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BoardGameGeek News

To submit news, a designer diary, outrageous rumors, or other material, please contact BGG News editor W. Eric Martin via email – wericmartin AT gmail.com

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Preview of the 2016 Previews: Origins, Gen Con, Dice Con and Spiel

W. Eric Martin
United States
Apex
North Carolina
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With May more than halfway over, here's a look ahead at the summer and autumn convention schedule to let you know when to expect convention previews that highlight the new games that will be shown, sold or demoed at each of these shows. In chronological order:

BGG.CON Spring, May 27-30, 2016: Surprise! I'm not posting a preview for this con, partly because I don't know what to expect (having missed the first such convention in 2015) and partly because I'm planning to hang out and actually play games instead of doing news stuff, although inevitably I'll still spend some time talking with publishers about upcoming titles. After all, we have just over a month before...

Origins Game Fair, June 15-19, 2016: I've already contacted several dozen game publishers about this convention to both assemble an Origins 2016 Preview — which will go live Monday, May 30 — and schedule livestream game demos. Yes, BGG will be at Origins for all five days of Origins, and the current plan is to livestream from 10:00 to 16:00 each day. This will be an interesting experiment since at Gen Con and Spiel we have no time to spare and typically rush through a new game on camera every few minutes. Given the smaller number of new releases at Origins, I expect we'll include more prototypes than usual and have time to engage in designer and publisher chit-chat. Different!

Gen Con, August 4-7, 2016: As we've done the past couple of years, BGG will livestream game demonstrations from Indianapolis over the four days of Gen Con, and the Gen Con 2016 Preview goes live Monday, June 20 — the day after Origins ends. I just hope that the Gen Con organizers turn on the air conditioning on Wednesday. Set-up was brutal in 2015!

Dice Con, August 27-28, 2016: Most of you have probably not heard of Dice Con, but this event launched in Beijing in 2015 to bring media attention to board and card game publishers in China, while also welcoming other publishers to China and encouraging designers to present new works to publishers for licensing. I met with the Dice Con organizers in Beijing in May 2016, and since I'm largely unaware of the Chinese game market and want to learn more, I offered to pull together a Dice Con 2016 Preview to both educate myself and encourage Chinese producers to put their information on BGG. I plan to publish this convention preview on Monday, July 25, 2016.

Spiel, October 13-16, 2016: BGG will livestream game demos from Essen, Germany once again, and the monstrous Spiel 2016 Preview — which I started before Spiel 2015 opened — goes live Monday, August 8, the day after Gen Con ends. That preview boasted nearly eight hundred titles in 2015, and I'm sure that it'll surpass that total in 2016 given the ever-increasing number of publishers who show up at Spiel from around the world.

•••

If you're a designer or publisher who plans to present new games at one or more of these shows, feel free to email me the information now to ensure that you're included in the convention previews later. My email address is in the BGG News header at the top of this page, and you can learn how to submit game listings to the BGG database here. Please send a separate email for each convention and include the name of the con — e.g., "New titles for Gen Con 2016" — in the header. I'll also poke publishers with info requests, but feel free to act now! Avoid the rush!
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Wed May 18, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Branching Out from Kigi to Kodama

Daniel Solis
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Hello, hello! I'm Daniel Solis. This is the story of how I designed and self-published the tree-growing card game Kigi, which was later adapted into Kodama: The Tree Spirits by Action Phase Games.

I wrote a little post about that adaptation just before Kodama's kickstarter campaign at the end of 2015, but Eric Martin asked me to go back into the past a little further to the earliest days of Kigi's development and international growth, so here we go!



Sample of the print-on-demand edition


Self-Publishing

Back in 2013, I started self-publishing card games on DriveThruCards as an affordable way to get my name out there as a game designer. Belle of the Ball had just been released by Dice Hate Me Games, and I was eager to get another game published.

It's a tough business, though. Even with one game under my belt, I knew it would be hard for an otherwise unknown designer to get noticed, so my plan was to release games on DriveThruCards, build up a few sales and customer reviews, and use those numbers to back up pitches to traditional retail publishers. I thought it might give my games an edge to have real data. The plan was always to use self-published, print-on-demand games as a laboratory and launchpad for other games I had in my back burner that would be too weird for a traditional publisher to take a risk on without something firm to show their viability.

At the very least, this plan gave me a reason to finalize a lot of small game ideas that I had shelved because I wasn't confident enough to take them over the finish line, with one of these ideas featuring an "organic" tile-laying mechanism similar to Agora by James Ernest. I liked how Agora allowed you to play cards at any angle, free from a grid, and thought it would be interesting to encourage overlapping as a viable tactic as well.


Early sketches for Kigi


Early Development

Above is the initial two-page sketch that was the basis of Kigi. Looking at this again years later, I can immediately see the faltering assumptions and missteps that I'd have to overcome to get the game to work properly. I can also see the heart of something that I knew would be unusual, eye-catching, and easy to produce — which was exactly the thing I wanted to pitch to publishers.

The arboreal theme was there from the start, along with the primary goal of making contiguous chains of features: sprouts, butterflies, flowers, etc. Though I tried other gameplay elements in early iterations, this seemed the easiest to figure out. The branching motif was already imprecise enough without using an obtuse scoring method as well. Though I had these core elements in place, I like to answer three questions when I teach a game:

Quote:
• Who are you?
• What are you trying to do?
• How much time do you have?

For Kigi, I contrived a scenario in which competing muralists try to make the best tree painting. They'd jostle to fulfill their commissions and even go so far as to erase each other's work. When the last card is taken from the deck, the game would be over, and each player would score their commissions, if able. That's who you are, that's what you’re trying to do, and that's how long you have to do it.

In the end, I had a pretty nice game with illustrations cobbled together from stock art sources. However, I see now how the design choices were at odds with the zen-like relaxing experience promised by the aesthetics. My art promised a slightly different feel than the game provided.


Sample of the commission cards from the print-on-demand edition


Connecting Theme and Mechanisms

The two main issues came from mechanisms designed with the best intentions: pruning and commissions.

First, I noticed that players would be encouraged to grow only a single branch since it already had the best opportunity to score maximum points, so I added a mechanism called "pruning". When you scored more than a certain number of points from a branch, all of those scoring cards would fall to the owner's personal discard pile. This would be used offensively against other player's trees to keep their scoring opportunities limited. You would sometimes play defensively, scoring sub-optimal points from your own branch just to cap off the maximum point value any other player could get from it.

Second, I wanted to reward long-term planning and the cultivation of an interesting-looking tree. As part of the theme, I thought these artists should have commissions that they're trying to achieve by the end of the game. Almost all of the commissions in Kigi score based on having a majority of a particular feature or card. If you have more of that than any other player, you score the points! Yay! If you don't, then you don't. It was an oddly brutal note on which to end the game.

Both of these mechanisms conspired to make a more vicious game than I originally intended. At the time I thought it was a happy accident. I was sort of amused that this peaceful exterior hid a competitive take-that experience. The game certainly didn't seem any less popular for it.

