Wednesday, May 16, 2018

"Gamegineering" and the role of the game developer

More and more lately I've heard people talk about the role of a developer in boardgames. The idea has certainly existed for many years, and every game on the shelf has undoubtedly gone through some level of development, but only recently has the role of board game developer been recognized in the industry.

When Dominion was coming out in 2008 was the first time I noticed game developers being named. It was about that time I was realizing that, while I enjoyed designing games, my real strength was in game development. So I guess it was good news the role was beginning to be highlighted in the industry!

A decade later, very little progress has been made with respect to recognition for developers. I think there are more of them nowadays, and if you check the back page of your favorite games' rulebooks, you can probably find out who they are. But I don't think many consumers have any idea...

People frequently look out for new games by their favorite designers, and these games often come from different publishers. Which means they're often worked on by different developers. Depending on how much work each developer puts into each game, "shopping by designer" may end up being a misleading metric to find a game you like.

People also frequently look out for new games by their favorite publisher. And it might be the case that most or all of those games were worked on by the same developer (either in-house, or perhaps 3rd party). For a small publishing company, the publishers themselves may be the ones doing the development. So in some cases, if you enjoy many games from a particular publisher, it might be the case that what's drawing you to those games is that publisher's development skills. Or it might be that publisher's judgement when choosing which games to publish.

This kind of thing is difficult to even talk about, because the role of the developer is so inconsistent from publisher to publisher, and from game to game. Even from developer to developer! Very recently I've seen a number of prominent people in the design community taking on developer roles, either freelance, or for a particular company. And more power to them! Sometimes I'll listen to a podcast interview, and I'll hear the role of the developer defined, and it makes me cringe a little bit because what they describe, to me, sounds more like an insightful playtester than what I consider a developer.

Maybe I've been putting too much work into games I develop, but to me the role of the developer isn't just to "make suggestions that are in line with the designer's vision for the game." The developer's job is to bring out the full potential of a game. I don't feel like I can do a proper job as a developer without taking the game under my wing, so to speak, and treating it as my own. I don't propose changes, I make those changes, try them out, and then explain why they did or didn't work. When a mechanism is just not working right, sometimes I re-design that mechanism from the ground up to accomplish what I think the designer was going for with it. Like I said, perhaps I've been putting more work in than necessary, but I'm not so sure.

I had hoped that, over time, players who found themselves liking the big box TMG titles would start to see a pattern. No matter who's name is on the front of the box, they'd see the green dragon logo, and hopefully they'd see "developed by Seth Jaffee" on the box back. But 10 years in, that doesn't seem to have happened. Maybe they see the dragon logo, but an innocuous mention in the rulebook or box back does not seem to have put my name into the minds of the end user.

One thought I've had, and that I might one day make good on, is to create a logo for myself:

Not final. I'd prefer if the typed "SETH JAFFEE" were taken out from beneath the signature, and put in the circle in lieu of "BOARD GAME"

Maybe adding that logo to games I have a big hand in would lead to a higher level of recognition. I like the composition of that logo, because it looks like a professional's seal, like my engineer's stamp. This communicates that the game literally has the seal of approval from a professional game developer!

But there's another aspect of "developer" that I think may be lacking: the word itself. I’m considering proposing a new term, because “developer” carries so much baggage, and so many different meanings to different people. In the video game world, it’s synonymous to both “designer” and also “programmer,” which doesn’t help matters. Even in tabletop gaming, it’s been used to mean everything from “insightful playtester” to “product manager” to “uncredited codesigner.” Depending on how thorough a job the designer does in the first place, there may be more or less work required of a developer. That doesn’t help matters either.

On many of the TMG big box games, my efforts have been closer to a co-designer than an insightful playtester. For that role, I’ve been tossing around the term “Gamegineer.”

What do you think? Do we need terminology to differentiate various levels of "developer?" And if so, how do you like "gamegineer," on the end of the spectrum closer to "co-designer" then "insightful playtester?"

