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Designer Diary: Terraforming Mars, or Life to Mars and Mars to Life!

Jacob Fryxelius
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My first Spiel was 2011, the year that FryxGames was founded. We were five brothers there, of which four were in the company, and the fifth was just company. Our few handmade Wilderness sold out and my low-production Space Station didn't fare so badly either. Spiel was amazing, and we were greatly encouraged, deciding to go for it and start making high-quality games in decent (for us) print-runs.

Shortly after that first Spiel, I thought to myself one day: "I should make a game about terraforming Mars." The thought wasn't far-fetched since I LOVE Mars, science and epic scales — and so I did. Now I will show you how Terraforming Mars evolved.

My love for card games shines through all my designs. It is so easy to start prototyping a card game, and the format allows you to simulate almost anything! Beginning as usual with just pen and paper, I made the first prototype with pieces of paper torn from ordinary printer paper. (I get 16 from each sheet.) There are a number of aspects that need to be addressed when terraforming Mars, of which I deemed oxygen, temperature, and ocean coverage to be the most important, so I also had a sheet of paper for these scales.

Aside from being card-based and having scales for different things, other things started to become clear, too:

-----• That the players were corporations paid for terraforming, which was simulated by a terraform rating that provided both income and victory points.

-----• That I wanted unique cards that could simulate anything from importing water and building various industries to introducing life and hurling asteroids at the Martian surface to create heat.

-----• That I would need different resources to simulate these things.

-----• That many cards would continue to work over time, necessitating a production phase.

-----• That I wanted the cards to have thematic tags that could be used to create cool combos and enhance the thematic simulation of the project cards.

-----• That the scales should have bonus steps that could simulate different things, e.g., water being released when the permafrost begins to melt at 0º C, and an increasing greenhouse effect and rising temperature due to a thickening of the atmosphere.

-----• That the game would end when Mars was fully terraformed.

-----• That I wanted to be able to raise temperature gradually, introducing the heat scale that feeds the temperature scale.

One of the most important aspects of terraforming Mars is plant life because it can turn carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere into breathable oxygen via photosynthesis. It can also give food and useful materials, in addition to binding the dust. Thus, I had a plant scale on which players marked their accumulated plant resources and received extra oxygen increases and VPs accordingly. All of these aspects still remain in the final, printed game (plus more as you will see).

After a month or so, I made a simple Word version of the "cards" and "board" to get a clearer and more playable experience. Algae, for example, costs 1, is a plant bio project, produces 2 plant resources every round, requires there to be 5% ocean in play before you can play it, and gives you 1 immediate plant resource when you play it. This card gets you higher on the plant scale over time, causing oxygen to rise (and your terraform rating!), and is worth extra VPs at the game end.

After designing for a couple of months, I remembered that the Red Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson was about terraforming and began rereading it, discovering that most of "my" ideas in the game subconsciously came from my earlier reading of those marvelous books. I also found more stuff to put in the game, of course. Anyone familiar with the Red Mars trilogy will feel at home in this game! But inspiration has also come from NASA, ESA, Wikipedia and other web-articles, as well as Mars One, and the Mars Society president Robert Zubrin (who, by the way, really liked this game and came up with the slogan "Life to Mars, and Mars to life" that I used for this designer diary). Collecting all this information and inspiration on terraforming naturally got my own cogs turning, too, and I came up with a few terraforming ideas myself, being the nerdy science teacher I am.

The next step in the design process was to visualize the parameters on an appealing game board. You cannot do a theme like this justice without some cool graphics, and here is what I came up with:

The market is where you buy new cards for your hand. This was a feature we abandoned because with all the cards being unique and players buying cards from the market all the time, it was a real chore to constantly reevaluate the market. Instead, I decided that players should simply draw cards and choose the ones they want for their hand, paying for each of them and discarding the rest. This created an investment and a difficult choice: Buy more cards for your hand, or save the money to afford playing the ones you already have?

I realized that this layout wouldn't really visualize the terraforming process, so the next iteration had the surface divided into areas that you could claim and on which you could place cities, forests and ocean markers.

Maybe a cool idea, but markers would still not visualize the spreading of water and life on the surface, so another solution was needed.

By using hexagons, tiles could fill up the areas and create continuous oceans and forests. By this time, we'd also worked in standard projects to complement the cards, and milestones and awards for which you could compete. All these changes greatly increased player interaction and helped visualize the development of a living planet.

We also moved much of the resource management to a player board on which resources and production were marked. Gone were the days of filling up cards with common resources! The plant and heat scales were replaced by a simple conversion of resources, which felt much better. The production phase was also much simpler when all production was summarized on the player boards instead of on all the individual cards.

Speaking of the cards, they also got an overhaul by Jonathan:

The player board shown above features fancy icons that we used for a while, designed by Daniel. (Oh, the blessings of a big and creative family!) We went back to plainer icons in order to increase readability.

Just as the game board now illustrated the theme better, we needed the cards to do the same, but adding pictures to Jonathan's design was tricky because of the semi-transparent panels covering a big part of the picture area, so we needed a new card template with opaque panels and dedicated space for the illustration. I made a first design to illustrate the concept, and handed it over to Daniel — and you can see who the better artist is!

However, we felt that this game should have a positive, scientific look to it, not the usual dark dystopia we always see in sci-fi, so we eventually handed the graphics over to another brother, Isaac, who made the final graphical design for Terraforming Mars:

Needless to say, we are very happy with the result. Another development was that of the corporations. From being anonymous and equal, I invented twelve different ones for the game, each with a background and a specialty.

We still had three problems with the game, though, going into beta-testing.

The first problem was the feeling of being overwhelmed when new players tried to digest their starting cards and choose which cards to buy for their starting hand of ten drawn cards and two corporations. Having all these cards to choose from at the start of the game is important to get enough for a strategy. The solution was beginner corporations for new players that simply gave you the cards and have no extra functions for players to track. Instead of needing to evaluate which cards to buy before even knowing the game, new players could now focus on how to use the cards they received while the experienced players chose their starting hand and corporation. This created a much better learning experience.

The second problem was downtime. As the game progresses, you increase your economy and abilities, meaning there's more to do on your turn; the game bogged down considerably towards the end! A beta-tester suggested that players should alternate doing actions one at a time. This I knew wouldn't work because then the players could just wait until another player was ready to grab a bonus — such as a milestone or bonus step on a parameter — and simply grab it right before their nose without the other player being able to do anything about it. Then it hit me: Let the players choose to do one OR two actions at a time; then it would be much harder for the players to control each other completely, but still the turns would pass quickly. As a bonus, this change allowed players to play fast or slow in order to either race towards a bonus or try to wait out the other players. Worked like a charm...