I worried that it was a bait-and-switch, but 2014 was all about Getting Games Done. I can spend ages noodling over all of my games if I don't have a hard and fast deadline to meet. That year, I prioritized overcoming my own conservative reservations and taking the small risk of releasing these games as they stood. If small design tweaks came to mind later, they could be easily implemented and updated in the POD product.

Right away, Kigi became my best-selling product and the overall best-selling product on DriveThruCards, dominating the top spot for months thereafter. For a good while, it was the site's top-selling product of all time.


Kigi's debut at the Tokyo Game Market in May 2015


Dave Du from Joy Pie/Creative Tree demonstrating Kigi at a fair in China in early 2015


International Attention

In early 2014, an American representative of Chinese publisher Joy Pie noticed one of my first self-published games. Joy Pie thought games with Asian themes would appeal to the Chinese market. Apparently they had imported a copy of my game Koi Pond, and local gamers thought it was from a Chinese designer already! So we worked out a contract and suddenly my second traditionally published game debuted in China, not North America or Europe. This is a very cool time to be a tabletop game designer.

That experience taught me that I should design more games with minimal text on the cards so that they'd be easier for international publishers to license and localize. It was the beginning of a business model that I stumbled on entirely by accident. My original intent was to use print-on-demand as a development channel leading directly to traditional American or European retail licensing. After the Koi Pond license, I realized that designing within the constraints of print-on-demand made my games attractive to burgeoning game markets and publishers around the world.

I got my start in the games industry by working on indie RPGs that embody a strong punk-rock urge for independence, a feeling that sometimes resonates with me as well. At this point I started wondering, "Why not keep the rights to my games and license them myself internationally? There are a lot of languages out there. I could license the same game in each different language. Each license would be relatively modest, but they'd gradually aggregate into a small income. What the heck? Why not give it a shot?"

After that, everything seems like a blur, but I think the timeline went something like this:

• First, Creative Tree also licensed Kigi in China as a sequel to Koi Pond.

• In December 2014, Game Field contacted me to fast-track a Japanese version of Kigi that would be available for the following Tokyo Game Market in May 2015.

• In March 2015, the French game blog Tric Trac posted a very positive article. (I still don't know how they heard about it.)

• Shortly thereafter, Antoine Bauza tweeted at me publicly, asking how to buy the game in France. That seemed to get a lot of attention.

• In Q2 2015, Kudu Games picked up the license for the game in Polish and German under the title "Bonsai".

• In mid-2015, Action Phase Games approached me with keen interest in publishing Kigi in the U.S.

In less than a year, Kigi had gone from a tiny print-on-demand card game to an internationally licensed game available in five languages. It was an unbelievably fast success for me on that front. However, that's when I realized being the "hub" of all these international licenses was a double-edged sword. In taking on that role, I made it more complicated for a U.S. publisher to take a chance on my games, too.


The new theme and goals for Kodama: the Tree Spirits


New Development, New Theme

Action Phase Games was interested in releasing Kigi at retail scale in English, but offered some changes that would make the game significantly different than its previous iterations.

First, we would remove the pruning mechanism entirely so that players could add cards only to their own trees. Without this core interaction, the only way players affected one another was in choosing which cards to take from the display, perhaps with a bit of hate-drafting. This would be a much more indirect form of interaction than the "take-that" pruning.

We were fully conscious that we might be criticised for making a "multiplayer solitaire" game, but we doubled down on it anyway. If this game is about making you feel calm, relaxed, and satisfied that you've made a pretty object, then let it be exactly that.

Toward that end, we changed the endgame scoring as well. Instead of all-or-nothing scoring conditions, we used granular conditions. For example, instead of:

Quote:
If you have the most flowers on your tree at the end of the game, score 10 points.

We took the more relaxing and forgiving approach to that scoring condition as follows:

Quote:
Score 1 point for each flower on your tree.

Action Phase Games also proposed dispersing these scoring phases throughout the game instead of consigning them to the very end of play. Each player would begin with four scoring cards. Every four rounds, each player would have to choose one of these cards to score, then discard. Almost all of these scoring conditions would be best optimized as end-of-game scoring conditions, so choosing which ones to sacrifice earlier in the game would be a challenging puzzle.

Thematically, each of those rounds would be called a "season". Action Phase Games came up with some cool gameplay variations that would pop up at the start of each new season, adding another layer of puzzle to the game. The scoring cards themselves would become "Kodama", tree spirits taking residence in these new verdant trees.





Transition to American Retail

I liked all of these ideas, but in the back of my mind I was worried about my international partners and how they would feel about all of this. Like it or not, I suspected that a retail-scale English language version of Kigi — especially one that featured substantial changes from the original design — would feel like a "definitive" edition for most people. Some of the international publishers who were the first to give Kigi a chance were in the middle of manufacturing their copies of the game when these changes came up from Action Phase Games. Would a significantly different English edition render their international editions obsolete?

These concerns convinced us to market our redeveloped game with a different title and with a new theme. Though Kigi and Kodama were both tree-growing, card-overlapping games, I thought they were different enough that a new brand was warranted. This change allowed Action Phase Games to work with a brand new, fresh property and reduced some market confusion about which edition was the "real" game.

Thankfully, most of my international publishers didn't seem to mind. Later, I'll work to get those publishers first priority for the Kodama license in their native language. It all worked out in the end, but it could have been a real mess.

Now I'm more cautious about this push for international licenses, at least for games that I think might have a chance in North American markets. A North American or European publisher usually expects to be the first one to license the rights to a new designer's game, but when I go into a pitch meeting for some of my games, I have to add caveats that the licensing rights in Chinese, Japanese, or Portuguese are already taken by other publishers. Even if the American/European publisher had no intent to publish in those languages, it's an awkward thing to have to explain.

This is all new territory for me and perhaps an unlikely path for any other tabletop designer. I got extremely lucky with Kigi's success, and I got even luckier to have publishing partners in Poland (Kudu Games), China (Joy Pie/Creative Tree), and Japan (Game Field) who are so generous and understanding.

Kodama: The Tree Spirits is hitting retail now and the reviews have been very positive so far. I love seeing friends and families playing this little game together. Here's hoping Kodama keeps on growing!

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Tue May 17, 2016 1:00 pm
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New nestorgames Round-up: Melting Chess, Ouroboros, Iqishiqi, Ni-Ju, and Fano330-R-Morris

W. Eric Martin
United States
Apex
North Carolina
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• I haven't covered titles from Spanish publisher nestorgames in a while, yet owner Néstor Romeral Andrés keeps kicking out one interesting title after another, so let's check out a bunch of them at once, starting with Markus Hagenauer's Melting Chess. As I noted in a Jan. 2016 overview of All Queens Chess, "chess" in the title of a game sometimes makes gamers groan, either because they view chess as old and lame or because they view chess as the greatest game ever and not something that should be messed with or "improved".

That said, some designers have re-used elements of chess to create something familiar yet new, and Melting Chess seems like a good example of this. After creating an 8x6 game board of 48 tiles that show a dozen knights, bishops, rooks, and kings, the two players take turns moving their tokens on the board. To move, a player chooses a face-up tile orthogonally adjacent to their token, moves their token in the style of the chess piece depicted on that tile to another face-up tile, then flips face down the tile that their token previously occupied. If you can't move on your turn, you lose.



