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Go, Go, Good Little Games!

Brett J. Gilbert
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Cambridge
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It may have taken a little long than originally planned, but the Good Little Games website is now live, so go take a look to find out more about what’s been slowly cooking these past few months.

I have been joined by fellow designers and microgaming pioneers Tony Boydell, Todd Sanders, Adam Taylor, Michael Fox (II) and Mo Holkar, who have all contributed to the initial harvest of seven games.

Hopefully there will be many more designers and many more games joining us over the coming weeks and months — do follow the dedicated Twitter account for irregular updates!

Note: Not all of the games have BGG entries yet, but they will do soon, as will Good Little Games itself.
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Fri Jul 12, 2013 9:31 pm
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Gaming with Designers: Trust no one

Brett J. Gilbert
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In which I report on last weekend’s session, during which six game designers played games old and new, although not necessarily all at the same time.



Kill Doctor Lucky — James Ernest (Cheapass Games, 1996)

It is always a problem finding games that play up to 6, if not beyond, and first to the table was my now positively antique copy of the original Cheapass edition of this title. It’s a curious and amusing twist on the familiar Cluedo country-house murder trope: The players are all would-be killers, desperately trying to catch the eponymous Doctor Lucky alone in one of the rooms of the sprawling family manse long enough to kill him. Each attempt — for example, I actually managed to dispatch him rather quickly in the first game by the judicious use of a ‘tight hat’ — can be foiled by the other players, but the trick is try to get the other players to empty their hands of ‘failure’ cards before you do, so increasing the chance that your next murder attempt will succeed.

It’s cute, and played with the right degree of complicity, funny, but it’s not without its flaws. The turn order is annoyingly jumpy, and can mean that some players can sit for a long time waiting for a chance to do anything at all. The card draw is very choppy, so can land you with a uselessly powerful hand, and the game is, usually — unless you have a tight hat, it seems! — brought to an end through collective and lengthy attrition, and firmly outstayed it welcome second time around.

Again, it is a cute idea, and there are plenty of games out there which get by on less even than that. But perhaps it is simply showing its age. Games and gamers have moved on since 1996. I think I have.

Escape — Kristian Amundsen Østby (Queen Games, 2012)

I tried this first at Essen last year, when its name was on everyone’s lips. And this one really is a clever piece of design; the cleverest part of all being it can only ever take 10 minutes. We played with and without the curses and treasures expansion, and were not, as a group, that sure about what it added, other than complexity; possibly necessary complexity, once you’ve explored the regular game enough, but complexity nonetheless.

My question would be, as much fun as it is, is there something inherent in its form that will limit its ability to claim the holy grail of game design: replayability. I think I would tire of it quickly, and I think I know why: Games are, for me, about the journey, and my issue with Escape’s journey is not that it is merely short, but rather that it is, in a different sense, fleeting. The moments of the game come and go so quickly that they cannot be properly appreciated. It’s like skim-reading great literature or skipping to the last page of the mystery novel. It’s just the punchline, and not the joke.

Heimlich & Co. — Wolfgang Kramer (Ravensburger, 1984)

This was another game from my personal collection, this one collected for next-to-nothing from a charity shop, back in the day when you could actually find decent stuff like classic Ravensburger games in charity shops. I had always wanted to give it a try, but never got the chance; and it was useful that I brought it since the chunky wooden pieces were excellent avatars for our games of Kill Doctor Lucky!

For me, this narrowly edged out the next game as the best of the afternoon. And you really can’t knock it. I mean, it won the Spiel des Jahres! In 1986!

To be honest I sensed a certain chill amongst my gaming colleagues when I laid it out in front of them. It’s such a simple, simplistic even, proposition: secret identities and ‘roll and move’. That’s it? Yes! That’s it. And what it demonstrates is how much game there can be in such a small set of precepts (which is another thing that can definitely be said about the next game, too!). And where Kill Doctor Lucky was cute, this is actually smart.

I am — God knows! — a ‘less is more’ man, but I know that less is more difficult than it looks — and Heimlich & Co. makes it look oh so easy.

