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

Archive for Designer Diaries

1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5  Next »  [35]

 Thumb up

Designer Diary: The Looter's Guide to Looting Atlantis

Nick Sauer
United States
Hamilton Square
New Jersey
flag msg tools

Inspiration can come from the strangest places. I had just gotten my first working prototype of another game called Born to Serve — a game in which players are out-of-work superheroes fighting for a wait-staff position at a restaurant — up and running when I was approached by a game designer friend of mine to create a board game based upon a specialized board the company had. I looked at the board which had an elevated area in the center with steps down the sides. If you can imagine a step pyramid, you pretty much have it, but for some reason it reminded me of a volcano. When I thought of a volcano erupting, I thought of the destruction of the legendary civilization of Atlantis — so what would the players be doing during a game in which Atlantis was being destroyed by a volcano?

I guess my cynical sense of humor was still active from the recent Born to Serve work because I had the following brainstorm: If I were forced to flee a high-tech society to go live in some podunk kingdom where they didn't even understand what electricity was, I would be grabbing as much high-tech gear as I could to set myself up as a wizard. I was also going through the series Stargate SG-1 at the time, so I'm sure there was some subconscious inspiration from that going on as well.

I decided to simulate all the high-tech gadgets with cards and have a variety of scoring systems for each group. The game would be a set-collecting one in which players tried to grab as many cards as they could before lava from the central volcano wiped out everything. As I built the card sets, it became apparent fairly quickly that the board I was using didn't work for what I was trying to accomplish. I needed a larger state space for the game in order for the scoring to work the way I wanted. I ended up withdrawing the design from consideration and began engineering a board around the scoring system itself.

Development Process

In some myths, the city of Atlantis was rumored to be a series of concentric circles, so I made a round board with the city on the outer edge and the volcano that would rain lava down on the city in the center. The first board I built was literally round as well. I created the cards with PowerPoint, which I usually do as I seem to be one of the few people on the planet who actually finds the software easy to work with.

After one solo playtest in which I played all four players, I realized that there needed to be additional cards that granted players special abilities to spice the game up a bit. The original equipment cards were just victory points in the early version of the game. I banged out twenty of these action cards to add to the eighty-card deck and set up to play again. I got about a third of the way in when it became obvious that these special abilities had to be on the equipment cards themselves so that in addition to giving players victory points at the end of the game, you could also discard them to help yourself during the game. Another session with PowerPoint gave me the card set I wanted and brought the game surprisingly close to its final form. This all happened in about two months, which is a record short design time for me.

The rest of the work on the game was a lot of details. The Mass-Energy Converters, Fusion Batteries, and Unified Field Generators all had slightly different scoring systems. The yellow cards (Fusion Batteries) started life as regular Fibonacci sequence which, for reasons I can't honestly remember at this point, gave me some sort of scoring concerns. The modified sequence that exists on the cards today fell into place first for these three sets. The UFGs took a little longer, and I created them because I wanted to give players a reason to collect different sets.

In the process of doing this, I kept simplifying how they scored — which sounds a lot easier than it actually was at the time. The blues (Mass-Energy Converters) got hit last. Originally, you needed one donut to score the circles at all, with each additional donut effectively adding one to the multiplier. Playtesting quickly revealed that the blues kind of sucked, so they ultimately got changed into how they score today. A side note here: The donuts were originally half-donuts, which quickly got called "rainbows" by just about everyone who played the game. I really hated that name for them.

Anyway, the other thing that shifted at this time was the card mix. I locked down the number of cards (80) first. How the deck used to work was that the maximum on the scoring chart was the total number of that type of card in the deck: ten Fusion Batteries, five or six UFGs, etc. I think it was one of my gaming friends who gave me the idea of raising the number of cards in a color but allowing players to score only at whatever the highest value on the table was. I also tend to design my games with expandability in mind, so between this and my friend's suggestion I decided to lock all the main sets at 15 cards each with five UFGs, the idea being that I could add new suits at a future date that players could swap in for existing ones.

The blue cards went through two more changes, one game related and one cosmetic. Their original discard ability was to be able to draw the top two cards at your current location. This was close to the Fusion Batteries' two-actions-per-turn ability, which was pointed out to me by about a zillion playtesters. It took me an unreasonably long period of time to come up with the current ability, but it definitely works better.

The cosmetic change was the scoring chart on the card. Originally, all of the cards, including the browns, had a scoring chart on them. In the case of the blues, it was actually a scoring matrix that basically took up the entirety of the card that wasn't the top bar or the discard ability text. The matrix confused a lot of players, and the change to the blue scoring system I described earlier only made it harder to understand. Then there's this thing called artwork that most players seem to prefer on their game components, so between these two factors the matrix got pitched and replaced with the current system, which seems to work better for most players.

Final Adjustment

The final, and in my opinion, best change was the addition of the kingdoms, which happened only comparatively recently. They were inspired by the concept mentioned in a gaming podcast, and I apologize for not remembering which one specifically as I have seriously fallen off the podcast bandwagon over the past couple of years. The concept mentioned was the idea that a good game should tell a story, and the story here was that you were fleeing the collapse of Atlantis. Logically, there should be a point in the game when the players can actually do that.

I came up with the number of players minus one idea and actually got the point values pretty much right out the gate. If I remember correctly, originally fleeing was another action like moving or grabbing a card, but I changed it almost immediately as I wanted the decision on when to pull the trigger to be a little harder. It also made more thematic sense to me as — even though it doesn't look like it on the board — you are supposed to be flying a quarter of the way around the world or more with your air car.

Speaking of the board, the kingdoms also gave us something to do with the corners. To show you how late these were added, I had originally looked at the possibility of a round game board. For any future game developers/designers out there, spoiler alert, it's really expensive. Since we were kind of locked into doing a conventional square board, the kingdoms conveniently gave us something to put in the corners, and since we needed only three, this left room for the game logo on the last one.

That is the story of the construction of Looting Atlantis, and I hope you found it as entertaining as destroying that mighty civilization will be when playing the game.
Twitter Facebook
Sat Jun 4, 2016 4:00 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls
 Thumb up

Designer Diary: It's All In The Past Now, or Designing Guilds of London

Anthony Boydell
United Kingdom
Newent. Glos
flag msg tools
All of my children have attended Pauntley Primary, a tiny school located in the Gloucestershire countryside with views of the Malvern Hills. The village is typically-rural with its farms, detached cottages, and badly-maintained roads; where it is atypical, however, is in its history: Pauntley was the birthplace of Sir Richard Whittington (1354–1423), a medieval merchant and politician who is most famous for being London's Lord Mayor (four times). British folklore retells the story as Dick Whittington, with added foreign adventures and a famous cat. I was curious as to the difference between the modern "political" Mayor of London and this medieval alternative, so when one starts reading up about the Lord Mayor, one is quickly introduced to the idea of "Guilds":

London: The biggest, most important and richest city in England in the late medieval and early modern periods. The guilds played a major role in the lives of London's citizens, controlling the way in which trade, manufacturing and business were conducted in the City. The members of the guilds, the liverymen, were rich men who were appointed to the most influential positions in the community and wielded immense civic power. The chief representative of the guilds became the Lord Mayor of London, and the leading delegates of the guilds became its aldermen. The guilds ran the City and controlled its commerce; each had its own Hall and its own coat of arms (livery) and the chief representatives met at the Guildhall to discuss the great issues of the day.

Guild tiles: Incomplete and complete sides visible

Before I go on, this diary will not be going into full detail about how the game plays, so for more information, please read these blog posts from mid-2015 (noting that the pre-Tasty Minstrel Games artwork is used):

Part 1: A Brief Introduction
Part 2: The Guild Tiles
Part 3: The Action (Main Deck) Cards
Part 4: The Board and the Plantations
Part 5: The Mayoral Rewards (Game-End Scoring) Cards

Guilds of London is a card-driven area control game in which the timing and the application of combinations ("combos") are key; if I were to make an "elevator pitch", I would suggest Blue Moon City meets El Grande meets {insert name of trading card game here}. During the game, you recruit, place, and manipulate your Liverymen in newly-forming guilds, building your power base so they can achieve the status of Master. Achieving control of guilds provides victory points and, importantly, additional (free) actions that you can exploit, aiding your future developments in the City. The player with the most points at the end of the game becomes the Lord Mayor of London.

Noble (Crown) action cards (from L to R):
Gain 2 VPs,
Resolve the Plantation at the end of this Round, and
Spot two Guilds you have a Master on to move the Beadle to a non-Crown Guild and resolve
it at the end of this Round (even if it doesn't have the required minimum of Liverymen on it)

Designing Guilds of London

Due to the passage of much time, my recall is a little fuzzy, but Guilds of London was already an on-going project by the time Surprised Stare Games had a railway conversation that led to Snowdonia. I had just started working in London and was required to live away from home during the week; evenings were taken up with games — almost exclusively Magic: The Gathering — and, indeed, the first prototype was stickered on to M:TG commons. You don't need to wander very far in London to be smacked in the face with its incredible heritage and a little background reading revealed a rich historical world with an intriguing hierarchy of powerful, curiously-named organizations and their ornate, ostentatious rituals and traditions.