The third problem was the game time. Even with the new turn structure and its nice flow, the game was long. That's okay for many players, but sometimes you just don't have that time. Shortening the game by adjusting the length of the parameters didn't feel right, so what could we do? Terraforming Mars ends when Mars is terraformed! There are cards that help you towards this goal and cards that increase your economy or victory points. Each action you do in the game takes a few seconds to perform, so shortening the game time would mean reducing the number of actions that players perform, which means taking out cards that don't help move the terraforming along (which turned out to be about a third of all cards).

A lot of fun and interesting cards were cut, so we decided to keep them in the box as a kind of expansion called "Corporate Era". We also decided that the basic game should have starting production to give the players a jump start. As a result of these alterations, the game time was reduced by a full hour!

Many people (and companies) have put work into this game to make it great – thank you so much! There is, of course, much more to say and many more design iterations that I haven't shown you here, but I'll stop now and hope this has been an interesting read for you.


Jacob Fryxelius
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Wed Aug 3, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: The Networks, or Plugging at MacGuffins

Gil Hova
United States
Jersey City
New Jersey
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What follows is the long, sordid design history of The Networks. It's been a wild journey over the past six years, starting with me fumbling around in the dark as a part-time hobbyist game designer and ending with me running my own publishing company.

Within, I'll reveal three shocking truths. I'm not very good at clickbait, so here are two right off the bat.

-----• I've heard a few reviewers guess that this game was theme-first. I can see why they feel that way, but it was actually mechanism-first.
-----• The mechanism on which this game is based is no longer in the game.

The third shocking truth is...well, you'll have to keep reading to the end of the article.

In the Beginning, There Was MacGuffin Market

Let's rewind ten years to 2006. I had a game called "Wag the Wolf" that the prestigious Hippodice game design competition put on its recommended list, but the game made it no further than that. It was rejected by several publishers, and after a good amount of playtesting, I realized that the whole was less than the sum of its parts.

I had a lot to learn as a designer. I thought that if I combined a cool theme and a cool mechanism, I'd end up with a cool game.

This cool mechanism was an auction in which players could bid slightly less than the high bid to stay in the auction. In a four-player game, there were two underbid slots, so one player would always be left out. That player could raise the high bid, though, which would make the previous high bid an underbid, and force a mad scramble to the new underbid slots.

An illustration of the auction from Wag the Wolf's rulebook;
maybe I'll get this game on the table someday to see how it holds up!

It really was a nifty mechanism. I wanted to salvage it, so I decided to design a new game around it. That game turned out to be Battle Merchants, which Minion Games eventually released in 2014.

If you've played Battle Merchants, you'll notice that it has no auction. That's because playtesters realized that the auction, while fun and interesting in its own right, didn't fit with all the stuff I built around the auction. Sure enough, when I removed the auction from Battle Merchants way back then, the game worked great.

Designers, never hesitate to kill your darlings. It might just make your game better.

So now it's 2010. I had this auction mechanism recently sliced out of Battle Merchants, and I still wanted to make another game around it. I didn't want to fall into the same trap as before, so I figured that I'd design the game completely around the auction. Stripped down, no theme.

The new game was called "MacGuffin Market". It had no theme — or more specifically, its theme was that it had no theme. The players were bidding money on a "Wag the Wolf"-style auction that would give them turn order and gems. They could spend gems or money on MacGuffins, pick up power cards, or end their rounds by getting income, with players who dropped early receiving more income.

MacGuffins were the big objects in the game that everyone wanted to get, named for the film trope of an object that every character wants, without its actual function ever being explained to the audience. It doesn't matter what the MacGuffin is or what it does; it just matters that everyone wants it.

Sample MacGuffins from MacGuffin Market, with each giving you money or gems & the A, B, and C being a set collection bonus, I think

So in this protoplasmic version of the game, you can already see the seeds of The Networks: Buy big things that give you points, pick up power cards, end your round by getting income.

If only it were that easy!

From MacGuffins to TV

My identity is just as important to this designer diary as the game, so keep in mind who I saw myself as when I began this process. I had a day job that was slowly transitioning into computer programming. I was putting a lot of time into my work, and my career came first. I saw myself as a hobbyist game designer. I'd heard of people who started their own game companies, and I knew with all my heart that I would never self-publish my games.

Ha. Haha. Hahahahahahaha.

Anyway. At the time, I was playtesting about twice a month, maybe three times if I was lucky. It was a decent amount of testing, although I envied my game designer friends who tested once per week. Progress on my game was rather slow.

Still, I'm lucky to playtest with some amazing designers. Eric Zimmerman gave one of the game's most vital early suggestions: the theme (or lack thereof) just wasn't working.

I realized he was right. Teaching the game wasn't easy. You had MacGuffins, gems, and money, but nothing really made intuitive sense because nothing mapped into anything a player would recognize.

It was a lesson that took me years to learn, but one I preach any time I can. It's not enough to have a cool theme. It's not enough to have cool mechanisms. Your game lives at the intersection of its theme and its mechanism. One is not more important than the other, and it's not more important to start with one over the other. You have to find the best possible way to join them, then make that join as tight as you can.

The problem with "Wag the Wolf", and now with "MacGuffin Market", was that there was no theme/mechanism join to speak of in either game. Nothing tied together. It wasn't even a matter of "pasted-on" because there was no paste. The theme and mechanism were like an estranged couple, sitting at opposite ends of the room and refusing to talk to each other.

Kill your darlings, again. The game needed a theme. We discussed possible candidates. Secret agents? City building? Making movies?

I thought about the last one. Making movies was done beautifully in Traumfabrik, but what about making television shows? No games about making TV shows were available at the time.

Three different covers, three different names, one fine game

We talked about the various ways we could reskin the game. MacGuffins would become the shows. Gems could become stars. Everything else would pretty much remain the same. Simple, huh?

Not Ready for Prime Time

I renamed the prototype "Prime Time" and started testing. Viewers were points; that was in from the start. When you got a show, you immediately got money or Viewers; that was grandfathered in from "MacGuffin Market".

A few new mechanisms quickly fell into place. First, you were limited to three time slots, so your fourth show would mean you'd have to cancel one of your existing shows and send it to reruns. The player with the most Rerun Viewers got a bonus.

Second, instead of always scoring a flat value like the MacGuffins, your shows would score you a different number of Viewers every round. They would constantly age. I have to give credit for this mechanism to the brilliant, underrated auction game BasketBoss, which deserves a lot more love than it got.

Seriously, play this game!

Third, the Gems became Stars. I felt they needed some differentiation, so I made Male and Female Stars and put requirements on the Shows for the different genders of Stars.

Nine shows from the first draft of Prime Time. Some shows took up to four stars. The shows with clapboards also require a director, which you had to get by winning an auction. These cards were from before I put in the aging mechanism, so they all scored a flat bonus when you picked them up.