The Resistance — Don Eskridge (Indie Boards and Cards, 2009)

I was a Resistance newbie, and I am certainly a convert. It takes the well-known Werewolf setup of unknown assailants and group deception, and boils it down to the purest, strongest, but most drinkable of liquors. It provides just enough structure to make the game run, and then stands back and let’s the players get on with it. And by ‘get on with it’ I mean lie and argue and bluster and accuse and generally get in each other’s faces. Saint Francis of Assisi famously sought to bring harmony where there was discord: The Resistance does precisely the opposite. And with the absolute minimum of fuss.

So my advice is: Go play this game! But I have a proviso: Don’t play it with other game designers. As a breed, I can’t help feeling we’re all just a little too skilled in the art of bare-faced lying to ever be trusted.

Coup — Rikki Tahta (La Mame Games, 2012)

Last up was this tiny little morsel which, like Escape, won a lot of mindshare at last year’s Essen, although this one did it with appreciably fewer resources at its disposal. I very much liked the concept — after all, microgames are close to my heart — but not all microgames are born equal. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it’s not always a guarantee. For the brand new player, parsing the actions and interactions of the money and the different cards is harder than it should be, and I have to believe there is a better way to represent them than the over-sized spreadsheet-like player aid.

The game does begin to run more smoothly once players are up to speed (which is of course an unremarkable observation about almost every game), but once they have, I sensed a sort of procedural nature to our play. To be fair, and this is true of all the games we played, the way a particular group chooses to play could definitely make all the difference, but I don’t think Coup is nearly as generous and as open as The Resistance is, in this sense: that the game feels as though it requires significantly more complicity on the part of the group to be played with the texture and interest that appear to be the designer’s intent.

Which, perhaps, is a rather too self-consciously analytical way of saying something simpler: That, all things considered, I think I’d rather play something else.

Or maybe it was just all the other game designers I had foolishly chosen to play with. Yes, that was it: They ruined it for me!

—————
This post also appears on BrettSpiel, my board game design blog.
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Thu Feb 28, 2013 11:49 pm
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Vintage Visuals: ‘Rainbow’, c. 1920

Brett J. Gilbert
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I recently tweeted about my small stash of early-to-mid 20th-Century card games — the accumulated harvest of an erstwhile eBay habit! — and their often wonderful visual design. This seemed to pique enough people’s curiosity, so for the interested reader here are some images of the first game out of the metaphorical hat: Rainbow.

I can’t find any additional information about the game, but the British patent number suggests that the patent was granted during 1920, most probably in the latter half of that year. Which, if you consider the design on the back of the cards, presents an interesting confluence of history: this is precisely the period during which Adolf Hitler adopted the swastika as the symbol of the Nazi Party.







This post also appears on my BrettSpiel game design blog.
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Mon Mar 12, 2012 7:09 pm
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Brethren of the Coast WINS the Hippodice 2012 Game Design Contest!

Brett J. Gilbert
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We were schooner-rigged and rakish
With a long and lissom hull,
And we flew the pretty colours
Of the crossbones and the skull;
We’d a big black jolly roger
Flapping grimly at the fore,
And we sailed the Spanish waters
In the happy days of yore.

— John Masefield, ‘Long John Silver’

I am thrilled to announce that my card game Brethren of the Coast has been announced as the winner of this year’s Hippodice game design contest in Germany. The Hippodice organizers have not yet themselves published the results — so I sincerely hope that I am not jumping anyone’s gun! — but the news comes from no-less a gaming authority than the Spiel Des Jahres website. A trusted sourced, I think we can all agree.

I spotted my own name, quite by chance, in the @SpieldesJahres twitter feed — something that would surely raise the eyebrows of even the most phlegmatic of game designers — and I will post more details soon. But for now: Go me!

This post also appears on my BrettSpiel game design blog.
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Sun Mar 11, 2012 6:08 pm
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Designer’s Eye: Nine New Games

Brett J. Gilbert
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Cambridge
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In which I rattle through my reactions to the nine (count them!) new games played over the past week. As in earlier episodes, I won’t formally review the games, but will instead just jot down what my designer’s eye made of them.


Glen More — Matthias Cramer (Alea, 2010)

First to the table at the weekend was this nice little tile-laying game which I’d always liked the look of. Martin warned me of the bizarrely game-breaking tile ‘Loch Oich’, and his prediction that whoever claimed it would eventually win was spot on. It does seem egregiously over-powered, and the speed with which the game accelerated to its end was unsettling.