Monday, May 14, 2018

The List -- more thorough this time

Ever forward flows the sands of time, and as such, a look at The List is long overdue... Time to once again take stock of my published games, as well as current and back-burnered designs and prototypes... this time a more thorough list:

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

Finished But Unpublished Games:
Exhibit (BGG)
Eminent Domain: Chaos Theory (dice game)
Dice Works (BGG)
Wizard's Tower (BGG)
Now Boarding
Isle of Trains: All Aboard (expansion)
Suburban Sprawl
- Watch It Played

Current Active Designs:
Deities and Demigods
- Crusaders expansion
- Eminent Domain Origins

Recent Designs That Are Not On The Front Burner:
Alter Ego (BGG)
The Pony Express
Moctezuma's Revenge
Joan of Arc

Old Standbys - games which have been around, 1/2 done and untouched, for years:
8/7 Central
Hot & Fresh
Reading Railroad
All For One (BGG)
Odysseus: Winds of Fate (BGG)

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

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

Let's take a closer look at some of these:

Published games:
Crusaders: Thy Will Be Done (BGG)
Deluxe and retail versions of Crusaders are being manufactured as I type this. Estimated delivery is this summer (June or July, 2018), though I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be a little late.
- Promos (Dungeon Roll, Gold West, Yokohama)
I added some promos to TMG games that I designed and that are now out there in the world. I did not design the original games, but I did create those promos.

Finished But Unpublished Games:
Exhibit (BGG link)
No change here. I'm still disappointed in the status of Exhibit. A European publisher was very interested, but a difference of opinion on whether a certain person's IP rights were infringed caused it to be canceled altogether. I checked with an IP lawyer to ensure that my understanding was correct, which it was, but I don't blame the publisher for not wanting to get into the middle of it. The whole thing left a sour taste in my mouth. It's too bad, because the game is good.
Now Boarding
I worked on this with Tim Fowers, who's since published several games via kickstarter: his co-op game Burgle Brothers, his 2 player deduction game Fugitive, Paperback, and Hardback. He took Now Boarding in another direction, finished his version, and I'm currently awaiting my kickstarter copy. I don't expect I'll do anything with my old version.
Suburban Sprawl
My entry to the DHMG/GTG dexterity game contest also fits their previous contest, using only about 56 cards. In Suburban Sprawl you toss cards into play to build Residential, Commercial, Industrial, and Civic buildings. I'm going for a light, quick game with a sort of SimCity feel that's easy to learn and play. Matthew Dunstan helped with this one, but it did not win the contest. Maybe it'll see the light of day some day, but I haven't tried to pitch it to anyone yet. I was thinking maybe TMG could set it in the Flip City universe, with similar artwork, but I'm afraid that perhaps a dexterity game might not go over too well with our audience.
Isle of Trains: All Aboard (expansion)
Dan Keltner and I created an expansion to Isle of Trains for Dice Hate Me/Greater Than Games to follow up our contest winning entry. We submitted the final game to them quote some time ago (December 2015 I think), and they kept planning a Kickstarter, then delaying it for various reasons. However, Chris Kirkman assures me that they're still excited about it, they've started getting art done for it, and that it will likely go up on Kickstarter in 2018. I'm still waiting to see if that occurs :)

Current Active Designs:
Deities and Demigods
Another attempt at Deck Learning, Deities and Demigods is like a role selection game, but the game calls the roles, and in random order. Players will have some control over which roles are in the deck, and can upgrade their efficiency at each role. The effects of the roles will allow players to move armies around a map in an effort to complete quests/tasks and control cities.

I put a lot of work into this one, and I think it's close to done. I had added a bunch of player powers to try out, and I did a little of that, but I think there's a balance issue with one of the roles (Hephaestus is too big of a deal), so I stopped testing player powers until I fix that. Unfortunately, I haven't played it since September 2017. I do not think co-designer Matthew Dunstan has either (or if he has, I haven't heard about it!)

A new idea that I quickly made a prototype for and I've tested a few times so far. The idea is that you work in a factory making robots, so you make robots to work the assembly line for you. But why stop there? With an army of robots behind you, you could take over the factory, the city, or even the world! It's a worker placement game where you get and exchange resources in order to build more robots from blueprint cards. Each blueprint has a specific cost, a strength, and an ability, but any blueprint can be built out of scrap to just be a simple robot with no ability. So far it seems to have potential, but it still feels like an early design.