• A similar winning (i.e. losing) condition is at works in Fano330-R-Morris from Masahiro Nakajima, curator of The Museum of Abstract Strategy Games in Japan. The game board shows a geometric plane of seven points and seven lines, with each line having three points on it. Players (black vs. white) first take turns placing their pieces (two triangles and two circles each) on the board, with at most two non-identical pieces on a point, then take take turns moving one of their pieces from the top of a stack to an adjacent space. If you can't move or if you create a line of three pieces of identical shape or color, you lose.

Losing situation for black, which can't move without creating a line


• The gist of Ira Fay's Ouroboros is that you want to stuff the opponent with as many colored discs as possible — but to do so, you must risk giving them opportunities to rid themselves of discs.

In more detail, you fill the board with discs in four colors, then on a turn you (1) place a black stone, collect the colored disc you covered, then give the opponent all discs either diagonally or orthogonally adjacent to the stone; (2) remove a pair of stones from the board by discarding the appropriate set of discs: four-of-a-kind, full house, etc.; or (3) discard a disc from your collection. Whoever has no discs in front of them after the first turn wins.



• You can think "football" (a.k.a. soccer) when hearing how to win Iqishiqi from João Pedro Neto and Bill Taylor — get the ball to one of your goal lines — but since you're airdropping highly precise kickers from the sky and can also win by stymieing the opponent, the comparison isn't that apt.

The ball starts at the center of a hexagonal field, and on a turn you place one stone somewhere on the playing field, either alone or as part of a group. At least one stone in the group must be in line with the ball, and the ball then moves along that line away from the group a number of spaces equal to the number of stones in the group. If you move the ball off the field or the ball can't move that many spaces, you lose; if you land the ball precisely on one of your goal lines, you win. This movement is hard to picture at first, and the number of options available to you during a game seems immense.



• Finally, we have Ni-Ju from Romeral Andrés himself. In this tile-placement game, the tiles count as both winning conditions and the things that will satisfy those conditions.

Each player has twenty tiles, with each tile showing four squares on it. Players take turns placing tiles onto the playing area, with each placed tile being adjacent to at least one other tile. If one of your tiles is ever surrounded by tiles of your color in a pattern that matches that central tile, then you win (as with the white player in the image below). If both players have placed all of their tiles with no one winning, then you take turns moving a tile with at least one free edge to a new location.

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Mon May 16, 2016 1:00 pm
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Crowdfunding Round-up: Escapism Is What the Doctor Ordered

Dustin Schwartz
United States
Jackson
Michigan
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• The island of Vanuatu is a tropical paradise, but Alain Epron’s game of the same name has been nothing but heartburn for many folks who backed ill-fated IndieGoGo and Ulule campaigns in 2011 from then-publisher Krok Nik Douil editions. Fast forward to the present: Quined Games is publishing Vanuatu (second edition) as the 16th title in their line of bookcase editions. In a classy move, they are making free copies available to previously jilted backers (as they did with Massilia in 2014), so it’s hakuna matata for everyone. (KS link)

• Word games are being reclaimed by hobby designers left and right these days, and Wibbell++ is the latest in the revolution. Behrooz Shahriari and company have put together a game system, with multiple games that can be played with the same deck of cards. Wibbell itself is a word game that rewards quick thinking. Be the first to blurt out a word using one letter from every card. But the more rounds you win, the more cards you have to use, making your task tougher; it’s like the vocabularist’s version of a tractor pull. (KS link)

Darkest Night from Jeremy Lennert is the fourth title to be handpicked by the Victory Point Games crew for a shiny new edition, courtesy of KS pledges. The original campaign experienced a hiccup when VPG realized their audience had issues with some of the campaign structure, and it was canceled. But necromancers just can’t be kept down, as it turns out. The campaign has relaunched, none the worse for wear, including options for both miniatures lovers and standee supporters. I’m on Team Standee, myself; I love the smell of VPG soot in the morning. (KS link)

• Gil Hova’s party game Bad Medicine quickly sold out its initial print run, but it’s being reprinted by Formal Ferret Games and has even metastasized, with the new growth being the Second Opinion expansion. The crux of this pitching party game is downplaying the side effects from your pharmaceutical concoction, but this expansion adds complications, an oddly thematic new mechanism with cards that will add surprise cards to your pitch. Gil has also teased that French and German localizations might be in the works; let’s just hope the EMA doesn’t look under this particular childproof cap. (KS link)

• I can imagine that, in a few millennia, humanity will have run out of memorable titles for our petty wars, so I applaud the tongue-in-cheek backstory of Mothership: Tabletop Combat, whose events were supposedly precipitated by the “great Space Disagreement of 5406”. (Somewhere, Picard is facepalming.) Rookie designer Peter Sanderson is trying to reduce the space epic to a manageable playtime while retaining tech trees, grid-based maneuvering with asteroid fields, and pew-pew dogfights. (KS link)

• Last year, a small publisher no one had heard of called Mindclash Games stormed onto the scene with their heavy euro sim of 19th-century illusionist acts, Trickerion: Legends of Illusion. They’re staying with a euro backbone for their new release Anachrony, by the design team of Amann, Peter, and Turczi, but the plastic minis and coat of sci-fi paint will likely turn the heads of the meat-damage crowd, too. The hybrid style feels like a Schwarzenegger T-800: living tissue over metal endoskeleton. (KS link)

• When you’re creating a big, sprawling fantasy adventure game, as NSKN Games did in 2015 with Błażej Kubacki’s Mistfall, you undoubtedly have to make judicious cuts to keep the content in line with your target MSRP. I’m guessing the game has hit expected sales numbers, because it has merited a standalone expansion, dubbed Heart of the Mists. This expansion doesn’t seem to tweak the gameplay formula much, opting instead to go the variety route, adding more heroes, enemies, quests, and encounters. One can only assume that the “Bridgton Supermarket” scenario is next in line for development, right? (KS link)

• Would you rather be Indiana Jones or Rick Grimes? That’s the dilemma presented by the latest Queen Games project, which features big box editions of the popular Escape: The Curse of the Temple and its cousin Escape: Zombie City. A shrewd observer might remark that Temple has already received a big box, which is true; this second edition includes all three main expansions and all but one of the “Queenies”, as well as an updated insert to help keep it all sorted. So I guess it’s sort of the bigger big box? (KS link)

• Almost every ancient culture has a flood myth, but in a couple thousand years when inter-galactic travel is no big deal, those flood myths might be supernova myths. (The great part is that we’ll still be able to call the escape pod an “ark” since, you know, that’s a term sci-fi writers use.) Sol: Last Days of a Star, from brothers Ryan and Sean Spangler and their Elephant Laboratories imprint, is that story. You’re harvesting energy from the dying sun to power your ark, but the harvesting process is no multiplayer solitaire. (KS link)

• Veteran gamers will recognize Town of Salem: The Card Game as another riff on the classic Werewolf formula, but one with an interesting origin story: the card game is a back-formation from a video game of the same name — first browser-based and then released for Steam and mobile — originally created by Josh Brittain and Blake Burns at BlankMediaGames. Folks from villages all over have been doing play-by-email Werewolf sessions for a long time, but these guys beat everyone to the punch on actual video game implementation of that concept, and now the witchery they cooked up is paying off. (KS link)



Editor’s note: Please don’t post links to other Kickstarter projects in the comments section. Write to me via the email address in the header, and I’ll consider them for inclusion in a future crowdfunding round-up. Thanks! —WEM
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Mon May 16, 2016 2:35 am
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Designer Diary: Dice Heist, or Art and Other Accidents

Trevor Benjamin
United Kingdom
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In 2014 we — that is, Brett Gilbert and Trevor Benjamin — began working on a push-your-luck dice and card game. Dice Heist is not that game.

