Archive for Designer Diaries
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Hello, hello! I'm Daniel Solis. This is the story of how I designed and self-published the tree-growing card game Kigi, which was later adapted into Kodama: The Tree Spirits by Action Phase Games.
I wrote a little post about that adaptation just before Kodama's kickstarter campaign at the end of 2015, but Eric Martin asked me to go back into the past a little further to the earliest days of Kigi's development and international growth, so here we go!
Sample of the print-on-demand edition
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
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
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!
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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
(from Valencia, Spain)
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!
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!
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 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.
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!
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.
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!
Asger Sams Granerud
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...
...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.
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.
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
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!
TC Petty III
XENON PROFITEER 2015!
Remember me? That coffee guy. The cautiously ambitious designer diary writer with a new indie game on Kickstarter. The one with the pageboy haircut. The one that uses his initials as his professional name and ends it with the third. You don't? Well, it's been almost four years, so you should by now.
Because my name is T. C. Petty III, designer of VivaJava and various VivaJava-related products. I am new and improved. I’m totally Twitter-famous. I have my own microbadge!
And today, my newest game — Xenon Profiteer published by Eagle-Gryphon Games — is now available for retail purchase. It's lucky number 17 in the bookshelf series. Don't feel bad about not Kickstarting it. You were probably confused.
The last time we spoke, I was a wanderer. I had just recently quit my terrible job as a daycab truck dispatcher, moved to a new "apartment" (second floor of my old boss's home), and was deciding on the next big evolution for my life. The VivaJava Kickstarter campaign became the number eight most funded game project at the time, and I was driving around the East Coast visiting neglected friends and wondering if there were any real future in this game design thing.
Four years later, I've officially upgraded my current status from wanderer to nomad. I'm still living in that same second floor apartment, still driving a dragon-egg-shaped vehicle, still creating games which now generate more publisher interest than derision, and still wondering if there is any real future in this game design thing. I have a part-time job as a croupier in a rural Pennsylvania casino to pay the bills while I attempt the starving artist/game designer routine. But the big difference is that I spent the last four years analyzing game design, slathering myself in design articles, soaking up all the juicy bits, and luxuriating in my glistening, oily, elitist game design mindset. This caused me to gain twenty five pounds. The only reason.
"Xenon Profiteer". The name just rolls off the tongue. In America, it's pronounced ZEE-nawn Praw-fi-TEER. Everywhere else, it's pronounced ZEH-nawn Praw-fi-TEER. And if you don't like the game, you could call it MEH-non Profiteer.
The first question that comes to mind when one hears the name "Xenon Profiteer" is: "Is this a sci-fi game?" No, it is not. The second question is: "Is this a science game?" Umm, not really. There's no difficult math to do and the science involved is real, but it's an economic, business, engine-building, deck-deconstruction card game. The third question isn't really a question; it's more of a statement. "Okay?"
Xenon Profiteer is a game for 2 to 4 players about the cryogenic distillation of xenon from air. Players are each given control of a new distillation facility and are tasked with improving the facility's modern system to more efficiently distill this valuable xenon and utilize it to complete true-to-life contracts for clients in various sectors. The player that scores the most points from completing contracts, building pipelines, and installing system upgrades is the winner.
Before you swipe left, let me explain the game in a more palatable way, the way I explain it to those that stare at me quizzically. It's like an un-deck-builder.
Distilling is like panning for gold, but in this case you are panning for xenon. The idea: Air goes in. This jumble of separate elements (N, O, Kr, Xe) is what mucks up the player's system, or "deck". Each turn players draw a new hand and must distill out the elements in order of real, systematic priority (N to O to Kr to Xe). When only Xe remains in hand, it can be stored, and the player can use that stored Xe to fulfill real world contracts (entertainment, medical research, etc.). Want more xenon and a little spending cash? You have to add more air, and that means junking up your system.
To help with this puzzle, you have a few upgrades to start with that you can play from your hand to augment the distilling process. And not only can you buy new upgrades from a communal line-up and place them into your deck, you can also install them to your tableau for a higher cost and use them every turn. Contracts, your main source of points, are free to take from the line-up, but require xenon to complete and give you a combination of cash and points for game end. It's all built right in front of you.
I'm not a big deck-building fan. In fact, for the past few years, I've been completely burnt out on deck-building. That's why this game appeals to me. I don't even call it a deck-builder. I call it a "card game". For me, the most funnest part of deck-building is actually the culling or getting rid of cards. I love honing. I love the decision between mitigating luck down to nothing and risking the luck of the draw because there's just not enough time, because in most deck-builders you don't say, "Look, I built this awesome deck" at the end. You either say, "I got 37 points", or "Well, I beat that boss. Game over."
One of the main goals in development was to kill as many deck-building negatives as possible and replace them with awesome stuff that's cool. Bullet list!
• Buying something and not being able to use it before the game is over: Players can INSTALL cards to their tableau and use their abilities every turn. They can also reshuffle their deck by choosing OVERTIME.
• Excessive luck of the draw determining buying power: Money is not printed on the cards. Money is tokens and is kept from turn to turn. It's not solely dependent on your draw!
• Wasted turns: Each turn has a set of three actions that must be taken. Even if one of these actions is inefficient, there are always two more and there's always OVERTIME. The only wasted turn could be the final one and that's if someone else ends the game and you're unprepared.
• (And one specific to certain games like Star Realms and the DC Comics Deck-Builder) Buying a crappy card from the line, only to open an awesome card for the next player to scoop up: Players can take the WIPE action to discard an entire line of cards, then they have the first opportunity to BUY cards from this new line-up. Also, players may place BID tokens on cards that they want, both giving themselves a discount to purchase them later and making the price more expensive for others.
And most importantly, when you're done, instead of just a deck of face-down cards that you will never use again, you can gaze in awe at your beautifully constructed distillation facility and say, "I built this, this STUPID THING THAT LOST ME THE GAME BY THREE POINTS!" And flip the table.
But Xenon Profiteer wasn't always an oddball deck-building alternative for nerds. Before I even came up with the concept for the game, there was an evolution in my game design philosophies, an epiphany that set me on the track towards the navy blues and deep purples, the sexy modern look of this high-concept game of facility management with a really hot logo.
Some of the comments I make within this diary are going to be very personal, and I will cross that line. I tend to do that when something is close to my heart. I will divulge information I probably should silence. I will show you the color of my heart, that cold metal, mathematical thing in my chest that makes me care deeply about something when I shouldn't.
Excursions Into Boredom: The Birthing of Xenon
Why are board games so boring?
Sometime over the last few years, I discovered a weird, but universal truth about my game designs. The more boring the concept of the game, the easier it is to freely design and create a new world to explore. There are fewer preconceived notions about how the game has to work or what mechanisms must be implemented for players to enjoy the game. The more epic and ambitious the idea, the more potential for me to revise inside my head for months and months until the game itself justifies its attachment to the coolness of the theme — which in many cases is never.
There's something deeply humorous (absurdist? dadaist?) about creating a game that transforms an activity that sounds absolutely un-fun into a deeply rewarding experience, and it's apparent that I'm not the only one that agrees. Some of the most popular games on this site have the most boring titles, cover art, and themes that the world has ever known, but against all odds, and with intense focus on the fundamentals that make gameplay truly engaging, they pull even the most skeptical board gamer deep into their worlds of abstract grids and crop farming and transitioning from canals to railroads. Seriously, Brass is a game about the transition from canal systems to railroads. Riveting. How is this not considered ridiculous? How is it not considered art?