Things seemed to be going well until BGG.CON 2011. I had a fateful playtest in Dallas that year. I thought the game was in great shape, but I got a bunch of feedback that pushed me right back down into the hole again. The feedback I got was familiar: The testers realized that the auction, while cool, didn't fit in with all the stuff I built around the auction. Just like what happened in Battle Merchants, it was time to drop the auction.

Kill your darlings.

I wasn't ready. I was going through a tough time. I had an abusive boss at work at the time, I was suffering through a move and the after-effects of a divorce, and I was working on getting Battle Merchants ready to pitch to publishers. (It would get picked up the following year.) So I shelved "Prime Time".

Yes, the board looked like this at one point. No, I'm not a graphic designer, why do you ask?

In the next twelve months, I brought the game out for testing only once. It was a halfhearted test, without any different Seasons. Just one continuous flow in which you chose a new Show, immediately scored it, then a new Show came out.

It was terrible. It was boring. Back on the shelf it went.

At some point in 2012, I realized that if I didn't replenish cards as they were taken, and if I split the game back into discrete Seasons, that might add much-needed tension. I finally tested it late that year and was stunned to find that it felt good. There was something there.

At some point, I set the game in the 1980s and 1990s, during the dawn of cable. I made up a bunch of silly show parody names and pasted in the pictures of various 1980s Stars. Sure enough, that became a great part of the experience. People loved putting, say, Ricardo Montalban on Knight Rider.

If only

I was heartened again. "Prime Time" was back on its feet!

80% Is Halfway Done

Let's fast-forward to 2014. This was a huge year for me and a huge year for the game.

I'd been testing the game steadily at my twice-a-month intervals. It was feeling close to done. I'd balanced the Male and Female Stars, I had a great set of Network Cards, and I had this brilliant mechanism where, at the start of each Season, you reached into a bag and pulled out these Drop and Budget chips. They varied in value from $2 to $20, and you pulled out only as many as the number of players. Some Seasons, you'd get a ton of money; other Seasons, you'd get almost nothing.

Another old rulebook excerpt. In a three-player game, you'd draw five chips, sort them, and remove the second and fourth. Why did I keep this fiddly mechanism so long? Some questions have no answers.

But things were beginning to change. Battle Merchants was close to coming out; I'd been hard at work on writing and editing the rulebook, helping guide the art and graphic design, and handling final playtesting. My day job was starting to feel distant from me. I was rebuilding my social life from my divorce. I tried my hand at sketch comedy and improv. This pulled me away from game design, but gave me some nice perspective, good times, and a few good friends.

Who was I? Was I a computer programmer? Was I a comic? Was I a game designer?

A newer board, with help from a graphic designer friend, who I had asked to make it look "Eighties"

About this time, lightning struck. I'd been trying to get into The Gathering of Friends, Alan Moon's invite-only convention, for a few years. Somehow, I lucked into an invite.

To say the convention changed everything is an understatement. First off, I ran 13.5 playtests of "Prime Time" in ten days. I did a lot of tinkering with the game's economy. One interesting phenomenon was when I once accidentally made the economy too loose. Playtesters didn't tell me that they had too much money; instead, they started suggesting adding all these mechanisms that would be ways they could spend their money.

A few years before, I would have listened to them. Thankfully, I'd learned enough as a designer by then to understand that they were trying to solve a problem that had a different root cause. I re-tightened the economy, and the players no longer suggested extra money sinks.

The old prototype in action!

I showed "Prime Time" to three different publishers: two rejected it, and one was intrigued, but wanted a different, more interactive scoring system.

I looked for more publishers to pitch to and realized just how many more designers there were in the room than publishers. I was fighting a losing battle, and none of these publishers had the passion for my game that I did.

I didn't know it then, but the seeds of change had been planted at that fateful convention, surrounded by people who made games for a living. A few weeks after I came back from the convention and after an especially troubling day at work, I thought to myself: How much better at game design would I be if I did it every day?

I backed away from comedy. I started pushing my playtest group to meet every week instead of every month. I had already had some experience with this through running my annual 4P challenge every January, but I was amazed at how much more progress my games made with more frequent playtesting.

An old show from when the game was set in the 1980s and 1990s

One day at work during a meeting, a co-worker criticized the job I'd done on a project and I realized I felt nothing inside. I spent a difficult month not telling anyone but family and friends, making sure my mind was set. It was.

In November 2014, I quit my full-time job to freelance part-time as a sound editor and open up more time for me to run Kickstarter campaigns and attend conventions as a game publisher.

My mind was made up. I was going to self-publish "Prime Time".

The Last Throes of Design

After The Gathering of Friends in 2014, I realized there was a lot I needed to change about the game. Having Male and Female Stars bugged me; why did gender matter? I had show genres on the cards, but they were just flavor, with no accompanying mechanisms. Players who started a Season with little money had to drop out early. I had that "brilliant" Drop and Budget mechanism. And most of the twenty-somethings I played with humored me with my 1980s and 1990s references, but really had no idea what any of the Shows and Stars were referring to.

These problems resolved with thunderous effect in the game. One tester was surprised there were no ads in the game, and I smacked my forehead. Of course! Get rid of the genders of Stars. Instead of Male Stars and Female Stars, you have Stars and Ads. It's incredible how late in the process the Ads entered, and how right they felt once they made it in.

At first, you paid for Ads, just like you paid for Stars. The always-clever Paul Incao, who develops Vital Lacerta's games, tried "Prime Time" and suggested that players should earn money from Ads instead. Not only was it thematic, it solved the problem of poor players dropping out too early. He also suggested the Attach Star/Ad action, which I fought because I didn't want to complicate the game, but the suggestion turned out to work perfectly if I made some Stars and Ads optional on Shows.

An old Ad with the same information as what's on the current ad cards, only more confusing!

I also reluctantly changed the time setting of the game. No more 1980s and 1990s references that confused millennials. Once I switched to modern shows and stars, everyone seemed to get a huge kick out of the experience, regardless of age.

It was about here that the "rotation" mechanism entered, which has become one of the most defining features of the game. I could finally play off of Show genres, with some Stars preferring to be on certain kinds of Shows, like Dramas or Sitcoms. They seemed to work with Ads to, although it took quite a few frustrating playtests to get income and upkeep working properly!

Finally, after months of begging from my playtesters, I relaxed my iron grip on my "brilliant" pet mechanism in the game: the variable chips that decided the Drop and Budget values. I went with a flat track of values instead, with a number of spaces equal to the number of players, and amazingly no one missed my weird, ingenious system.

Kill your darlings.

For a long time, I had separate Set-up Cards reminding you of how to set up each Season

That left two problems. First, the Genres still didn't feel like they were pulling their weight. Second, the game felt like a tactical grind. It lacked an arc. Each Season really didn't feel different from the next, and no one was working towards anything; it felt like a rinse, later, and repeat exercise.