In that other game, players took turns making a run at a single ladder of cards. They would roll dice to move down the ladder, one rung at a time. After each roll, they could call it quits, taking all the cards on all the rungs traversed, or — in classic push-your-luck fashion — they could roll on, with the hope of winning more but at the risk of losing it all. After each run, regardless of the player's success or failure, a new card was added to each rung and the next player would take their turn.

While that game wasn't without its charm, it suffered from some pretty severe problems. First, the outcome could be swingy — really swingy. The size of the "pot" increased quickly, and winning a big one could net a ridiculous number of points. And if the player before you won big, you'd be faced with a very small pot — a pot that you were nonetheless forced to make a run at since the game offered you no other choice. And to top it all off, the extended nature of the dice rolling made individual turns too long — and in a short game players got too few of them — all of which made a "bust" feel devastating.


Early prototype of "that other game"


Enter Dice Heist. One evening, on the way home from our weekly playtest session, the spark of a new game emerged from the ether — a spark that, as it turned out, contained a cluster of solutions to the problems we were having with our original game.

First, what if players weren't forced to make a run if faced with a weak pot? What if they could pass instead? And what if passing meant they could increase their chances of success on a later turn? This binary choice — to pass or play — became the core, driving mechanism of Dice Heist: Each turn you either "recruit a sidekick" (that is, take a die and add it to the number you can roll on a later turn) or "attempt a heist" (roll your dice).

Second, what if there weren't a single pot? In Dice Heist there are four separate museums, each accumulating their own separate stocks of exhibits: cards representing paintings, artifacts, and gems. When you attempt a heist, you must choose which of the four museums to target. If you succeed, you win only those cards. By splitting the pot in this way, a single good turn doesn't necessarily sweep the whole board and leave nothing for anyone else. The next player is never left just fighting for the scraps; they can always choose to take another die and improve their chances for next time.

Finally, what if the gut-wrenching risk-reward decision was condensed into a single moment? A single choice followed by a single roll? In Dice Heist you don't keep rolling and re-rolling, each time calling it quits or pushing on. Instead you choose your level of risk — which museum to target and how many dice to roll — then roll those dice once. If at least one of your dice beats the museum's "security level" (a simple pip value from 2 to 5), you succeed and grab all of that museum's loot; if none of them do, you fail.


Final prototype of Dice Heist


That's the story of how we made Dice Heist: the happy accident. We didn't intend for it to replace our original game, but we're very pleased that it did — and we hope you are, too!

Trevor & Brett


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Sun May 15, 2016 1:00 pm
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Game Overview: Brix, or Complementary Colors Fight for Dominance

W. Eric Martin
United States
Apex
North Carolina
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I posted an overview video of Brix from Charles Chevallier, Thierry Denoual, and Blue Orange Games in late March 2016, then I headed off on vacation without posting it in this space.

Now that I am on vacation once again, I can rectify that error, instructing one and all on the minor challenge of creating a row of four blocks in your color or symbol without helping your opponent too much in the process. Why would you help your opponent? Because you're participating in a competitive three-legged race, with you and your opponent sharing space on the same bricks and therefore always placing both colors in the wall each time you build.

This concept isn't unique as Néstor Romeral Andrés published the similar, but more free-form TAIJI through Blue Panther in 2007, but I'd like to see more of it, if possible. Silly party games like Happy Salmon and Hands have something along these lines in that you score only when you help an opponent score at the same time (while still having only a single winner), but if you can suggest other competitive games with a three-legged element, I'm curious to hear about them!

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Sat May 14, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Tramways, or a New Approach to Picking Things Up and Delivering Them

AlbaN ViarD
France
Bourgogne
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I have played Age of Steam more than two hundred times, and I really like the simplicity of this game. You just have to connect hexes of the right colors and move cubes of the same colors to those hexes. There is a mathy mechanism behind the shares auction, but there are no more rules. Easy, isn't it?

But Age of Steam has several faults that I would have liked to remove if I were able to design a traditional train game:

• Building a network on a hex grid does not make sense, by which I mean that breaks the theme of building a rail network. All real city maps are printed on a square grid.

• The more you move a good in Age of Steam, the more money you earn — but there is no real reason to move a cube in a particular direction. For example, in real life if I want to go to the shop by train, I have a purpose for this; there is no particular thematic reason to move a blue cube to a blue city in Age of Steam.

• You gain the same income whether the link crosses one hex or five. In either case, you gain only 1, and that's unfair!

In 2011, I start designing a train game — Tramways — with these three ideas in mind.


As I had already designed tons of Age of Steam expansions, I thought that it would be a tough task to design an original and innovative new train game: "Ugh, there are so many good ones on the market..." In the meantime, I was developing my game Small City, which is basically a city-building game, so my first map for Tramways was my Small City maps — on a square grid, of course.


I wanted to link buildings, and thus where we have goods in Age of Steam, we have passengers in Tramways. They want to go shopping, relax in their homes, or head to work in a factory. For track segments, I cut only straight lines and curves. There were no actions, no auctions; it was just a pipeline game for fun.


On a grid, you can have only straight lines or curves, so you can connect to a single square in only four ways. I immediately thought that my grid was weaker than the hex maps, but I solved this issue by designing two-space rectangular buildings that had six ways to connect to them.


To make the game as simple as possible, I kept only two types of tiles (straight and curved), but allowed players to make a crossroads or to build two curves in opposite corners of the space immediately. After solving the topological issues of the conversion of the hex map into a 90° map, I started working on the aim of the game...

First map of Tramways with Sampo's design

Because I was at this time also working on connecting citizens in Small City to "vote points", I felt that a kind of humanity was missing from my games. Why are we stockpiling victory points without any more interesting purposes? What do citizens or passengers really want in their lives? Why do they want to move?

I kept the idea of earning money when passengers move to a commerce tile, but money couldn't be the ultimate victory points. I needed something greater than this idea. What about happiness points then?

And that's how getting the most happiness points at the end of the game quickly became the goal of Tramways.

Old graphic design of the cards

I noticed that to keep tension in a game, we absolutely need two important things:

• Something that keeps you from getting victory points.
• Something that increases the speed of the victory point engine so that players have the feeling of developing something during the game.

Thus, I needed some negative happiness points — and what greater enemy does happiness have in our lives than stress? That's why passengers who move to a factory increase a player's stress!


Before printing the first prototype of Tramways in 2011, I divided the game into two halves, focused on increasing the speed of the game. In the first half of the game, the players get cards and during the second half of the game, they use them. The more cards they have, the more actions they can take...