For example, here's a list of some of the ideas that I have written notes about during my brainstorming sessions, searching for the truth in boredom. Pirates of the Carbon Copy: The game about being a pirate accountant managing receipts or letters of marque for plundered goods to pass through naval blockades. Watch It Grow!: The game about watching plants grow. Towers: The Game of Building Towers. The Lady with the Dog (based on an Anton Chekhov short story). Copyright And Patent Law: The Game. Scuffles: Minor battles in history that were seen as small tactical maneuvers. Sleeping Well: The Game about the Science Behind a Good Night's Sleep. Reading Is For Everyone: A game literally about reading books.
Why do I do this? Why does any of this work? Because it's funny or historically significant or weird. And it puts a specific focus on the game itself, the interweaving mechanisms and the branching strategic possibilities inspired by real, unexplored systems; it makes the process exciting. Even with the designers who have no idea they are creating something that makes people want to hammer nails into their toes just to remind them that they are still alive, it's hard to argue with results. You make the unbearably cryptic accessible. You make games with names like "Hansa Teutonica" or "Village".
Sorry, I fell asleep writing that last sentence. The freedom to create interesting mechanisms that support the theme without fear of alienating the target market creates intrigue. (Also dismissal, but we'll address that soon.) Because if you name your game "Dragon Rampage" or tack the friggin' word "Legacy" or "Wars" on it, it's an equally uninspired, banal snoozefest of a pandering title.
I've been trying to unlock the key to what makes a board game boring. Is it the drab atmosphere, the browns and grays and silvers of a nondescript renaissance age village? Is it a focus on abstract mechanisms that interweave themselves into a chimeric point salad? Is it another fantasy or sci-fi themed game with a ridiculous theme and focus on rolling dice to hit, when you could be playing a more immersive video game instead? Is it cards with incidental art and a single number in the upper left corner? Is it cards with words? Is it the constant thumbing through dry rulebook pages with ambiguous text blobs? Is it being forced to make everything "family friendly" even though most all dedicated board gamers are way past age 21?
I think what I've discovered is that a game is boring only if the gameplay it has to offer isn't magical, if it doesn't distinguish itself by making you think in a new way or engaging you within its world. Board games have this transformative ability to actually improve a player's life by challenging their brain or bringing them back to emotional normalcy. (See episode 5 of Deep Design included at the 38:00 mark on the Perfect Information Podcast.) They have to power to surprise and delight, but most importantly, the power to challenge your assumptions. It's why changing a theme simply to include something that "sells", like dragons or space battles or both, just shows how abstract the game system actually is. It ends up feeling wrong. Players can tell.
Xenon Profiteer was created due to this Twitter interaction.
I don't know which rulebook Ben Pinchback (one of the Fleet designers) was proofing at the time, but it must have been imperfect because I went on to create Xenon Profiteer within the next few days. In fact, I was able to create the beginnings of what would become Xenon Profiteer as I stood around at a dead table, not dealing cards. I made my first scribblings on a handful of rectangles cut from a single sheet of watercolor paper, and the long road to creating the single greatest game about cryogenic distillation EVER began.
Why the name "Xenon Profiteer"? Well, originally it was entitled "Xenon Profitier" with an extraneous, French-looking "i". This was an homage to two games that I enjoy that have some of the least engaging titles and box covers I have ever seen: Credit Mobilier and Global Mogul. To make it worse, I began to abbreviate the title to "Xe$Pro", something which can still be seen on the old PnP files and was designed to look like the old FoxPro or Quicken business logos from the 1990s.
I had become obsessed with merging gameplay and theme in a way that cannot easily be separated, yet still keeping that strategic, puzzly core of the Euro. It's one of the biggest criticisms of the genre: pasted themes and abstraction. I've been challenging myself to design games that absolutely cannot be transposed into other themes without drastically altering the gameplay. The idea of culling a hierarchy of items to get down to the one you want was alluring to me.
I won't mention the specific details about the revision process, or how I came to create the connection system or the permanent tableau of a facility. These all progressed naturally as solutions to problems early in the design process, but I will mention that I stepped far from my comfort zone with this one.
Designer Chevee Dodd is always adamant about relaying the same advice for all new designers: Make a prototype as soon as possible and as cheaply as possible. I rarely take this advice. I spend months planning a prototype and writing notes in my journal until all the pieces come together perfectly and I make the first game. But since I had never made a card game before, and I knew that card games generally require hundreds of iterations and plays before all the interweaving powers and mechanisms hash themselves out, I took his advice.
I made a prototype in fifteen minutes. It sucked. I fixed a piece. It sucked. I fixed another few things and made another. It sucked less. Within three nights of playing the game by myself time after time, I had created seven different iterations with pen and paper. Sleeves just got in the way of revisions. In one month, October 2013, Xenon Profiteer went from not existing to beta form and received at least fifty playtests, both solo and with my loyal playtesting group whom I love to death. I guess I have to admit that Chevee wasn't wrong about at least one thing!
Creating a deck-destruction game, or a reverse deck-builder, isn't necessarily a unique idea. Just about everyone has decided to put a spin on deck-builders in every conceivable way possible and it's generally very annoying, but I think this is what intrigues me about a game about isolating the element xenon. The mechanism isn't being forced into the fray; it literally makes perfect sense. There's no artificial "elevation through theme". It's a boring concept that is fueled by mechanisms that work and that are fun.
Convincing others that a game like this could be fun, that would be a challenge, I assumed. Who wants to play a game about cryogenic distillation? Show of hands!
Enter The Ion Award
"5/10: I could see this being more appealing to the hobby games market with a sci fi graphic design added." —anonymous judge feedback from Ion Award competition
I didn't think any publishers would want my game. I wasn't being histrionic. I assumed, rightly so, that the esoteric theme about cryogenic distillation would confuse them and a lot of potential players.
During the brisk, wintry months of 2013, I played the game with Chris Kirkman from Dice Hate Me Games to get his personal opinion. We both agreed that it was a good game, but it just wasn't something that fit into the Dice Hate Me Americana Boutique brand. It was at that time that we entertained the idea and started the initial consultation process for me to self-publish the game. I wanted to give it a little time and send some feelers to publishers, just in case. Maybe someone could figure out a way to add dragons, plaster a new theme onto it, and make a viable product.
A few days later, I found out about a little contest called the Ion Award through some errant Twitter posts and made a quick decision to submit my game for consideration. At that point, I had already posted a PnP beta version to my Tumblr blog and had a few playtesters respond, so I knew that the rules were functional. I sighed a little inwardly as I Paypaled over the entry fee, knowing full well that the Ion Award ceremony took place in Salt Lake City at SaltCON and that it was long shot.
But now that the contest is over and it's been two years, I get to start a little drama! I found out that I had won the contest well in advance of the actual announcement date. Okay, I didn't "know", but unless I didn't screw something up, I was in the final four entries and had a very very good chance. My first indication that I may have a good chance at winning the competition was when one of the judges of the contest contacted me through Twitter and stated how cool it looked, confiding in me that he had rated it highly and that he heard through the channels that other publishers had as well. Other publishers? I won't rat on my informant. Let's just call him P. Nickell. No, wait, that's too obvious, let's call him Patrick N. instead.