The game packs a lot in, but felt like it ended, anticlimactically, just as we were getting to the good bit. I did like the tile rondel and the market, but the successive rounds of majority scoring were a bit predictable, and the (necessary) penalty for over-building an unsatisfactory hack.

Gilbert’s Unreliably Insightful Design Evaluation (GUIDE) rating: 3/5

Quarriors! — Elliot & Lang (WizKids, 2011)

We barrelled into this one with rather more enthusiasm than hope, and tried our best, in the face of faltering expectations, to enjoy it. The first game was (of course) random, and felt disappointingly one-sided — a victory of pure skill on Lucy’s part, of course! — but we immediately had a second game to see whether, with a little more care, it was possible to exercise a little more control.

And it was, but only a little. It’s hardly a surprise that a dice game should feel random, and the game does give players some tools to counter this, but without that randomness there’s little point to the game at all, so you just have to go with it.

We liked very much how the cards changed the characteristics of the dice, so there’s plenty of game here… for the right crowd.

GUIDE rating: 3/5

Oregon — Berg & Berg (Han im Glück, 2007)

A very clear and intuitive ruleset smoothed our experience of what is a very neat and engaging tile-laying and meeple-placing family game. The simple card-play and the surprisingly powerful joker and extra-turn tokens did keep things moving, and the way in which the game’s geography developed was fun. There weren’t, however, too many sparks; the game was simply a pleasant-enough journey through a pretty-enough landscape.

I do appear to be damning Oregon with faint praise, but all I can say is that it hasn’t really stuck in the memory.

GUIDE rating: 3/5

Hansa — Michael Schacht (ABACUSSPIELE, 2004)

I’ve always wanted to try this, and just like Oregon, the rules and gameplay are smooth and clear, and gave us plenty to think about. Hansa is certainly a game that does more with less, which is always a good thing in my book, and the game is quick enough that poor choices won’t survive long enough to be regretted too deeply.

Actually, our game was over a little too quickly, and the ending had the same sense of “Oh. Look. It’s over. How’d that happen?” that Glen More had, but I think more plays of Hansa would be rewarded with a better understanding of the game’s tempo, and hence a better feel for how to play the middle- and end-game.

Small, but perfectly formed, the game is an object lesson for any designer.

GUIDE rating: 5/5

Get Bit! — Dave Chalker (Mayday Games, 2007)

This one was a just-one-more-before-bedtime interlude, and something of a pleasant surprise. I wasn’t expecting much — the cards, robots and shark all felt a little cheap, to be honest — but the game did deliver a dose of double-guessing fun which certainly never threatened to out-stay its welcome. And, cheap though they were, the plastic robots and shark did add a certain something (although quite why a shark would be nibbling a robot’s limbs is anyone’s guess).

GUIDE rating: 3/5

Takenoko — Antoine Bauza (Bombyx, 2011)

Despite playing one key rule wrong for the entire game (and by the time we realised, it was too late to make a difference) we all enjoyed this lovingly crafted and produced gem of a game. At first, though, it seemed almost too light to be interesting. Great bits, a fun theme and thoughtfully designed and helpfully explanatory player boards are all well and good, but where’s the meat? Where’s the meaningful interaction?

It wasn’t until we interrogated the distribution of the objective cards at the end of the game that we began to see how the game would have a bit more to offer, once you’d fully understood it. Having said that, there does seem to be the presence of a ‘hit and hope’ strategy at the end of the game, in which players can grab new objectives (specifically, those based on the existing placement of tiles) in the blind ambition of finding one that they can immediately score. This doesn’t break the game, but it has the possibility of rendering the end-game anticlimactic (something of a theme developing here, I think?).

GUIDE rating: 4/5

Emerald — Rüdiger Dorn (ABACUSSPIELE, 2002)

Though firmly in the territory of the family game, with a simple ruleset and clear objectives, Emerald nevertheless offers lots of interest, and would be an excellent introduction to more meaty tactical Eurogames for younger children.

The randomness of the card distribution will easily skew the outcome beyond the realm of strategy, and the capricious behaviour of the dragon will grate with more studious players, but taken for what it is, the game is a light, fun romp.

One thing I really liked was the effortless pressure the game puts on the players to ‘get on with it’. You can’t hang back indefinitely, and you can never retreat. The dragon sits in wait and, whether you like it or not, you’ll have to take your chances eventually. Remember, fortune favours the brave!