Tramways has always been a train game with cards, and these cards are represented as tickets, so handing in tickets to move passengers also feels thematic. Some cards have symbols that allow the players to take actions, but there are always different combinations of symbols on the cards, so you have to choose which symbols to play.

Stress symbol

If you want to take more actions with a single card, you can, but as you use more abilities on the same card, you have to increase your stress level. That's another tradeoff that players must keep in mind: You can use fewer cards if you are willing to accept some stress during the game.


Tramways is a game with only three main actions, but each action is powerful and affects all players because everyone plays on the same map. Should you connect interesting areas to each other, upgrade old buildings, and build brand new lines to create new value in these buildings? Should you build long, expensive, but very beneficial lines, or short and inexpensive lines? When is it most appropriate to upgrade?


Now, how will the players get the cards? I very much like auction systems, but I also think that it is an easy (too easy) way for a designer to balance the game when the designer wants to provide different abilities to the players. It's a nifty mechanism, but overused in so many games. That's why I had to design a completely innovative auction system that took me two years to devise...


The winner of the auction gains stress; I think it makes sense that when you win the auction, you increase your stress because the other players focus their eyes on you and you have to make prompt decisions. I've lived through so many Age of Steam games in which I won the auction, paying more than $10, without even knowing which actions to select.

I also like the idea of the cumulative bids. Each time you bid in Tramways, you have to pay if you want to stay in the auction; you can pay with cash or with money symbols on your cards, but if you do the latter, you will have fewer cards, and thus fewer actions later in the game. Some cards have a negative effect that you cannot avoid when you play the card, so it's important to have as few of these as possible in your deck, lest they pollute it.


In a traditional, route-building train game, position on the map is crucial, so maybe you bid high (even though the cards up for auction are not important) solely because you want to build first! Or maybe you want to avoid some cards/tickets with negative effects (called "consequences") in the game (like voided tickets)? There is always a good reason to bid or to not bid in Tramways.

So much stress! Is there no way to reduce your stress in this game? Easy! Just move passengers to their homes! Fine, good to know, but how do you get happiness points? Move passengers along your rail network; you will receive money from the bank, and the longer the line is, the more money you earn.

Lastly, if money is not the aim, what is money for in Tramways? To stay in the auctions and to get the best cards, but also to buy happiness when you link up leisure tiles.

To be consistent with my other games in the Small City universe, I kept the same "1+2+3+4..." mechanism, which works great here as well. For example, you could spend $15 at the Leisure building to get 5 happiness points all at once, or spend merely $6 to get 3 happiness points.

In the first prototypes of Tramways, our main issues were to balance the action symbols, specifically figuring out how many of each to have and deleting stupid actions. (In the first prototype, passengers could use a boat on a river...) Also, the ability to move passengers required a particular symbol that was present on very few cards, so it was difficult to move passengers and too easy to build — which is strange for a pick-up-and-deliver game. Thus, in 2012 I decided that all cards would be tickets and inherently have the ability to move passengers. Sampo suggested using a magnetic strip on all the cards, and of course I immediately approved because it was so thematic!


In 2013, the game worked great, even if I disliked certain aspects such as some imbalanced actions (upgraded links and upgraded buildings). We also increased the replayability of the game by assembling the board like a puzzle; by printing on both sides, we could generate at least 64 maps for a four-player game. Around this time, I added a fifth player and reduced the number of spaces a little bit. Sampo made some really interesting graphics. Tramways still took place in the same modern era as Small City.


in 2014, CliniC and Small City took up all my time and I could not improve or develop Tramways as much as I would like, but the game was still played by several groups around the world, trying to balance the symbols and the money/happiness tempo. That said, I found some time to design a nice solo variant for the auction system, and I again reduced the number of spaces.

New graphic design of the cards

At the beginning of 2015, Sampo introduced me to Paul Laane and we decided to make a prequel to Small City, placing Tramways one hundred years earlier. I love old-fashioned locomotives from the 1920s, and the art deco style was an obvious choice. We were of one mind with Paul for the cover, and when I saw his first sketch for the box cover, it was love at first sight.


At the end of 2015, we returned to developing Tramways, modifying the aspects I disliked in 2013. We balanced all the actions, we fixed the number of cards and the hand limit, and we cleaned up the rules for the auctions, which were hard to write simply. (Thank you again, Nathan!)


The last improvements were made March 16, 2016, when we changed the maps into modular boards with the two sides offering different difficulty levels. The possibilities are now endless and two games of Tramways won’t ever be the same. (Thank you, David, for this suggestion!)


I hope I kept your attention and made you feel like you designed Tramways alongside me over the last five years. I did not work on it each month, but we found something interesting to improve each month, such as the different progress of the last round that increases the strategy part of the game, the +2 stress when you win the auction of the last round, the development of the hand limit of cards, the number of factories, the increase of stress in the commerce tile, the stress track with the Fibonacci sequence, the rail worker limitation, or finally, the powerful development cards that you can purchase in the commerce instead of taking more money: They have been refined again and again, using several action icons on the same card to optimize everything!


I think I managed to replace the ideal hex map with a tight and tense square grid. It makes more sense to me. Playing tickets to play actions is a great thematic addition to this pick-up-and-deliver game. The players can decide to move passengers to certain places to get special abilities, so the passengers now have a purpose again, and the theme has been improved: It is not just goods moving to abstract places. Building new buildings that have a square size makes more sense to me than building hex cities. And finally, the longer the link, the more you are paid by the bank. That makes sense with the theme of the game, a ticket to a faraway place costs more money than a ticket to the next stop.

Now it is time to design another game: What about solving a crime committed in Small City or burgling the commerce?

Alban Viard
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Fri May 13, 2016 1:00 pm
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"Full Distributor Support" for Privateer Press' "Free Rider Policy"

W. Eric Martin
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At the end of March 2016, Privateer Press announced a new sales policy aimed at eliminating "free riders", the company's term for deep discount online retailers. From an ICv2 article on the announcement:

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"Over the last eleven years...online retailers with nearly no overhead and very little meaningful contact with our audience have been undermining the stability of the market by selling product at discounts well below retail value, depending solely on the efforts of our brick and mortar partners who offer services that nurture our audience and grow the market to move their product," [Privateer Press President Sherry Yeary] wrote. "This model of business is widely recognized by experts and the justice system as 'free riding.' While this can be a viable business model for many mainstream products, it is common knowledge that in our industry it's crippling and anticompetitive."

Privateer plans to create a list of retailers that it views as "free riders," which it defines as "retailers...offering Privateer Press products at an unsustainable deep discount and offer[ing] very little or nothing in the way of services" and will impose sanctions on distributors that sell to those retailers. The list will be updated by adding or deleting retailers as needed. Distributors that sell to retailers on Privateer's "free rider" list will have their shipments of Privateer product, including new releases, delayed. The new policy goes into effect on April 4 [2016].

"We do not condone the free riders' parasitic business model and elect to both continue and enhance our partnerships with those distributors that share our point of view and actively work in the best interests of the brick-and-mortar retailers," Yeary continued. "While we cannot and would not dictate to our distributor partners who they can or cannot sell to, we believe free riders are eroding the foundation of our industry and hurting our business; only with the cooperation of our distribution partners can we prevent that."