So, yes, the startling secret I discovered that same week was that several West Coast publishers were actually judges for the contest and used it as a casual game-farming tool. Cue the next day, when a second publisher contacted me by email. And then a few days later another by Twitter. And then another by email. And then another by email. I was reminded of the old Lending Tree commercial tag-line: "When publishers fight for you, you win!" Suddenly, my completely oddball little card game had several intrigued parties.
I was scouted at Unpub 3 by Ralph Anderson for Eagle-Gryphon, who was waiting patiently at my blue table when I arrived that morning. That was back before Unpub 5, when on Saturday morning the entire convention hall wasn't standing room only. I rounded up two other designers to play, and we ruined the plastic tablecloth with my sleeved grayscale prototype. Shortly afterwards, I sent out two prototypes to them for testing. I paid my "real entry fee" which turned out to be a four-hundred dollar plane ticket to Salt Lake City, and suddenly, my unmarketable, unairing, un-deck-building game was no longer going to be unpublished!
Here is me, humbly accepting my award. (Just to be clear, there are at least four different fonts on this award. And the game title is not in "comic sans". It's clearly a more dignified "marker felt". Much classier!)
Also, here is me sending my mom a selfie from outside the original Utah Mormon temple. I took a convenient rail downtown before my flight home from SaltCON and spent a few hours walking around. In our last episode of T. C. Petty III designer diary, I stated that I was brought up Mormon. I felt somewhat obligated, somewhat excited to make my pilgrimage. It was strange to see so many taller, modern buildings surrounding it, blocking it out. There was a cool mall nearby sandwiched into the buildings over multiple blocks. I had a cheesesteak. It was a weird feeling.
Luckily, I was able to repair my relationships with all the publishers that I regrettably shirked during the competition, and Michael Mindes from Tasty Minstrel Games even got revenge by holding one of my other games hostage for five months, so now he owes me a published game.
At SaltCON, I met for the first time with the Eagle-Gryphon team and shook Rick Soued's hand (the owner), met Toby and Joanne, and everyone was very warm to me. They had even been talking during the show and stated that they were thinking of running the Kickstarter in July! I think I briefly made a face somewhere between surprise and disbelief where all the folds in my cheeks went in different directions, but nodded politely. It was April. Three month turnaround would've been awesome, but I realized that there was no way that was happening.
It totally didn't happen. Sometime around August, after talking to Matt Riddle (the other Fleet designer), I sent a follow-up email, curious about the status of everything. I'm a pretty laid-back individual, so even though we spoke briefly at Origins 2014 (VivaJava Dice was releasing then), that was my first official check-up since April. I think the response was something like, "Well, what ideas did YOU have?" As you can probably expect, it wasn't a response that thrilled me.
Luckily, I had done a little research of my own, had a few outside conversations with other designers in the Eagle-Gryphon queue, so I was prepared for what was going to happen next. I was about to be offered a budget and a timeline. Full control.
One of the positives about having full creative control over a project is that your "vision" is rarely compromised; one of the negatives about having full creative control is that you have full control. You do nearly all the work. You don't always get paid.
Full disclosure: Xenon Profiteer as presented in the box was made on a shoestring budget. I was given the task of art director/project manager for Xenon Profiteer after a few months and I gotta be honest — I didn't want it. I'm not an art director.
But I was in a difficult position at that point. There was the option of saying no. However that wasn't really a good option. Either I could assume full control over the art direction and attempt to ensure a quality game at standards consistent with my own aesthetical tolerance as a game consumer, or I could roll the dice, refuse to do the work, and possibly end up with no game at all or a Wizard's Brew. Shudder. I chose to do the work.
Luckily, Daniel Solis, a graphic designer and game designer I highly respect, was very generous with his pricing and the timing was right. I also happen to create spreadsheets for my games in the exact same format that he does. His work was speedy and solid, and without too many revisions together we were able to create a shared vision that makes me very proud.
To Eagle-Gryphon's credit, they had originally expressed interest in a possible theme change which I was ambivalent about, but they decided to allow the quirky theme to remain. When I started adding thematic flavor text to cards, changed the size of the cards to bridge, and added a fourth deck of cards to the game during further testing just to make sure that it was extremely unlikely for a pile of element cards to run out during the game, they did not balk. In fact, with the exception of the thirteen-card expansion that was noticeably absent from the final game box, even though I proofed the cards (the rules for which are included inside the game box), the entire game was produced at a high level of quality with all my specifications. Very awesome. And when I didn't catch that the player count icon stated 2-5 players (while the game is for only 2-4 players), they were nice enough to add a sticker to the box.
Yes, somehow, after months of work and proofing three times electronically and physically, I didn't notice that the game box stated 2-5 players and nothing in the rules or anywhere else contradicted this. It wasn't until after I created a final prototype using the box for Looting London and gluing the digital proof to the outside that my dad casually mentioned at a family dinner, "Oh, 2-5 players, that's pretty good". And I casually replied, "No, it's only...fffffuuuuuuUUUUUUU..."
At times I was frustrated by the experience. I actually sent a final production PDF file for the rulebook using an Indesign save file with the name "xenonrulebookrevisedbfuckyou", unaware that when InDesign creates PDFs for print, they actually put the file name in the margin. When I received an email from someone, luckily not Rick, stating that there was a problem with the margin, I saw the filename. My face went pale and I freaked out and immediately changed it before re-sending the revised file. I'm not sure whether Rick ever saw it, but I apologized profusely and crossed my fingers and never mentioned it again. Lesson learned: Don't name your files while angry after being up for twenty-four hours working.
On that note, even though I hated having to do it, I created the entire rulebook myself from scratch. I did. It was out of necessity, but in the end, the experience was amazing. Case in point, if you like the rulebook to Xenon Profiteer, feel free to hire me to do your rulebook's layout. My rates are reasonable.
Here's why it was awesome: During the Kickstarter campaign, the near-complete rulebook was uploaded to the Eagle-Gryphon website and backers could peruse it. Well, it just so happens that Heiko Gunther, the graphic designer responsible for several Artana titles and the Glory to Rome Black Box edition, likes VivaJava Dice, so he read the rules to Xenon and came onto the BGG game forum page with a question.
I have always struggled with rulebooks. Rulebooks are hard. Ever backed a Kickstarter project? There's a ninety percent chance its rulebook sucks. It's one of the big reasons why people use the phrase "typical Kickstarter". Awesome art. Awesome components. Hopefully awesome gameplay. Rulebook sucks. Typical Kickstarter.
Heiko critiqued my rulebook by stating that even though it said words, it didn't actually state anything definitively. His brief corrections were absolutely spot-on, and I thanked him thoroughly through Geekmail. We started talking, and the next day, after I pressed to see whether anything else was amiss, he sent me a huge list of problems with the rulebook. Seriously, I'm not going to post it here because it was long and thorough, but I systematically jumped into the rulebook file and reworded or changed every single thing he typed. Maybe he's just a savant at this stuff and it took him five minutes, but I swear he did an hour or two of proofing work for me as a gift. I can swallow my ego easily when I respect and admire someone as much as Heiko and he is willing to help me just because he enjoyed one of my games.
I'm now getting compliments on the rulebook! COMPLIMENTS! This never happens! But the thing is, this never would have happened if I wasn't making the rules myself. It would have been a struggle to make changes like this if Daniel had control; probably would've taken two or three Skype calls. Such a labor-intensive, brain-bending, painful blessing in disguise!