Recent Designs That Are Not On The Front Burner:
Alter Ego (BGG link)
Mike's always been a fan of this one. Alter Ego finally shaped up a while ago, but I just haven't been playing it, so it hasn't finished up. I had hope that with a little TMG Utah input and some nice art, this could potentially be ready for a GenCon 2016 release, but that never came to pass. I need to get this one back on the front burner and finish it up!
Moctezuma's Revenge
This one ALMOST returned from the dead, as John Gilmour started to work on it with me, but that was short lived, as he had something come up and couldn't devote the time to that project anymore. Still, revisiting the game brought some improvements to it, so some progress was made. I don't know if or when I'll revisit it again though.
I had an idea to do a follow up game to Orleans about Joan of Arc, co-brand it and put it out as a TMG/DLP partnership. I have made some good progress so far, but I still have a lot of work to do on it. In the game, players are each a different saint, giving visions to Joan of Arc. That is to say all players control a single Joan of Arc figure on the game board. You'll move her around, train her in different weapons, and have her win battles for points or in-game benefits. The action is driven by a bag building mechanism, where you draw tiles out of your bag and place them on your player board, then activate certain subsets of them. Unfortunately, I got really busy with other games, and this one slipped to the back burner.

Old Standbys - games which have been around, 1/2 done and untouched, for years:
Odysseus: Winds of Fate (BGG)
I keep circling and iterating on this one. I need to implement the most recent change ideas and try it again. This is basically the story of this game's life... so I've moved it to the "Old Standbys" section.

Misc and Really Old Stuff:
In an attempt to capture the feel of 9-ball, in this game you play cards from your hand or from a face up pool to represent making a shot. You keep playing cards until you decide you're done, or until you play a [BALL -> POCKET] card, sinking a ball in a pocket. If your shot both began by hitting the Object Ball and ended with sinking a ball, then you may begin another shot by playing another card. Otherwise, you refill your hand and it's your opponents turn. The player who sinks the 9 Ball wins the round.
Blockade Runner
Originally designed for a card game design contest (never entered), then co-developed with another designer, this game was intended to be published at one point but that fell through. Then later it was intended to be published by another publisher, and I sold my rights to it in order to facilitate that. The game never did come out, which means I believe any rights I signed away have reverted back to me, but I'm not sure what good that does me. This quick game of bluffing and double think is destined to live on the shelf.
- Roman Emperors (my version of someone else's game)
BGDF member Juan Carballal had a game I found very interesting in which players take turns running the Roman Empire. It's not a cooperative game, you want your stint as Emperor to be remembered as the greatest time in Roman history - but since players take turns controlling the Empire, the resources are largely shared. I think the game has a ton of potential, but I don't think the designer and I were seeing eye-to-eye on some of the specifics of how it should work. I'm also not sure what the designer did (if anything) with it since I saw it. I think it would be fun to one day take a stab at making "my version" of that game.
- Admirals of the Spanish Main (my version of someone else's game)
Another game by Juan. we were trying to make a "dice building" game which did a better job than Quarriors, and he came up with a game about hunting pirates in the Spanish Main. It was a good start to what I was looking for, but it was too random, and my friend Andy Van Zandt and I worked on trying to mold it into what I was really looking for... in the end though, many playtesters said that if they're playing a pirate game, they want to BE the pirates, not hunt them, so we eventually gave up on it. I think the game had some good things going for it, but for whatever reason it just wasn't all the way there.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Quick Crusaders expansion idea so I don't forget!

Last week I tested a first draft of the new Influence action, and while it could use some tweaks, it worked alright.

The other day I thought of something I could add as a reward on the Influence tiles other than simply 1-shot and permanent icons...

What if you could, upon taking an influence tile, immediately distribute one of the other bins on your action wheel?

Timing-wise, I always say that you resolve the action, THEN distribute the action markers. I realize that players frequently do this in the wrong order, distributing first, then resolving the action. I even catch myself doing that sometimes. This idea could be prone to error if players insist on distributing cubes before resolving the action, but maybe this rule will encourage them not to do that, and it shouldn't be too hard to fix if someone does that.

You see, because if you do an influence action that earns the right to distribute a bin, that could put tokens into the current bin, which would further be distributed at the end of your turn. So if you distribute, THEN take the tile (allowing you to distribute some more), you could en up with some cubes in the wrong place.

Realistically it would probably be just 1 cube, and the error might not even be in your favor very often, so maybe I shouldn't care about people who do it wrong.

Anyway, I think this is a neat ability, and I could also add it to some of the expansion buildings -- like maybe all the vaults (the ones that give an upgrade), and the level 3 keep and chapel.