Then came BGG.CON 2014, and the final huge piece in the puzzle. I had one test with three players, and I nervously introduced a new mechanism: If you got three Shows of the same Genre, you could draw Stars from the Star deck, or Ads from the Ad deck (along with some money).

I was flabbergasted to see what the change did. Suddenly, the game had strategy. You were working to a goal. You wanted to become Comedy Central, or Syfy, or ESPN. It was thematic, and it was strategic, and it worked perfectly.

Even better, it was no longer a grind. Getting the Genre Bonus injected your network with new resources, and you could jump right back into the thick of things without having to tediously pick up new Stars and Ads.

Up until then, testers had mildly enjoyed the game. They'd found it, y'know, fun, they liked it, it was good. From this point on, they loved the game — as in, they asked me when it was going on Kickstarter, and they enthusiastically signed up for my mailing list.

There was still some buttoning-up to do. The three-player game took a lot of massaging, but I realized that removing a Genre would make things much smoother. I made a solo version of the game that had a new mechanism of card burning, and after a bunch of boring two-player tests, I realized that the two-player game needed card burning as well. The solo game was logistically easiest to test, of course, and went from good to great once I figured out how to put in an immediate-loss condition and midgame feedback that let the player know if they were doing well or not, score-wise.

But it was time to put on the publisher hat.


There was a storm cloud on the horizon. I found out that there were two other games called "Prime Time" in development: One was a deckbuilder that unfortunately didn't fund on Kickstarter, while the other was a heavy strategy game from an established designer/publisher.

I didn't know Elad Goldsteen at the time, and I was pretty sure he would beat me to market. I hated the idea of changing my game's name. "Prime Time" was perfect! But I did what I had to do. I let Elad have "Prime Time", and I renamed my game The Networks.

My next order of business was to find a graphic designer. I thought of all the graphic designers I knew of and who would be a good match.

You've seen pictures of the prototype all throughout this post. It's a lot of cards with a lot of numbers. This game throws a huge amount of information at the players, and I needed a graphic designer who was amazing at distilling a large quantity of information into a streamlined form. I needed someone like Heiko Günther.

I am ashamed to say that I spent a measurable amount of time trying to figure out graphic designers who could a job similar to Heiko, until I realized that I could just, well, email Heiko myself and see what he thought.

Here's what I didn't know: A few years previously, Heiko and a very talented illustrator, Travis Kinchy, worked on Silver Screen, a Knizia-designed card game version of Traumfabrik. It was to be published by Cambridge Games Factory back when Heiko did most of their work. Sadly, CGF encountered financial difficulties and stopped releasing games before Silver Screen could be published.

Heiko and Travis were disappointed; they had come up with a unique visual style for the game, and for a long time, they thought it was just a dead project. But then there I was, with my TV network game. Couldn't they resurrect the visual approach?

I checked it out and realized that it was perfect. I wanted something that was light and funny but not cartoony, yet somehow didn't present itself as a simple take-that filler game. Travis' illustrations somehow perfectly walked the line, and were incredibly funny to boot.

Card images from Silver Screen, done in the same visual style that Travis would adopt for The Networks

Meanwhile, Heiko set about taking my confusing mess of a visual design and putting it in order. He figured out a way to push all the information for the cards to their edges and leave most of the card available for Travis' excellent art.

It still blows my mind that the thing on the left became the thing on the right

The boards became modular. My system would have been ugly and text-heavy; his system allowed for the clean, elegant presentation of information. Instead of having set-up cards to remind players of how many cards went out each Season, he printed it directly on the rightmost board and had players swap out different boards based on the number of players. This let us put just about everything onto punchboard, using only a single cutting pattern to boot.

Make no mistake, Heiko and Travis were essential to this game's success. There is no The Networks without them.

Heiko, on the right, is plotting trouble at Spiel 2015

I had to use my "publisher's hammer" only a couple of times; most notably, I insisted on a scoring track that wrapped at 100 Viewers instead of 50, only because I'd tried that in a previous prototype and my playtesters hated it. I also insisted on testing the graphic design, and I came back to Heiko with quite a few revisions when I saw players were confused by a given graphic design element.

Throughout this process, Heiko was his typical professional, brilliant, and often hilarious self. After a few iterations, we wound up with a graphic design that got raves from just about all my playtesters, especially as Travis' art started to spread across the game.

I started sending the game to reviewers and was heartened to see people like Rahdo and Undead Viking willing to try out the game. Your Moderator Chris from Flip the Table seemed very excited about the game, so I sent him a review copy, making sure he knew I didn't expect a review of my game on his show. I was relieved to see everyone give the game glowing reviews.

Then one beautiful Sunday I was about to go on a day trip with my girlfriend, when I got this email from Rahdo: "Also, I'm curious, since you're going to be directly competing with Prime Time, which is going to be on Kickstarter at almost the exact same time as you..." It turns out that Prime Time was going to launch two weeks before The Networks!

Of course, Elad had no ill intent. In fact, he had no idea my game existed, so Rahdo was kind enough to introduce us over email. I've had the pleasure of meeting and hanging out with Elad a few times since then, and we've laughed about this crazy coincidence. I mean, we had both worked on our respective TV network games for six years each. We couldn't have timed this better if we tried!

And Kickstarter was kind to both of us; we both overfunded significantly, and we both got our games out. In fact, I picked up Prime Time from Elad at Essen 2015!

Elad and me at Spiel 2015; he's the taller guy on the right

Final Thoughts

So in the end, why did The Networks turn into a great game?

Obviously, there's the constant, relentless playtesting and iteration. After my turning point at The Gathering in 2014, I was playtesting at least once a week, usually twice. Iterations went fast and furious, and I was never afraid to try something for fear of failure. I got better at killing my darlings and wound up with a streamlined, well-developed game.

Also, this theme is really hard, and I think I backed into some fortuitous decisions. I've played friends' prototypes with TV themes, and they get hung up on a couple of things.

First, scoring in those designs is usually handled with an output randomness mechanism. For those of you who don't listen to the marvelous Ludology podcast (please start!), output randomness is any random event that happens after a player's decision. For example, when you attack the zombies, then roll a die to see whether you hit them, that's generally output randomness as the die roll dictates the outcome.

Input randomness, on the other hand, is when the random event happens before your turn begins. When you get dealt your hand of cards, that's input randomness; your play happens after the random event.

Most TV prototypes I played had viewer scoring as output randomness. This is understandable because it's realistic. No TV executive can predict how many people will watch their shows! That's just the business.

But it makes the game less fun. The whole interesting experience is in assembling the TV show. Having it be judged by a random mechanism devalues the experience of putting the show on the air. It feels meaningless.