Compass (Artisan) action cards (from L to R):
• If you have hired four or more Liverymen this turn, gain 3 VPs,
• Every time you move a Liveryman with a card, you may move two Liverymen instead, and
• If you have moved three or more Liverymen this turn, then draw three extra cards at the end of the turn

Researching the Guilds

I do love to immerse myself in Theme when researching a game, preferably via collecting rare and unusual books about that theme. The history of Guilds of London begins with the book on the right; as well as being chock full of facts, it has a double-page spread with tiny photographs of the Company Liveries. This was the seed:

Discovering the Guilds (from the Discovering Series)

My next is another book-in-an-historical-series, this time from the 1950s and 60s; there is plenty in here about the Plantations, a key scoring element:

Other tomes available include: British Islands, British Architects and British Seasides

On my travels to-and-from London, I found the following close-up exploration of the form and functions of the Guildhall, the meeting place of all the Senior members; this inspired the "special buildings":

Gog & Magog, Giants, in resplendent carved glory

I also picked up this complete guide to how the Armorial Bearings — the Liveries, the "shields" — are structured, what the symbols are, and what the symbology means. I used this book to redraw all of the Guild shields for my prototypes. It's a beautiful book to just peruse:

Shields and Woodcuts

The piéce de resistance, though, is this rarity: one of just 500 copies, turning its thick, textural pages requires reverence:

Careful, now; a delicate treasure

Developing Guilds of London — 1

The very first prototype was a large deck of multi-function cards and nothing else; they could be played out as Guilds, be used as money, move your liverymen (your area control tokens), and (try to) take control of Guilds already in play. The range of card effects was very limited, though, and the first playing — with long-time pals Richard and Jimmy, prior to an M:TG booster draft — was rather lackluster.

Church (Cross) action cards (from L to R):
• Spot 2 Guilds you control of different colors and draw two extra cards at the end of the turn OR
Spot 2 Guilds you control that share a color and draw three extra cards at the end of the turn,
• Look at the top 5 cards of the draw deck: keep 1 and discard the others, and
• Move the Beadle to an unresolved Anchor Guild and/or draw 1 card immediately

However, from such inauspicious beginnings have many great games arisen, and I couldn't let this rich and delicious subject drift away, so I set about re-building: I separated the Guilds from the deck of action cards, giving them tiles of their own and hugely-increased the variety of card effects, tying them to color/suit themes:

Anchors (Blue): allowing special movement to "the plantation", a Guild that can be "mastered" more than once in the game;
Scythes (Yellow): recruiting new liverymen to seed across the City;
Crosses (Green): boosting your card-drawing and card-flow;
Compasses (Red): boosting your area control effects; and,
Crowns (Purple): all the other things that you'd want to do that don't really fit, thematically, into the other colors!

The second playtest, a few months later, was with Jimmy and another regular gaming pal, Jon Challis. We three chaps hunkered down for the evening and it proved a hugely-important session; the game not only worked, but it worked fantastically. I came away from that session with 80% of the game you see today and a little bounce in my step!

Maritime (Anchor) action cards (from L to R):
• Red (compass) cards are wild for the rest of your turn,
• Every time you use a card to move a Liveryman, you may move the Liveryman to the Plantation instead, and
• Move 1/2 Liverymen to/from the Plantation

Becoming Part of the Guilds of London?

On a whim, after another positive session at Jon's house, I contacted one of the Guilds: the Worshipful Company of the Makers of Playing Cards. I was getting hooked-in to the theme and given that I now, regularly, played games at The Red Herring Pub in Gresham Street (one hundred yards from the Guild Hall), I found out it might actually be possible to become a real Liveryman! After a tentative e-mail exchange, I took the Master of the Company out for an expensive lunch (£25 for the cheese board alone!) and was, then, invited to one of their official Suppers. The Supper was a very posh event for which I bought a brand new tuxedo; feeling rather out of my depth amidst the great and the good, I small-talked, sipped champagne and nibbled canapés, feasted in the Apothecaries' Company Hall, and listened attentively to all the speeches. Rounding off the evening was the ancient ritual of "The Loving Cup", for which I was given a brief "what to do" from my neighbor; here's a helpful video (NOT from that evening, I hasten to add):

Goodness! I don't think I've ever felt more out of my depth in my entire life!

Developing Guilds of London — 2

Life, work, gaming (and the tweaking of GoL) went on as normally as it could while I was split between Home and London. With the core elements from that second session in place, I concentrated on refining the cards; any shared deck mechanism stands-or-falls by the relative powers and distribution of its cards and, if power comes with a cost, the costs must be absolutely right. Fortunately, I had a gaming group with extensive trading card game experience, so we were able to spot the broken and/or under-costed combinations, beef up the weaker cards, establish effect templates, and improve the distributions quite quickly.

Common (Scythe) action cards (from L to R):
• Every time you hire a Liveryman with a card/effect, hire two instead,
• Hire two of your Liverymen OR one neutral Liveryman, and
• Spot a Guild that you control to hire two of your Liverymen and one neutral Liveryman (this is awesome!)

An aside familiar to designers everywhere: We often refer to "The Integer Problem" in game design, i.e., setting something at value 1 is broken/a "no brainer"/over-powered, but when set to value 2 is now neutered to the point of unplayability; in this instance, the value 1.5 would be absolutely PERFECT. Costing the powerful card effects suffered from this particular issue and it was one of the most focused parts of the game's development.

A selection of the Mayoral Reward cards: gained during the game, scored at the end

Something was still missing from Guilds of London, and as time marched ever onward, my attention was being drawn elsewhere. Over the next few years I designed and released Scandaroon, Fzzzt!, Totemo, Paperclip Railways, Snowdonia and Ivor the Engine — though, to be fair, in the gaps between those releases I would return to things GoL for brief periods. Then, as you can imagine, when Snowdonia took off, I could barely bring myself to think about anything else! GoL would come out at the occasional Surprised Stare Games designer day or informal games evening, eliciting a Boydellian cry of "I must get working on this again!" And back on to the shelf it would go.

During the final preparations for Ivor the Engine at the end of 2013, Guilds took its rightful position — front-and-center — in my priorities. I had brought both games along to Spiel for blind testing with some of my international pals, and as I laid out the Sheep tiles on the Top Left-Hand Corner of Wales, I realized how fighting for a Guild could be made more enticing, i.e., by adding randomly-placed "juicy" second-place bonus chits. I immediately borrowed the Ivor pieces and played a couple of games through that evening: It totally rocked! The next day I was visited by Richard Ham (rahdo) for an "overview video of what Tony is doing next" (which we ended up recording TWICE, thanks to a dodgy microphone):

I love the ENERGY in this video!

Such a positive reception spurred me on, and by the time Spiel 2014 rolled around, I had tested the bottom out of the "second place chits" and was ready to pitch it to potential publishing partners. As I was driving home from Spiel, I got a call from one of them (Intrafin) saying that they wanted to take it on and, within a few weeks, Klemens Franz started work on the layouts! I threw myself into helping Klemens because there were a LOT of different elements that needed doing: original box art, templating for 48 Guild tiles, standardizing the iconography of all the cards (105 action, 21 Mayoral Reward) and — of course — the rules. As if the volume of work wasn't bad enough, a posh spanner was also thrown in to the mix; I'll let the rulebook take the story from here:

Here are some of the "alternative" shields I put together (Christmas, 2014):

The greater part of 2015 progressed in this manner: questions, clarifications, checking and double-checking, and — all the while — my excitement for the coming Spiel increasing. Imagine, then, how hard the fall to Earth was when, on August 3rd, 2015 — the deadline day for committing the project to the manufacturers — our partner decided to pull out. At the point when I thought the long climb was over, it had all proved to be a false summit!

When the rage had subsided, Surprised Stare Games regrouped, made several full print-on-demand demo copies, and got back on the horse! And it's a bloody good thing that we did because otherwise I wouldn't have met Seth Jaffee or Andy or Michael Mindes or Daniel or Mischa! Tasty Minstrel Games has restored my Faith in the process and this game, set firmly in the Past, has gained itself a bright Future!

After ten years, I finally hold it in my hands!

