Archive for Designer Diaries
1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 Next » 
Everything started with a call from Cédrick Chaboussit in June 2014 just to have a little chat. (Since our common work on Lewis & Clark, which he designed and we as Ludonaute published, he has become a friend.) During the conversation, he explained that he had the idea of placing the stickered goodies from Lewis & Clark on some dice so that they could then be used to activate the actions of characters. He had already run a few tests and it seemed to work well, with the flow of the dice between players being quite interesting. There was still a lot to do, but he hoped to be able to show us a prototype during the upcoming Gen Con.
Cédrick Chaboussit and Vincent Dutrait at Spiel 2014
A few weeks later in Indianapolis, we tried the prototype together — and as it happened for Lewis & Clark, we fell in love quickly with the game. We think that the way of managing the dice is awesome and never seen before. Sure, the card effects are not yet balanced and there is a lot of work to do, but we're really into the game. It's decided — we're going to publish it.
The moment we decided to publish the game — Gen Con 2014
At this stage, Cédrick's idea for the game is to recount the return of Lewis and Clark's expedition. At first, we wondered whether another theme wouldn't be better because for us this game was a lot more that just a dice version of Lewis & Clark. All things considered, we decided to keep the exploration theme because we are fond of this aspect of scientist discoveries, which is not present in the earlier game.
Prototype dice make me crazy
In September 2014, that choice is confirmed: The game would be based on the Lewis and Clark Expedition from a point of view not too close to the action. It would deal not only with the return of that Expedition, but with the entire adventure, with your goal being to rewrite the Expedition's journals.
The prototype in September 2014
It took up a lot of space
In the meantime, we're working on the mechanisms of the game. We improve the flow during the stage when players retake dice, and we set up three ways to score (through the cartography, the discovery of species, and the knowledge of Indian tribes). Also, we're working on the design of the cards and the personal board. Finally, the Indian tribes' powers and the paths are still not balanced, but I'm not worried because knowing Cédrick, he would set up a little algorithm to balance everything and a few tests would do it.
This work takes more than a month. In the meantime, we create two kinds of tribes and alternative paths in order to create a more flexible game. We're happy because this is still coherent with our setting.
We used Lewis & Clark's pictures in the prototype
At the beginning of December 2014, the game is finished. (We are still discussing some little details, but mostly we're done.) It's time to call Vincent Dutrait, the illustrator whom we have already worked with on Shitenno and Lewis & Clark. We are on the same wavelength, so everything is working well. Vincent seems to be enthusiastic and creates awesome and detailed illustrations. He will tell you more about his work soon.
The prototype before Vincent started working on the game
During this time, we write, proofread, rewrite, and translate the rules so that everything will be perfect.
One of the main questions regarding the contents of the game involved the dice: wood or plastic? Both have their pros and cons, and in the end we went with wooden dice to fit with the game's spirit: exploration and the great outdoors. As dice recognition is crucial for game play, we chose colors easy to distinguish: white, red, yellow, blue and grey, pushing green to the side.
The final dice
By the end of April 2015, we had finally created a wonderful game ready to be produced. (On our website, we wrote about our trip to Ludo Fact to watch Discoveries being produced.)
Punched boards at Ludo Fact
Let's hope that you'll get as much fun playing this game as we got making it!
Editor's note: For an overview of the gameplay in Discoveries, here's a video that I recorded with Lefebvre at Spielwarenmesse in February 2015:
For Space Cowboys, Elysium is peculiar in many ways. While unanimously appreciated and even loved among the team, the game has gone through many changes during its gestation. (This diary covers the point of view of Elysium's publisher. Check the author's diary here!)
The story of Elysium began (for us) at the Spiel International Fair in Essen in 2013, and in the beginning, there were cards, Romans, and dice. Brett Gilbert and Matthew Dunstan showed the Space Cowboys a card game for "experienced" gamers titled "Aurum et Gloriam" ("Gold and Glory" for those who don't speak Latin). Their curiosity piqued, Croc asked for a prototype copy, and once back at the office, we played a few games.
"A few" — this is not quite right. The way we work, every member of the team is strongly encouraged to give his opinion as frankly as possible. The meetings are pretty animated, each game having its supporters and detractors. Concerning Elysium, though the opinions were unanimous; the games kept going, and that was a lot of fun.
Originally, as Brett and Matt wrote, the game they showed us was about politicians who were attempting to seize power in the Roman Republic. Represented by cards, they were recruited by the players (who were playing as political parties) using four colored dice which each bore four different symbols. Each card required a specific combination of symbols (one or two) or a specific color to be hired by a player.
Seems classical, sure, but there were twists — and good ones.
The first interesting twist: Once a card has been claimed, the player discards any one of their four dice. "Any" is the key word here. If a card needs two symbols, you can remove the die you want, not necessarily one of the dice shown on the card. Thus, the cards have no price, but they have conditions. With four dice, that means four "recruitments", and as dice are discarded and cards are claimed, choices are narrowing and the game speeds up. This simple game mechanism creates pressure and limits "analysis paralysis" and the game duration.
The players also seek to gain the favor of a senator, a special card which determines the order of the next turn, grants a bit of Gold, and determines the promotions. (I'm coming to these!) Finally, each turn, they take (using their dice) three cards and a senator. To those who know Elysium, this should remind you of something, right?
The "Aurum et Gloriam" cards were divided into eight families: Augur, Tribune, Benefactor, Gladiator, Decurion, Optimas, Flamen, and Consul. Each had different powers (13 per family!) and affected various game elements: victory points, prestige, Gold, the other players' cards, etc. The card powers may be used during the recruitment phase. Since you already know Elysium (whaddaya mean, no?), let's just say that they haven't much changed since this point, other than to adjust the balance between some cards.
In "Aurum et Gloriam", scoring is based upon promotions. To win victory points, players have to create families at the Senate. This means putting cards and assembling them above your game board. Yes, above...
The next twist happens here: When a card is promoted, it loses its powers, so you can't use them anymore. This small trick is interesting in more than one way. Creating combinations of powers with cards is classic, but "breaking" these combos to score points is intriguing. Not to mention that in five turns, you need to make difficult choices! And in our mind, play is all about making choices.
Another advantage of this twist: The game doesn't necessarily become more complicated as turns go on. You create nice combinations to earn you some Gold, help recruit more cards, or ease promotions, but sooner or later, you'll have to reduce your number of active cards (and so destroy your combinations) to score points. It's also quite difficult to gauge the position of each player: One could have a ton of victory points thanks to their cards, but little gold and thus few potential promotions. Therefore, uncertainty is maintained until the end, and there are often many surprises and big moves on the last turns. Kingmaking is nonexistent, which is a big plus in our book.
After our very first game, we displayed the whole package Matt and Brett had sent us and realized that we had played with five card families out of the eight contained in the game. This isn't a mistake, but a really clever way to keep the game fresh. The powers are so different that changing families upsets strategies and gameplay. Some sets of families promote interactivity, others cause a fierce competition for a resource which has become scarce due to the absence of a family. In short, 55 different "sets" are possible, which allows for a lot of plays before getting back to the same combination of cards!
In short, the mechanisms were pleasant, the length was right (between 45 minutes and an hour-and-a-quarter), the rules were fluid, and the card powers were varied. Our enthusiasm was so obvious that it became embarrassing, and in no time at all, we started seriously working on the game after signing the agreement with Brett and Matt. This is generally when the real, big discussions among us start — and we did it again.
The first major blocking issue was the theme. We love Rome and antiquity, but politics + senators are not so exciting. We started looking for an alternative and after a few unsuccessful attempts, we picked a fantastical Rome, with magical powers for some families.
We first dipped into mythology, researching the Senatorial Republic, and the rites and sorcery of Roman society. After this preparatory work, eight families were found, a kind of crossing between the families of the prototype and a few new ones.
Unfortunately, we found out that the theme didn't hit hard enough, and we had to start over from scratch. A lot of ideas were submitted, with some going from odd to zany. Let's see the list: A conspiracy-manic America in the 1950s, with lobbies, aliens, and corrupt politicians; a galactic Senate with alien races; alchemical schools; wizards; Louis XIV's court; etc. Again, nothing stood up to our critical eye.
During this work on the theme, we were also working on mechanisms. We needed to make sure that everything ran smoothly for two, three, and four players; that all card sets were interesting; and that combinations didn't create impossible situations or loops. This led us to many, many plays, but still "Aurum et Gloriam" kept being really fun to us, even after this gaming orgy. There was always a new combination to try out!
Everything was going well — until we had a test session where the die rolls, due to bad results, broke an otherwise well thought-out strategy. Getting the symbols you wanted could actually become impossible if you had a run of bad luck. This was pure frustration, and we didn't want that. Also, we wanted to simplify the acquisition of cards so that they were all available right away, and make them easier to understand at the same time.
The dice Brett and Matt loved so much became collateral victims of this simplification drive as we kept the colors but removed the symbols. Among the studio staff, this decision wasn't unanimous at first. We tried a series of successive tests with and without dice, and we consulted the authors about this blasphemous idea. Removing the dice was an important transformation, so their agreement was needed. At the end of the day (well, it took more than a day!) everyone agreed, and the dice were replaced with the columns of the final version.
The evolution of a card; visuals are ripped from the wonderful Augustus (Hurrican),
with the gracious agreement of Vincent Dutrait and Yves Menu. Thank you, guys!