One of my favorite stars

Second, remember that publisher who wanted my game to have more "interactive" scoring? That's how most TV games and prototypes I've played try to handle it; the player with the most viewers gets the best ratings, the player with the second most viewers gets the second-best ratings, and so on. Some games even split these into different demographics!

This makes scoring an opaque beast. Logistically, these games are a pain in the neck to score. Worse, it means that a player must evaluate each of their move's potential outcomes on each demographic. This makes for a huge outcome tree and is an invitation to mindbending analysis paralysis.

The Networks gets around both problems by having fixed, deterministic scoring for each show. This would normally be anathemic to the theme, but between the aging mechanism and the extra complexity of the rotate mechanism, there's enough variability in a player's possible score that it feels correct and thematic. Furthermore, if a player's show scores poorly in a given season, the player can easily track that to a specific decision they made. That feels much better than some arbitrary die roll!

Also, the deterministic scoring means that players don't have to study other players' boards and do a ton of math to determine what a good move is. Make no mistake — in The Networks, a player will have to study other players' boards, but what you're looking for is a lot simpler, logistically speaking. Do they need that 8:00 p.m. Drama? Or would they rather go for the 9:00 p.m. Sci-Fi? Or maybe a Star, or a Network Card? There are still decisions to be made and players to watch, but it's not hidden behind an opaque layer of scoring.

That is about it for the huge design history of The Networks. It's been an amazing ride, and it leaves us with one order of business. That is the third and final shocking truth about the game:

-----• I, Gil Hova, barely watch any TV. It's not a hipster I'm-better-than-you thing. It just doesn't fit in with my lifestyle.

I am deeply indebted to my playtesters and my girlfriend for helping me with all the references to modern shows. I couldn't have done it without all of you!

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Mon Jul 25, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Goons of New York 1901

Robert Hewitt
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Picture a game jam. A month-long game jam. With three hundred designers. Under the age of 12.

That's what we do at Brooklyn Game Lab every day.

One of our endeavors in a recent semester was to homebrew an expansion for the hit game New York 1901. By the end, our kids — with the help of our friends at Blue Orange Games — had made their first foray into game publishing!

Each day in our after-school program (and summer camp), we guide students through something we call "lab". During this two-hour session, a group of fifty kids learn, play, and deconstruct a popular board game together.

After gameplay, each child provides structured notes on winning tactics, losing lessons, and ideas for new elements and mechanisms — then the students stand and present these thoughts, after which they vote for their favorites — all with the goal of reinventing the game.

In the case of New York 1901, after two weeks of work we had whittled five hundred submissions down to 98 distinct ideas for modifying the game. These included things like airports, day and night phases, taxes, eminent domain, and of course zombies. The heavy-hitting classics made the cut, too: Godzilla, King Kong, and a "gigantic worm".

At this point in the process, our stellar creative team stepped in to review, consider, and sort the top hundred ideas. After working to surface common threads, three leading visions emerged:

• The first proposal was "King of New York 1901" in which we co-opted the monsters from King of Tokyo/King of New York and added them as NPCs. These forces-of-nature were designed to stomp the city to bits as players built around them. I'll note that "monsters stomping things" is a permanent fixture on our mod shortlist.

• The second was "Into the 20th Century". In this version, the scoring track was treated as a literal timeline of the city of New York. The 1 spot on the scoring track signified the year 1901, while the 20 spot signified 1920 and the start of Prohibition! The Great Depression, World War I and II, The World's Fair of 1939 — all of these dates were given some in-game significance and tied to the timely progression of the game (as denoted by the leading-most player).

• The third was "Gangs of New York" or its softer-sounding cousin, "Rise of the Kingpins". In this model, dozens of PvP ideas were packaged together in a way that conveyed the feel of NYC in the 1920s and 1930s — grit and all. We loved designer Chénier La Salle's attention to historical detail in the original game, and this vision doubled down on his commitment to the time period.

As our creative team discussed more broadly how each of these visions might play, I sat turning one of the game's plastic "worker" tokens over and over in my hand, appreciating the detail. One of my only criticisms of the base game is that these fantastic pieces tended to spend as much time off the game board as they did on it. They commuted in and out of the city, but didn't live there.

We asked ourselves: What if the opposite were true? What if they cluttered the board with old-timey hustle and bustle? Oppressive! Territorial! For us, the idea of turning the workers into "goons" immediately changed the feel of the city, creating a downtown that felt alive, occupied, seedy, imposing — and we knew that we'd chosen the best direction.

The other core concept that emerged to round out this vision was the idea of more distinct districts in the city, something emblematic of NYC, such as Chinatown or Little Italy — a sense of turf. We wanted the districts to have not just color, but flavor.

And so idea #33 of our 98 top ideas was selected as the keystone submission! It was simple: "You hire gangs to take over other companies' buildings, destroy them, and get rid of the reserved buildings." We arranged dozens of ideas related to PvP interference, all spiraling out from this hub...

We researched mafia history and drew up generic gangs (long live "the blue barbers"), laying out all of the lab-generated mechanisms that allowed players to use worker tokens underhandedly.

With the overarching goal of changing the feel of the city, we introduced five "dives", including a casino, a prison, and of course a speakeasy. These pre-placed buildings fit nicely over the parks and other unused decorative spaces on the original board.

Ultimately, the mod's general framework was simple: Control the most turf in a district, and you control its gang. Each turn you could deploy one worker as a knuckle-dragging goon or detour a rival goon into one of your dives.

Over time, a colorful boss emerged as the patron saint of each of our gangs:

The dives also took on lives of their own as our kids included mini-games to make visiting them even more immersive:

As we prepared to go to print, many of our beloved elements were put on ice — but as we teach our young game designers, the most important part of your design is the part you love, but leave out.

As we handed this document off to the Blue Orange team, we wiped our collective brow. My staff, my kids, and myself — all proud to have our work recognized and taken seriously, and to give some little thing back to the world of gaming that has been so incredibly good to us.



Editor's note: Here's a little more detail about how Goons of New York 1901 works: Once all players in the game have reached the Silver Age, you look to see who controls the most territory of each color on the game board (with pink being excluded in two-player games).

Whoever controls the most of a color takes control of that boss, and at the start of each of your subsequent turns, you can use the "goon power" of one of your bosses to place a goon in a particular location, such as on a street or on a specific Bronze Age skyscraper. You'll score points for this goon based on certain conditions, but if someone ever controls more territory of this color than you, that player takes control of the boss and you have to say goodbye to those goons. —WEM

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Fri Jul 15, 2016 1:00 pm
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Developer Diary: The Super Secret Story of Conspiracy! Exposed!