Annex: The Guilds of London Chronology

v1.0 (early 2006): A homogenous, multi-function card flopper with no particular saving grace apart from the theme being intriguing to everyone.

v2.0 (mid-2006): A varied, interactive and TCG-tastic card-driven, area control extravaganza with a dynamic board (the Guild tiles) and a card list that needed some serious balancing.

v3.0 (2007-2009): Playtesting with pals (deck-tuning) and outside of my normal group at the London On Board club where we removed an entire type of action ("PLACE") by putting hired liverymen straight in to the Guildhall to be moved about instead. Reduced delay, reduced complexity — all the more satisfying.

v4.0 (2010): The introduction of the neutral liverymen who, during resolution of area control, can "swap in" and mess with majorities and tie-breaks. This mechanism also added additional effect options to the cards for more "agonizing decisions" — essential for a game with multi-use cards! Player interaction steps up a notch.

v5.0 (2011-2013): Lots of work on getting the two-player variant correct; this led to the decision to have a fixed board for two as opposed to the "grow during the game" board for three and four. I rejected the idea of making GoL a five-player game during this time: It simply made the game go on far too long, i.e., more than 75 minutes!

v6.0 (Spiel 2013): Player interaction takes a further step up by introducing randomly-placed, lucrative "second place" chits and reducing the restocking of Guild tiles to tighten up available play space! A final, increased, set of (now) unique game-end bonus cards was added to offer many more options for scoring.

v6.0 (Spiel 2014): A partner express their desire to publish Guilds of London; I commence graphical work with Klemens Franz.

v6.0 (Pre-Spiel 2015): The partner expresses their desire, at the last possible minute, to postpone everything until 2016. I got to Spiel anyway...with PoD copies!

v6.1 (Post-Spiel 2015): Tasty Minstrel Games contacts me and expresses its desire to publish Guilds of London!

v7 (Pre-production, 2016): With re-jigged components, Klemens revisits his files and we run through an extensive proofing cycle one more time — deja vu?

Final version (UK Games Expo 2016): The launch!

Twitter Facebook
Thu Jun 2, 2016 1:00 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls
 Thumb up

Designer Diary: World's Fair 1893, or Everything Affects Everything Else

J. Alex Kevern
United States
New York
flag msg tools
It's probably important to mention up front that World's Fair 1893 started as something entirely different. The whole process from end to end, inception to initial production, was about two years. It all started with a simple concept I call "stickiness". The idea is that on your turn you're placing a piece somewhere to take what's there (like in, say, worker placement), but then the piece stays there to score for other things. I love tradeoffs in games, and this became an interesting way to make each choice have implications for several things. To me, the fun part of playing games is making those tough decisions, deciding what to pursue and what to sacrifice. I had first explored this mechanism in Gold West, but I wanted to create a game built around that concept as the starting point. I also won't claim I invented this mechanism either — if you haven't played the game Québec, it's absolutely wonderful, and I took a lot of inspiration from that design.

Speaking on inspirations, the two biggest inspirations for the game were El Grande and Ra, two of my favorite games. If you've never played, El Grande is the definitive area majority game, with a wonderful tradeoff between placing more caballeros (read: cubes) on the board, activating more caballeros (so you can place them), and taking better/worse actions. Ra, on the other hand, is an auction game in which the winner of the auction will collect sets of tiles that score in different ways. Each player is collecting different things, so everyone evaluates a particular combination of tiles differently, which is what makes the auction interesting. I imagined a game that combined these mechanisms together — you're adding cubes to different areas trying to control them, all the while also collecting tiles that scored in different ways. This coalesced into the first prototype: a brown bag full of tiles with different symbols on them, and a hand-drawn board spanning four sheets of paper.

First "rapid prototype" of what would become World's Fair 1893

From this prototype a few different mechanisms were established that form the core of the game and still form the basis of the final game today. Place a cube in an area to take all the tiles there (cards, in the final version, more on that later), then replace three tiles, starting with the region from which you took and proceeding clockwise. I made it three tiles (instead of two or four) because three felt like a good amount of tiles to pick up each turn, so if I wanted players to usually pick up three, I figured each time you should put out three. Sometimes game design is as easy as that; other times it's not.

At this point, the game was more or less abstracted. When I'm exploring mechanisms, I'm always hesitant to weave in a theme too soon. I've always had the approach that I want to start with a game that creates interesting thoughts in players' heads, and doing that requires an unbounded decision space when it comes to changing the mechanisms within the game. Once I figure out how the "game" works, then comes the second step, which is coalescing it around a theme that fits, using that to refine secondary mechanisms, and tie everything together.

The Prototype

So as the concept slowly developed, it came time to find a theme and let the game coalesce around it. I had read a book called The Amber Room — don't bother as it's not that great; if you're going to read anything, read The Devil in the White City instead — and become interested in the amber trade, amber being the precious stone made from fossilized tree sap. As a fan of historical themes, I decided that the idea of players being amber merchants, collecting amber and other goods, and trying to control different key cities of the amber trade (Bern, Venice, etc.) would fit the game fairly well.

In this prototype, each region had a different value for first and second generated by placing a randomized tile on the area. The game had five "goods", which scored only for set collection (collecting multiples of the same good scored more points) and were not linked to any specific area. All the actions that are in the game today were present, but the actions in an area were executed immediately when you placed there. The subtle change to have actions played in your subsequent turn came later, but I'll talk about it now because my memory is not so great. Playing actions on your next turn gave players more options. For example, in the game today, the Daniel Burnham card lets you place an additional supporter in the same area where you place your initial supporter. By allowing players to pick up the card on one turn and use it on their next, it could be used on any one of the five areas; you're not stuck waiting for the action to pop up on the specific area where you need it.

Prototype at Gen Con 2014

I brought the prototype to Gen Con 2014 to play with trusted friends, including Adam McIver, who would end up doing the wonderful graphic design on the game. These playtests inspired a number of changes. I changed the game to a modular board and removed the tiles that increased the value of individual regions. In its place, the game had its first major breakthrough. (Let's call it Breakthrough #1.) I realized that the five goods in the game should correspond to the five areas you're trying to control. It made sense to link each of the goods to an area thematically and have each area be worth more if you had more of the associated good. It was a subtle change, but it resulted in each area having a different value to each of the players, which created interesting trade-offs in the game.

I decided to submit the game to Randy Hoyt at Foxtrot Games. I knew ever since I had played a prototype of Lanterns at Gen Con that I wanted to work with them, and the game seemed like it would fit with the weight and style of game they were looking for. A few weeks later Randy emailed to inform me he'd like to sign the game. There's no better email than that. I was thrilled.

Prototype submitted to Foxtrot Games

Intermission: The Theme

Underlying all of the changes that are to come was a major thematic overhaul of the game. All along, we knew the game probably needed to be rethemed. We explored a number of different things, all of which worked okay — but the World's Fair theme was a revelation. Sometimes you just know, "This is it; this is the game".

The Chicago World's Fair theme was both a better fit for the mechanisms and weight, and an infinitely more interesting and appealing theme that miraculously had not been explored in detail before in a game. Having lived in Chicago for over five years, I already had a fascination with it, so when Randy starting mentioning World's Fairs as a possible route in which we could go, the idea of focusing on the one from the city I loved so much only made sense. It helps it was the best World's Fair (completely objective and unbiased opinion).

I really credit Randy for all of the incredible thematic details in the game. Though a lot of the development happened under the "amber" theme, for sake of ease of understanding, I've re-couched all of the terminology in the diary below to match the final game today. What were goods became exhibits, the amber in the game became the Midway tickets, and the actions became the influential figures of the fair. If you're interested in more of the thematic aspects, we discussed them in detail on a podcast of The League of Nonsensical Gamers.

The Development

This was just the beginning of the game's development, and we needed to figure out a way we could reasonably playtest with me in New York and Randy in Texas. Randy imported the files onto Roll20, an online platform that would allow us to playtest in our disparate locations. I love the future. We played regularly almost every Friday.

The first thing that became apparent was that the player who collected the most exhibits would more often than not go on to win the game. The exhibits simply scored triangularly the more of a single type you collected. We also realized that we could probably do more than just reduce the number of points they're worth. After all, the more exhibits you collected, the more they were worth, so once you reached a certain point it made sense to just collect as many as possible — and if you weren't collecting a certain type of exhibits, there wasn't much incentive to start (with the exception of denying your opponent, which isn't all that fun), which meant you were better off just trying to earn points from controlling areas.

Through lots of experimentation, we arrived at two huge breakthroughs. These would end up being two of the most mechanically important aspects of the game.

Breakthrough #2: The exhibits must be approved in order to score. In other words, you needed to control the area that the exhibit was associated with in order to make it worth anything. This was critical because it integrated what were previously disparate strategic avenues: area majority and set collection. With this change, the set collection didn't mean anything if you didn't also spend energy on area majority, and the area majority wouldn't earn you much if you didn't also have exhibits to approve.

Breakthrough #3: The exhibits should score for diverse sets. This rule is critical because of the one above. Because you must control areas to approve exhibits, and you must approve a diverse array of exhibits to score meaningful points, this means (does mental connecting of the dots) you must control different areas over the course of the game. I love this rule because it alleviates the problem of some area majority games in which you can accumulate an insurmountable lead in an area, then reap the benefits all game. The rule that you have to remove half of your supporters each turn helps with this, but even so, the game now makes you want to control different areas. The end of each round should feel like an accomplishment when you approve exhibits, but it also quickly changes your focus as you must re-evaluate which new areas you need to try to control next round. This (hopefully) keeps the game play from feeling repetitive, as the goals you're trying to accomplish continually evolve.

Speaking of scoring rounds, the game always had three scoring rounds, but they weren't always triggered the same way. The Midway tickets were originally just a way to score points. Instead there were separate "trigger" tiles, twelve of them, that when taken would be placed on a track; once certain thresholds were reached, a scoring round would be triggered. This worked okay, but the scoring rounds were highly variable, in that some rounds would be extremely short and others very long. We needed a way to decrease the variance of trigger tiles.