A short time later, another idea (ergonomic this time) happened to indirectly unlock our theme problem. For practical reasons, when cards are promoted, it's preferable to place them UNDER the game board. After all, it's more logical for other players to be able to see the active cards more easily than those you won't use anymore until the end of the game — but it sounds like a promotion...down!
We had another thematic issue with that point: Politicians of "Aurum et Gloriam" get promoted and...lose power. Well, this doesn't sound very plausible!
Finally, these two problems ended up giving us the solution. Instead of being promoted, the cards now move on to posterity and "die". The words "Greek Mythology" having been spoken in one of our many meetings, it suddenly clicked: The Greek heroes descend to Hell and lose their "powers" but contribute to the legend of the players (in the form of victory points).
Going down to see Hades and crew
Matt and Brett were enthused by the idea of Greek mythology, and they dove with true pleasure into a theme they both appreciate. By the way, this would be an excellent point at which to thank them both for their faultless goodwill. They went far beyond what we expected of them, and it was a true pleasure to work with them.
The domino effect continued: We'd been asking ourselves questions about the nature of the families and their quick identification by the players. You might know the answer already: The gods imposed themselves on the game! They have various "domains" matching the abilities of the game's families, at least with a bit of imagination.
Everything followed quickly: For the game's title, we needed a simple name, relatively short, that would describe one of the more important aspects of the game. As for some reason we wouldn't call our game "Column", we become interested in the Elysian fields of the ancient Greeks, the resting place of deserving heroes...and a play area in the game's rules. The Roman pronunciation gained the upper hand over several alternatives (the more "Greek" Elysion, Thrylos, etc.) based on rather subjective criteria, we must admit: "Elysium" sounds good, whether in English or in French. The name of the cards was the subject of a lengthy research session into ancient Greek myths — our job is pretty cool, come to think of it — and we realized that we had an embarrassment of choice more than trouble finding ideas for cards.
At this point, a "light" issue remained. We needed to find an artist who would be willing (and able) to make 108 cards in two months. This is just impossible, even if we came upon a super-powered mutant. The only solution, given the production delays, was to select many artists — but how to divide our 108 cards between them, and how then to manage that common work, which is not their usual way of doing things? By working out briefs — that is, descriptions of what we wanted for each card from the artist — we choose to follow the path of simplicity. Each artist would be in charge of one family in order to maintain a coherent feel.
After many phone calls, the eight artists give their agreement, and the team started working. Some "shared" cards (such as temples, gatherings, and initiations) are common to all families, but don't always have the same power, for example. We needed to keep an overall coherence, but with a completely different interpretation for each god. In the end, the necessity to coordinate the work of our illustrators created an unexpected good-natured competition, and they seem to have appreciated this "team" experimentation.
You think it's over?
Nope! We need to choose between cards with text, cards with iconography, or both. In the end, the "iconography PLUS text" concept won out after animated debates — but we still needed to create said iconography!
After this somewhat complex work, we finalized the rules, in full cooperation with the authors, as we were making the English version of Elysium at the same time as the French version. Have I already told you that Matt and Brett are awesome? A few crash tests with volunteers who had never played the game and to whom we handed the rules without any extra explanations caused us to clarify a few points in order to complete the rulebook.
There was still the card guide to write, an addition which had been planned for some time to strengthen the game's theme and clarify a few specific situations, which are inevitable in a combination-driven game containing 108 powers. And let's not forget an original plastic box insert designed by Sébastien Pauchon, whose sturdiness (the insert's – not Séb's) was proven through a series of crash tests immortalized on video.
When the first boxes arrived in our offices at the end of January 2015, there was a feeling as if Odysseus had just returned from his travels...finally. Now the game is out, so choose your five gods and send all those cards to the Elysium!
(Final note: This article is adapted and translated from an original piece published in the gaming magazine Plato. If you read French, check out the magazine as it offers a wealth of articles on many games, and the latest issue is full of good Elysium stuff!)
Brett J. Gilbert
Nominated for the Kennerspiel des Jahres 2015
"We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us: the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god, and where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence, and where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the World."
— Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces
While it is often true that a game goes through many iterations during its development from initial idea to final publication, neither of us have designed a game that has come from such unexpected beginnings.
Our journey to the summit of Mount Olympus began in early 2013, when we made the first prototype: A fantasy adventure game with characters, equipment, and a large world full of enemies to explore, at the heart of which was a system of colored dice that represented the abilities of your character. This was, for both of us, our first exploration of such a design, but armed with what we believed was a strong "hook" of using dice as fuel for our action-point system, we enthusiastically prepared the board and hundreds of cards needed for the first playtest. Our enthusiasm, however, was short-lived. The game was a bit of a mess and really didn't work at all.
Our beautiful custom dice!
Fortunately our effort, and the endurance of our playtesters, was not entirely in vain: Everyone seemed to like the dice! And so, dice in hand, we went back to the drawing board and tried again, deliberately stepping back from the ambitious narrative of that first prototype. Thus began the long design phase during which we looked for ways to incorporate the dice into many different games — inevitably failing much more often than we succeeded!
A city of adventure? Maybe not
One of the first design directions we tried was to scale back the scope of our heroes' adventures and confine the action to a single city in which players had to fight off, amongst other more domestic duties, hordes of rampaging monsters. Here we began to introduce cards that players could purchase by using their dice to pay for them. While this design certainly improved upon the first game, it simply felt too limited and created neither adventure nor a fun experience. And so we decided to jettison the adventuring motif, and look elsewhere for a thematic landscape into which to inject our carefully crafted dice.
The next iteration represented a major shift: We moved the action to Ancient Rome and cast our players as powerful individuals trying to manipulate the Senate. There was a game board of connected regions in which players could build their influence, harvest resources, and construct buildings. Crucially, players used a combination of cards and our trusty custom dice to take these actions. Every citizen or building had an acquisition cost that players had to meet using the dice in their "pool", either by matching the colors of the dice or the symbols rolled.
Italy as you've never seen it before
A few example cards from an early iteration of the Roman game
We iterated our way through a number of further versions of this same concept, but the combination of the cards and the board's geography never truly seemed to fit. It felt as if there were simply too many disconnected elements and ideas, none of which were genuinely original!
After a flash of inspiration — or was it, at this stage in the process, desperation? — we changed the game completely in its next iteration, moving to a sci-fi world in which players were building and operating a machine consisting of conveyor belts that could be customized with new parts, all of which needed to be activated using the dice. According to our hazy memories of this prototype, it seemed like fun — and eventually became an entirely different game, one that might yet be published! — but was quickly scrapped as a vehicle for our dice, for reasons now sadly lost to history. (Sidebar: We really should keep better playtesting notes!)
And so our increasingly epic quest to find a home for our dice continued, but began to feel increasingly doomed. After eight complete redesigns, and eight frustrating attempts to make the dice work, we were almost ready to give up. But as in all great legends, our persistence was eventually rewarded...
The ninth prototype was when we finally hit on the core structure that would eventually be realized in Elysium. Pulling together many of the disparate threads and concepts from our litany of prototypes, we focused our sights on a game built purely around cards and dice. We gave each card two things: an ability (many of which remain unchanged in the published game) and an acquisition cost (a "cost" represented by colors and symbols that had to be matched by a player's dice) — and, returning to a familiar antiquity, populated the game with the merchants, craftsmen, scholars, senators and soldiers of Ancient Rome.
Importantly, we introduced what would turned out to be the magic ingredient, something we called "promoting". The idea was that once you hired your recruits, and they had done their work for you, you would pay to give them a nice retirement. When you promoted cards into "houses" you would lose their abilities, but you would score points for the sets of cards in your houses at the end of the game.
These prototype card designs begin to reveal the shape of the things to come
Incredibly, this one version contained — all at once! — a combination of several vital changes that all took the game in the right direction: The cards were organized into different "families" and had abilities that matched other members of the same family; and players had to discard one die each turn, a key decision with a huge impact on what cards players could choose as each round progressed.
And there it was: A real game — and a good one! Here was the game that was and is Elysium's direct heir. Our dice had taken us on a very long journey, but had at last reached their destination.
(Or so we thought! We leave it to our friends at Space Cowboys to share the details of the true fate of our beloved dice in a separate diary...)
With the core concepts of the game in place, we begun to tune-up our newly built machinery, constantly creating new cards and pruning back any older ones that proved less than interesting. We added "Senators", a set of special cards that were available every round and that provided income and a new turn order. Later, as playtesting continued, we removed Level 4 cards from the families as they turned out to be too expensive to promote, even if they had better powers.
Playtesting at the inaugural Nine Worlds Geekfest in August 2013
By this time we had designed six families, only five of which would be in play in any game. Each family was deliberately built around a different functional idea, but the last key design decision was to realize that the game system would be both more elegant and more robust if we rationalized all of the families so that they shared the same deep structure.
We knew that some powers, such as cards that give you additional gold or VP when you take a card of the same family, should exist in all families. But we also began to see how to build other connections — both structural and functional — that could span all of the families. These ideas tied the whole game together and revealed to us the "big picture" of what we had already designed, helping us to further refine the powers of the families and to build new ones.