Diane Sauer
United States
Hamilton Square
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It's not surprising that Conspiracy! has an origin that is not only not straightforward, but is as shrouded in mystery as the Reptilian Overlords. It begins with my first game, Legends and Lies, which was all about cryptozoology in a rummy-based game. Legends and Lies had successfully been Kickstarted and even already had a mini-expansion called "The Skeptic" that had been a Kickstarter stretch goal for the main game. I was working on the first full expansion, Mysterious Locations, which would add a location for each player that would grant them some special cool ability — in short, a player power expansion with a theme that encompassed places like The Bermuda Triangle, The Roswell Crash Site, The Lost City of Atlantis, etc.

While creating Mysterious Locations, I had come up with about twenty locations I wanted to test. For me, as in all design, it is critical that pieces in my games not only make sense and work mechanically, but that whenever possible the theme they represent is tightly tied to how they work. For example, whoever controls The Bermuda Triangle in Mysterious Locations can make one card disappear, removing it from play for the hand. One of the twenty test locations was Chichen Itza, which for those not in the know is where the most famous of the crystal skulls were found. The way I envisioned the location working was the following: When Chichen Itza was in the game, a number of Crystal Skull artifact cards were added to the deck based on the number of players. The person drawing a Crystal Skull would be able to get any card they wanted out of the draw deck by playing it, but after they used it, they would hand the card to the owner of Chichen Itza, who could then use it on a later turn.

While playtesting, I fell in love with Chichen Itza and its Crystal Skull artifacts. This lead me down the path of brainstorming what other strange artifacts I come up with and what powers I would associate with them, things not that well known like the Kecksburg Object or the Voynich Manuscript as well as more commonly known strange/cursed artifacts such as the Hope Diamond. This spiraled out of control to the point where I removed Chichen Itza because I felt the entire artifact idea could easily be its own expansion. Mysterious Locations was successful, and though I did not immediately return to the artifacts, I instead did a direct sale expansion that added a fifth player to Legends and Lies called Headlines and Hoaxes.

It's not unusual for me to have several game ideas going at once, so I started developing another expansion for Legends and Lies along with the artifacts expansion idea. As with all my games, I spent a good deal of time researching, so this meant reading up on all the various strange artifacts — both real and imagined — that I thought would work well for the expansion I had envisioned. This is always a fun part of the design process and not surprisingly this little project spiraled even further off course to the point where it was clear that what I was working on was more than an expansion; it was its own game.

Once it was decided to make the strange artifacts their own game, I needed a theme that would work with it. My husband Nick (author of Looting Atlantis) and I brainstormed a bit, and it was not too long before I suggested and we settled on the world of conspiracy theories. As a theme, conspiracy theories are not often seen, and this choice not only fit, but it also allowed me to carry over what I think is the coolest mechanism from Legends and Lies: discrediting.

Discrediting, as far as I know, is a mechanism that I actually came up with. The way it works in both games is that at the end of each hand, the person who went out picks up the discard pile — the "Tabloids" in this game because it represents old tabloid newspapers such as Weekly World News — and "reads" the tabloids. Every "story" (card) in the tabloids that matches a conspiracy that a player is trying to "prove" discredits that conspiracy, thereby causing the person with the most cards in that conspiracy to lose a card from it. Discrediting is important because after the tabloids have been read, any conspiracy that still has ten or more points revealed scores double for any player that has it in front of them. Discrediting is, if I do say so myself, an interesting mechanism that gives both games a unique way to interact with the other players.

With a plan in place, Nick looked at a way to change and streamline how the suits were going to be laid out in Conspiracy! as opposed to Legends and Lies. In L&L, suits could have different numbers of cards in them, which made explaining the game more difficult than it should have been and in hindsight added an unneeded level of complication. We agreed on five cards for every conspiracy, along with one "Proof!" card.

While Nick was working on the deck layout, I was working on the conspiracies. In Legends and Lies, I had experimented with two of the expansion suits doing something when they were played, and each expansion added one such suit like this (with none being in the base game). I thought that a good way to bring the game engine to the next level was to have every conspiracy have an effect associated with it. This would add a whole other strategic dimension to the game in that the order you played conspiracies — which is called "revealing" in Conspiracy! — would often matter.

To keep it simple and streamlined, I limited the abilities that a given conspiracy could have to three categories: one-shot effects that would happen only when a conspiracy was revealed or strengthened (added to), continuous effects that grant you something as long as you have them in play, and scoring effects that matter only during the scoring phase.

Once the conspiracies were done and the action cards added, the artifacts were mixed in and we were ready to go. Since the original concept for the artifacts involved a player location, that was not going to work. These artifacts were built to be extremely powerful game-changing type cards, so I did not want them as random deck draws for the obvious reason. They had powers such as allowing a player an additional turn at the end of the round or having them reveal a conspiracy with two cards rather than three.

What was settled on was an auction mechanism, but I didn't want to add another element to the game as some form of currency, so instead I proposed that when an artifact was drawn, players could bid how many cards they would be willing to draw in addition to taking the artifact card. Since cards in your hand count against you at the end of the hand and you're restricted in how much you can play on a given turn, my thinking was that people would shy away from bidding too many cards. In practice, however, this turned out not to be true; no matter what kind of restrictions were placed on bidding or how the bidding worked, it turned out more often than not to result in large bids. Even though the cards counted against the player at the end of the hand and they always ended up with cards left, what they could get out of the artifact more than made up for this penalty.

While the conspiracy effects, action cards and game mechanisms were refined, we STILL were trying to make the artifacts work. This went on for about two months until I finally decided to try the game without the artifacts. This was not an easy decision as the artifacts were the original reason for the game's design. After playing just a few games on my own, I was 100% convinced that the artifacts had to go. I knew Nick would not want to remove them, so I prepared to present my case. If he was not on board, Conspiracy! would be dead. It took about thirty minutes for me to get him to very begrudgingly play a game with me without the artifacts. To his credit, after just two hands he agreed that I was right. I had to get up and hug him.

Once the artifacts were removed, the game worked flawlessly, which was confirmed by our various playtesters. It was amazing how perfectly the game worked at that point, and it was clearly our desire to insert artifacts into the game that had been holding us back. (Don't worry about the artifacts, though. We haven't totally given up on them yet and will soon be testing another game designed to work with a new bidding mechanism.)

That is the official story of how Conspiracy! came to be. I could go on and on about the selection process and mechanisms of each conspiracy, my love for inserting Easter eggs into my games, and how the Reptilian Overlords were indispensable in the design process — All Hail the Reptilian Overlords — but I'll save that for another day.
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Wed Jul 13, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Americanizing Terra into America

Ted Alspach
United States
San Jose
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Background: Publishing Terra

In early 2015, Bézier Games, Inc. decided to publish the English version of Friedemann Friese's Terra. This was an easy decision once we found out it was available as I was a fan of Friedemann's Fauna (which was an SdJ nominee in 2009). While Fauna was focused on animals, Terra covered geography and history, two subjects I'm much more interested in than random animals (although I really liked Fauna despite that).