Enter Breakthrough #4. The Midway ticket cards are the triggers. It may not seem like a major change, but it had a twofold improvement on the game: First, it decreased the variance of the scoring rounds because there could be a ton more of them in the deck, and second, it gave the Midway ticket cards a more important role, mechanically and thematically. The Midway was what made money for the fair and was really the only part that was profitable. The Ferris wheel was the biggest attraction on the Midway and became the centerpiece of the fair, so it was fitting to make it also the centerpiece of the game.

Prototype at Gen Con 2015

Okay, one last thing. You may have noticed the game was once tiles, and now it's cards. I originally designed World's Fair 1893 as a tile-drafting game, mostly due to the inspiration of Ra. The game had a fixed number of tiles in the bag, which meant a fixed number of turns for each player. There were ten starting tiles and 108 in a draw bag. The first two rounds ended when players triggered them, but the third round ended when the tiles ran out. The timing of that third round felt quite different from the other two, flat and predictable by comparison.

Randy and I brainstormed solutions, and he pushed to have us try a deck of cards, rather than tiles. The deck could be shuffled, and the game could continue until the third scoring round is triggered just like the other two rounds. This worked only because of Breakthroughs #2 and #4. Actions were already being discarded when used, but now exhibits could be approved and discarded (#2) and Midways could be cashed in and discarded (#4) at the end of each round, making a discard pile that could be reshuffled into a deck when the draw pile ran out. This was a subtle change from a gameplay standpoint, but it allowed a lot of flexibility in terms of the flow of the game. There's also a broader point about game design there. The idea to use a draw deck made sense only after a couple of other subtle changes were made to the rules. (Those rules didn't originally change anything about the components, just how they were treated during the game.) It was a reminder to constantly assess a developing game in its current state as new improvements can open the door to even more improvements that wouldn't have made sense prior to the previous improvement.

That said, having a shuffled deck also provided a number of challenges. The timing of the reshuffle is critical. If the reshuffle happens too early before a scoring round, there can be a disproportionate number of action cards in the deck compared to Midways and exhibits. There were three variables we had to play with: the number of Ferris wheel spots in a scoring round (i.e., the length of the round), the size of the deck, and the number of Midway cards — and it had to work with two, three, and four players. It took a lot of math and a whole lot of testing, but we managed to figure it out, so (hopefully) everyone who plays the game can take it entirely for granted.

And that's the long, short story of the development of World's Fair 1893.

J. Alex Kevern

Final production game in play

Twitter Facebook
Tue May 31, 2016 1:00 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls
 Thumb up

Designer Diary: Branching Out from Kigi to Kodama

Daniel Solis
United States
flag msg tools
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


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:

• 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:

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:

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!

Twitter Facebook
Tue May 17, 2016 1:00 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls
 Thumb up

Designer Diary: Dice Heist, or Art and Other Accidents

Trevor Benjamin
United Kingdom
flag msg tools
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

Twitter Facebook
Sun May 15, 2016 1:00 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls
 Thumb up

Designer Diary: ...and then, we held hands.

Dave Chircop
flag msg tools
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."


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.


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


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.


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.


Print-and-play version


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.


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!

Twitter Facebook
Wed May 11, 2016 1:00 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls
 Thumb up

Designer Diary: Back to the Future and The Goonies, or The Fleeples Go to Hollywood!

Matt Riddle
United States
flag msg tools
Hello, Ben Pinchback here once again writing the main sections of a designer diary, while Matt Riddle will chip in his comments in green. We all know from his mysterious absence in writing BoardGameGeek crowdfunding round-up articles as of late that Matt is clearly out of jokes, so it should be interesting to see him play this straight — and by "out of jokes", of course I mean he finally did us all a favor and ceded his throne to an actual professional writer, Dustin Schwartz of The Rules Forge fame. Seriously, Dustin is a great writer and a rising rulebook writer/editor guru. Game makers, contact this guy and use him.

Well!! Looky, looky, here comes hooky. Finally Ben does all the writing and I can pipe in with witty repartee and insightful comments. Or balls jokes. We will see. I can either go high class or play this Louie style: "I'm gonna dip..." Oh, and a little foreshadowing since we are now two paragraphs in and haven't yet mentioned the games: This is the designer diary for Back to the Future: An Adventure Through Time and The Goonies: Adventure Card Game. Hence the "go to Hollywood" thing.

So if you actually have any clue who either Matt or I am, it's either because of Matt's admittedly solid run as W. Eric Martin's crowdfunding write-up nemesis or because you've played one of our previously published games, most likely Fleet. Fleet had a beautiful run into the BGG top 500 and has since slid a few spots outside, which actually isn't that bad because now we can appear on all of those "best games outside the top 500" lists.

It was almost certainly Fleet. While Ben and I are poised to have a very nice 2016, if there were a pie chart of "Games of ours people have played", it would look like Pac-Man with Fleet starring as Pac-Man and everything else the mouth.

We've had some other nice projects with Eagle-Gryphon Games such as Eggs and Empires, Floating Market, and Fleet Wharfside, but safe to say not a transcendent megahit yet. So how did these two relatively new designers from suburban Detroit end up with the keys to two of the absolute cornerstones of your childhood? And what is a Fleeple?

First thing's first: A Fleeple is an absolutely terrible name coined by Dan Patriss of The Geek All-Stars that somehow stuck because it's kind of funny. Fleet guys + fish meeples? Either way, Ridback is just as bad and Dan is the best, so we roll with it.

Ya, I suggested "Matt Riddle Games feat. Ben P" but was shot down. Honestly, Ridback Games sucks, but we honestly do not have any better ideas.

How we came to work with both IDW Games and Albino Dragon is basically the same. Fleet being so well received opened the doors for us. For IDW, it was a Nathan-to-Nate introduction as Nathan from Pandasaurus knew us from Fleet and had actually just begun working with us on another recently announced project, Wasteland Express Delivery Service co-designed with Jon Gilmour. How's that for a name drop? Gilmour. Jon Gilmour. Dead of Winter. Gilmour, Jon. Worked with us. He's a great guy. That Jon Gilmour.

Where was I? We're gonna do more together, too. Us and Gilmour. From Dead of Winter. So anyway, Nathan from Pandasaurus introduced us to Nate from IDW, who was looking for a card-based Back To The Future engine, so we started talking. They gave us a shot to show them an idea at Gen Con, and we enthusiastically accepted. Needless to say, the meeting went well and full-on development ensued.

Like most people in their 30s, I love Back to the Future and was SUPER excited to jump in on that one. Also, I HATE the stupid "break the internet" BS exaggeration that people use, but did you see the buzz WEDS has gotten? Crazy. Like the art. But Back to the Future, ya, super excited. Oh! Also, as Ben and I head down Eurotrash lane, we are working on a Sleepy Hollow game that will have minis and characters and co-op pumpkin dude, fighting dice stuff in it. That will be with Greater Than Games/Dice Hate Me Games later in 2016. As it turns out, we have fully embraced our mid-Atlantic designs.

With Albino Dragon, it was a very similar story through a mutual friend. Once again Fleet was the catalyst as Erik from Albino Dragon was looking to do a card-based Goonies game and his real-life friend Scott Morris (Tox) from Crits Happen and Firefly: Shiny Dice had become a friend of ours through Fleet, then through hanging out at conventions. (Free tip for designers: Go to every single convention you possibly can.) So Fleet opened the doors for us to work with these companies that were looking for card-driven experiences for Back To The Future and The Goonies, but how would Matt and I approach the designs?

Carefully but with gusto. You know what I loved more than BttF? The Goonies. I own a DVD of The Goonies and made my daughters watch it. I forgot how 1980s PG it was, but still totally worth it. I wanted to be a Goonie so hard when I was a kid.

The very first thing we had to talk about with each design was scope: the project scope vs. the scope of the game experience. It was obvious to us in both cases that card-based was not going to lend itself to a straight-up simulation. Neither of these games were going to be 45 lb. (20.4 kg) sprawling monsters with minis and scenario books. It wasn't our gut reaction then to try to walk players linearly through the storylines, and frankly I'm not sure I'd want to do that anyway. If I'm playing a Back To The Future game, I know I want to fly around in the DeLorean time-traveling; I don't want to play for hours and only actually fly the dang thing two or three times. People absolutely love the characters in the movie, and they love the DeLorean, so that was set for Back to the Future. The soul of the game was going to be using the characters in thematic ways and time-traveling in the DeLorean as much as possible.

For The Goonies, the answer came to us quickly, even if we didn't want to admit it at first. This game had to be a co-op. Neither of us could imagine doing anything else but making a game in which you team up as the Goonies and run the adventure, avoiding the Fratellis and searching for One-Eyed Willy's ship and treasure. It just wouldn't sit right with us to have something like Mouth competing with Chunk to get the most treasure. It just doesn't work.