The final design of the prototype cards
The jump from six to eight families happened very late in the game's development. Being able to boost the number of possible combinations from six to 56 was enormously attractive, but with Spiel 2013 fast approaching, those final two families perhaps didn't get the playtesting they deserved. Of course, we had no idea how the game would be received by the publishers we were hoping to pitch it to, but we knew that much more development work lay ahead, either for us or for any prospective publisher.
With our flights booked and our meetings scheduled, we were ready to present our prototype — rechristened "Aurum et Gloriam" (Gold and Glory) — to publishers in Essen, including Space Cowboys.
Our cards — and the very same dice that had survived from the earliest prototype! — were finally on the table. What happened next is a whole other story...
Brett J. Gilbert & Matthew Dunstan
North Star Games designs party games that don't suck! Play them with your non-gamer friends over the holidays.
First there was Hearts, then there was Spades, and now we bring you Clubs. The suit of clubs finally gets some respect!
Evolution is the culminating work of three game designers and an entire development team at North Star Games. My part of the story begins when I was a wee child.
I come from a European family that did not watch much television. We played board games twice a week instead. Dad taught me chess when I was four, entered me into tournaments starting at seven, and hired a chess tutor for me during elementary school. His dream was for me to become an international chess champion. Sure, my family also played party games and took vacations to the beach, but that's not the part of my childhood that played a role in shaping Evolution.
I started designing intricate fantasy games in sixth grade, and in eighth grade I designed a wargame that was banned from school because too many friends were playing during class! In high school, my final economics paper was a business plan for the game company I planned to start after graduation. But the summer of 1998 is when my part in the development of Evolution kicked into high gear because that's when I decided I would stop playing Magic after the New York Pro Tour. I wanted more time to develop some of my game designs and start a game company. Perhaps knowing ahead of time that New York would be my final Pro Tour took away some of the pressure because I ended up taking second place and winning $15k at that event.
That's me in (and on) the 1998 Magic State Championship poster; I was Virginia state champion that year
It was from these five years of intense tournament experiences that the deep-seated desire to create a tournament quality game was first planted in my heart — and it's a desire that I've been carefully nurturing ever since.
The History of Evolution
Evolution has an interesting history. Nearly ten years ago, a Russian biologist named Dmitry Knorre created a game to demonstrate evolutionary principles to students. It was very thematic and educational, but since it was designed by a biologist and not a game designer, it fell a little short on game play. Rightgames, the Russian publisher that picked it up, had game designer Sergey Machin overhaul the concept and released it as Evolution: The Origin of Species.
Dmitry Knorre with his kids; Sergey Machin; Evolution: The Origin of Species
When I came across the published game in 2013, I was immediately struck by how well the theme was integrated into the mechanisms, but there were still some glaring game design flaws that bothered me. I stayed up until 4 a.m. that night thinking about how to solve the problems. This is not unusual for me when I come across a new game that excites my imagination. What is unusual is that I stayed up late the next night, too. And then again and again and again for about two weeks straight. I did this without knowing whether the license was available, which helps explain why my wife says I'm obsessive about game design, although I prefer the term passionate. Suffice it to say, I was hooked.
The biggest flaw of Evolution: The Origin of Species is that the winner gets determined on the last round of the game, making all of the previous rounds feel meaningless. Furthermore, it's possible for that final round to be determined by the roll of a die. This is fine for an educational tool designed to demonstrate evolutionary principles, but it does not make for a great game. The next flaw I addressed is the numerous exceptions to the rules created by the cards. What started off as a very simple design quickly compounded into a complicated web of rules that needed a large compendium to resolve specific card interactions. There were also issues with regards to card balance, luck of the draw, runaway leaders, and excessive text on almost every card.
There was no simple key to fixing these problems. It just took time – a freaking ridiculous amount of time! I have over thirty versions of Evolution saved on my computer and detailed notes recording nearly three hundred different playtests.
The hardest thing to balance was the carnivore trait: If carnivores were too powerful, the game turned into a "take-that" diplomatic game of negotiated wins; if carnivores were too weak, the game lost its excitement and turned into a Euro-style resource management game without any interaction. I wanted the threat of carnivores to be great enough that players had to pay attention to what others were doing, but I didn't want carnivores to be so strong that games would be determined by who was targeted the least instead of who made the best strategic decisions. It was a tricky balance to find, but I think we nailed it. Carnivores are the glue that hold this game together.
The illustration of the carnivore in Evolution
All of my games are designed using a similar framework: Create the most amount of fun (or replay value) with the fewest number of rules. I added one additional criteria for Evolution: Make it as thematic as possible!
• Bursting with Theme
Evolution is my first published game with a theme, and I took the endeavor extremely seriously. I wanted the theme to exude from the game mechanisms, not get slapped on afterwards with flavor text. In fact, I'll go a step further and say that flavor text isn't theme – it's chrome. Theme is designed into the game by the game designer. Chrome is added afterwards by artists, graphic designers, historians, writers, and poets. I'm not against chrome. In fact I love it! It helps immerse the players into the setting of the game. Evolution has chrome in spades, but it is also imbued with theme that comes directly from the game mechanisms. Evolution would feel thematic regardless of whether it was published by Fantasy Flight or Cheapass Games.
Evolution is not a wargame about conquering the environment or a civilization-style game about progressing along an evolutionary tech tree. The heart and soul of Evolution is an ever-changing ecosystem. Players must continually adapt to the environment in order to survive and thrive. The brilliant part (inherited from Dmitry Knorre) is that the act of adapting your species is what changes the ecosystem, so every turn in the game creates a feedback loop which keeps the system in continual flux. When you play Evolution, you'll feel immersed in a dynamic jungle with interesting species and symbiotic relationships.
In some games of Evolution you'll find that herbivores proliferate best; in others, the carnivores rule the day. Most of the time you'll find that carnivores and herbivores cohabitate in a balanced ecosystem that mimics what you find in nature. If you're lucky, you might even witness a situation in which a carnivore cultivates another species for food, just like humans do with cows and chickens! All of these situations arise naturally through the game play. I did not add an event card called "Cataclysm: Every species has a 90% chance of extinction", but you'll experience a cataclysmic event every tenth game (or so) in which 90% of the species go extinct. This will occur naturally through the actions of the players instead of getting dictated externally through a "thematic" event card — and if the surviving carnivores do not adapt after the cataclysmic event, they will also go extinct due to the lack of species to eat within the ecosystem.
On average, I threw out over twenty card ideas that were mechanically interesting and well-balanced for each card that I deemed thematic enough for the base game. In other words, my desire to maintain a strong theme increased the development time of Evolution by over twenty times! It was a high price to pay, but we think it's a smart bet since we plan to support Evolution with thematic expansions for the next 10+ years. The end result is a vivid game system that mimics many situations you'll find in nature.
• Intuitive Rules
While the number of rules appropriate for a game depends upon the genre, I consider it of paramount importance to always use the least amount of rules possible. If I can create the same effect with fewer rules, I'll do it. Each rule is a barrier that keeps people from entering into your game world. Actually, the metric I use is not the specific number of rules in the game, but how easy it is to learn the game or teach it to other people. Not all rules are created equal. Some rules are very intuitive, while others are very difficult to wrap your head around. In general, a rule that is highly thematic is always easier to learn and harder to forget. My goal with Evolution was to create a game with similar depth to the popular big box games loved on BGG, but with fewer and more intuitive rules. I want the rules to quickly disappear so that players can focus on the deeper strategies that emerge through the card synergies.
• Replay Value and Fun
This is the most difficult thing to quantify in game design because fun is amorphous. I look at this issue from a typical artist's point of view: If your work of art resonates deeply with the human spirit, then people will find the work compelling (fun). It will reflect their experience of the world in some way or another.
In Wits & Wagers and Say Anything, much of the replay value (or fun) comes from the social interaction at the table. Those games are fun to play again and again largely because of the social interactions they generate. On the one hand, Evolution is different because it's a strategy game, which means the activity of playing the game should in some way reflect the players' experience of reality (more on that later), but I still wanted the social interaction at the table to be a large part of the fun.
My model for this aspect of Evolution was No Limit Texas Hold'em. While there is a strong statistical/strategy backbone to No Limit Hold'em, you cannot play at the highest level without profiling the players at the table. The same is true with Evolution. While a large part of the game is adapting to the changing ecosystem, an equally large part of the game is adapting your play style to the players at the table and anticipating their next move.
Team Wits & Wagers at a local coffee house, and people playing Say Anything in Sweden (Photo by Olov Johansson)
The strategy in Evolution is derived from the emergent complexities of the card synergies. My goal was to create tons of synergies with the cards – as many as the theme would allow. This is one of the ways that Evolution mitigates the luck of the draw because every hand in Evolution can be played out in many legitimate ways. And profiling the players at the table helps you predict the way that each player might choose to play out their cards.
One of my goals with Evolution was to create a environment where people could play in the style that was most comfortable to them and still have a reasonable chance of winning. Gamers who prefer Euro-style resource management games can play defensively and mind their own business, while gamers who prefer aggressive Ameritrash-style games can go on the offensive. But players who change their play style depending upon the current situation are the ones who will win most consistently. At the highest level, Evolution is a game you win by adapting to an ever-changing ecosystem, one consisting of the current cards in play as well as the tendencies of the players at the table.