In Terra, players are asked three questions. One of them is always a location that corresponds to a region on the giant map of the world that makes up most of the game board. The other two questions are two of three possible categories: a year, a length, or some other number, which are all represented by segmented bars along the bottom of the game board. Each card has a full color photo on it, and the cards have a map/explorer feel to them. When it's your turn, you place a cube on the answer you think you know best from any of the three questions. Turns continue until you run out of cubes or decide to pass. (Answering incorrectly loses that cube for the next round, so you don't want to shotgun the board with cubes, or you'll be at a disadvantage in future rounds.) After everyone has passed, the answers are revealed and players score points: 7 points for a correct answer, and 3 points for an answer adjacent to the correct answer. The rules are essentially the same as in Fauna, with a few tweaks to simplify scoring.

Both games are sort of a cross between the variety of topics in Trivial Pursuit and the "get as close as you can" mechanism in Wits & Wagers, but the oversized board, full-color images on the cards, and additional mechanisms really set them apart.

So it's late spring 2015, and Bézier Games wants the English version of Terra out by Spiel 2015. Not a lot of time, though by using a German printer (piggybacking with other foreign publishers who were doing their own localization of Terra) it saved shipping time, which gave us an extra month to get the game ready. Initially, I figured we'd do a straight translation of the rules, cards, box, and the little text on the game board, and *boom* we'd have an English version ready to go.

Then reality set in. The U.S. is one of only three countries in the world that doesn't use the metric system, and all of the length answers on the cards (and the board) were in metric. Kilometers, millimeters, centimeters, whatevermeters — that just wasn't going to work in the U.S. While most game players can do some of that basic math to figure out the inches, miles, feet, yards, etc. relative to metric values, it's a pain simply because we don't think in metric, so playing would be a chore. Weirdly, pretty much all other English-speaking countries do use the metric system, though, so if we switched to good-ole imperial, they wouldn't be able to play (and they really *can't* do the math because they never need to convert unless they are dealing with Americans). The compromise was to make the board double-sided, with imperial on one side and metric on the other, and to have both imperial and metric units on the cards. Just that was a tremendous amount of work.

After starting the laborious process of adding imperial measurements to the cards, it was apparent that the English translation wasn't going to cut it; the translation was most likely done by a European who had an excellent command of the English language, but it was clear that English was not their native language. The phrasing was off, there were odd words and colloquialisms, and it was a little challenging to read, so every card, the entire rulebook, and the box were redone to make them more English-friendly.

During *that* process, we realized that while the game covered worldwide geography, many of the topics were things of little or no interest to most Americans, like soccer, various international organizations, and several other topics that were a result of either German or European familiarity that just didn't work for Americans. The U.S. is about 90% of the English boardgame market, so again, these things had to be fixed. In this case, it meant that we had to come up with dozens of new cards to replace the topics that didn't work.

Finally, there was the board. The German board (and the one used for all other languages) was very 8th-grade textbook-looking, which works great for Europeans who don't have a negative view of educational games. In the U.S., though, saying that your game is fun "and educational, too!" pretty much means that no one will even look at it. This isn't because Americans don't want to learn about things, but because there are so many crappy educational "games" made all the time that the word, when applied to games, has a different, mostly negative connotation. Thus, we hired an artist to redo the game board in a satellite-imagery style.

The game did (barely) make it out for Spiel even with all the additional work that had to be done.

During all of these changes, I kept wishing that there were more topics about things I was interested in, but then I realized that Terra just wouldn't work for most of those topics because the majority of them would have location answers based in the U.S., and they wouldn't be spread around the world evenly. Furthermore, while Terra's "year" answer track ranged from 5000 B.C. to the present day, most of the things on my want list took place in the last few hundred years.

America Is Conceived

By the time Spiel 2015 rolled around, I had already pinged Friedemann to ask whether I could do a new game based on Terra, but focused instead on America. Friedemann and HUCH! & friends (the German publisher that owns the rights to Terra) agreed, and I set to work. The first thing I did was write up all of the things I wanted this game to have that Terra didn't. Here's my initial list:

• Focus on America; all locations will be in the U.S. or in Mexico/Canada.
• Just two tracks: year and number. Every card will have the same three categories of questions.
• The location "regions" would be states, though some might be combined where it makes sense.
• The year track will be detailed for the last fifty years, then grouped in larger and larger increments to the B.C.s.
• The cards will fall into the following five categories: Entertainment, History & Politics, Geography, Technology & Science, and Games & Sports.
• The player to the right of the player with the box chooses a category, then the player with the box thumbs through the box to find a category card that matches it, moving all cards in front of that one to the back of the box. The player who found the card reads first.

As I look at this list now, the general direction was there, but pretty much every item above was tweaked at least a little. Here's how that happened:

• Focus on America; all locations will be in the U.S. or in Mexico/Canada. Well, Mexico and Canada went out pretty fast. (Americans don't know Mexican states at all and tend to have a very limited knowledge of Canadian provinces and territories.) On top of that, Canada is so freakin' huge it would have been two-thirds of the board. Because there's one ocean on each side of the U.S., each of which is adjacent to a whole lot of states, oceans went out as being an area to place a cube.

• Just two tracks: year and number. Every card will have the same three categories of questions. This is the only item from the original list that was solid from the start. In fact, this allowed me to change the design of the cards from Terra's to the three-column design in America, which allowed me to use labels for each column (State, Year, Number) right on the card box, so the questions didn't have to use those terms, thereby allowing the question text to be larger and more succinct. This set-up also prevented the need to have metric or imperial measurements on the board as the card asks specifically for a measurement type (which is usually imperial, due to the nature of the game), and you just answer with a number of that measurement.

The location "regions" would be states, though some might be combined where it makes sense. It didn't make sense to combine the smaller northeastern states where a lot happens and leave the bigger western states as single answers, so every state — regardless of size — was a possible answer for the location question. That decision allowed me to simply put "state" on the box in the column below the state question, so you know that the first (leftmost) question is always a state. The only problem that created was that the District of Columbia, where the city of Washington D.C. is located, is not a state, and a lot of historical stuff has happened there. In the end, the call was made to avoid questions for which D.C. was the answer. (Most of them were pretty obvious anyway.) Finally, what to do about Alaska and Hawaii, which have no adjacencies? Well, I made them adjacent to each other, and nothing else, for gameplay purposes.

The year track will be detailed for the last fifty years, then grouped in larger and larger increments to the B.C.s. Well, this sort of worked that way. The year track consists of five-year intervals from now until 1950 (sixty years, I was close), then gradually increases to 25-year intervals by 1700, then it makes a big jump to 1492, which is as far back as we go. (Sorry, native Americans!)

