewards you for spreading out, which is worth a little bit of points, but it also encourages you to not fight for majorities, which is a little weird. I was thinking I should amplify the Ares scoring card to something like "double your endgame city points" or else "3/2/1vp for majority/tied/present in each city." That latter would be the same as it is now if you put 1 guy in each city, a little more if that 1 guy earns you majority or ties for it. The former would help whether you spread your guys out, or pile onto a couple of cities. It actually favors piling onto 2 cities and getting 1st, but that leaves points for other players in other cities too, so maybe it's OK.

A couple of new buildings I tried might be a little out of control - for example one that says "double the number of favor tokens you have." Most of the buildings are worth 4 points or so, maybe a little more if you do a good job (collecting 5 Gardens of Babylon for example makes them worth 5 points each). There's not much upper limit on the score for a building that doubles your favor tokens. If you happen to have 13 of them when the building comes up, then you get a HUGE benefit, in some ways due to luck of the draw. I'm also not sure I want to be the player who feels like he has to take that building for little or no benefit to stop another player from getting such a boon.

I had been thinking that game was about done, but maybe it could still use a few tweaks, and that's before even trying the player powers. And I still would like to one day try the Hades module!

TL;DR: Things to try in future plays...
* Double reward for Hermes favor
* Increase reward for Ares favor (double city vp? 3/2/1vp for 1st/tied/present in each city?)
* Don't use Demeter, see if it's really necessry
* Watch out for certain buildings that are potentially worth too much
* Consider reducing the benefit of some of the artifacts - maybe they don't need so much benefit. They should be worth about the same as 3 gold or 2 troop movement, I think. Which probably just means not having the icon in the corner at all.

Recent testing: TMG submissions, Deities & Demigods, AlterEgo, and the revival of EmDice!

I haven't been posting too much lately - I managed 4 posts in August, but it's been almost a month of silence since!

Part of that is me being a bit busy, another part is me being lazy, and a third part is that much of what I've been doing on the game design front has been evaluating submissions I brought home from GenCon. I am usually very open and transparent in my blog, but until we officially sign a game, I don't feel it's right to talk about them in public.

That said, I brought home quite a few prototypes from GenCon, and I had a few previous submissions that I received updates for, and things like that. I've been pretty happy with all of them so far! Whether we sign them or not will have to do with manufacturing quotes (which I've requested), and I'd like to play them all with more different people to get a better idea of how well they'd be received.

Without giving anything away, here's some teaser information:

Submission from Speed Dating event:
I liked this dice drafting game game when we saw it at GenCon (obviously, since I brought it home with me). It reminded me a little of Pioneer Days, and I thought it could do with an old west re-theme anyway. There was one aspect that seemed more work than necessary, so I tried implementing it in a different way, and my playtesters all thought it played much more smoothly that way. If we do pick this one up, I am currently thinking of making it a "sequel" to Pioneer Days -- in PD you're heading out west, and this game deals with building up a town once you get there.

Submission from designer we know:
We've met with this particular designer a few times, and I've played a few of his submissions. Of those, we've only published one so far, but this new submission might just be the 2nd! The first time I played it with 2 of my testers, they both loved it and said I should publish it immediately. Then I played again with 5 players, and that went over well too (and I managed to win when I thought I would be nowhere close :) ). The theme on this one is awfully similar to one of the games we've already done, and it superficially resembles an existing, well known published game that just got a reprint. It's nothing like that game except in a superficial way, but it will likely draw the comparison. I'm not sure if I care though, and I can't really think of a great re-theme opportunity (the existing theme fits well). So if we pick it up, then we might just not worry about the comparisons.

Submission #1 from before where we'd asked for a change:
There's a game I have played a few iterations of so far. The core mechanism of the game is great, and works well, but the first time I played it the supporting stuff just wasn't there yet at all. I gave the designers some notes, and said that if they were to address the things I mentioned, I'd be happy to re-evaluate.