Evolution is plastered with chrome. We commissioned Catherine Hamilton, one of the world's most prominent nature artists, to hand paint all of the card art for Evolution. It was laborious and extremely expensive, but we wanted the look and feel of Evolution to be reminiscent of scientific journals and childhood dinosaur books. We also included swanky food bags and a HUGE wooden start player meeple. Evolution has about as much chrome as it possible to stuff into a box. The only thing it lacks is scientific flavor text because we did not want our game to become a political hot button. It's a board game designed to be engaging and fun – nothing more.
• Mirroring Nature (or Esoteric Mumbo Jumbo)
On the surface, Evolution was designed to mirror nature with its theme – literally. It's a game about nature. But I want to talk about an underlying tension that occupied more of my thought than making the mechanisms fit the theme. A work of art is compelling only to the degree that it resonates with you and your view of the world. That's why you hear the phrase "great art mirrors nature". If the world being depicted is large enough and accurate enough, then everyone will find something they can relate to. I wanted to create a game environment where most people could find something that reflected their view of the world.
Some people believe they are in control of their lives, and others think they are blown around by the winds of fortune. Finding the right balance between control and chaos is the concept that I wrestled with while designing this game. Is our future predictable, or is this an illusion we cling to because the alternative is too scary to face? What of all the plans you made for your future when you were young? How many of them have come to fruition? Thirty years ago I planned on starting a game company and running it for the rest of my life. That company was going to focus on RPGs and fantasy board games. What happened with that plan? You could say nothing happened with that plan — at least for twenty years. Or you might believe that it is slowly coming about in its own way.
Ameritrashers have a vision of reality which puts them in the middle of a chaotic system in which their fate is as much determined by the actions of others (through direct conflict) as by their own actions. Ameritrashers are happy if a game creates a good story that can be talked about. Eurosnoots want a predictable system they can master. When playing Evolution, I wanted Euro gamers to feel in control of their fate and Ameritrash gamers to enjoy the unpredictable chaos of a world in flux. If you play Evolution conservatively, you'll have ample control over your fate in the game, and if you play riskily and aggressively you'll find ample chaos in the game. I wanted both of these viewpoints to coexist in one game. Given the BGG dialogue about this topic over the past five years, it's not surprising that this was something that occupied much of my thought.
Evolution Tournament Structure
You may have noticed that I'm extremely passionate about Evolution. I love this game. It has occupied nearly every waking hour of mine for the past two years (and unfortunately there have been many sleepless nights over that time). We are now in the process of creating a tournament structure for those interested in exploring what it has to offer. Ask your local game store if you would like them to run an Evolution tournament. We will support them with prizes.
The First Expansion
I am happy to announce that our first expansion will be available at Gen Con 2015: Evolution: Flight. Will the ability to fly allow your species to soar to new heights? Or will it bring about your downfall?
Dungeons & Dragons: Temple of Elemental Evil Board Game is the first major board game I've worked on in my career. Fortunately, I got to work with Peter Lee, who has been on the design team for all four Adventure System games. Peter already had a strong vision for this game. My challenge was to stretch the bounds of the system while reinforcing the narrative that we developed. This entry is about some of the major design changes in the game and how we reinforced story through gameplay.
SPOILER WARNING: I'm going to talk about the structure of the Temple of Elemental Evil board game's story, which may be considered spoilers. For those of you that want to experience the story first, I would suggest waiting to read this till after you’ve played through the campaign.
Reinforcing Narrative through Design
As Peter mentioned in his designer diary, there are several narrative themes we wanted to convey in the Temple of Elemental Evil board game: isolation, hidden evil, trust, and empowerment. These elements are enforced throughout the encounter deck, monster deck, and even the tiles themselves.
Dark Gift: This was one of the first cards I designed for the game and the one I'm proudest of. It captures all the themes and creates different tension depending on when you draw it. Early in an adventure, it seems like a no-brainer: "I'll just give the character with the most health two damage and draw treasure. Maybe make a fun little jab while I'm at it." However, when it's late in an adventure and the party is worn down, it becomes a much heavier risk/reward scenario that can tip the scales.
Rage of Imix: There are several encounter cards that encourage the players to keep a healthy distance from each other, but Rage of Imix is the first one we designed. The fire cult didn't have a huge big bad, so I wanted to tie it to the evil elemental prince of fire. While it seems like a small amount of damage at first if only one player is on the tile, subsequent draws increase the damage around the map making them high priority to be canceled with XP.
Doppelgänger: I saw doppelgänger on the miniatures list and immediately wanted to mimic its iconic affinity for subterfuge. Originally, it copied the A.I. and attacks of another monster, but that broke when they were alone. We played with ideas involving other monsters and players. Eventually, we settled on the final design in which the doppelgänger reveals itself to have replaced one of the party members and attacks. Narratively, it doesn't make a lot of sense in a single-player session, but I'm happy with its use in a multi-player game.
Traps: Peter wanted to make traps simplified and more important. He designed the traps to be tiles that appear face-down on the map (on each red X in the image above). Once a player walks over it, it activates, and the damage can be high or nothing at all. What we saw during playtest were players treating the traps as hard walls and trying to explore around them. This lead to several design changes that reduced the stress from seeing traps, including the disarm trap action, the rogue's reliable talent card, and the winged boots. We also placed traps on the starting tile so that players quickly learned the methods to deal with them. This helped make traps something to be nervous around, but not overtly hate.
Campaign System: Persistent Play in the Adventure System
One of the design goals for Temple of Elemental Evil was to add investment to the game. We wanted players to have a sense of anticipation from play session to play session, and create a "just one more game" episodic feel. We designed the campaign system to give players a persistent character across all thirteen adventures, each of which adds different cards depending on the outcome of the adventure. In between the adventures, players can spend the gold they collected to advance their character.
The idea started with Peter who looked at how to add permanence to a board game. There was a lot of brainstorming that brewed ideas like stickers and multiple cards for multiple levels. In the end, we found the token system to be the cleanest implementation: It gives players ownership of their character through customization while using the least amount of additional components, thereby allowing for infinite replayability.
A lot of testing was done over the course of development, going through the campaign system multiple times. Having a permanent level 2 for your character feels awesome and so does getting a +1 damage token, but we didn't want to trivialize the game. The campaign needed to grow with the players, and that's where the advanced cards came in. Previously, in The Legend of Drizzt, the advanced cards were more of a built-in expansion pack, i.e., once you were familiar with the game you could add them for a deeper pool of cards and complexity. In Temple of Elemental Evil, these cards are used to keep track of your progress through the campaign system. Completing adventures with full healing surges meant you received unique treasure, but it also meant the cultists would push back that much harder. Keeping balance was a fine line we worked hard to keep, but I feel like we accomplished it while giving players a unique experience in progression that will encourage multiple playthroughs.
A major understated element of D&D is humor. From weird bickering cultists and flumphs in an adventure module to Minsc & Boo in Baldur's Gate, humor breaks monotony and shines like a beacon in the bleakest stories. Flavor text is a great space to add humor to a board or card game, and I hope you get a laugh out of them, but we also leveraged other spaces for D&D fans. Ettin's are two-headed giants whose individual heads have a separate name that combines into one goofy name, hence the birth of Swerglemergle. (Fun fact: I did several searches because I was worried about unknowingly using a euphemism.)
A big change in this game is the introduction of the town of Red Larch. It served a lot for us: a change of pace, a change of scenery, and an anchor to the story. Repeated trips back into town where a different crisis arose made it feel more like there was something at stake beyond just the player's well-being. The town adventures served as a way to bridge the acts, but it also served as a new ground for adventure design, leading to one of my favorite ones: "Rotten in Red Larch", a mix-and-match game within a traditional adventure in which players are trying to find doppelgängers hidden within town.
Overall, I'm really happy to have worked on this game and how it turned out. Between the campaign system and the overall tone of the game, it feels like its own beast, while still being compatible with the other Adventure System games. I look forward to seeing what players make of it!
I like everything I do to be an improvement on what I've done before. That means I study a lot, and often in directions that don't immediately apply to board games. For Dungeons & Dragons: Temple of Elemental Evil Board Game, I challenged myself to design a better story. This entry is about what I learned and how the study of story structure led to a better game.
SPOILER WARNING: I'm going to talk about the structure of the Temple of Elemental Evil board game's story, which may be considered spoilers. For those of you who want to experience the story first, I would suggest waiting to read this until after you've played through the campaign.
Let's set the wayback machine to July 2013. During a vacation to the midwest culminating in the annual Minneapolis convention CONvergence, I read through Blake Snyder's amazing book, Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need. In one of those odd coincidences of the universe, one of the guests of honor that year was Lou Anders, author and then-editorial director of Pyr books. Mr. Anders gave several talks throughout the weekend on story structure, and I was highly fortunate to be able to speak with him throughout the convention. (If you have children aged 8-12, Lou's Thrones & Bones series might interest them; the first book of the series is named Frostborn. Check it out!)
Lou gave an interesting talk that showed the evolution that a character makes throughout a story. A character goes through four stages: Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, and Martyr. These transitions typically occur in the act breaks, with the second act being split into two halves.
In Act 1, your protagonist is an Orphan. This can be either a literal or a figurative orphan. All that matters is that the hero of your story is isolated from something. For example, Luke Skywalker is a literal orphan, living with his aunt and uncle and feeling detached from their farming lifestyle. Tony Stark is not a team player in the beginning of The Avengers and is emotionally isolated from the rest of the team. Near the end of Act 1, the hero must make a decision that forms the core of the story and transitions him or her to the next stage.