Then and Now: Adding New Tools to the Arsenal
Now that I've mentioned some of the people that made Xenon Profiteer the easily dismissible game that is taking up space on the shelves at a warehouse currently, let's take a trip backwards in time, back to 2011, back when VivaJava: The Coffee Game was still in development.
It was a balmy year filled with hope and promise, when every new day I awoke at 3 a.m. to the sound of my clamshell work cellphone chirping and every afternoon ended with me screaming at one of 35 drivers that couldn't follow instructions. VivaJava and the eventual publication of said game was like a chilled glass of iced coffee in hell. It was a twinkle of hope in a very dark place.
Back then, I did my best. I created all the prototype materials in a terrible entry-level Corel drawing program, changing and saving each file one-by-one, then transferring and pasting them into a Word document for printing. My six-year-old Macbook's fan made clicking sounds and smelled ever-so-faintly of burnt plastic the entire time.
It was so simple back then. I was so inefficient and ignorant to the wonders of technology. When I started to blind playtest the game, very few people even knew I existed. I posted onto a BGG forum with a request for playtesters and luckily received two responses. I was elated to send them my hastily cut and painted prototypes and happy to receive a few paragraphs in return about their experience. How cute.
Sometime in 2012, Darrell Louder gave me his old Mac Mini. Gave me it. Crazy generous. Included on this machine was the entire Adobe Suite. Darrell spent five minutes showing me how to use Illustrator, and it literally and figuratively changed my entire world. Within a week or two, I went from having zero experience to creating an entire prototype rulebook in Indesign, exclusively using Illustrator to create all icons and layouts for my next game design, and only begrudgingly using Photoshop when absolutely required. I was well on my way to becoming a true graphic design snob, although I still don't understand the difference between font and typeface.
By the time I was ready to create an initial prototype for Xenon Profiteer, I was utilizing advanced techniques to efficiently pump out prototypes at ten times the speed. Continuing with the social generosity, Daniel Solis showed me how to use datamerge to create cards, and before I even made the first card for Xenon on a computer, I had laid out an entire spreadsheet with all card info, text, and icons. With a few clicks, Indesign created an entire, fully updated PnP file with all cards. I was now advising Darrell and other designers on how to use InDesign for this function.
I wasn't a fledgeling game designer just fiddling around anymore. I had Adobe. I had an iPhone. I was a cybernetically enhanced prototyping machine set to kill.
I became more focused and introspective. I bought a game design journal. It was bright, candy red, and big as a textbook. I began to devour articles about game design. The knowledge I retained spurred me on to experiment more with my designs and regurgitate my findings on social media. I now have 2,400 followers on Twitter and at least fifty of them aren't bots. I started to care about color-blind people.
Here is the unedited manifesto I wrote in a fit on page 41 of my game design journal:
I want to explore every aspect of game design. Every facet, from start to finish. I want to know every major publisher by name and face and be able to have an inside joke running with each of the cool ones, I want to know every trick and approach to creation and have examples to follow that exemplify each type of creative design endeavor. There is no subject that I want to ignore. No designer too small to glean inspiration, no jack-asses too smug that I won't be able to learn in their shadows. I will strive to be the best. I will earn respect by being true to my own design philosophies and always being willing to share any knowledge I've gained. This respect will only be used to fuel my designs until I die. I will put out the best, most consistent and competent products onto the market that I love. I will never stop. I will know everything there is to know and then I will plow on further into the abyss. And I will make a game about it. And it will be extremely good.
You were not supposed to read that.
Armed with the confidence that I was truly going to charge into game design, not just as a hobby, but as a career, I started becoming more prolific, and I started defining my special approach to creating tabletop experiences.
In the excellent documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Jiro is a character of singular focus. He wakes up every day at the same time. He follows the same specific steps and prepares sushi with a repetitive, meditative efficiency that only a master can attain. When he's not working, he dreams of working. His process becomes incrementally more refined with each passing day and there is a reason why his sushi is considered the best sushi in the entire world. He dreams of it. He improves every day with one singular focus.
I realized that however inspiring his story may be, I am not Jiro, and I need to embrace that fact. He does not need to be creative. He does not need to build a new world with each new project he embarks upon. I do. And I can't nor should I always resist the call of play. Both for my sanity and for this line of work, a lack of play and expression breeds complacency and staleness. I feel bad for some of the career designers that have lost their relevance in the last few years. Come on, Knizia, don't be a curmudgeon. You have your legacy. Now adapt and make a collaboration with Feld. I'll buy it.
But it wasn't only technology and morale, I was stealing game design ideas from everywhere. Above is a picture of my decision tree for the different phases of Xenon Profiteer. To help refine the game experience, once most of the pieces were in place in a beta version, I created this tree along with the percentages to justify the existence of the game's mechanisms. The percentage represents how often a player might choose the action, and using it I knew which abilities to add in order to make the game choices more difficult and satisfying, and where to make hard cuts. I can't even remember who I stole it from.
Most importantly, I created a PnP file for Xenon Profiteer and posted it openly on the Internet calling for blind playtesters and discussion. I have and will continue to do this with every game I make. With VivaJava, I had to fight for blind playtesting. Since its release, people have craned their necks in my direction when I release a PnP file, and I am extremely grateful that my friends have taken the time to print out these files and provide me feedback. When I go to conventions, it's a warm fuzzy to have other designers and friends ask to play my prototypes.
I became deeply involved with Unpub in 2012 and have been ever since. It provides both a system of small conventions to help game designers set up events in their local area for playtesting and an online feedback system that keeps a record of and tabulates all scores that players have given each of a designer's games within the system. It's amazing to be involved with a program that started with around twenty people in a church and has grown to a main event that is expecting nearly two thousand attendees in 2016 at Unpub 6 (not to mention the smaller events that have been hosted in Brazil, UK, Poland, Canada and all around the U.S.) I've made a ton of contacts and a ton of friends.
Which is helpful because though it may not seem this way, I am shy and always have been. I need a push to break out of my comfort zone in social situations.
My Feelings Never Change
I buy Chinese food from the same place once a week. I don't buy there because the food is amazing. (It's good, though.) I buy there because the girl at the counter makes no attempt to engage me with a smile or with conversation. In and out. I enjoy fast food and chain restaurants because they make me feel welcome. Not in a way that a welcoming smile or hug might, but in a cold, genericized "What would you like today, sir?" way that helps me blend into the situation. Local places tend to have people that want to talk to you. I don't like that. As much as it sounds ridiculous to even type it, if I had the option, I'd rather punch my order into a computer and receive it from a slot, like a vending machine, like something from a 1950s vision of the future.
But I love my friends. Even just a few days ago, when I accidentally slept through a State of Games podcast recording, my friends were immediately worried that I was dead. It's comforting to know that somebody doesn't want you dead. This dichotomy, the Internet calls this personality trait "introvert": anxiety about outsiders, an inability to small talk, and complete attachment to and comfortability around close friends. Sometimes I have to retreat from everything.
What I noticed, with Xenon Profiteer especially, is the tremendous outpouring of support from other game designers and friends. During the Kickstarter campaign, there was a Twitter message advertising the game from someone on average every five hours. For the entire campaign. Usually stuff like that hits hard on day one, then disappears until the final day. And the support just came from everywhere. All the friendly faces I'd met; their names would briefly pop up as backers. I'm terrible at thank yous, but thank you.