It is a not-so-secret secret that neither Ben nor I terribly enjoy co-op gaming. I like winning. I like defeating the other players, especially Ben. While we knew it had to be co-op, it was a mental hurdle to accept that. That said, I have recently begun to appreciate solo gaming and that community. I have been able to enjoy co-op gaming with my girls and parents. I was excited.

But Back to the Future is competitive. How does that work? For us, that was an easier abstraction to make gameplay-wise. With The Goonies, you have one of the most famous ragtag teams of all time on an epic adventure together. Goonies never say die, etc. In Back to the Future, the team is really Marty and Doc...and the other Doc. It didn't seem that natural to form a team-up like that and have players work cooperatively. The idea that you'd use these characters to progress the story and fix the timeline seemed more in tune with the movie to us because that's what Marty's doing the entire movie series: Trying to put people in the proper situations and fix the timelines to ultimately get his life back in order. This is exactly what we have players doing, and we loved it. Just like Marty is able to position George to stand up to Biff, players will do similar things with all of the main characters from the movie.

That's where the role selection came in. Turn to turn, players can use Biff for their nefarious plans to try to hose other players. Lorraine can be selected for a clever time shift at just the right moment. Need some help flying the time machine? Doc is your Guy. Every character we used felt to us exactly how they feel in the movie. Being the best at getting everyone right where (and when) they needed to be at just the right time felt good. It feels like Doc just crashed into your trash cans shouting "Marty! We gotta go NOW!" Side note: Doc, you have a time machine. You could slow down just a tic. Maybe come back five minutes earlier and calmly explain what's going on vs. Lightning! POW! Crash! "Marty! NOW! Get in the #@%#ing car!!" I totally stole that joke from Chris Leder btw. (Roll For It. Fun game. Kind of a bossy title, though. No, you roll for it. Fool.)

Chris Leder is the best! Great dude, playtester, and designer. Character usage in both games was very important to us. We wanted to curate the player's game experience to feel like they WERE the characters. With The Goonies, that meant picking a character and being that character throughout the game. You ARE Data. With BttF, that wouldn't really work. No one wants to be anyone other than Marty. MAYBE Doc. No one WANTS to be George, though, or Jennifer. Well, maybe furries want to be Einstein. Either way, everyone wants to be Marty.

Back to The Goonies: It's a co-op. How are we going to separate this from all the other co-ops? The answer is the team turn. We wanted to give players a sense of working as the Goonies, so the team gets four actions every round. Those actions are used to navigate around the locations, clear obstacles, search for treasure, avoid the Fratellis, discover the ship, etc. How the team chooses to spend these four actions is entirely up to them: One player may contribute multiple cards for multiple actions in a round, one player might hang back and save cards, two players may team up for one action. It's entirely on the team to figure out how best to manage four actions a turn amongst themselves, given that every player also has both a special gamelong ability and a one-shot power to use at the optimal time.

When we started testing this system, the coolest thing started to happen. We noticed that the alpha player syndrome — the table general, if you will — was very much reduced, if not eliminated altogether, because in a team turn every player has enough options of their own to process that you don't have time or mental capacity to micromanage everyone else.

Here's an example of this in a standard co-op: When it's Matt's turn, we all sit there and stare at Matt analyzing his hand of cards and urging him not to mess it all up for us. We hold Matt's hand for him because we have time to babysit him and make sure he doesn't end the world accidentally. In The Goonies, with the team all taking four actions together, I'm looking at my own hand of cards, my power, my ability, and I'm lobbying for how I best think I can help the situation. Okay, there's a problem over there, I can help with this. Oh, you can do that? Great. You think I should use this power? Etc. The problem-solving immediately becomes a team engagement and everyone feels like they're helping. Even Matt. I love that after a game of The Goonies, win or lose, you and the other members of the team really feel like you went on that adventure together.

Sigh. High Road.

So the DeLorean is flown around a ton, but how did we actually handle time travel in Back to the Future? The first thing we did was take a page from Fleet and give the cards in the main draw deck a few different stats. One of these stats you can use a card for is the listed power (think watts, not ability). Of course it takes 1.21 gigawatts to time travel, so each card has some portion of that or maybe the entire amount to spend. Cards are discarded as needed to reach 1.21 gigawatts, after which the time machine may be moved to any of the three time periods: 1955, 1985, or 2015. Once there, cards can be played to place characters in the different time periods to try to recreate the major events from the movies with which players will be familiar.

In this game, time is money, so each character played has a time cost that must be paid for with other cards using their listed time. What's more, because of the ripple effect that comes with altering the past, characters played in the past cost greater amounts of time than those in the future. This extra ripple effect takes more time to pull off, but the effects will come back to benefit players at game's end once the effects are totaled.

The real key to all of this, though, is that players are using the familiar characters to thematically help them on this journey. Doc is your key to moving the time machine efficiently. Jennifer does appear at first to be under-utilized and just dragged around the entire time...until she comes up huge for you in a pinch! Biff. Man, I hate when you choose Biff! But of course. Should you be happy when another player is using Biff? No way! He's a pain!

Lorraine is great. You will not use her every turn, but when you do, she is important. Some people are going to not like the way Biff works, but that was the point! Biff is a jerk. He is totally the kind of guy that pushes you down and takes your lunch money. Like Ben said, we wanted to make the character powers feel like the characters. Each power gives you sense of the character.

Which characters are you the most happy with of the two games? First off, I am completely excited that we were able to get all of the memorable faces into each game. It wouldn't be much of a story if we didn't properly represent Doc, Marty, Data, or Mikey. There was a time when we weren't sure Brand was going to happen on account of contracts, etc., but alas, we got him! One of my favorites from The Goonies is the Andi character we devised. She's really fun because she's totally thematic. One of the symbols on the cards in The Goonies is a musical note, and for Andi those musical note cards are wild. It's a simple power, but thematically so perfect for her character. I love that things like that fell into place. In Back to the Future, my favorite has to be Biff. He's a jerk. He's powerful. And just like in the movies, if you don't manage the Biff situation, he's going to hurt you.

Of course Ben likes Biff. I mean, I know he puts on nice face to all of you, but the jerk store called and they're running out of Ben.

Winding this thing down, I want to say that each of these games has been an absolute honor to work on, so thank you very much for checking them out. I hope you're able to give them some plays and enjoy the adventures we've designed for you using these two wonderful stories that mean so much to us all. In addition, I'd be remiss not to especially thank Chris Leder for his work on Back to the Future and Jon Schultz for his work on The Goonies. The games wouldn't be what they are without these two major assets. Oh, and make sure to look for Matt sometime soon on a red carpet near you. —Ben

I will be the fat dude with the beard rocking the velvet skinny-fit tux with high peak satin cuffs...or sweat pants. Thanks to everyone who read this, and please consider checking out both games. The Goonies will be out later in 2016, and BttF was released in April 2016. —Matt
Twitter Facebook
Mon May 9, 2016 1:00 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls
 Thumb up

Designer Diary: Tetrarchia, or The Four Swords of Rome

(from Valencia, Spain)
flag msg tools
By the end of the III century BC, the Roman consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus was nicknamed "The Sword of Rome" for his exploits in the wars against the Gauls and the Carthaginians.

Five centuries later, by the end of the III century AD, the times of the old Republic are too far away and the now Roman Empire seems doomed. Enemies cross the borders, rebellion spreads over its provinces, and when an Emperor has both the courage and ability to face the threats, usurpers take his place in Rome, increasing the chaos. The Emperor Diocletian sees only one revolutionary way out: Share the divine power with trusted colleagues. In a few years he forms an Imperial College with Maximian, Constantius and Galerius, leading to the first Tetrarchy. Now the swords of Rome are four, and they are going to fall without mercy over their enemies...

This is the fascinating story that pushed me to design Tetrarchia!

The Idea

This game was born from the overlap of several passions:

1) After playing Gardens of Mars (from nestorgames), I was amazed about how much can be done with so little. A board that can be rolled up, plastic discs, laser-cut meeples, some dice...and that's all. No cards, no tables, no box! Only components that are wear-proof in a format compact and light that can be taken anywhere. I fixed this component limit as an objective for my next design.

2) I am a fan of games, but most of all of history. I read a lot about military conflicts, and I play wargames. I felt like introducing the genre in nestorgames, since I think their format would be perfect for light wargames. I have several very different ideas for some wars; I only needed to pick one to start with...

3) I play solitaire often, for lack of time and/or players, and I have found that cooperative games are a fun alternative to the more traditional solitaire games. I started with Pandemic, then Ghost Stories, and finally Flash Point: Fire Rescue. I love the fire-spreading mechanism of the latter; you can always be surprised because it is not deterministic at all, but following a strategy you can limit the surprises and end up controlling it. I needed a period in which threats spread in an unpredictable way.

4) My passion for Commands & Colors: Ancients, the game I play the most, has shifted my history interests from Classical Greece to Rome. First the Republic, then the Empire...and finally the Late Empire. When I started reading about Diocletian and the Tetrarchy, I felt that all these passions fitted together!