In the first half of Act 2, the hero is a Wanderer and is not sure what to do. This stage is about the hero learning what he needs to do to answer the central question of the story. For example, Luke Skywalker spends the first half of Act 2 wandering around Mos Eisley, traveling to Alderaan, and eventually infiltrating the Death Star. A big event at the midpoint of the story transforms the hero to the next stage.
In the second half of Act 2, the hero becomes a Warrior. This is a big change for the Hero. He or she is no longer a passive observer, but is now an active force in the world. Luke Skywalker takes command to rescue Leia. Tony Stark vows to avenge the death of a beloved character. At the end of Act 2, an event rocks the hero and forces the character to fully commit to the task at hand.
In Act 3, the hero becomes a Martyr. He or she must be ready to sacrifice something important to accomplish the final task. Luke discards his reliance on technology and fully embraces the Force to destroy the Death Star. Tony Stark prepares to sacrifice his life to help his team by riding the missile into the portal. At this point, the hero (probably) accomplishes his goal, and the story ends.
This progression works for so many stories. Try to apply it to the protagonists in the following movies: Harry Potter (the entire series follows this arc), Big Hero 6, and Wreck-It Ralph.
Application to the Game
In early 2014, we started sketching out the story for Temple of Elemental Evil. We knew we wanted around thirteen Adventures, and I realized that this story structure would function within the game. We needed to spend some time in each part of the story, so certain adventures mark the transition of the characters. We decided this transition would occur around Adventures 3, 7, and 11. That means Adventures 1-3 are Act I, Adventures 4-7 are Act 2 part 1, Adventures 8-11 are Act 2 part 2, and Adventures 12-13 are Act 3.
One important part of the original Temple of Elemental Evil TRPG adventure was the village of Hommlet. We felt the interaction of the elemental cults with the local populous was an important part of the story, so we wanted to make sure our story had the same resonance. Since our story is set in the Forgotten Realms, we picked the city of Red Larch as the focal point of the three transitional adventures.
We've never set an Adventure System game in a city, and it took a bit of a leap to figure out how this would function in the game. Since the town was going to be a separate area than the dungeon, we were able to use the back side of the five double-sized tiles which we haven't been able to do in previous Adventure System games. I've tried to make town tiles before and failed because the completed town always looked odd when compared to the scale of the dungeon. The town worked once we changed the scale of the tiles from the typical 1 inch = 5 feet scale that we've used for the rest of the tiles.
At this point, we needed to pick the primary conflict that the characters were facing. The obvious question was: "Can the heroes defeat the cult of elemental evil?", but that has issues. In a game, it is best if the motivations of the characters align with the motivations of the players. If the motivation of the heroes do not match the players, you end up with "ludo-narrative dissonance" — a fancy description for the feeling you get when immersion is broken in a game because the hero is forced to go down a path that you as player don't want to do. "Can the heroes defeat the cult of elemental evil?" doesn't take into account the player's needs.
Fortunately, the structure of the Adventure System saved us. Since the Adventure System games are cooperative games, the primary conflict for the heroes needed to reinforce that. Therefore, we made a small tweak to the primary conflict: "Can the heroes work together to defeat the cult of elemental evil?" It's a subtle change, but it was a guideline that would help us with design.
The miniatures for the game were drawn from the first two sets of D&D Miniatures from WizKids Games. We wanted a few monsters and one figurehead for each elemental cult. We chose Velathidros, the black dragon, as the primary antagonist for the game. The antagonist is that character that puts up barriers that make it difficult for the protagonists to accomplish their goals. The most important part of the primary conflict is if the characters can work together; therefore, the antagonist's primary function in this game is to stop the heroes from working together.
Since the launch of the fifth edition of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop roleplaying game, Chris Perkins and his team have prepared story bibles for each D&D season. A story bible contains important concepts for the season. The Elemental Evil story bible contained a lot of great ideas to help flesh out the story. For example, the names of the four elemental cults were pulled from this document. We also featured magic items, locations, and characters that you might see in other Elemental Evil stories this year.
One of the most important concepts is the devastation orb. A devastation orb is a single use weapon of mass elemental destruction. Each orb contains a small part of the essence of one of the elemental princes. (Old school D&D fans might remember the elemental princes from the Fiend Folio.) A devastation orb takes on the elemental aspect of the prince that created it. For example, a devastation orb that contained the essence of Imix, the elemental prince of fire, would create a volcano or massive heat wave when it detonated.
Designing Act 1
All the adventure system games start with a solo adventure so the person who bought the game can sit down and learn how to play, making it easier for that player to teach the rest of the group. Since the heroes at this stage of the game should be orphans, we started the heroes off as the only survivors of a failed adventuring party. This also establishes that the heroes are characters that aren't proven to be able to work together yet.
Beyond setting up the heroes as orphans, Act 1 needs to introduce the cult of elemental evil to the players and the town of Red Larch. Episode 2 introduces one of the elemental cults, and Episode 3 introduces the town and the troubles that it has. The goal of the first town adventure is to establish that the cults are an active threat, which pushes the heroes to start exploring the main temple.
Finally, as there are four parts to the story and four elemental cults, it makes sense that each section focuses on one of the four element cults. The order that the cults are encountered was dictated by the miniatures we had available. Since we don't have a monstrous leader of the Cult of the Howling Hatred (Air) that became the cult for Act 1. The salamander Arkashic Thunn is the least imposing of the three main villains, so the Cult of the Eternal Flame (Fire) is the main enemy for the first part of Act 2. The ettin Swerglemergle is next, so the Cult of Black Earth (Earth) is the main foe for the second half of Act 2. Finally, the black dragon Velathidros is the final villain and part of the Cult of the Crushing Wave (Water).
Designing Act 2
In the first part of Act 2, the heroes are wanderers. They start exploring the temple, but they don't quite know what they are fighting toward. While the main enemy for this section is the Cult of Eternal Flame, we did want one adventure that had strong replay value, so Adventures 4 and 6 focus on fire, while Adventure 5 features all the elementals.
Adventure 7 is the midpoint of the story, so this needs to transition the heroes from being wanderers to warriors. In response to the heroes (presumed) success against the Cult of the Eternal Flame in Adventure 6, the cult decides to retaliate against the village. Villagers are taken hostage, and that pushes the heroes into the second half of Act 2.
At this point, the heroes become active participants in the story. They now see the cults as an active threat to Red Larch, and need to bring them down a peg. They turn their attention to the Cult of the Black Earth, and eventually destroy the earth node.
Designing Act 3
For the final act, the tension needs to be further increased, and it starts with an attack on the town by the dragon. The final two adventures result in hunting down the dragon. Remember how I said that the primary role of the antagonist is to split up the party? So far in the game, it's only been evident in encounter cards. Some cards physically separate the party, such as Windswept and Trap Refresh. Others can drive wedges between unsuspecting players, such as Dark Gift and Hidden Betrayal.
For the final encounter, we break the rules of the cooperative game by having the dragon tempt the party: One of the players can choose to switch sides and join the dragon. This is the final expression of the antagonist's role in the game. Can the heroes (and players) defeat the dragon by working together — or does one of them falter?
Preorder One Night Ultimate Werewolf now from www.beziergames.com
One Night Ultimate Werewolf
First off, One Night Resistance isn't a knock off of either One Night Ultimate Werewolf or The Resistance. It's a totally different game that stands on its own.
If you love The Resistance, One Night Resistance provides these new features:
-----• Variable Spy counts (0-3 in each game)
-----• As much fun to be Resistance as it is to be a Spy
-----• Shorter (~10 minute) games
-----• Unique abilities for each player
-----• Engaging at player counts as low as three, all the way up to ten
-----• Role changing
If you love One Night Ultimate Werewolf, One Night Resistance provides these new features:
-----• The ability to play without an app
-----• Lots of public information to discuss following the night phase
-----• The structure of The Resistance, including a Leader and rotating around-the-table gameplay
-----• Roles and abilities are separate
-----• The great artwork and feel of The Resistance universe
I've known Travis Worthington of Indie Boards and Cards for several years, as those of us in the gaming industry "know" each other from seeing one another at trade shows a few times a year. Of course, with Travis it's a bit different because he's local; we both reside in the Bay Area of northern California (though on opposite ends). In early 2014, he approached me to see whether I was interested in having IBC do a "retheme" of One Night Ultimate Werewolf into the Resistance universe, something that had been really successful for Coup. A straight retheme didn't seem particularly interesting, though I knew that there is a huge group of Resistance players who will never give One Night Ultimate Werewolf a chance because of the theme and/or its association with "regular" werewolf.
What did interest me is somehow combining the "Resistanceness" of The Resistance with the "One Nightedness" of One Night Ultimate Werewolf. Let's step back for a moment so that you can understand why this would be interesting.
First off, let me say that I love The Resistance. (As a gamer, I like Avalon more, but that doesn't change how I feel about The Resistance.) My first play of the game was a little rocky, with other gamers who didn't quite get it at first. But I warmed up to it quickly, and I really liked the similar social deduction feeling it had to werewolf. I've probably played hundreds of games of Resistance and Avalon.