It's the kind of support that I'll need for every game I create, the grassroots rumbling and evangelizing of a sleeper hit, because with the release of Xenon Profiteer just now, and with the months to come, I'll have a chance to hear everything else, to let my ego wade in a overwhelming, sticky black bean soup of questions and negativity that emerges after the release of a new game. For some reason, the brain just loves to focus on the negative even when surrounded by positivity.
For example, I wrote the blog entry below just after Spiel with no intent to ever publish it. I don't know whether other people do this — write and half-edit something only to delete it or place it deep into a file on a hard-drive and forget it until years later. I do it out of self-preservation. I never call out reviewers or specific people in public. I try not to be defensive. Everyone has their own opinion, and I want them to. No one should ever feel bad about writing a negative review of one of my games or rating them, but I will share it. This is the way I cry whiny man tears — from my fingers.
The most frustrating part about game design is the reception. Three games in and I still want to scream obscenities in random Internet people's stupid idiot electronic faces.
It's even worse for someone like myself, who becomes highly invested in the project. Many times, I'm either directly involved in the entire process, going over proofs, writing a rulebook, and developing until the files are sent overseas for production. I spend a huge amount of time openly playtesting, providing free PnP files for blind testing, and revising games to the point that other designers have started telling me to not "T. C." my games so much.
I'm a bit of a perfectionist. I've played a ton of games and have been critical of a ton of games. I want my games to be the best they can possibly be, and I invite aid from various friends and reputable sources to make sure that I'm not designing in a bubble. I want my games to create that sort of tabletop magic that I found so endearing in all of my favorite games. I want my games to be of a high quality in both components and gameplay.
And I'm not crazy when I state that my games are "good" and compare highly with some of the best games on the market for innovation and satisfying, long-term gameplay.
So when I see Xenon Profiteer
get a flat 5 rating from someone random on the Internet BEFORE it's been released to the market, it's like a gut punch. Here is some guy/girl that has the opportunity to play one of the handful of copies that exist of a game that I spent two years creating and molding and sanding down to a perfect structure and they give it a 5. No comment.
A 5. This game is okay. I played it once. There's nothing new here. It doesn't engage me. There is nothing to debate. Bland. 5.
This will be my legacy. The worst and most devastating treatment. My games aren't bad; they're just easily dismissed. My epitaph will read, "T. C. Petty III: Game Designer: Why did he spend so much time on something he's clearly just okay at? I don't get it. 5/10." Yes, I will have a life rating on my tombstone.
I have to get used to this. It'll be the same with every oddball title. People won't like your games. Many of them are going to be esoteric or eccentric. Xenon Profiteer
is a game about cryogenic distillation. No matter what interesting mechanisms you slap onto that shell, there will be people out there that simply dismiss it. I don't see it cracking the BGG top 100 anytime soon.
I have to remind myself of the judge's ratings from the Ion Award competition (which were gladly sent to me in spreadsheet form). Half the ratings were 4/10. The other half were 9s or 10s. Nothing in-between. If judges were that wild at the Olympics, I think you'd see a few judges getting fired very quickly. That spreadsheet hurt your brain, remember? And still, somehow, you won.
And all of this is okay. But why is it so different with the wargamer niche? Wargamers love to inflate ratings of their favorite game systems and historical time periods, even while knowingly discussing the inaccuracies and cumbersome nature of many of them. I have a game about an esoteric theme that is extremely thematic, and it induces finger-waving and boredom from the same people that would cry for something different! Imagine if wargames were rated by players in the same way. We'd see the same exact disparity as the Ion Award judges above. "It's a game. Sounds boring. 4/10." War games would be simultaneously receiving 9s and above from the dedicated players that love wargaming and 4s from the rest of the world.
What sucks is that I know the game is good and I also know it's niche. Niche within a niche. I just wish that those niche-bashers would stay quiet and let me enjoy a wildly high rating with around 500 dedicated and interested players like good war games get. Let me have my dedicated fans, adequate sales numbers, and the ability to continue making little pieces of balanced weirdness. I'm not asking for much.
Either way, it's difficult to stay silent. I've worked so hard on this game and I just saw it for real over this weekend. And it looked gorgeous. The little bridge cards. The cross-style cardboard insert. The cute Distillation Console with a player's turn sequence. When I arrived at the convention, Rik, the person who bought the copy at Essen, told me how often the game had been played and demoed over the week. It made me happy. The cards looked crisp even with all the use. The box was shiny.
When they gave away all the Spiel games as door prizes later that night, all the new games were piled onto a single table and badge numbers were read aloud by a man standing on a chair and holding a microphone. I couldn't resist watching. I wanted to see who would pick up Xenon Profiteer
. Twenty names later. Forty names later. Six games left on the table and someone finally picks up the game. It made me sad. I knew that all the other games had bigger boxes and more expensive price tags, so I had prepared myself for the worst, but it still made me sad.
But when it was picked, more than a few people got excited and clapped. They pointed in my direction, and I humbly signed the first copy of Xenon Profiteer
that I had ever seen.
My biggest fear has always been that it will disappear. That Xenon Profiteer
will be the non-canon T. C. Petty III game. Something I did. That kinda cool thing that flew under the radar. The 5. Something about a 5 with no comment. It just sticks with me worse than any other rating could.
I fear dismissal. It doesn't help me make more games. Honestly, when I think about it, I don't really care about the ratings as long as it wins more awards! I'm so funny.
So go give Imperial Assault
and Arena of the Planeswalkers
a 5. It'll make all us indie designers feel angsty and cool. Stick it to the "design by committee", time-clock punching, homogenized, corporate game designers. You can return to bashing my games once they sell out and get into the BGG top 1000.
Let me be your Sekigahara
of cryogenic distillation.
The Point of It All
I like Xenon Profiteer. It's a pretty cool game.
I think most people will be surprised at how fast Xenon Profiteer is — not simply in game length (I call it a power-filler), but in the ability to begin setting up combos. The game does not last for as many turns as you might think, so every action you take needs to push you forward and the abilities you can acquire are straight-forward and feel immediately powerful.
My favorite part of Xenon Profiteer is a little hard to explain. It's that moment when you're playing and you realize that everyone at the table is trying out a different strategy, and that the strategy you tried last game isn't the strategy you have now. Each upgrade card feels overpowered, and becomes even more so when combined with other upgrades. It's a very satisfying feeling to set up a chugging engine to either drown in cash, drop bid tokens on everything, draw a ton of cards, or pump out xenon to fulfill contracts. And then watch as someone else wins by better balancing these things.
Xenon Profiteer is also one of those games that will cause a murmur of controversy in board game circles. The game is set in present day and is highly thematic, with flavor text included on every single card in the game. Upgrades are named after important pieces of a cryogenic distillation facility and legitimately function similar to their real-life counterparts. Contracts from the government, medical, and entertainment fields represent actual contracts a large distillation facility might take on. The rulebook is framed like a technical manual for running system software. The science is real. And every detail was combed over to make sure it is true to life. (Even "Pressure Swing Adsorption" is spelled correctly.) I even added variable player powers based on common résumé entries.
It's impossible to say that it isn't thematic. It does everything about thematic games so right, and yet so wrong. The flavor text is just about as dry as any sentence I could possibly find — and just about as interesting to me, personally, as the flavor text on any Magic card.