GUIDE rating: 4/5

Ora et Labora — Uwe Rosenberg (Lookout Games, 2011)

This is quite the meatiest Eurogame I’ve played in many a long month and though professionally curious, I was really not expecting to be so entertained and so engaged for the full 2½ hours that it took us to play. And yet, entertained and engaged I most certainly was! I am no Rosenberg aficionado, so cannot speak of how this compares to or contrasts with it’s cousins Agricola or Le Havre, but the received wisdom seems to be that with Ora et Labora the designer has continued to develop and perfect his very particular art.

Yes, the game has a multitude of rules and a boat-load of components, all sprinkled with an expansive litany of iconography, but once the game is up and running, everything flows incredibly smoothly, and is wonderfully supported by the excellent graphic design. Quite how any designer tames such a multi-headed beast of a game I am genuinely at a loss to know, but Uwe clearly knows his onions. And a wide selection of other animal-, mineral- and vegetable-based commodities.

What I particularly liked was the degree of player interaction, not something Eurogames are typically famed for, especially those in which players independently build their own tableaux. But through the simple and really rather cunning trick of allowing players to pay their opponents to do work for them, the interest in the affairs of others, and the ability to disrupt their plans, is increased enormously.

GUIDE rating: 5/5

Dragon’s Gold — Bruno Faidutti (White Goblin Games, 2011)

And finally we have this recently rereleased title by Faidutti, which stands or falls on whether you can stand (a) the direct, time-limited negotiation, and (b) the utter chaos of the magical item cards. This is by no means a bad game — although the miniscule numerals and dark, indistinguishable art and card colours of the recent edition are almost unforgivable — but this really is one of those ‘love it or hate it’ games.

I’m certain it will work brilliantly for some, but for others it will be the gaming equivalent of nails down a chalkboard. As one detractor on BoardGameGeek pithily put it: “Bickering in one minute chunks. No thank you.”

I didn’t think I’d like it, and I was right. But as ever, I’m glad I had the opportunity to find out!

GUIDE rating: 2/5

This post also appears on my BrettSpiel game design blog.
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Fri Feb 24, 2012 5:47 pm
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Gaming Bits and Pieces: Happy 2012!

Brett J. Gilbert
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Things have, I admit, been a bit quiet here at BrettSpiel Towers of late. But worry not, dear readers! There has been lots going on — I’ve simply been neglecting to write about any of it. So, what’s new?


Oracle Pathway: Le chat est sorti du sac

The Big News is that Oracle Pathway is coming, and it’s coming fast! I can’t tell you (yet) what it’s going to be called or very much about the theme, but I can tell you that Asmodee are doing a top-notch job. The publishing contract was only signed last September, but since then the team at Asmodee have been working flat-out to get the game ready to show at Nürmberg in just a couple of week’s time. And, as a way of teasing out the big reveal, Asmodee have so far published two ‘behind the scenes’ articles (in French) documenting their development of the game. Your French may be better than mine, but if not then you can at least enjoy Google’s entertainly odd interpretations…

* Behind the scenes of a game — Chapter 1: The prototype [original]
* Behind the scenes of a game — Chapter 2: Towards a theme [original]

There is some information in these articles about the exciting thematic direction Asmodee have taken, but the main visuals are all of my original prototype. (The only clue to the new look is the little ‘eye’ graphic connected with the second article.) I have seen all the key component artwork and, just this week, the first sketches of the cover artwork; I hope to be able to share some of this soon. I just need clearance from Asmodee HQ!

’Twas the season to be gaming!

Just in time for Christmas I took delivery of a big shipment of lovely new games, which represented part of my spoils from last year’s Concurs Ciutat de Granollers de creació de jocs — the very contest that put Oracle Pathway on its path to publication. While I was away with my family I was able to try out some of the new games, which meant repeated plays of HeckMeck Barbecue, Zooloretto Mini, Level X and The Spiecherstadt — plus our first experience of the curious delight of Geistesblitz. In the New Year I also picked up a cheap copy of Fast Flowing Forest Fellers (thank you: The Works!), so my collection continues to grow. Alarmingly.