Of course, at the time The Resistance was first published in 2009, Ultimate Werewolf was just starting to take off. Ultimate Werewolf was my way to address what I thought the issues with werewolf were (or at least, the issues of all the commercial versions up to that point were): It was the first version of werewolf to have a comprehensive set of rules (including pages and pages of moderator tips and guidelines), names and role descriptions written on the cards, and an appropriate art style for the genre. It also had lots of other innovative things like a moderator scorepad and a built-in game balancing system. It was werewolf for people who already really liked werewolf...and many of them loved it as a result of using the Ultimate Werewolf set.
However, Ultimate Werewolf didn't address the two primary issues werewolf-haters had with the game: the need for a moderator and player elimination. Personally, I like both of those as a good moderator can make any werewolf game better, and player elimination in werewolf creates a tension that you just don't get in any other game; the threat of elimination is the real mechanism here as it drives the game forward with intensity. That said, many people will never play werewolf because of one or both of those mechanisms. The Resistance found a way to solve both of those issues in a novel way.
Most importantly, The Resistance added a very firm structure to the narrative of the game. There's a Leader who appoints a set of players to go on a mission, and those appointees are voted on by all of the players. The players on the mission vote secretly and simultaneously on whether to make the mission a success. It's all very organized and logical, and while the number of mechanical decisions are limited (and thus easy to understand and use in the game), the possibilities are immense, and the discussion during each game is always lively and engaging. The Resistance also simplified the role structure by making each player simply a Resistance member or a Spy. (Of course, this was expanded upon in expansions and more notably in Avalon.) The Resistance is a game that a Vulcan would enjoy (though they would never show it).
Skip ahead a few years to One Night Ultimate Werewolf, which addressed those issues as well, but entirely differently; while The Resistance had a solid structure and limitations on character powers to avoid a moderator, One Night Ultimate Werewolf had an app act as the moderator. (Yes, you can play without it, but the free app is the way to go if you can.) The Resistance addressed player elimination by never voting out players, even though you play 3-5 rounds and some players could be outed as Spies before the game is over. One Night Ultimate Werewolf addressed player elimination by limiting the game to a single night, so the "death" of a player at the end of the day didn't matter as another new game would simply start up because the current game is over.
One Night Ultimate Werewolf added some other novel things as well: Role switching, impossible in "regular" werewolf in one of the two directions for a variety of reasons, gives the game its hook. Now not only are you trying to figure out who to kill, you need to figure out if you're still on the same team you started on (a prerequisite for figuring out who to kill). The addition of three mystery cards in the center of the table eliminated the ability for all players to have perfect information, and also provided the possibility that there might not be any werewolves at all, in which case the village has to agree not to kill anyone in order to win. And of course, the game takes less than ten minutes to play, and can be played with as few as three players.
One Night + Resistance = AMAZING
Combining the essences of these two games would result in a social deduction game that had both a solid narrative structure and the possibility of role switching. And maybe, while I'm at it, I could make it so an app wasn't required, and there would be a way to get the initial conversation of what happened at night moving along.
That was my frame of mind as I sat down and started putting concepts together for the game, which in many ways designed itself based on the framework above. Fortunately for me, the resulting game was as compelling as the two originals, and even more so in some ways.
The first set of rules, written about one month after Travis and I first started discussing this project, is remarkably close to the final, shipping game. There were lots of tweaks and balancing of abilities ("specialist" cards in the game), but the core is still there. Here's what I came up with initially:
There are three Spy role cards and one Resistance role card for every player in the game. Always. No chart needed. There are several specialist cards, many of which allow Spies to do one thing and Resistance to do another. The Leader starts the night out by telling everyone to close their eyes, having the spies wake up to see each other, having them close their eyes. Then the Leader does his night action (on his specialist card), and when he's done, he says "Mission accomplished". Then the player to his left does his night action and says "Mission accomplished", and so on until it's back to the Leader, who gets to look at his role card one more time before waking everyone up.
Starting with the Leader, everyone says what action they took during the night (they may lie), in clockwise order. In the final game this is even better as they are required to take a specialist token. This jumpstarts the conversation right away. Players can discuss amongst themselves for five minutes — in the final game the timer is optional; instead the conversation goes until the Leader calls for a vote when a majority of the players agree a vote should take place — at which time everyone must point at someone; the player with the most fingers pointed at him reveals his card, and if he's a Spy the Resistance wins. If he's not a Spy, the Spies win. The Leader token passes to the left and you can play another game.
That's the core of the game right there. Through playtesting and development, the following items were added, removed or modified:
The Specialist cards were modified several times, making sure they were balanced properly. A double-sided reference card was created, with one side being the basic "first game" specializations, and the other having the complete list. The Specialist tokens were added and required to be taken upon waking.
One session of playtesting really stands out: At the end of BGG.CON 2014, Travis and I recruited Jeremiah Lee, Alan Gerding and Sean McCoy of Tuesday Knight Games (Two Rooms and a Boom), and Dan "Game Boy Geek" King to playtest a few games. They wanted to keep playing even after multiple games over a few hours, and even after both Travis and I repeatedly crushed them. (Note to everyone: Travis is not bound by "the truth" in any way.)
While a great deal of playtesting was done with this game, it came together pretty quickly. I'm really proud of the resulting game, and I think Travis and I have managed to create a game that will appeal to both One Night Ultimate Werewolf fans as well as The Resistance fans, and hopefully pick up a few more fans on the way.
A Fistful Of Dinero, a game of violence and greed, is a half-hour saloon brawl in which a group of vagrants and outlaws draw iron, throw chairs, and scramble for a pot of poker money in the middle of the table. It is published by Magic House Games, and distribution in the U.S. is being handled by Homeland Games.
A very miniscule amount of you may recognize me for the work I've done reviewing on 2D6.org, FortressAT.com, and here on BGG. I've been writing reviews for several years now and gaming for many many more. What may be surprising is that I consider myself first and foremost a game designer, as opposed to a reviewer. While I'm extremely passionate about the hobby in general, my true desire lies in the creation of thematic Ameritrash games that espouse theme with strongly integrated mechanisms.
As my gaming group would tell you, A Fistful Of Dinero is far from the first game I've designed, but it does have the distinction of being the first I stuck with, developed, and playtested repeatedly to the point it was ready for publication. This is a unique little game that packs a great deal of depth and variability into a relatively short playtime. I'd classify it as a super-filler, packing enough meat to push the boundaries of the small games envelope and offering a rich and dynamic experience that is continually engaging.
Most of my game ideas sort of pop up organically either originating with theme or germinating with a specific setting or narrative in combination with specific mechanisms. A Fistful Of Dinero is no different as in early 2013 I found myself daydreaming while listening to a podcast, contemplating unique ways to resolve gunfire in an old west shootout. I'm a huge fan of gritty 1960s westerns and would take Eastwood over Wayne and Leone over Ford any day of the week. It's a theme under-represented and a setting I love. Richard Hamblen's Gunslinger is the only game that comes immediately to mind, capturing that grit, bite, and bare-knuckle feel. It's a fantastic game, but it's complicated, heavy, and very difficult to teach. I wanted a design that captured that spark but brought it into an accessible, unique game that was streamlined and more suitable with modern game design.
The idea of using a card drafting mechanism to select Action cards that were then programmed came to mind almost immediately. Card drafting does a great job of keeping things interesting and dynamic, while allowing play to move along at a brisk pace and downtime to be non-existent. I'm also a huge fan of action programming as the inherent chaos and unpredictability does a great job in fostering tension and mimicking real-world spontaneity and havoc. This combination would yield the initial prototype, which would actually change very little from inception to its current published state.
I'm a huge fan of the drafting mechanism, but one issue I've had is that no drafting game has really approached the idea of embracing conflict. Most are extremely passive, allowing you to indirectly affect your opponents but handcuffing you to some degree when it comes to interaction. I wanted to change that.
A set of core actions initially sprung up which would form the bulk of the action deck. These include:
-----• Fire! – Allows you to attack another player
-----• Aim – Stays in play and builds up, adding to your attack roll
-----• Hit The Dirt – Stays in play and subtracts from an opponent's attack
-----• Mad Dash – A reckless sprint through the carnage to grab a handful of dinero from the poker table at the center of the saloon
-----• Cover – A wide array of objects you can play to gain defensive benefits
-----• Reload – Reloads a round in one of your weapons
-----• Re-Arm – Switches weapons between your Off-Hand and Main-Weapon slot
The idea of including specific actions undertaken by the participants in combination with an evocative weapon selection and an vibrant damage deck births sizable chunks of narrative that arise from playing the game and are easily grasped — much like the aforementioned Gunslinger. You witness an intense action scene playing out before your eyes while placing you at the center of the action. Films like Unforgiven and The Wild Bunch come to the fore and put a grin on your face as you lap up the intensity.
The selection of actions you perform are drafted from rotating card hands à la 7 Wonders, programmed onto your player mat (called a Gun Belt), then executed one at a time in player order. The goal is to have the most chips or to be the last man standing. It's a chaotic, riotous experience as players blow holes in each other and hold in their guts as they scramble for money and flip tables. You can dive behind the bar, throw bottles of whiskey, and even chuck a stick of dynamite to light up the room like the Griswold's Christmas tree.
Attacking involves rolling 2D6, requiring a 7 or above to hit. You can mitigate the odds by building up a steady Aim or bolster your defense by hiding behind a billiard table or a support beam. When you're hit, you draw a wound card and apply the effects. The combat is tactical and framed around tough choices facilitated by the draft/programming mechanism but is surprisingly flexible in your ability to adapt between going for victory points and pursuing the path of violence.