Now Privateer Press has followed up that announcement to champion "full distributor support" for this sales policy change. Here's the text of its May 11, 2016 press release:

Quote:
Privateer Press Announces Full Distributor Support for Free Rider Policy

Privateer Press is pleased to announce that all of its North American distribution partners have signed Privateer's new distribution contract and agreed to support the company's new free rider policy, which seeks to discourage high-volume online retailers that do not offer meaningful services from undermining the growth and sustainability of the industry.

Privateer's free rider policy discourages the sale of products to a category of online retailers recognized as harmful to the industry. Thanks to the universal support of Privateer's North American distribution partners, the policy will help ensure that honest, hard-working retailers — including online retailers that are not in violation of the policy — will be able to compete fairly and without the predations of crippling and anticompetitive practices. In doing so, the policy also safeguards the brick-and-mortar retailers' role in providing players with access to the worldwide community of players who enjoy the friendly competition, hobby experiences, and casual and competitive organized play for which Privateer Press is a recognized industry leader.

Privateer's North American Distributors consist of ACD, Aladdin, Alliance, E-Figures, Gamus (GTS), Golden, Lion Rampant, Peachstate Hobby (PHD), Southern Hobby, and Universal.

"We greatly appreciate the support and commitment to the health of brick-and-mortar retailers shown by our North American distribution partners," said Sherry Yeary, president of Privateer Press. "Change won't happen overnight, and eliminating free rider practices will be an ongoing issue that will take time and a united effort between publishers and distributors to overcome, but we have already seen the positive effect of instituting this policy, and we remain committed to its success, no matter what it takes."

Since Privateer announced its new free rider policy, over 200 brick-and-mortar stores who do not currently stock WARMACHINE and HORDES have committed to carrying the new editions of the games because of the policy. All launch kits for the new editions of WARMACHINE and HORDES are sold out at the manufacturer level through presales to distributors.

This sales policy change works along the same lines as that of Asmodee North America — something I've described in detail on BGG News: Reduce the ability of online sellers to move product at prices nearly equal to the distributors' costs so that brick-and-mortar stores will more readily champion and promote that publisher's games. Why? Because these publishers believe that over the long term they will benefit more from the promotion of their games to new audiences through B&M outlets than through immediate sales to existing buyers through online outlets.
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Thu May 12, 2016 4:00 pm
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New Game Round-up: Revisiting the Renaissance, and Assassinating Hitler (But Not in the Same Game)

W. Eric Martin
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Sierra Madre Games has already placed an October 2016 release date on Bios: Genesis, as noted on BGG News in April 2016, and now SMG has two other titles due out in time for Spiel 2016 in October, with Phil and Matt Eklund's Pax Renaissance being a new version of 1996's Lords of the Renaissance. Here's an overview of the setting and gameplay:

Quote:
As a Renaissance banker, you will finance kings or republics, sponsor voyages of discovery, join secret cabals, or unleash jihads and inquisitions. Your choices determine whether Europe is elevated into the bright modern era or remains festering in dark feudalism.

In Pax Renaissance, you have two actions each turn. As in other Pax games, you can acquire cards in a market, sell them out of the game, or play them into your tableau. You can also stimulate the economy by running trade fairs and trading voyages for Oriental goods. A map of Europe with trade routes from Portugal to Crimea is included, and discovering new trade routes can radically alter the importance and wealth of empires, ten of which are in the game.

Four victories determine the future course of Western Society: Will it be towards imperialism, trade globalization, religious totalitarianism, or enlightened art and science?

Pax Pamir: Khyber Knives from Cole Wehrle boosts the variety of gameplay of 2015's Pax Pamir through the addition of six Wazir cards and 54 new games cards. To quote the publisher's description:

Quote:
Now players can attempt to use their political acumen to secure game-changing capabilities. Imprison your opponent's spies in your dungeon or rely on piracy in the Punjab to fund your ambitions. Battle for influence over the six regional governments or attempt to do your own dynasty building. Players have never had this many routes to dominance. The fight for a new Afghan future has just begun.

• For an adventurous topic being tackled in game terms, I present Philip duBarry's Black Orchestra, for which publisher Game Salute will be running a straight-up pre-order campaign instead of a Kickstarter. Here's an overview of the setting and gameplay, with much more detail on the BGG game page itself:

Quote:
As Hitler's grasp on Germany tightens and his maniacal fervor is unmasked, men from the highest levels of the Reich begin to plot his assassination. As the clock ticks and Hitler's ambitions grow, these daring few must build their strength and prepare for the perfect moment to strike. The Gestapo hound their trail, calling these conspirators "Schwarze Kapelle", the Black Orchestra. Will this band of daring patriots save their country from utter ruin before it is too late?

Black Orchestra begins with each player choosing an historic figure involved in the conspiracy against Hitler. In this dark and dangerous pursuit, motivation is perhaps your greatest weapon. If you can stay true to your convictions in the face of overwhelming threat and inspire your comrades, then you will be able to use your special ability, attempt plots, and even become zealous (necessary for some extremely daring plots).

But every move you make may also increase the suspicion of the authorities. The Gestapo will make routine sweeps, and any players with high suspicion will be arrested and interrogated (possibly resulting in other players being arrested). If you are all arrested or if the Gestapo finds your secret papers, you lose. And the suspicion placed on each conspirator will increase the chances their plots are detected.

• Gil Hova of Formal Ferret Games has signed on as the U.S. publisher of Tobias Gohrbandt and Heiko Günther's Peak Oil, with development of the game continuing ahead of a planned Kickstarter funding campaign in October 2016.

• Developer Ralph Bruhn has posted a draft cover of Stefan Feld's The Oracle of Delphi, which is currently expected out from Hall Games and Pegasus Spiele at Spiel 2016 in October, according to Bruhn.

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Thu May 12, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: ...and then, we held hands.

Dave Chircop
Malta
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The following diary is from the perspective of designers Yannick Massa and Dave Chircop, with the author of each section signing off at the end.

The Jam

So we were asked to write a diary for the development process of ...and then, we held hands., and this has proved a bit difficult for us because ATWHH wasn't developed over weeks of painstaking design and playtest sessions; it was designed, developed, and printed in 48 hours (many of which Dave and I spent in blind panic, but we'll get to that). Thus, we thought it might be a good idea to run you through a play-by-play of our experience at Global Game Jam 2014! Scared? Me too. Okay, let's go!

Friday Night

Dave and I arrive at the Institute of Digital Games at 5 p.m. full of vim and vigor. We-re not scared of our first ever game jam. After all, Dave has been into board games since he was in short pants, and I've been designing adventures for pen-and-paper roleplaying games since I was 15. Games are just what we do. With a confident wink at each other, we take our seats and wait for the presentation to begin. We sit through a few talks, waiting impatiently for the theme to be announced and inspiration to strike.

Finally, the chosen hour — 7 p.m. — arrives, and we're shown the theme that will guide the design of our game: "We don't see things as they are, we see things as we are."

Okay.