I was pleased with all my new games, and although switching from the regular HeckMeck mindset to the new demands of Barbecue was a little jarring at first, the game certainly grew on us. The components are wonderful and the gameplay rather more subtle than it at-first appears — the cunning Doktor does it again!

Zooloretto Mini was a hit, but I am now curious to try the original. There was quite enough game for us in the Mini version — does the bigger box really deliver anything more? Level X played less well with the others, although I rather enjoyed it’s simple brand of combinatorial dice-based tactics. 

The Spiecherstadt was a step up from the other games, but went down surprisingly well with my mother and sister, with whom Pickomino has gotten the most plays in the past couple of years. I wasn’t sure the little Stefan Feld brain-burner was really going to hit the spot, but they were both up for the challenge and more than capable. (I, with all my gamer sensibilities, floundered about and lost both times.)

Geistesblitz was a lot of fun, although somewhat bewildering at first — I would love to see how kids play this one, since I think we were all a little too sober and cautious. And Fast Flowing Forest Fellers delivered a suitably speedy race game, with plenty of good-natured but ungentlemanly pushing and shoving thrown in.

Saturday 7th January: Gaming at the Grad Pad

The monthly board game meet in Cambridge’s well-appointed University Centre (do come along on the first Saturday of each month if you fancy it!) was another great opportunity to play games old and new. I avoided getting pulled into anything too heavy, and instead stuck to lighter fare: Carcassonne: Hunters and Gathers, 7 Wonders (including Leaders), Dixit and a furious round of Bohnanza to finish.


Given all my Carcassonne experience I was expecting great things, but in our 4-player match, I came last (albeit by a slim 6 points). And, just to compound my defeat, all three of my competitors managed joint first!

I did rather better in our 6-player 7 Wonders match, pulling off a rather stunning, although highly unexpected, win. I’m no 7 Wonders aficionado, having only one previous play to my name, but I was lucky that my Leaders gave me a hint at a strategy which, largely thanks to my demilitarized neighbours, paid off handsomely. I do really like both the base game, and the clever way that the Leaders expansion has been slotted oh-so-neatly into it, but the fact that in a 6-player game I only really ‘played’ with my immediate neighbours, and even then tangentially, is curious. Games that can scale to 7 players are good news for gamers, but I’d rather see them deliver more of a genuinely communal experience.

I’d always wanted to try Dixit, and now that I have I can say that it certainly deserves its success. Because of its openness and creativity, it’s a game that will adapt to almost any group, and the tension and interest created by its scoring design does an excellent job of keeping all the players involved in every round. And it has small wooden bunnies, so what’s not to like?

Bohnanza is another very well-known game that I have played only a few times, and then only with adults. Playing a 4-player game with two experienced under-10s was, in contrast, a delightful revelation. Their own approach to the subtle art of negotiation turned the game into something more akin to the raucous brawl of Pit — and the game was quite the better for it! There was no chance to carefully consider other player’s positions; no time to deliberate on the mathematical consequences of any particular trade. I simply had to brave the storm, knuckle down, up my game, and learn to play by their rules.

This post also appears on my BrettSpiel game design blog.
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Wed Jan 11, 2012 2:11 pm
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SPIEL 2011: Schwag!

Brett J. Gilbert
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Late last night I got back from my first-ever Essen, having had my mind thoroughly blown by its scale and glorious absurdity. I’d spent almost the whole four days at the fair, but there was still so much that I’d not got a chance to see or do. Fortunately, my more experienced comrades, John Yianni and Rob Harris, shepherded me through the fair’s more obscure rituals and byways, and I cannot adequately express my gratitude for letting me join them.

I shall post more news of our time at the fair shortly, but for now I’ll just take a quick look at the sizeable amount of gaming schwag I returned with. Not that this paltry amount in any way compares to what some other fair-goers must have returned with! You could have spent, spent, spent, and then happily spent a whole lot more. And some were clearly doing just that!

But, without further ado, and in no particular order, here’s what I got (total spend: €38.90, less than the price of your average big box Euro!):

Bought games

* Kontor, Michael Schacht — Goldsieber Spiele (€5)
I’d always liked the look of this one, and €5 for a decent second-hand German copy seemed too good to pass up. I think (details are now blurry) that this was my first purchase, up to which time I had protested (too much, you might say) that I was not going to buy any games.