One of several unique elements to the design are the Cover cards peppered throughout the action deck. Cover cards remain in play and will protect you until you Mad Dash, sprinting from your position to clutch a handful of coins. Cover cards feature a diagram based on the number of players participating in the game and offer protection against specific seats at the table. Thus, you may deploy a Bystander Cover card (as you shield yourself with a hapless civilian) which protects you from the player sitting to your left and the player two seats to your right. Later you may swap that out for a Keg cover card which protects you from the two players sitting to your right. Different options allow you to adapt and shift depending on who forms the largest threat at the table.
Another mechanism I want to highlight is the ability to throw objects and weapons at your enemies. Certain weapons, like the Frogsticker and Iron Stingers, allow you to play a Fire! action and physically toss the action card at an opponent's player mat. If the card lands touching the mat but not touching his Cover card, you hit him and inflict damage. Several action cards allow you to perform throws as well, such as the fan-favorite Tomahawk and Thrown Chair. This light dexterity element births moments of laughter and intensity as the table becomes razor focused when someone lights a stick of dynamite or tosses a chair at a drunk neighbor.
It was important in balancing the game and the experience to get the mix of action cards correct. The thrown cards were of significance here as I did not want them to overshadow the experience. In a typical game you will see only three or four throws, which through repeated plays seems to be the perfect mix. Additionally, while the standard actions listed previously are the most prevalent cards, a healthy mix of special actions offer unique benefits, such as action cards that allow you to ward off the effects of wounds, fan-fire your Peacemaker, and place Bounties on enemies incentivizing target selection. You never quite know what the brazen sawed-off wielding lunatic sitting adjacent will do.
An element that adds flexibility and curtails frustration in action programming are the dual-sided cards. Many action cards found throughout the deck feature two actions, one on the top and one on bottom. This allows you to execute either of the two actions when you resolve the card. It also brings about opportunity to introducing additional drafting options by allowing the single action cards to possess a bit more bite. This manifests through single-sided Fire! cards occasionally possessing special effects that allow you to steal a chip from the person you target, or draw two damage cards and choose which one to apply if you roll a hard 12. The choice of flexibility versus focused quality is ultimately interesting and another layer contributing to the richness of the whole.
When you start to combine all of these elements – drafting, programming, special actions, throwing, variable cover, interesting wounds, and unique weapons – you get an experience that plays quick and brutal while focusing on enjoyment and theme. Playtesters quickly remark how the subtle tension and exhilarating chaos emerge naturally in play, and the resulting narrative of bloodshed is utterly memorable and distinct. This is a 30-minute game that plays 3-6 and offers a unique experience, separating itself from similar titles. It's a game that I wager appeals to many and ultimately delivers on its promise.
"Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them — that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like." —Lao Tzu
I was sitting on the grass on a glorious spring day among stunning magnolias and cherry blossoms. A man with long, gray hair stood with his feet set wide, knees bent, his jaw set. He held a long bow. His face was serene and his eyes never veering from his target as he lifted the bow slowly over his head, then brought it down, drawing the arrow with a smooth, seemingly effortless motion. With a sudden shout, he sent the arrow on its way, and it lodged itself into the target and the hay bale behind it with a thwack. I noticed that even as the audience applauded, his face was unmoved. It took a moment for him to step out of his archery stance to address the people around him. He was demonstrating the art of kyudo — what's sometimes called "zen archery" — a meditative practice that focuses on an idea that if one is in harmony with the world, one cannot help but achieve a true aim. Hitting the target is almost incidental. It becomes a natural consequence of being fully present.
It was 2011. I was with my pregnant wife at the Japanese festival that takes place at the University of Pennsylvania's Morris Arboretum. We had recently completed the trip of a lifetime from Beijing to Mumbai over nine months, and now we had started a new life in a new city, with the birth of our son just weeks away. After the demonstration, we began walking through the park, along wide paths, rolling lawns stretching out to either side. We were chatting, enjoying ourselves, talking about what lies ahead. We didn't have a destination in mind. We stopped beside a pond, watching the ducks squabble over something in the water. Of course with a baby on the way, we couldn't help talking about the future, and yet we were fully present, following a meandering path through the arboretum, just taking it all in.
Of course, we didn't just decide one day to take a nine-month excursion through Asia. Doing it successfully took two years of planning and cooperation. When we met, I asked Erin: Do you want to live in India? Absolutely, she had said. That's when I knew she was right for me. She didn't blink an eye. We had a vision: We wanted to see everything there was to see in the world. So we started early on, she and I, planning. We knew we'd need to quit our jobs. We knew we'd have to be careful with our money, but in the end, we were able to make it happen. I don't know if either one of us knew what to expect, but we knew that it was a journey we wanted to take.
We began in China, arriving in Beijing with only a general idea of what we wanted to see. Thrust into a new world where we did not speak the language, having little more than a Lonely Planet to guide us, we learned over time that the life of a traveler is one of near constant uncertainty. We never knew where we were going to be the following week; we would find lodging when we arrived. Getting something to eat sometimes amounted to pointing at something on a menu with no idea what we would get. Over the course of the trip, we had to learn to let go. We had to be prepared, but allow things to happen. We had to think ahead, but always allow for the unexpected detour. Living presently, being mindful of our surroundings, listening hard, being quick to laugh, willing to compromise — these were our survival skills as we made our way through Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and, yes, eventually, we made our way to India.
Erin and Dan at the Taj Mahal
But we decided to return home and now we were ready to embark on a new kind of journey. Perhaps fittingly, we had been playing Reiner Knizia's Lost Cities every night for weeks. Both of us loved the card play, the sense of give and take that it had as you tried to simultaneously advance your own goals while having to remain cognizant at all times of what your opponent was doing. And as we walked through the Morris Arboretum, this game was definitely on my mind. That night I thought to myself about how "Arboretum" would make a great name for a game, and that one takes a journey through an arboretum just as one might take a journey to some exotic location.
The ascending values of the cards in Lost Cities represent progress along a path toward an ultimate goal. When preparing for an expedition to some forgotten temple, one prepares, prepares, prepares, and then strikes out. I wanted to use Knizia's ingenious metaphor and adapt it to a different kind of travel. In Knizia's game, players start small and work their way up, hoping that they have enough resources to make it worthwhile. Wandering through a botanical garden is a different experience altogether. One starts at one point and ends up in another. There is a sense of progress, of moving forward, but it's not defined until the end. In Arboretum, players start in the middle and work their way outward. The paths they're creating grow organically, slowly building outwards, discovering new colors and new directions at each step of the way. Maybe this path is a short stroll through the maples; maybe we've been through that way before on the way to a stand of cassia trees. We might not know where we're going until we get there.
And so probably from the very first day I started writing down ideas in my notebook for this game, the general mechanisms were set: I wanted the players to each grow a garden by laying cards adjacent to one another to form paths represented by numerically ascending series of cards. But by itself, this didn't create a fun game. It was just not interesting enough. I tried many different ways to make it work, including having players all contribute to the same arboretum, having hidden goals, and representing visitors as their own cards in the deck.
Members of the NYC-Playtest group playing an early prototype of Arboretum
One particular part of the game that I was constantly adjusting was hand size. When it was too large, the cards in hand felt unnecessary, and when I shrunk it down to a size where it became a real constraint, play felt random. I came to recognize that this was the part of the game that was missing, and quickly from that insight, I hit on the idea that it could become part of the scoring mechanism. Suddenly, it fell into place. Each phase of the game felt tense: which cards to draw, which card to play, and which card to discard.
But one final pattern emerged in playtesting that I felt needed to be solved: ones and eights. Ones were almost always being laid down and eights almost always held back. For a game where every other decision felt appropriately uncertain and situational, this was something I felt compelled to address. The "one cancels the eight" rule felt like it completed the scoring system.
The version of the game that I submitted to Z-Man
At the end of the year, I went to the first Metatopia, the game design festival held in northern New Jersey. There I met Zev Shlasinger and showed him Arboretum. The following year, at the second Metatopia, he told me that Z-Man Games had decided to publish it. I am in awe of the spectacular art that it has been given. I'm so very proud of this game, and I am delighted to be able to share it with all of you.
So remember to think ahead, but be prepared to change directions. We never know where our lives will take us, but if we follow our hearts, the path will be made clear.
Sample arboretum layout by WEM
Arboretum gameplay overview by W. Eric Martin:
While Cassar gave some hints at the gameplay of Arboretum in the write-up above, I thought I'd present a more detailed overview of how to play the game, which I've played five times so far on a press copy from Z-Man Games. The short description is that the Lost Cities DNA comes through strongly in the feel of the game, the dynamic tension of extending a path versus keeping cards in hand for strength later versus giving up what opponents need. The games feel similar in those areas, but Arboretum is its own design.
Pandemic: State of Emergency expands Pandemic with five new roles, seven new events, and three new challenges. It is compatible with Pandemic's earlier expansions — On the Brink and In the Lab — but requires only the base game in order to play.
As before, players can simply add the new roles and events to the base game and begin play.
Help the Players? That's Crazy Talk!
State of Emergency also gives players a new tool to help them stave off the spreading diseases: quarantines.