First Steps

The random mechanism to spread revolts required two levels of threats, which I defined as Unrest (gray disc) and Revolt (black). I also needed two coordinates per space that would be obtained by rolling dice, which I immediately identified with Regions and Provinces. In order to distinguish both coordinate dice I chose a thematic solution: a Roman die and a normal one. I tried to find six regions (with Roman numerals) holding each six provinces (decimal numerals), around the central region Italia. I had to distort the Late Roman Empire maps I found (more on that below), made a very rough sketch, and started to play!

The players would handle the four Emperors, and on their turn they would first spend action (Imperivm) points to fight for Rome, then roll the dice to propagate threats on the coordinates obtained. In Flash Point there is "only" the fire-related threat; here the revolt in the provinces would be completed by Barbarian armies that would try to reach Rome. The aim of the game would be to protect the Empire borders (those of the six outer regions) before half of the provinces revolted or Rome fell.

Several items played several roles. The numbers on the provinces gave me their coordinates within the region, but by ordering them in some way they could also give me the path the Barbarian armies would follow through that region. The dice that gave me the coordinates could also give me the combat results: the Roman die for the Roman, the decimal die for the Barbarian. Making them white and black, respectively, made this function become even more explicit.

The final touch to add strategy to combat was the ideas of support (discs that add to the result of the die) and of combined attack (other Emperors/Barbarians connected to the battle multiplying the result x2). With neither tables nor complex calculations, a single roll of two dice solves battles, with a touch of uncertainty and, more importantly, the promotion of cooperation. After all, in many situations it is impossible to defeat a Barbarian army on your own, and that requires careful team planning because armies are a threat that moves from turn to turn.

The Map

The map had to be A4 size (nestorgames) and hold six regions around Italia with six provinces each (of 15mm diameter). Therefore, the "real" maps (above) could not be used. First, I had to remove Britannia from the Empire because its border would have been too far north and some oriental conquests that pushed that border too far east. Then I had to distort some regions: Hispania smaller than Gallia, push the Danube up to leave more room for Illyricvm and Graecia, compress the Turkish peninsula...

Once the frame had been defined (below left), I chose among the historical provinces those that were better known (as there were far more than 42), though I had to move some and make up others. The nature of the links connecting provinces was an easy issue as it was given by the geography (some are "broken" and cost twice to cross), and this is an advantage when you design real world conflicts! Finally, I had to find a border/threat for each region. For Gallia, it allowed me to take Britannia back to the board, but I had a problem with the Iberian peninsula...

I considered adding an exception for Hispania and saying that region (like Italia) had no border/threat, but it was a blow to my quest of elegance and simplicity — then history came to my rescue! It turns out that at that time they had included the most western African province, Mavretania Tingitana (modern Morocco), into Hispania in order to better answer to threats coming from that area. Problem solved: Africa would end between modern Morocco and Algeria, and Hispania had its border!

The rest was "easy": Play with the colors, textures, contrasts...up to the final touch of using the die symbols for the region/province numerals because as soon as you roll the dice, you see the province they refer to.

All in all, I am very proud of the map! If you scroll back to the top of the diary, you'll see the final map stretched to fit on top of the real one. I wanted the game to be language independent, so from the start I chose Latin names for everything, even the title! The rulebooks are available (for the moment) in English, Spanish and French.

The Capitals

I added a final touch of history to the map by drawing the Tetrarchic capitals. Although Rome continued to be the nominal capital of the entire Roman Empire, the Tetrarchs based themselves in other cities closer to the borders, mainly intended as headquarters for the defense of the Empire against the most immediate and menacing threats:

-----() Augusta Treverorum (modern Trier) was the capital of Constantius, the western Caesar, near the strategic Rhine border (province Germania Inferior).

-----() Mediolanum (modern Milan) was the capital of Maximian, the western Augustus, in charge of Italia and Africa (province Cisalpina).

-----() Sirmium (modern Sremska Mitrovica) was the capital of Galerius, the eastern Caesar, on the critical Danube border (province Pannonia Inferior).

-----() Nicomedia (modern Izmit) was the capital of Diocletian, the eastern Augustus, a base against invasion from the Balkans and Persia (province Bithynia).

In the game they play their historical role, a base to reach the borders more rapidly and a support against revolts and Barbarian armies. And without adding specific powers to each Emperor figure, they give them a historical flavor.

The Nestorgames Edition

The design process had been extremely fast: I started drawing maps freehand in June 2015, and by September 2015 the game was ready! I was lucky enough that all the different ideas fit from the start; everything worked as I had expected or better. The couple of things that hindered the game flow were solved with the help of my brother Fernando, who has the ability to "see" through game designs. As I said, one of the precursor ideas was fitting the nestorgames format, so contacting Néstor was the natural next step.

For a moment I was tempted to try more "traditional" publishers in order to have a box, mounted map, miniatures...but very soon I realized that the game would be much better with a case, a rollable board, and meeples, my original idea. So I contacted Néstor, and (as with my BASKETmind) he surprised me again! Very professional, respectful of the design, always fast to suggest ideas. Sometimes we forget how globalization has changed our lives: being thousands of km away, an e-mail, a picture taken with the phone, a search on google...and a new idea replaces a problem.

For the Emperors, we chose a Roman silhouette inspired by the statue of the tetrarchs above, with cylindrical helmets. As you can see, the Roman meeples look great. (I know I'm subjective...) They are cute, you can spot them very easily on the board, and they give the game a lot of character. I like them more than the Greek and Roman miniatures I had bought for the prototypes (see above, left-center)!

The printed map looks great, too. It is the first time I take a freehand drawing so far, going through a computer vector drawing (that I already had) and finally aging it with Photoshop. It is also the first game map I've seen on a mouse pad, and all the players have loved it!

Fight for Rome!

I hope this diary has given you an overall view of the game, of the why behind some design choices, and also the will to try it! It has nothing to do with my first design, BASKETmind, except for the format. The latter was exclusively two players, face to face, sports themed... Tetrarchia can be played solitaire or with 2-4 players, is cooperative, has a historical theme, and plays in about 30 minutes. I am very happy with the result, it has become the game I play the most (alone or with others), and the nestorgames edition has exceeded all my expectations.

The set-up has four parameters that can take three values each, depending on the difficulty you wish, so you can define up to 81 different challenges! The game also includes five official variants that twist the gameplay, especially the last one — "The Great" — that moves sooner in time the historical facts that followed the Tetrarchy (the rivalries that ended it to the hands of Constantine the Great), adding a competitive aspect that hinders cooperation.

And the design process is not over. We have already an expansion that will introduce a new and redoubtable enemy (Gothic Army), a new obstacle (Pirates) to block naval movement, and a fifth colleague (Dux) to help the Emperors. I am even thinking of a different game for three players set 150 years later, not cooperative at all, that will use the same components, but it will take longer to develop...

Thanks for reading, and I hope some of you will enjoy the game!

Miguel Marqués

P.S. #1 For those who don't know, Constantine the Great was the son of Constantius, the "Red Emperor" in this game.

P.S. #2 You can find some strategy tips here or here.
Twitter Facebook
Sat May 7, 2016 1:00 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls
 Thumb up

Designer Diary: FUSE, or This Diary Will Self-Destruct After 10 Thumbs

Kane Klenko
United States
flag msg tools
One way that I think up new game ideas and refine game designs is to picture people playing a game and having fun. I try to picture different elements of the game and get a vague idea of what makes it fun. If I "see" something, then I get to work and figure out how to make that happen. At other times, I see something, hear something, read something, or discuss something, and I get the idea that the "something" would make a great game theme. In both of these situations I'll write that something down or store it somewhere in my memory. Sometimes I get lucky and these two parts come together to form a game. That is what happened with FUSE.

A long time ago, I had the thought that a fun game theme would be players acting cooperatively as a bomb squad to try to defuse bombs. "That's a cool idea", I said to myself — and then I put the idea aside as I was already working on several other designs.

In May 2014 I got a picture in my head of a group playing a game. I remember that I was driving on the highway after work, heading to my son's soccer practice. The picture was basically this: Players were sitting around a table, and several dice were rolled onto the table. They then discussed who got which dice. That was it. But for some reason it triggered an immediate recollection of the bomb squad theme: "What if they are using those dice to defuse bombs?!" This got me excited, and it became more than just another idea that I would write down or forget about. I needed to make this work.

My initial thought was that each player would have a player board with a combination that would defuse the bomb. There were five columns on the board, and each was a different color with a number at the bottom.
Players would roll dice, then take one to place on their board; a green die would go in the green column, etc. The object was to get the total on the dice pips in the column to have their last digit match the number in the combination, so if the number in the column was a 3, you could have a 3 or dice that totaled 13, 23, etc. This would "unlock" that part of the combination.

The idea was easy enough to scribble together a couple of boards and give it a shot — and within two minutes I knew it didn't work. I still liked the idea of players working out who took which dice from a single die roll, but the way I had the "bomb boards" set up didn't work.

One thing I always think about when working on a game is what I want the players to feel. With this game, I wanted tension between taking what you need versus giving it up for another player with a common goal. With the dice, I was going for the idea that some dice would work for more than one player, so it wasn't always clear who should take which dice. Sometimes you would really need something, sometimes you could take anything and give your teammates what they need, and sometimes you would be stuck and not be able to take anything. The combination boards didn't work because it was either obvious what you should take or, more likely, you couldn't take anything. The boards needed work.