Not what we would have chosen, but we can work with this. I already have a few ideas going in my head, and I can see the hamsters working furiously in Dave's head. But first things first, we need more people for our team. Both Dave and I come from a design background with some programming and art skills thrown in between us, so we were looking to strengthen our numbers with a programmer and an artist. A cursory look around the room showed that everyone had already formed their own little teams, but we had a go at trying to poach someone, at least an artist. Alas, no dice, so we knew we were making a physical game right off the bat.

We find a quiet spot to settle down and brainstorm, and we come up with a number of fun, novel ideas that neither of us wants to work on. After a few hours of pitching ideas to each other and getting nowhere, we decided to change tack. We made our way over to a table, affectionately nicknamed "The Hoard" which holds everything we could need for making a board game prototype, picked up a bunch of graph paper, Magic cards and meeples, and started experimenting with new mechanisms, some way to play that we don't usually see done in board games. We already knew some things at this point: Dave wanted to make a game about hand-holding; I wanted to beat the idea out of him.

Midnight rolls around and still no ideas. Despair starts to creep up on both of us. Maybe we're just not as good at this as we thought. We're players, not designers! "Have you ever actually made anything WORTH playing?" I'm screaming to myself. I look up at Dave and see panic in his eyes. I'm even considering relaxing my hand-holding veto. Everyone around us is busy working on their games, and we don't even have an idea yet — just a few half-formed mechanisms we think would be really cool, maybe. It doesn't look good.

By 4 a.m., we're ready to call it a night. Defeated, we trudge out to Dave's car, and he gives me a ride home. "I'm not sure we're cut out for this", he tells me, and I can't find it in myself to disagree. We agree that he'll come back for me at 9 a.m. and we'll give it another shot when we're a bit fresher. I fall asleep that night thinking about the ideas that we DID like: co-operation, an open hand, and a circular board.

Saturday Morning

I wake up feeling refreshed despite the short sleep. Dave picks me up, and we head to the Institute where we get right back to work. I head to the Hoard and rummage around to find the last thing I had been thinking about before I fell asleep: a piece of graph paper made out of concentric circles. I show it to Dave. I want this to be our board.

Dave hasn't been idle, though. He's drawn up a few cards with a different color on their left and right borders, and he's come up with a mechanism in which you can see only half a card at any one point but can switch. Dave calls this "Perspective" and thinks it will fit in nicely with the theme. I agree. While he's busy finishing off a prototype set of cards, I draw up a rough draft of the board.


Pretty soon, we're ready to playtest our first prototype, a game in which you color-match cards to nodes to move to the center, using each other's hands and switching perspectives when you cross over the board's main line. This first playtest shows us what we already knew inside: that this game was incredibly boring. We know we want to use the mechanisms, but the gameplay is dry, and there's no flavor. I suggest that maybe the colors could be emotions. "Spend emotions to move across a board representing a psyche", I say. "Why are two people in one psyche?", Dave replies. "I don't know, maybe they're in a relationship", I quip. We pause. We make (intense) eye contact. We know we've found something we love. It's decided.

In the meantime, noon has almost come 'round, and we need to lock in a name for our game. In a last-minute panic, Dave types in "...and then we held hands" and saves. "We'll change it later", he assures me. In any case, it's better than our original title: E-motion.

Saturday Afternoon

We break for lunch and fill up on pizza and beer. We're feeling a lot better than last night. Now we have a concrete idea of what we want to make: a cooperative game about a couple trying to fix a broken relationship. The theme seems to slip snuggly onto the mechanisms, and the gameplay felt intimate, but even so, there were a lot of problems to fix.

First, we needed to balance the board, and we got this out of the way quickly, so our playtests would reflect the gameplay we wanted. Second, we needed to fix the fact that players could move as much as they wanted, provided they had the cards they needed, and thus the Balance track was born. Third, we needed to add short term goals to the game, stepping stones to the game's final objective, and after relatively little playing around we had the Objective deck.

By 5 p.m. we had performed the first successful playtest of the barest bones of what would become the print-and-play version of ATWHH. It's at this point we realize we're the only team at the Jam working on a board game; all the others are making digital games. This doesn't bode well for us. After all, digital games are bound to be more impressive. We don't care. We finally have clarity.

Saturday Night

It's 7 p.m., and we're running to the closest stationery store with a printer. I've only just finished designing the final board, and we want to see what it looks like on paper. Unfortunately, Dave hasn't finished the cards yet (there really were a lot), so we'll have to find another printer tomorrow. On a Sunday. In Malta. We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

The board looks great. The red nodes look a bit orange, but other than that, we've got ourselves a solid board. Dave settles down to finish the cards, while I keep running a few more playtests. By 3 a.m., all the legwork is done, and we settle down to do a final playtest before calling it a night.

Six beers later, Dave drops me off at home. There's no self-doubt this time. We made something we think is great. We agree to meet at 9 a.m. again to start looking for a printer.

Sunday Morning

This is it. The Jam is scheduled to finish at 3 p.m., so we have six hours to find an open stationery store that can print and cut the cards we need. If you've never been to Malta, finding any shop open on a Sunday is no small feat. We hit up a number of stores: all closed. When we do find one that's open, it can't print to our specifications. The next one we find open has terrible print quality, compromising the polished feel we'd managed to achieve using Dave's Photoshop skills.

Finally, in a desperate last try before we settle for awful printing, we go looking for a vaguely remembered store that may or may not have been there. But lo and behold, it was there, open, and could do what we wanted — that is, all except for the cutting, for which the shop owner kindly let us use her paper-cutter and even lent us a hand to speed the process along. Thank you, kind-hearted stationery shop owner.

Sunday Afternoon

By this point it's 1 p.m., and we're taking it pretty easy. We're driving back to the Institute at a leisurely pace, confident in the knowledge that we've finished everything. We have a printed board and two decks of printed cards, and we even found some glass beads to use as fancy tokens.

And then I realize we never wrote the rules down. I mean, we'd scribbled notes of the main points, but we'd never formalized them into a proper rulebook. Suddenly Dave's driving a lot faster. We somehow make it in time with thirty minutes to spare and I speed-write a rulebook and submit.

The Jam's over. The rest is history.

—Yannick

Cover of the print-and-play version from Global Game Jam 2014


Inspiration

I had the crazy and annoying idea of making a game about holding hands. I still don't admit today that it was a terrible idea, mostly just to stand my ground. Yannick immediately shot me down. ...and then, we held hands. is essentially the game I subdued Yannick into making with me so that I could still keep part of the "holding hands" idea alive.

Okay, maybe it wasn't exactly like that, but the original idea was about closing our eyes and holding hands and trying to communicate using just that, without speech. Sound familiar? Looking back, this seems to have survived in the no-talking rule, which Yannick had brought up again much later in the design process.

Much of our Friday night was spent struggling, thinking, scrapping, starting, and restarting different designs, with frequently repeated walks to the pizza place on the other side of the university, walking back with a slice.

Our second game was something that had to do with double-sided cards and the ability to be able to look at each other's hands and manipulate them, flip them over, change them, take them from each other. Sound familiar again? Well, yes, now that I think about it, part of this game survived in the final product, too, in the card-splaying "perspective change" mechanism. I never really thought about it this way, but the final product (which we actually started explicit work on only on Saturday) became a sort of conglomeration of all the previous failed concepts that we tried before.