We met with them at Origins, and played an updated version of the game, but while they did start to address my concerns, they didn't address them as fully as I wanted to see, so I gave them some more notes, and suggested that if that was the direction they wanted to go, then I'd be happy to see what they had at GenCon. It's kind of convenient the timing of Origins and GenCon for this type of exchange :).

We met with them again at GenCon, and they're new version was MUCH closer to what I was looking for, so I took the prototype home with me to examine it further. I played a couple of times at GenCon, and another couple of times after I got home, and while the game is definitely a lot closer to what I had envisioned, and I do think we'll sign it eventually, I sent notes one last time. I expect to sign the game after taking the new version at BGGcon in November, assuming the designers latest changes work out as well as we all expect they will.

Submission #2 from before where we'd asked for a change:
We had a submission that is kind of a roll & write version of one of TMG's existing titles. The original version of the submission seemed too much to us like just the board game, but also with dice. It didn't take advantage of the roll & write format (namely: minimalism and portability).

I corresponded with the designer a bit as he updated the game, and at GenCon we played an updated version that seemed to be a much better use of that format, and still evoked the source game well. Andy brought the prototype home to Utah with him, but I got files from the designer and made my own copy, and after a handful of games (and some commentary from Andy), I made some tweaks to the record sheet, and I think it's probably in pretty good shape. We're waiting on some quote info before we decide whether to sign it or not.

Submission from before Origins and GenCon:
I have one submission that I had originally seen a GenCon several years ago, and was interested in, but another company had it for a while. More recently I heard that the designers got it back, and since I had been interested in it before, I had them submit the game to us. I liked the main mechanism, and I thought it could be fun to set the game in the Harbour universe and give players unique characters to use (like we did with Harbour and Harvest). Unfortunately, initial reaction from players wasn't as enthusiastic as I'd expected, but I'd still like to play some more before making any decisions on it. However, Essen is coming up, and I don't want to hold this game hostage so to speak, so I told the designers to go ahead and show the game around at Essen, and if they don't find another publisher interested, then I'd continue to evaluate the game.

Submission I've known about for a year, and finally got:
A couple of years ago at Essen, I was talking to a designer friend about Crusaders, and other mancala-rondel ideas. Some of that inspired an idea for him, and he emailed me asking if I minded his using that mechanism in a game (of course not, why would I mind?). Some time later (about a year ago) I learned that he had successfully created a game based on that mechanism, and I played a prototype of it and thought it worked pretty well. But they said they weren't done yet...

Finally, a few weeks ago, they sent me the files and I made a copy of the prototype! I have enjoyed it so far. It's very tight, and seems a little short with 2 players (though the right length, just seems so quick!). I look forward to trying it with a few more folks to test the reaction to the game.

That's about it for the TMG submissions. As I got through all of those with my playtesters, I haven't had a lot of time to work on my own games, but I DID get a few of them to the table recently:

Deities & Demigods:
A couple of weeks ago I decided to teach Deities & Demigods to my new group of regular playtesters, so that they could get acquainted with the game before trying to test player powers. I'll go into specifics of that in a separate blog post.

Alter Ego:
After bringing Alter Ego back to the table after 2 full years, I wanted to keep it in rotation, lest it find its way back to the shelf for another couple of years. So we played a 4 player game of it last Friday. I'll make a separate blog post with more details of the playtest.

Looking through my blog, it appears that it's been a full 4 years or more, I think, since I have played my Eminent Domain dice game (affectionately titled EmDice, though I could use a better before going to print).


I had considered the game "basically done," and figured it would eventually get the green light from TMG to go into production. I even got some manufacturing quotes, including one as recently as January of this year. Now that my big projects are finally done out of my hands (Pioneer Days and Harvest debuting at Essen, Crusaders and Oblivion in production), it's about time to prioritize what to work on, and revisit some of these older titles to see if they're up to par.

So for the first time in ages (it was not trivial to actually find the prototype!), I got EmDice to the table. I'll post separately about how that went, but one player surprised me by saying that he liked it better than the card game!


So that's what I've been up to lately. How about you?