The other issue I could see right away was that I had no idea what the overall flow of the game was. How do you win? Do you just need to get these few dice on your board to defuse the bomb and then you're done? What if the other players aren't done? I try to think about production costs when I work on a game, so I knew that I didn't want a bunch of these boards in the game.

That first two-minute test was done on my lunch break at work, and on the drive home I thought about how to fix the problems. By the time I got home, I had an idea that I thought would work. Instead of each column needing a specific number in a specific color, they would instead need different combinations of dice that were more open ended. So instead of needing a green 3, you would instead need a green die, any color 3, and something else. To keep the board from getting cluttered, I decided to split each column off into its own card. This also solved the other problem of game flow. If each combination was its own card, then these could be individual bombs and once you defused it, you would simply draw another one. I knew this was the answer, so I spent the next two days making bomb cards with different dice combinations needed to defuse them.

The first test with this revised idea was with my wife and kids. I knew I wanted the players to be up against a timer, and that I wanted the game to be short, but I didn't know exactly how short. I figured I'd go with five minutes for our first game. I also didn't know how many cards we would be able to complete in a game, so I made thirty or forty and put them all in the first game just to see how many we could clear. The timer started and we began playing — and it worked! As soon as the five-minute timer beeped, I knew that was too short, so I reset it and said to keep playing. When it beeped again, the game length felt right. Ten minutes. It gave me the quick game that I wanted, but also gave enough time to feel like we had progressed and accomplished something, and it wasn't over too soon.

Okay, so the core of the game was set. Now I needed to figure out the rest of it, namely how you win, what happens if someone doesn't take a die, how the game is set up on the table, and whether I wanted to add anything else to the core mechanisms.

The first playtest of FUSE

In the first couple of tests we finished around fifteen cards, and that was with us having no idea what we were doing. It also involved me thinking through the design as we played, so I figured somewhere around twenty cards was probably about right. That would be the goal: Defuse twenty bombs in ten minutes. Easy to explain and exciting. I knew I had something, so I put aside all other designs to focus on this one exclusively.

Now, what to do about dice that the players don't take? My initial idea was terrible. Any dice that weren't taken were placed onto a track that would lock those dice up. The idea was that if you ran out of dice in the bag, then you would lose the game. As the track filled up, you could return the dice to the bag, but you would be penalized by drawing a certain number of time tokens that would cost the team from 0 to 15 seconds. If players defused all twenty bombs, they would stop the timer, then subtract their "time token" time to see whether they still won. For example, if we defused all the bombs with 33 seconds still on the clock, and we had drawn 30 seconds worth of time tokens, then we would have won the game with 3 seconds to spare. I liked the idea of the tension this might create — with you running low on dice, but not wanting to risk returning them and drawing time tokens — but the execution was convoluted and clunky. I wanted this game to be streamlined and easy to learn. I needed a new idea.

I decided to simplify and lose the whole idea of the extra track. If a die wasn't taken, then it should just be rolled and something happens. The next idea, which I stuck with for a little while, was that the die was rolled and on a 1 or 2 nothing happened and the die was returned to the bag; on a 3 or 4, it was returned to the bag, but you had to draw a FUSE Token (more on those later); and on a 5 or 6, the die was removed from the game and you had to draw a FUSE token. This was much more streamlined than the old idea, but the more I played it, the more I felt like it was still too clunky. It needed to be stripped down one more time.

The final rule for the game is that any dice that are not taken are rolled, then players must return a die from their bomb cards that matches the color or number rolled. Simple, easy to remember, tension-adding — just what I was looking for.

Okay, FUSE tokens. While I wanted to keep this game simple and not move beyond the core mechanism too much, I had always pictured tokens that would be activated throughout the game. The initial idea was that some tokens were good and some were bad; sometimes you were lucky in what you flipped, and sometimes you weren't. But I'm designing a cooperative game here, so why would I want to be nice to you?! Thus, all of the tokens are bad. If you need me to help you out by giving you aid tokens, then maybe you shouldn't be defusing bombs in your spare time.

The final issue was how all of this would be displayed on the table and how the game would flow. After the first couple of tests, I made a super fancy board by taking an old manila folder and marking twenty spaces around the outside of it. Some of them had spaces for FUSE tokens, and when you defused a bomb card, you would place it on one of these spaces (numbered 1-20), then activate any FUSE token there. If you filled the board, then you won. I liked this because it kept everything contained nicely and gave players a sense of accomplishment as they filled the board.

The game stayed like this for some time, but while thinking about the theme one day I decided to reverse it, filling the board with cards during set-up and having players take the next card in order from the board as soon as they defused a bomb. This still gave players the same sense of accomplishment as they emptied the board, but it seemed to fit the theme better since you were "finding" these bombs and defusing them. This is the version of the game that I played for a long time and the one that I showed to Renegade Game Studios — and then I changed my mind.

What if I made the game even more portable by getting rid of the board? The board doesn't actually do anything, and when watching new players play the game, sometimes they would be confused about which card to take next. What else does scrapping the board accomplish? It means we can make the game more portable, bring the price down, and make it look less intimidating to non-gamers. (Not that it was ever intimidating — I just needed a third thing to list.)

Now the game was only cards and dice — and tokens. Oh, yes, tokens. If I have only a deck of cards, how do I incorporate the FUSE tokens? I couldn't stack them in the deck...but I could turn them into cards. I really liked this idea because changing them from tokens to cards opened things up for more ideas to be added. I still wanted to keep the game simple and accessible, but with tokens becoming cards the design now had more room for different ideas and options for expansions.

Speaking of options, another later addition to the game was the point system. I had been thinking about a way to add a little more replayability and choice to the game, and the point system answered both of those issues. I decided that the set-up without the board would be the deck of cards with five face-up cards in the middle of the table, and when you finished a card, you could choose one of the face-up cards to replace it. This now gave you a choice of going for easier or harder cards. Why would you ever choose to take a more difficult card? Points. I decided to give each card a point value so that players could now not only try to win the game, but also shoot for higher scores, thus adding more choices and replayability to the game.

That's the story of the design. I set out to create an exciting cooperative game that could be set up, taught, and played in just a few minutes, and I believe I succeeded in every aspect.

FUSE is exactly the game that I wanted it to be, and it came together quickly, too. I started working on it in May 2014 and was able to show it to publishers at Gen Con 2014 just a few months later. I had several publishers interested in the design, but I decided to sign the game with Renegade Game Studios. Although Renegade was a new company at the time, I was really impressed by Scott Gaeta, the founder and president. Corey Young (designer of Gravwell) introduced us at Gen Con, and I was immediately drawn to Scott's vision for games and the industry. Working with Scott and Renegade has been great — so much so that we've announced Covert for release in 2016 with more announcements to come in the future.

FUSE is one of those games that makes you say, "Okay, let's do that again. I know we can win this time!" I hope you enjoy FUSE as much as we have!

Kane Klenko

Twitter Facebook
Thu May 5, 2016 1:00 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls
 Thumb up

Designer Diary: 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis, or Blowing Up the World, One Card at a Time

Asger Sams Granerud
flag msg tools
Soon to be published!
My name is Asger Sams Granerud and with Daniel Skjold Pedersen, we are the designers of 13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis. We want to share the journey of our game from idea, through development, into a game that you can now get your hands on! We hope you will enjoy the read...

What You Will Experience Playing 13 Days

13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis is a 45-minute game for two players highlighting USA vs. USSR during the most dangerous tipping point of the Cold War. Players take the role of either President Kennedy or Khrushchev. You have to navigate the crisis by prioritizing your superpower's influence across many different agendas. You want to push hard to gain prestige and exit the crisis as the perceived winner. But there is a catch as there always is: The harder an agenda is pushed, the closer you get to triggering global nuclear war which will lose you the game!

13 Hours: Driving Home from Essen

It was Monday, October 27, 2013, somewhere close to midnight. The massive board game fair in Essen, Germany had just finished, and the road trip back to Copenhagen was well under way. Sitting in the car were three tired aspiring game designers: me, Daniel (my co-designer) and a shared friend. Daniel also happens to be the guy who introduced me to Twilight Struggle a few years back. Unfortunately, we rarely get to play that brilliant game due to time constraints, which is doubly a shame as the game also improves with repeated play. It is not an easy game to pick up, but it offers a rich experience when you do. Though tired after a long week of talking about little other than games, we started discussing design ideas. The prolonged drive revealed that we had both had the same basic idea: How can we imitate the core experience of Twilight Struggle in a readily accessible package, lasting less than an hour?

The rest of the trip was used to flesh out this idea, and several design goals were locked in place before reaching Copenhagen later that night. The game had to be short and intense, with a constant threat of losing. We settled on the Cuban Missile Crisis as this was probably the highest profiled conflict of the entire Cold War. It also happened to be short and intense, which perfectly suited our narrative. We wanted to retain the constant agony of choosing between lots of lesser evils that Twilight Struggle does so well through its card-driven dilemmas.