In this photo, you can see two designers hiding their inner despair as they can't find anything that works. That night we went home disheartened, desperate, knowing we would never be game designers, thinking about our future careers as fast food (not servers — the food itself as we wanted to be burgers).


But Yannick has told us a lot more about despair in his previous post. I'm supposed to talk about inspiration! Happy thoughts, Dave, happy thoughts.

I think the moment of truth came on Saturday morning. Yannick and I had managed to catch a few hours sleep. I picked him up in the morning, and we drove there in relative silence. Maybe it was our disappointment in ourselves, or in each other. We arrived there around 9 a.m. Most other jammers had spent the night there, working on their cool ideas. We were there knowing that we would need to register an idea on the game jam website by the 11 a.m. deadline.

Simon, a fellow jammer and designer, pointed out to us he had brought some paper with grids for us to fiddle around with. Yannick went to check it out to see what there was, while I started setting up the profile for a game with no name. Yannick came back and showed me a grid printed on an A4 paper of consecutive circles. Yannick looked at me with a cheeky smile; I looked at him with a face begging "please be good news, please be good news". He sat down on the floor and started moving pieces around the grid.

"Two people, a failing relationship", he said.

My face slowly transformed to a wondrous smile. "They need to get to the center to save it", I replied.

We paused for a moment.

"Dammit, Yannick! We have the game", I said, breaking our awestruck silence.

"Really??" he said in disbelief.

"Yes, man! This is it", I assured him.

"Okay."

And then we took this photo.


It was cold.

We knew we had our game. Now it was a matter of finishing it, joining it up, and compiling the bits together to create the early version of the game you see today. The perspective change and the no-talking mechanism were inspired by previous ideas that our minds were still swimming in from the previous nights, but there are many other things that showed themselves to us and not the other way round.

Yannick and I, separately and without having told each other, were going through a difficult period in both of our relationships. This fact came about months later, but it was quite eye-opening to understand why the theme was such a resounding YES! for both of us. Mind you, the game was not designed with this in mind, but the mindset that we were in at the time appears through and through.

...and then, we held hands. is a game about altruism, I like to think. Altruism in that you often have to look out for your partner more than you have to look out for yourself, and this works only if your partner is doing the same. If one player is looking out for only himself, then the game will crash very, very quickly. It's quite fascinating how some players, and even ourselves, fall into a problematic rut and don't realize it until only our partner can save us.

—David

Print-and-play version


Development

Development of ...and then, we held hands. was quite a particular process, I would say. The game was already a simple, distilled concept when it came out of the proverbial game jam oven, so it was hard to simplify and distill it even further. Many of the discussions of issues we knew the game had ended up in no result. We often would find something we didn't like about the game, and three hours of discussion later realize that that's the only way we would have it. Because of the scale of the game, we also noticed that even little changes had amplified effects on the game in general, so we needed to treat the game with a certain feel of delicate trim.

The first and perhaps easiest change for us was the dropping of the extra lines in-between the nodes. The original design which we had made included connecting lines between nodes that did not allow movement. For us, back then, the board looked significantly better with them, but they had no other significant value for the game. This was the first exercise in detachment. It's interesting how often time allows you to change perspective on the game. It is good to note that the game had a significant period of time between when it was signed and when it came to be published. Interestingly, what seemed important right out of game jam began to seem less and less important as we went along. By the end, the lines were cut without remorse.

The second change we made was the fusion of the objective decks into one. In the original game, players would take turns drawing an objective so that each was associated with one of the players. When we originally designed the game, it was designed within a community that significantly valued the figurative. Initially, there was value in leaving them separate. The emotional choice, and the metaphor of allowing your partner to complete your own emotional goals, was a meaningful and grounded addition, providing quite a bit of flavor to the game.

When it came to bringing the game to the real world, though, and away from the sheltered experimental shed of game jam, these quirks became less valuable and needed a bit of ironing. A similar rule to this was one in which if you use six or more cards, even if you don't reach balance, you still get to refill your hand. This rule was there to represent a person having an emotional outpouring and the emotional replenishment and relief that often comes with letting out something you had been keeping in for a long time. Again, outside the game jam environment, this rule became redundant as it was never used or found valuable in our playtesting, so it got chopped.

But the changes were not all about reducing. We knew that the game, once players start understanding and collaborating well with each other, would become easier to solve, so we needed to add a mechanism that would add longevity and scalability to our game. I think out of all the development, this is the section that took the largest amount of time and iteration. We playtested more than five fully fledged systems of difficulty scaling for the game, but all of them were a lot more complex and didn't quite fit the rest of the game. Some required too many components, some were too fiddly, others made the game too long — until we finally managed to come up with the arguments concept that we have today.

LudiCreations supported us throughout the testing process, but in the meantime they were working in the background to do something a lot more amazing: getting Marie Cardouat on board for the project. The publisher had quite a difficult task at hand. I had made very functional art for the PnP game that was quite iconic, so they needed to give that art a professional touch while staying true to the original feel of the game. We had a very strong trust-based relationship with the publisher. We made it clear to them what we liked and what our vision was, then we let them do their magic in the back room, and they came back to us with what you see today. There wasn't much iteration in terms of the illustration; it was more of a choir of wows and sighs.

—David

Emotion cards from the LudiCreations edition


The Future

So, the future might hold some exciting things for ...and then, we held hands. Dave and I are currently working on a new layer to the game, trying to add a real-time element — our wonderful composer Niccolo's music — to the turn-based gameplay. This has proven to be especially difficult.

Whatever mechanism we were to implement, we knew right away that it could not punish the player by, for example, having a different hindrance enter gameplay depending on which song of the soundtrack was currently playing. Since players don't have timed turn limits, they could just wait any especially hindering song out, slowing down gameplay. We needed something that affected players positively, maybe even granting shortcuts under certain circumstances.

Right now we're experimenting with the idea of giving the player opportunities to earn stackable bonuses by performing certain challenges under certain time-constrained conditions, such as while certain songs are playing. Stacking a bonus with another bonus would then give the players a spectacular advantage for a very limited time, forcing speedy play but only if the players choose to take their shot at the challenge. This leads to tricky moments when players need to empathize much more quickly, possibly making snap decisions their partner would then have to react to, with the promise of gaining advantages that will in turn allow them to finish the game in less time, effectively amping up the difficulty. Most importantly, the players have agency as to if and how they want to tackle these challenges.

It's been very important to us during this process to not add any dead weight to what we feel is already elegant, simple gameplay and also to not have any real-time mechanism that required a lot of physical additions. ...and then, we held hands. is a small and discreet game, and we felt that whatever is required to play the add-on needs to fit in the current box and, most importantly, be inexpensive to print and distribute. To that end we've been pursuing our usual minimalistic design approach and hope to deliver something new to all the great fans of this tiny board game.

In closing, we've also often been asked if we ever plan to open up the game to more players. To these people, we say that we briefly discussed the possibility of a three-player variant using a triangular board, but we haven't really committed any time to developing the idea. Maybe after the real-time expansion!

—Yannick
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Wed May 11, 2016 1:00 pm
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