Instead of Treating Disease, a character can impose a quarantine on a city, placing a two-sided marker there. This protects that city from the next two attempts to place disease cubes in it (from infections, epidemics, outbreaks, etc.).
Effectively, players gain an action via a quarantine (compared to two Treat Disease actions to remove two cubes). The catch? Players can have only four quarantine markers in play at once (unless The Colonel, who adds two more markers, is in the game). Further, by leaving disease cubes untreated, running out of cubes becomes more of an issue.
Quarantine markers were created by Pandemic designer Matt Leacock before we did On the Brink. We held off including them (twice!) as we didn't want to clutter up our clean concept that expansions consisted only of roles, events, and challenges. In SoE, I use quarantines in the Superbug challenge (see below), so it was time to add them.
Quarantines can be used with any challenge except the OTB Bio-Terrorist challenge. They allow players to fine tune Pandemic's difficulty. If a combination of challenges and Epidemic cards is proving too hard, try adding quarantines. That extra bit of board control may be just what you need to hit that "sweet spot" of a tough challenge, without being overwhelmed.
From Animals to You
In the Hinterlands challenge, diseases are jumping from animals to humans in farm or wildlife regions. These regions are represented by four new off-board Hinterlands spaces, one for each disease color, connected to various cities in that region.
For example, the black Hinterlands space connects to Karachi, Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, and Chennai. Colored translucent chips are placed on these cities on the main board to help players visualize these connections.
Hinterlands spaces are treated as city spaces. Players can move from a connecting city to them and vice versa. Direct Flights to them aren't possible as no City or infection cards for them exist.
Each Hinterlands space begins with one disease cube. Each turn, before drawing Infection cards, the Hinterlands die is rolled. If a colored face is rolled, a cube is placed on the corresponding Hinterlands space (or, if three cubes are already there, an Outbreak occurs, spreading disease to all connecting cities). Two die faces are blank; if one of them is rolled, no disease cube is placed.
Extra infections by independent die rolls adds a new element of unpredictable but constant threat to Pandemic. If a Hinterlands space has two cubes in it and is left untreated for two turns, then there is a 1/36 chance of an outbreak there...
But, wait — there's more! If two players Share Knowledge in a Hinterlands space, they can trade any City card of that color between them. The conceit here is that by studying the disease in the animals from which it came (in the Hinterlands), vaccines can be developed more easily.
Thus, the Hinterlands challenge makes things both harder for players on the infection end and easier by helping them collect cards together for a cure. Is this challenge more difficult than the base Pandemic game? Try it and find out!
Testers enjoyed the Hinterlands challenge as a "change of pace" from regular Pandemic. Many commented that "support" roles, such as the Operations Expert or Dispatcher, really come into their own in this challenge.
The Challenge of the Unknown
Emergency Events are compatible with all other challenges. These extra events must be played when drawn and do nasty, unpredictable things.
For example, they might advance the infection rate marker, infect cities twice that turn, reduce players' hand limits, or prevent all air travel. If an Emergency Event has a continuing effect, it lasts until the next Emergency Event is drawn.
You use as many of the ten Emergency Events as Epidemics, shuffling one of them along with an Epidemic card into each Player card pile during set-up (so that they are spread throughout the player deck).
Emergency Events give players another way to fine turn Pandemic's difficulty. If a combination of challenges and Epidemic cards is too easy for your group, consider adding Emergency Events (instead of another Epidemic card).
They also address an issue some players have with adding more Epidemic cards, namely, that the game starts feeling too much like a "treadmill" of constant Epidemics, without enough time in between to react. Adding Emergency Events instead actually spaces out the Epidemics a bit more and ups the challenge in other areas.
An Untreatable Disease?
Of course, no Pandemic expansion would be complete without a challenge that really increases its difficulty. Enter the Superbug challenge.
This challenge grew out of several ideas:
First, some diseases, such as MRSA, are becoming resistant to treatment via antibiotics (in part, due to antibiotic overuse in non-critical situations). What if a disease mutated to become treatment resistant? How would that work in Pandemic?
Second, Pandemic stops when all the cures are discovered. What about vaccine production and delivery?
Third, many players find eradicating, not just curing, diseases satisfying. Eradicating all diseases as a goal doesn't work, as it leads to a boring end-game (where, if the players are winning, the only tension lies in whether or not time runs out). ITL's Team game was one attempt to address this. Is there another?
Fourth, is there a way to build good game tension around when a cure is discovered?
Matt had tried to introduce tension around when cures are discovered in his first draft of ITL's Lab Challenge. Instead of sequencing a disease, players could invest in vaccine production, which would then remove more cubes from the board when that disease was finally cured.
This idea failed in testing as the rewards for discovering a cure (reducing hand pressure, making Treat Disease more effective, and being able to move on to the next cure) were so high that players still cured diseases as fast as possible, so we removed it and focused the Lab challenge on finding cures.
I later realized one disease naturally has tension around its cure timing: the purple disease, first introduced in OTB's Mutation challenge.
Players often cure the other diseases first, then use "spare" city cards for the purple cure. By doing this, they avoid possibly using for the purple cure any city cards of a color that turns out to be mostly at the bottom of the player deck, thereby ensuring that drawing cards for the regular cures won't be a problem. Of course, not curing purple right away makes it harder to keep the purple disease in check...
Why not exploit this tension and make the purple disease the focus of a challenge in which the players face an untreatable disease that they must both cure and eradicate by producing vaccine, then delivering it to all cities with purple cubes?
Assembling a Superbug
In the Superbug challenge, players are faced with a mutating disease that is untreatable. Players cannot do the Treat Disease action to remove purple cubes (although other ways of removing purple cubes are fair game). However, Quarantines are used to give players a way to slow down the spread of this untreatable disease.
To win, the players must cure all five diseases and eradicate the purple disease.
Three purple cubes begin on the board and others appear whenever an infection card is drawn for a city with one or more purple cubes in it or when one of two Mutation cards in the Infection deck are drawn.
In this challenge, a Mutation card turns the next infection into a purple infection. This can sometimes help the players as when the fourth cube of a color infecting a city becomes purple instead of triggering an Outbreak. Gradually, more and more purple cubes will appear in more cities...
To cure purple, players need to turn in two city cards with purple cubes in those cities, plus any three other city cards. Once a purple cure is found, research stations can be turned into vaccine factories, each producing one vaccine vial per player turn. Characters can pick up vaccine vials at a factory, then once in a city with purple cubes spend an action and vial to remove all purple cubes from that city.
Do the players cure purple first to jumpstart its eradication, but possibly delay some other cure until nearly the game end, or do they wait until they can cure the purple disease with only "spare" city cards? Decisions, decisions...
Testing revealed that the Superbug challenge adds a lot of time pressure to the game. To ease that slightly, I added some of the ITL Team bonus cards to the player deck to give players both a bit more time and some useful tools.
The Superbug challenge is definitely challenging, but one which many testers liked. Some even declared it the most fun and thematically satisfying challenge that we've offered so far. Your own mileage, of course, may vary.
Packaging and Compatibility
State of Emergency comes with its own purple disease cubes, mutation cards, cure indicator, and bonus cards, so players don't need the OTB and ITL expansions to play the Superbug challenge. Everything needed is supplied.
The Superbug challenge can be combined with other challenges, except the Mutation and Bio-Terrorist challenges. Combining it with the ITL Lab challenge is only for the most skilled (or masochistic) players as both challenges, separately, add time pressure and the combination is truly brutal...
First edition Pandemic owners can play the new SoE roles, quarantines, and the Hinterlands challenge without needing to do anything.
To use the SoE Events, Emergency Events, or the Superbug challenge, first edition owners either need to sleeve the player deck with opaque sleeves or buy a replacement deck. The Superbug challenge also requires either sleeving the Infection deck, or for owners of first edition On the Brink, using its Mutation cards as proxies for the SoE Mutation cards.
While State of Emergency and Pandemic can fit together in a single box, packing it with the On the Brink insert will be a very tough fit. I recommend instead putting the base game, with all the extra roles, events, and petri dishes from On the Brink and In the Lab in one box and all the challenges in another box.
Too Close to Home
I designed and turned in State of Emergency before the current Ebola crisis erupted from a local outbreak (similar to past outbreaks of Ebola) into a global threat. Last year, I helped Matt Leacock and Jocelyn Becker by designing bonus roles and a special Ebola scenario for their Pandemic Parties to raise over $50,000 for Doctors without Borders / Medicines sans Frontiers.
Doctors without Borders (MSF) is a private charity that has been doing much of the hard and dangerous work that many national and international organizations have failed to do in a timely fashion with regard to this outbreak.
The Pandemic Parties both raised money and increased awareness of the work that Doctors without Borders (MSF) has been doing. I'd like to thank Matt and Jocelyn for all their hard work organizing them and all of you who held or attended one and donated. Both your enthusiasm and generosity were greatly appreciated.
So Long and Thanks for all the Viruses
State of Emergency is likely my final Pandemic project. Matt Leacock is now a full-time designer — congrats, Matt! — and no longer needs my assistance. I look forward to playing Pandemic Legacy and all the other fine Pandemic products that Z-Man Games will be publishing.
It's been a privilege working on the Pandemic expansions with Matt, as well as doing the rules rewrite and contributing the bonus roles to the revised second edition of Pandemic. Enjoy!
1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 Next »