13 Days: Building the Game

Almost half a year passed before Daniel and I managed to sit down and design the game. It was our first ever co-design process, so lots of things had to be learned from scratch. We discovered over time that we have different skill sets and experiences, but aligned goals and preferences. If you can find a co-designer like that, I can't recommend it enough!

Very early prototype drafts of the game board...

DEFCON track...

...and agenda cards

The following design sessions are almost a blur for me. So many things happened so quickly, and the exact chronology escapes me because most of them fell into place within a very short timespan. We wanted to work in multiples of 13 where possible, so we ended up deciding that the game should have 13 turns. Moreover there are 13 Agendas, and 39 Strategy Cards divided into 13 USA, 13 USSR, and 13 Neutral cards.

We actually ended up cutting some corners for the sake of gameplay and accessibility. The better game must win over dogmas when they collide! As a result, the 13 turns became 12 turns and a special Aftermath turn. Twelve was easier to divide into three rounds of 4, which lead to a hand size of five cards. (The fifth card isn't played but is fed into the 13th Aftermath turn.) One small thematic decision ends up having lots of unforeseen ripple effects. My experience a couple of designs later is that simply locking in a few aspects early on is a great way to get started. Assuming you are capable of killing your darlings, it is easy enough to change such dogmas at a later stage!

By this time we knew we would be using the dual nature of event cards from Twilight Struggle (i.e., the card-driven games or CDGs). All cards would be divided into three alignments (USA, USSR and Neutral), and each card would have the option of being played either for a basic Command (value 1-3) or for a unique Event that broke the core rules in different ways. If you played an opponent's event, he could get some benefit, despite it not even being his turn. What makes this experience work so well in Twilight Struggle is the fact that every play of a card is a dilemma. Their dual nature, and sometimes detrimental effects, means you often feel like you're doing an impossible balancing act. Often the winner ends up being the person timing card play to minimize negatives. It sounds simple but really isn't! Compared to TS we reduced the hand size and forced all cards to be played one way or another, ensuring that this core dilemma hits you from the first card in your first hand!

The first *pretty* prototype we created when our own test had confirmed the potential of the design and we needed outside playtesting

The scoring mechanism is central to any game. We wanted the entire feeling to be evocative of the tension from both the Cuban Missile Crisis and Twilight Struggle. Unfortunately we had few turns to achieve this since we also wanted a game playable in 45 minutes. This meant we couldn't rely on reshuffling the deck and having the same scoring cards surface several times as that would require too many turns to be feasible in a short game or such a small deck that it would hamper replayability. We therefore made three distinctive choices:

-----A) Each player picks a secret Agenda for the round, creating a partial bluffing game.
-----B) All scoring was based on pushing ahead on either Influencing specific Battlegrounds or Dominating DEFCON Tracks.
-----C) If your DEFCON Tracks are pushed too far, you risk losing the game immediately by triggering global nuclear war.

To make matters worse, the DEFCON tracks automatically escalate each round towards an end-game crescendo, and the Command action (the bread and butter of the gameplay) further escalates DEFCON. If you make small "non-threatening" Command actions, DEFCON stays put; if you make big heavy handed actions, the DEFCON track responds with equally wild swings. This can be beneficial if you rapidly need to deflate the DEFCON tracks, but more often it will be dangerous.

Rapid Prototyping

Ahead of the first design session, we agreed that we should be playing the game by the end of the evening. This forced us to do quick and dirty prototyping, knowing full well that all we had to test was the bare bones core mechanisms. No chrome, no nothing. We used a deck of playing cards to simulate the basic Command action, drew some different locations on an A4, and started pushing cubes around. By the end of that first evening two things were clear: 1) there was a worthwhile game to pursue and 2) testing further without the tension of the events was futile.

Thus, the ambition for the next design session was created. We had to make and test different events. We deliberately made more than we needed and removed some along the way, adding others. The events added the asymmetry and dilemmas we were hoping for, and experiencing the agony involved in deciding which cards to play when was a clear indicator we were on to something. You have only twelve cards to play during the entire game, so each decision is important. By that session, we were pretty sure that this game wasn't just interesting to us, but also relevant for a larger audience waiting to scratch that Twilight Struggle itch!

For the design interested people reading this, there are two things I really can't recommend enough:

I) Get yourself a design partner. Actually, any creative endeavor in life I've participated in benefits if you have someone you can throw ideas up against. An internet forum is a poor man's alternative as it can never be as responsive or involved as a co-designer who knows the ins-and-outs of the project as well as you do. Testing the core game also becomes much easier (assuming it isn't min. 3+ players). If you find the right person to co-operate with, I can't see any negatives to working in pairs!

II) Rapid prototyping. Try to play your game as quickly as possible. Find out whether your core idea has the spark to be interesting. Don't think about it; try it. Forget about balancing, artwork and UI. Instead try to define what you consider to be the core mechanisms, and test whether they are fun at all. Satisfaction from playing games is more psychology than mechanisms, and you have to be much more talented than I am to figure that out from the sketch board, so try it!

13 Months: Pitching and Developing the Game

Obviously that was just the game design. The development took much longer. Even though the core game hardly shifted from the design established in March 2014, the cards were continuously tweaked and the user interface was updated to make testing with outsiders more feasible. We physically kept track on each card, making marks on how often they were played for Events vs. Command as well as looking out for an opponent's willingness to play the card or delay it for the Aftermath. This proved to be immensely valuable as it allowed us to continuously monitor which cards were fine and which needed tweaking or removal. Taking notes on the physical prototype is another lesson we've brought to our later designs.

All events were tied to a historical event from the period, and short texts setting the mood were added. Card effects were aligned to fit the new event, and lots of streamlining happened.

The biggest design "problem" that pursued us throughout the project was how to handle the secret Agendas and the scoring mechanism. We've tried more than five different variants as we wanted to find a version that ensured the bluffing didn't become blind guessing. We needed enough revealed information to create informed choices, without giving away so much that it was meaningless. Some of our variants became pure guessing, others became almost full information, and naturally we wanted the sweet spot in-between.

Playtesting from different stages of development of the game

Thankfully a fast-paced two-player game is very easy to playtest when you're co-designing. Daniel and I could easily play a game in 30 minutes or less, and we thus managed to get many tests done. Obviously we also had to find external playtesters. We brought the game to two local conventions as well as several gaming groups. Finally, members of the Nordic Game Artisans also tested it and eventually gave it their seal of approval.

13 Days has received the Nordic Game Artisans seal of approval

Around that time, we started preparing for Spiel 2014 and contacting publishers to set up appointments. We brought a couple of other games as well, but knew that this game would likely require a niche publisher. Hence, we targeted our pitches at a much smaller group. One of them was Jolly Roger Games, which unfortunately wasn't attending Spiel. On the plus side, JRG's Jim Dietz wanted to review the game anyway and asked for rules and other relevant files. He consulted none other than Jason Matthews, co-designer of Twilight Struggle, and with his glowing endorsement proceeded. We sent a copy and his testing started, but he quickly asked that we reserve the game for him to decide by year's end!

We still ended up bringing the game to Spiel and pitching it to a few select publishers, with all involved parties being informed of the current situation, just in case. Thankfully Jim was impressed by the blind testing he had been doing himself, and after some consideration ended up pushing the big red button!

Prototypes assembled and packed for Spiel 2014

Final Thoughts

Both Daniel and I are really proud of the game we've designed and developed for you. Obviously it isn't a perfect realistic simulation of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 45 minutes, but we do feel it simulates core elements of it very well. Each player has to participate in several interconnected subgames: both a poker bluffing game of trying to mask which agendas are really important to them while uncovering your opponent's and a real world chess game of applying political, military and media influence across the globe. The conflict is constantly escalating and even though you don't want to slow down, you will often find yourself backpedaling to avoid the threat of global nuclear war. Finally, the stressful choices available to each president are effectively mirrored by the dilemmas forced upon you each round in which all cards must be put to use one way or another — even the bad ones.

13 Days: The Cuban Missile Crisis turned out exactly as hoped, providing a great introductory political conflict game. The classic fans of the genre in general, and Twilight Struggle in particular, will find a meaty filler. Meanwhile, newcomers will find an accessible introduction as the bluffing, the luck of the draw, and a capped scoring ensures that you're never too far behind to make a comeback — and even if you fail, you can always rewrite history in another 45 minutes!

If you're interested in hearing much more about the game, read our Sidekicking blog on BGG, which includes a series of mini-designer diaries (MDD) written while the Kickstarter was running in 2015 that delve into the nitty-gritty details of the design process!

At the Spielwarenmesse fair in Nürnberg, Germany, with the first printed copy. Look at that footprint!
Twitter Facebook
Tue May 3, 2016 1:00 pm
Post Rolls
  • [+] Dice rolls

1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5  Next »  [35]

Front Page | Welcome | Contact | Privacy Policy | Terms of Service | Advertise | Support BGG | Feeds RSS
Geekdo, BoardGameGeek, the Geekdo logo, and the BoardGameGeek logo are trademarks of BoardGameGeek, LLC.