The cards will fall into the following five categories: Entertainment, History & Politics, Geography, Technology & Science, and Games & Sports. Close. The categories don't really matter (see below), but there are an even number of cards in the following five categories:

Entertainment (movies, television, music, books)
History & Geography (combined these two)

Products, Inventions, and Technology

Games, Sports, and Fun Activities

Food & Restaurants

Food turned out to be one of the most fun categories to include because there's so much stuff that originated in the U.S. or that was made popular by America. I had to be pretty creative with some of the location questions to avoid clumping in California, New York, and Illinois for all topics, but in the end there's a really nice variety of locations for the topics.

The player to the right of the player with the box chooses a category, then the player with the box thumbs through the box to find a category card that matches it, moving all cards in front of that one to the back of the box. This was a good idea in my head, but in practice it was difficult and confusing to players. This evolved until it ended up with the player with the box choosing which *side* of the box from which to read, and then the player to his left answers first, meaning the player who chose the question goes last at the table. Not quite I cut, you choose, but close!

Bonus points to me for coming up with a system to allow all the cards to be used once, with no repeats until all of the cards have been seen: After a card is scored, it is removed from the box and placed directly behind the "center" divider card. This works out so that the card you placed there will have its other side come out to the box end eventually. It's a slick system that seems very obvious in hindsight. <pats self>

Content Creation

Once the system was in place, it was time to create the cards. America ships with 168 double-sided cards, which (I'll do the math for you) is 336 topics, or 1008 questions — each of which needed to be thought of, written, formatted, researched, and tested. Games like America are very much dependent on the content of their cards, so a tremendous amount of time went into figuring out the topics and the questions/answers within those topics. After coming up with the 336 topics, I hired several writers to help research and write the questions and answers. In order to make that work, I had to develop a style sheet that listed all of the criteria, such as the questions being only so many words long, that every question and answer had to be focused on the U.S. (not just locations), and how long the "factoids" that appear on each card have to be — then I edited every single one of those, tested them, and had the cards proofed. Whew!

Solving the "I Dunno" Dilemma

During playtesting, one thing that I noticed — and this is true in Terra and Fauna, too — was that players were very involved in topics which most of them knew something about it, but that level of interest dropped considerable when they didn't know (or have any idea about) a topic or some of the questions. It's not fun to not know something, and random guesses can work in America, but they aren't that satisfying. Of course, there's no way to ensure that everyone who plays will know something about every topic. However, the way America works, you can always leech points from other players by placing next to their (likely correct) answers — but sometimes it seems like nobody at the table knows the answer to a question. Thus, what I refer to as the "don't pass" line (from craps) was born.

In addition to the standard answer spots, players can also place their cubes on the "No Exact" or "No Exact or Adjacent" spots, with a set each for States, Locations, and Numbers. If players get the feeling that no one knows an answer (maybe they haven't placed on that answer bar yet, or everyone is whining that they don't know anything about it), they can place a cube on one of these spots, and if they're right, they get points! Like all other spots on the game board, only one player can place on each of them, so there's some tension as to when to place (if at all) on those spots. It makes topics that otherwise would be an "it doesn't matter, none of us know that" into a fun little bluffing thing where you might place a cube out on a spot and state, "I remember that from a PBS special" when you really have no idea, then watch others pile up around you, then when everyone has used up their cubes, plop one down on the "No Exact or Adjacent" to scoop up a quick 7-point score.

These new spots underscore that there's a really solid game engine under the glossy trivia hood, which gamers will appreciate, and non-gamers will enjoy without realizing why.

Finalizing America for publication

One of the other concerns regarding the game was the price. America is a trivia game, and most trivia games are $25 games that are dropped off at non-gaming stores by the pallet around the holidays, hoping to score big and then be forgotten. (I'm sure they don't hope to be forgotten, but they usually are.) The goal for America has always been a little different; the idea is to redefine what a trivia game can be for Americans, with fun, engaging questions that are combined with elegant gameplay. I don't want America to be forgotten after a holiday blitz, but instead to be a game that can be pulled out time and again. The way the card replenishment system works, players will get more than fifty games out of it without ever seeing the same card twice — that's a lot of replayability.

But with an oversized game board, wood pieces (even though they are cubes, they're big, chunky cubes), and a ton of full-color cards, there's no way America could have bargain-bin pricing. It ended up at $45, which is still more than I would like it to be at, but the quality of the components and the gameplay make it a great deal (and if you do the math, that's less than 90¢ per game).

All sorts of other tweaks were made to the game during development, including adding a little icon behind the state question that indicates whether the answer is east or west of the Mississippi River (which just so happens to divide the country almost equally in terms of number of states, even though the amount of land on the west side is much greater than that on the east side).

There are a bunch of fun little in-jokes on several cards, a very meta card with the topic of "America the game", and the cube colors are red, white, and blue (as well as silver, black and light blue). And if you and your friends can handle it, you can also play with the "back" of the game board where the state names are blank...

America will be available at Gen Con 2016, and shortly thereafter in stores everywhere!
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Mon Jul 4, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: The Looter's Guide to Looting Atlantis

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

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

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

Development Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Adjustment

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

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

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

That is the story of the construction of Looting Atlantis, and I hope you found it as entertaining as destroying that mighty civilization will be when playing the game.
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Sat Jun 4, 2016 4:00 pm
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Designer Diary: It's All In The Past Now, or Designing Guilds of London

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

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

Guild tiles: Incomplete and complete sides visible

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

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

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

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

Designing Guilds of London

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

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

Researching the Guilds

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

Discovering the Guilds (from the Discovering Series)

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

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

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

Gog & Magog, Giants, in resplendent carved glory

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

Shields and Woodcuts

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

Careful, now; a delicate treasure

Developing Guilds of London — 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Becoming Part of the Guilds of London?

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

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

Developing Guilds of London — 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love the ENERGY in this video!

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

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

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

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

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

Annex: The Guilds of London Chronology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Thu Jun 2, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: World's Fair 1893, or Everything Affects Everything Else

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

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

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

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

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

The Prototype

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

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

Prototype at Gen Con 2014

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

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

Prototype submitted to Foxtrot Games

Intermission: The Theme

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

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

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

The Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prototype at Gen Con 2015

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

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

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

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

J. Alex Kevern

Final production game in play

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Tue May 31, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Branching Out from Kigi to Kodama

Daniel Solis
United States
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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

Early Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting Theme and Mechanisms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

International Attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The new theme and goals for Kodama: the Tree Spirits

New Development, New Theme

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

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

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

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

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

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

Score 1 point for each flower on your tree.

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

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

Transition to American Retail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tue May 17, 2016 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Dice Heist, or Art and Other Accidents

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

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

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

Early prototype of "that other game"

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

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

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

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

Final prototype of Dice Heist

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

Trevor & Brett

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Sun May 15, 2016 1:00 pm
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