The point of Xenon Profiteer is to tap into that little thing called board game magic. Most of us don't work at a cryogenic distillation facility, nor do we dreamily fantasize about the possibility. Xenon Profiteer is my blatant homage to all the boring, esoteric Euro games that I have played and adored with absolutely no interest in the subject matter. And a little middle finger to stuffy thematic game types that can't enjoy anything outside of their flavor-text heavy, exception-based gameplay comfort zone. It doesn't sound fun at all; it just IS fun. And I hope that realization brings a smile to at least one player's face. First you get the distillation facility, then you get the xenon, then you get the power.
Xenon Profiteer takes a familiar concept like deck-building and the racing-style Euro game, creates a variation of both, and pumps out a new game. That's not exactly how I would phrase it on an advertisement as it completely ignores all of what I consider to make the game clever, but it doesn't make the statement any less true. It is new, but also an evolution. I could expound upon its loftier purpose in reverent tones, say that it is like a haiku — that is, a a simple, thematic statement that artistically examines an often overlooked piece of our modern framework. By building an infrastructure, tempering chaos, and trying to control the air itself, we can observe man's true conflict, the fight to find sense in an infinitely insensible world. A poem in game form.
It sounds good, but in the end, it's an experiment in mechanisms supporting theme. It's a weird little game, which is par for the course for me, and I think it's pretty awesome.
You can't go into Xenon Profiteer with any sense of hype. There is no fireball throwing, time travel, explosions, or anime art to fall back onto. It's a game, a little escapist fantasy about running a business that strives to draw you into its world merely by the interesting and strategic interactions players have while building their engines and solving a puzzle each turn. Less standing up and cheering; more smiling deeply and feeling the warm satisfaction in your bones.
I'd like to end this diary on a downer. Someday I'll die. The problem with dying is that it comes with that really lame part about being dead. I can't make any more games, and I can't watch all the cool stuff that happens afterward. Like, what's the point in having a long slide show with orchestral music for all the dead actors and directors at the Academy Awards if you don't get to watch your own or see the impact your life has on people in the future? I hope Xenon Profiteer is still being played after my untimely death in 2054, which I can only assume will be from being burned alive while sword-fighting through a wave of terrorists on a cliff edge. I hope it makes ripples in the timeline. I hope my future games make that ripple a splash.
Because as much fun as being lifted to heaven by a Valkyrie as I watch my flaming carcass explode in a geyser of blood against the ocean-swept rocks below along with a decimated regiment of evil soldiers sounds awesome, I'd rather spend my last moments making a particularly clever play in a game of Puerto Rico. Sounds super boring. Sounds perfect.
Thanks to everyone who supported me! Now's your chance to go buy Xenon Profiteer. It's the perfect Christmas gift for anyone who likes to breathe air.
Alan R. Moon
In 2013/2014, I designed several Ticket to Ride maps that I hoped would be the new products for 2015 and maybe 2016. I know it's a tease, but I can't tell you much about them except to say the two new maps have significant new elements not in the existing games. Of course, the best laid plans always seem doomed to fail, and my plan was no exception.
Late in 2014, Mark Kaufman called me on a Sunday to tell me that he and Eric Hautemont had sold Days Of Wonder to Asmodee. To say I was stunned would be a huge understatement. Mark said he and Eric Hautemont, the two guys I was used to working with on Ticket to Ride, were both leaving the company and my new point guy was going to be Adrien Martinot. My next thought was, "Wow, I won't have to try to translate Eric's machine-gun, rapid speak, French accent phone calls anymore." But then my following thought was "Geez, Adrien's French, too, and not even a semi-Americanized Frenchman like Eric. Is there any chance his accent will be easier?"
I won't say anything more about his accent, but Adrien has been a very pleasant surprise. A man of many ideas, Adrien had good and bad news for me. The bad news was that he didn't want to use the maps I'd already designed for new products in 2015. The good news was he had an idea for a new map. Adrien suggested a Ticket to Ride UK map and emailed me an outline of some ways to add "technology" to the rules. His impetus being that because the UK was where railroads were born, we should try to add that into the mix. I was immediately taken with the idea and started thinking about how technology could be integrated into the basic system.
Almost every expansion I have done starts out as a moderately complicated version of basic Ticket to Ride, changing the game in one or more very significant ways and adding lots of new rules. Fortunately, in every case, the actual published versions are quite streamlined compared to their first prototypes because my goal is first and foremost to retain the heart of what is Ticket to Ride while adding a new, fun experience for the fans of the game. While the UK map in Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 5 is probably the most involved of all the expansions, I feel like the added features are still very easy to pick up.
The first UK prototypes featured a Tech Chart with four or five tracks of technological developments. Here is one early version:
There were numerous versions of the chart, each change an attempt to balance the tracks on the chart and provide multiple and equal paths to victory — but it was not to be.
The major problem was that the developments were all "bought" with points. In every playtest, one or more players jumped out ahead on points and were then able to buy more tech than the ones lagging behind. It was also hard to balance the relative worth of the tech tracks, so it always seemed like focusing on one track first was the obvious choice.
After quite a few attempts, changing the Chart after each play, I came to the conclusion that I just couldn't make it work. It became obvious that it was going to be impossible to balance the options on the Tech Tracks — at least, not in the time I had. Maybe if I playtested it for year, maybe I could have make it work, maybe, but certainly not in the couple of months I had.
When I announced that I was giving up on the Chart, the three playtesters present were incredibly disappointed. I spent the next hour talking to them about the game and trying to present my reasons for needing to try something else. Their passion for the Chart-driven game surprised me, and even though I assured them the next version without the Chart would probably appeal to them, they weren't thrilled. Their lack of confidence in my ability to create another version they thought would be as fun was a little disappointing, but luckily I was confident enough for all of us, at least outwardly. The discussion with them was one of the most interesting design discussions I've ever had.
Instead of the Tech Chart, I decided to go with what I consider one of my strengths as a game designer: cards. So the spaces on the tracks of the Tech Chart became cards. This was immediately better and felt more like an appropriate Ticket to Ride expansion, but the problem of a runaway leader or leaders remained.
The next step was to change the cost of the cards to a mix of points and Wild Cards. Again, better, but still not right. The final step was to use only Wild Cards to pay for the Tech Cards. Ten minutes into that first playtest with this payment method, I knew I was almost there (a very satisfying feeling for a game designer during development). The actual cards and their costs changed quite a bit, as did the number of copies of each card, but that was just a matter of more testing.
The other thing I wanted to make different about the UK was the map itself. Because of the size of the land portions, I knew it would be able to handle only four players at most right from the start. I also knew it would need lots of small routes because the distances between the major cities were so short. Luckily, short routes were going to work well with the technology rules since players would be able to build only one and two space routes at the start. The pleasant surprise for me was the congestion created around London and the midlands, which also worked well with the technology.
There seem to be four basic strategies in the game:
-----1. Buy the Boiler Lagging Tech Card first. Build lots of small routes in England and Scotland. You will gain 20+ points for the Boiler Lagging Card. You will not need to buy that many other Tech Cards, maybe only the Scotland Concession and Mechanical Stoker Cards.
-----2. Build from Southampton through London north to Edinburgh and Glasgow, then start drawing Tickets. At the crucial moment when the game is about to end, buy the Double Heading Card. You will gain 20+ points for the Double Heading Card.
-----3. Draw lots of cards, including Wild Cards whenever available. Don't build any routes. Don't worry about your Tickets. Buy the Booster Card early. Claim the Southampton-NYC route as quickly as possible. After that, buy the Steam Turbine, Ireland/France Concession, Propellers, and Superheated Steam Boiler Cards. After you have all of these cards, buy the following Ferry routes: Penzance-Cork, Belfast-Barrow, Plymouth-Southampton, Dover-France, and Newcastle-Hull. Those routes will need 22 trains. That will leave you with three trains, so you will need to build one other route to initiate the end of the game. You will score 94 points plus/minus your tickets. If you can end the game quickly enough, you can win. The key will be getting enough Wild Cards, so this is more of a gambling strategy, but it's also fun. Of course, it can also be messed up if an opponent buys one of the key routes you need.
-----4. Use a more balanced approach based on your initial Ticket Draw like other Ticket To Ride games. You may want to draw more Tickets on your first turn just to clarify your strategy. Building routes in Ireland initially, especially if no other player is building there, can be a winning strategy when combined with builds from Ireland to Scotland, Wales, and England later in the game. The key to this strategy is to buy only as many Tech Cards as you need. Don't waste Wild Cards buying a Tech Card that you use only once.
Of course the preceding, especially the first three options, assumes no one else is following the same strategy as you. If someone else is following the same strategy, you will probably need to modify your choices.
The end result is a game that feels like Ticket To Ride with some fun differences and additions. I particularly love the fact that players have to build smaller routes so they spend a lot more turns playing cards — which also means the competition for routes is heavy right from the start, particularly on the double routes that run from Southampton north to Scotland. There are alternate routes, but many of them require Tech Cards.
The Advanced Technology Cards were not fully playtested and should definitely not be used if any of the players are playing for the first time. There were quite a few other possible Tech Cards that did not make it into the game.
The Pennsylvania map was done before I started on the UK map. For many years, my good friend Erik Arneson had encouraged me to design a PA map for Ticket To Ride, his main argument being that PA was such a perfectly rectangular shape. I would always laugh when he suggested this. While I hate to admit it publicly, he was actually right, at least about the shape. But as I thought about it more, I realized that Colorado was also a rectangle and it had tons of railroad history, so the second map of this expansion started out as Colorado. My basic idea was to add Stock Shares of the railroads into the game that players would receive for building certain routes.
Unfortunately, while Colorado had tons of railroads from which to choose, including favorites like the Cripple Creek, Cimarron Valley, Rock & Rail, Cumbres & Toltec, and Durango & Silverton, they were mostly "very" short lines, so it quickly became obvious that I couldn't create enough routes for them.
At that point, it was like Erik's voice was in my head, and my eyes turned to Pennsylvania. I had been so enamored with the Colorado railroads that it had blocked out the plainly evident fact that Pennsylvania also had a ton of railroad history and great railroads. As soon as I started researching the railroads and their lines, I knew PA was the right choice.
The rules for the Stock Shares are similar to the new rules for Passengers in the Germany map game. They create some interesting choices. Since the first share is the ultimate tie-breaker for each railroad, it can be very important to build routes early. It can also influence your choice of routes to build. Sometimes, building more short routes can be valuable to give you more shares. Sometimes, building a specific route just to get the last share or one of the last remaining shares available can increase the points you will receive for that Railroad. It is easy to get too distracted by the shares though, and sometimes it's best just to follow a more normal Ticket To Ride strategy.
There is a Big Cities element in the game, with Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New York City as the Big Cities. All six of these cities are connected to each other as Tickets, and each of these six cities has one more Ticket as well, meaning that 21 of the 50 Tickets in the game involve the Big Cities.
Finally, I wanted the PA map to feel more like the USA map than the other expansions, so there are lots of big routes to build.
The playtesting of the PA map was fairly uneventful. I started out with more railroads than the final version, but fewer railroads provided more competition and put the emphasis on the big lines like the PRR and B&O. There were a few route changes and some Ticket changes, but the game quickly came together. The last few playtests were very fun with one or more players trying to end the game quickly and others trying to pick up as many Stock Shares as possible.
There are a number of personal things in this expansion. The two maps include Southampton which is where I was born and Syracuse which is where I currently live. I really like the fact that Reading is on both maps and that three of the four Monopoly railroad lines are also present. Perhaps the most fun for me though is the Southampton-New York route, which is a tribute to my grandfather who was a steward on the Queen Mary his whole life, sailing back and forth along that route.
I hope you enjoy both of these maps as much as I enjoyed designing them — and I hope that in 2016 you'll see the two maps I designed before these two...
Preorder One Night Ultimate Werewolf now from www.beziergames.com
One Night Ultimate Werewolf
Back in the Day...
After Daybreak (the standalone expansion to One Night Ultimate Werewolf) was completed in mid-2014, I figured that I was done with the One Night series for a while as the base game and Daybreak provided a pretty much complete experience for One Night players, ranging from simple roles to really interesting, complex ones. I thought I would probably put out a few more expansions because there are cards that were on the sidelines for a variety of reasons, but as far as gameplay goes, One Night was locked in place.
I had started working on One Night Revolution for Indy Boards & Cards, and I thought that ONR would be a nice sideways step for the mechanisms in the original One Night Ultimate Werewolf, mainly by splitting the role from the player's team. One of the things I had been toying with was preventing a player from using their night action in Revolution, and this was done by a player giving a "disable" token to another player, who would wake up later in the turn order to discover he couldn't do his night action because someone before him had disabled him. Neat idea, but for a variety of reasons it just didn't work in ONR.
Would You Like a Bite?
That idea of "giving" something to someone stuck with me, and one morning I woke up with the idea of a new One Night role card for a Vampire, who would "give" his gift of vampirism to another player by biting them. Actual physical biting was considered, then quickly dismissed, but the idea of the Vampire player giving a "bite" token to another non-Vampire player was pretty solid. Of course, then everyone would know who was bitten, which would suck (pun intended) for the victim.
New idea: What if everyone started with one of those tokens, a blank one, then the Vampire exchanged the blank one for a bite? Problem solved! But that would require ten blank tokens (one for each player) and a bite token (maybe two because of the Doppelganger) just for that one role card. The publisher side of my brain did the math and rolled his eyes at the designer side of my brain — yet another idea crushed by the realities of publishing.
Marks Take Hold and Won't Let Go
A few days pass, and in the Shower of All Great Ideas™ I'm struck by Cupid's arrow. Well, not his arrow (that would hurt, and I'm married, so it would be awkward, too) but instead by how I could get Cupid to work in One Night. Cupid, you see, is one of the more popular roles in Ultimate Werewolf: One player causes two other players to fall madly in love, so much so that if one of them dies, the other dies of a broken heart. These new tokens required for the Vampire role would also work for Cupid — two players could receive one of Cupid's arrows! And if Cupid woke up after the Vampire, Cupid could cure Vampirism. (A "love heals all wounds" kind of thing — very romantic of me in hindsight.)
So now there's a thing — these tokens could really add some flavor to the game by marking the players with various attributes. I renamed them "marks" (Mark of the Vampire and Mark of Love) and thought about what else would work with this new mechanism. The original idea was a Mark of Disabling, which sounded a little too crippling to be fun, but what if a special-powered vampire scared someone so much they couldn't do their night action? A Mark of Fear! The Count was given this ability — and an uncanny resemblance to a certain muppet.
The Marks of Nothing were renamed to Marks of Clarity during this process, too.
Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch of Mark-Manipulating Characters
Now things were looking good. I looked through the dozens of characters in Ultimate Werewolf Deluxe Edition to see whether any more might work with the new Marks system and found the poor Diseased role, who in the "big" game makes werewolves sick, preventing them from eating the second night. Of course, there is no second night in One Night (or it would be called "One Nights", which is a grammatical nightmare).
No one wants some terrible, very communicable disease, but because it is so contagious, the Diseased gives a Mark of the Disease to the player sitting directly to their left or right. And because the Diseased is on the village team, they have a really fun defense: If anyone points at a player with disease, that player (not their team) loses (even if their team wins) because thematically they contract the disease and die a horrible painful death while the other team members are partying in the village square to celebrate their victory.
What's really fun about this is that the Diseased can give their disease to a vampire, which still has to be killed in order for the village to win, but YOU don't want to be pointing at them. (You'll need to convince everyone else to do so while you point at some other random player, thus ensuring that your team will win, even though most of them will end up losing because they pointed at a Diseased player.) Really fun!
The Tanner in the original One Night Ultimate Werewolf, who has to die in order to win and in doing so prevents the werewolves from winning, is a fun role. I really like the idea of additional teams, and in creating the Assassin, that's what you get: a new "team" of one that can win only if his target, whom he's given the Mark of the Assassin, dies. He's got to convince the players to kill his target (he can't do it alone), knowing that if they suss out that he's the Assassin, his motives aren't to be trusted and they might go another way. However, with the Assassin, if he wins, other teams can still win, so if the Assassin is lucky enough to put a mark on a Vampire, he should have an easy time getting the village on his side. Likewise, if he's targeted an innocent villager, he might be able to sway the Vampires to help kill said villager.
One of my favorite new roles is yet *another* solo team. Originally I thought it might be fun if the Assassin had a helper, a morally-challenged Robin to the Assassin's Azrael-style Batman. (Extra points if you don't have to look up that reference.) The Apprentice Assassin would help the Assassin kill the player with the Mark of the Assassin — but after a few playtests, it wasn't nearly as interesting as I thought it would be. Keeping the name, the new Apprentice Assassin has a single goal: to be the Assassin. How does she do that? By killing the original Assassin! What's super cool about the interaction here is what happens at night: The Assassin wakes up and places his Mark of the Assassin on a player, then *doesn't close his eyes*. The Apprentice Assassin wakes up and sees him, and the Assassin sees her and knows she wants to kill him. They're totally aware of each other, but neither can say anything about the other or they'll never manage to kill their respective targets!
The Priest came about as a way for the Villagers to ward off the avalanche of Marks being played. He rids both himself and a player of his choice of any Marks, giving them a blank "Mark of Nothing". (That was the working title of the "empty" marks.) This worked thematically quite well as it ensured that the Priest couldn't be a Vampire *or* be in love. (You're welcome, Catholic Church.)
One of the reasons people love the original One Night Ultimate Werewolf is because of the potential for role-switching. I wanted to add some of those abilities to this game, with a focus more on Marks than role cards. The Marksman is a Seer-like role, allowing the player to look at one player's card and one other player's Mark. The Pickpocket is the Robber's little brother, stealing a Mark from a player and replacing that player's Mark with their own. The Gremlin is like the Troublemaker on steroids (steroids that turn you into a weird blue monster), with the ability to exchange Marks *or* role cards, including your own.
Dusk vs. Night
The working title of the game was "Dusk" (nice symmetry with Daybreak, which had a lot of roles that took place at the end of the night) as most roles did their actions before the roles in One Night Ultimate Werewolf. To that end, there's a distinct break between Dusk and Night, where all players open their eyes and view their Marks, then close their eyes again. This allows players with "night" actions to use the info on their Marks when they do their actions — for instance, if the Pickpocket has the Mark of the Vampire, he knows that when he steals a Mark from a player, then that player will get his Mark of the Vampire; if he can convince the village of that, it should be an easy win for the village team. Should be.
Later in development of the game, when it was determined that the game worked incredibly well as a standalone, the decision was made to give it a new name, and One Night Ultimate Vampire was the clear choice.
Through a lot of playtests — One Night games have been playtested more than two thousand times for all three games — a few other roles were added and modified, and several (not mentioned here) were discarded.
The original One Night Ultimate Werewolf game has a role called the Doppelganger. It's awesome and fun because it allows a player to look at another player's role card and essentially duplicate that role. Making the Doppelganger work initially was pretty difficult, and when Daybreak was being developed, all sorts of issues cropped up that had to be dealt with. With Vampire, those issues took on a whole new level of complexity.
The key with the Doppelganger is to get all the roles to work with it without having to modify the original role functionality at all. At least, that's the theory — and with the exception of the Copycat, I was able to pull it off. One of the things that had to be done was to provide another set of Marks just for the Doppelganger (similar to how there are two Shield tokens for Daybreak's Sentinel). The publisher side of my brain fought this pretty hard because it essentially added another punchboard to the game and about two pages to the rulebook as well as a new Doppelganger token because the number on the token (that determines wake order) had to change.
Things are a little weird for several edge cases, such as when the Doppelganger views the Apprentice Assassin because now the Assassin has two people gunning for him, but I guess that's part of the job, as anyone familiar with Grosse Pointe Blank will tell you.
That Amazing One Night App
The app for One Night would, of course, need to be updated with all the new roles, which by itself isn't too bad; it's the interaction with pre-existing roles that takes time. For instance, The Revealer (from Daybreak) flips over a card and leaves it there unless it was a Werewolf or a Tanner, in which case he flipped it back down — but the narration had to change because if the card is a Vampire, he has to leave it face up and the narration can say that only if a Vampire is in the game, and if there are no Werewolves in the game, he can only say Vampire and not Werewolves. Similar issues appeared with lots of other roles.
And then there's the !@#$%!@#$ Doppelganger. The app logic for the Doppelganger is SO confusing that the spreadsheet for the app needed all sorts of new "if" and "then" columns in it. Working through all the permutations was a brutal exercise to get everything just right. The positive, glass half-full view of this is that those permutations resulted in lots of rules clarifications for how things are supposed to happen, which led to notes in the rules to help players figure things out. The app is more useful than ever when you're combining Vampire with the original One Night Ultimate Werewolf and Daybreak.
For Vampire, I hired Eric Summerer much earlier in the process to provide narration for the new roles; this allowed for app and game testing much earlier than in previous One Night games, and while I've had to get corrections/updates from Eric several times, having "real" narration in a beta app for testing has been incredibly valuable.
Next, I started working on ideas for app enhancement. The app was already awesome, so I didn't want to mess with it too much, but there were some things that could be better. I designed a "verbose" mode for the Doppelganger that reads off the roles that have to take their action immediately when the Doppelganger wakes, and an expert mode that makes the night move super fast for experienced players.
No, Really, They're Epic
During development, I was convinced that Vampire would work only if there were no Werewolves. After all, the winning condition for Vampires and Werewolves were the same: No one on your team can die. That would result in Vampire/Werewolf team-ups to kill a villager, something that would be hard to stop if you're a villager.
But as expected, the Shower of All Great Ideas™ came through, and by changing the winning conditions for all three teams, Epic Battles not only work, but they're, well, Epic.
As a bonus, those three-way Epic Battles work with as few as three players!
I'm super-excited about this One Night prequel, and I think anyone who has enjoyed One Night will really have a lot of fun with the new mechanisms and roles!
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