* Mozaika, Adam Kałuźa — Kuźnia Gier (€2.50)
I’m a sucker for tile games, and this little box (brand new) with such a little price appealed to me.

* Deukalion, Arno Steinwender & Wilfried Lepuschitz — Parker Spiele (€2.50)
This one is a curious historical artefact: evidence laid down in the boardgaming strata of Hasbro’s short-lived foray into Eurogames. And it’s none-too-shabby either! Great graphic design and components — the 40 meeples alone are worth more than €2.50 — so tempting, indeed, that all three of us bought a copy!

* Hab & Gut, Carlo A. Rossi — Winning Moves (€10)
Like Kontor, this is another game that I had always hankered after, so how could I pass up a brand new box for €10? It turned out I ought to have done since we saw it going for €8 the very next day! You live and learn.

* Gold!, Michael Schacht — Abacus Spiele (€4)
Schacht’s quirky little card game for 2 or 3 players packs, it turns out, quite a pleasing punch, so was definitely worth the cash.

* Medievalia, Michele Quandam — Giochix Edizioni (€2.95)
Half-remembered details about the card play made this one a relatively blind purchase, but the nice art direction and a quick scan of the rules suggests I’ve not entirely wasted my money.

* Circus Maximus, Jeffrey D. Allers — Pegasus Spiele (€3)
Allers has a pretty good reputation as a designer, so the €3 price tag seemed all-too reasonable. Plus, it came in a rather swanky tin!

* Tatort Themse, Reiner Knizia — Pegasus Spiele (€3)
Knizia in a tin. Going cheap. Kinda hard to resist.

* Carcassonne: Das Gelfoge, Klaus-Jürgen Wrede — Hans im Glück (€2.95)
I love me some meeples, so six funky transparent ones packed into an equally funky larger red transparent one was a no-brainer!

Promotional items

It took me a while to tune into the whole Essen promo malarkey — small expansions for existing games that are often simply unavailable elsewhere — but you can’t really argue with ‘free’ can you? (Or a small charitable donation, for that matter.) I was pleased to get the Mr Jack Pocket expansion, and, of course, am always happy with more Carcassonne tiles! I don’t have a copy of Dominion, but am sure I can find a good home for the cards.

* Gold! promo (free) — scoring variants postcard

* My Jack Pocket: Goodies (free) — new tile and character card

* Red meeple baggie (€3 donation, in aid of Rainbow Over Ghana):
Carcassone: Die Schule expansion
Dominion: Carcassonne expansion

Personal gifts

And everything else, as they say, is gravy!

* On The Cards, Sebastian Bleasdale — Surprised Stare Games
Alan Paull insisted I take a complimentary copy of On The Cards with me since I had helped him and the team at Surprised Stare with the rules, something I had been only too happy to do as a way of repaying a little of all they’ve done for me during my fledgling game design career. Many thanks, then, to Alan, Charlie, Tony and Sebastian!

* DGT Pyramid
Here’s the thing: John Yianni, along with being a highly successful game designer, is an all-round nice guy who knows lots of other nice people at the fair. This means that, if you are not too careful, said nice people give you free stuff, principally because you happen to be standing next to him. It was rather humbling, to be honest. Thanks, then, go out to the good folks from DGT!

* Logan Stones, John Yianni — Productief BV
See above! Alex, one of John’s Dutch distributors, gave me a copy of Logan Stones in the dying minutes of the fair as we were chatting and playing on the Productief BV stand. If you don’t know the game, it’s a great little ‘filler’ abstract with beautiful pieces: Check it out! So thanks are due to Alex and his team!

* Die Pyramide des Krimsutep, Ralph Sandfuchs — Krimsus Krimskrams-Kiste
Pete Burley is another gent of the boardgaming world, and he was at the fair this year with his sons Johnathan and Freddie. I am interested to give this little game a go (once I’ve sourced the English rules). It was great to meet you, Pete: Thanks for everything, and good luck at Nuremberg!

* Junkyard Races, John Yianni — Gen42 Games
John wouldn’t let me leave without giving me my own copy of his latest game, a new edition of a game he first published way back in 2003. I played this back in June at the UK Games Expo and is was a blast! Thanks again, John!

This post also appears on my regular BrettSpiel blog, which you are, of course, more than welcome to come visit!
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Tue Oct 25, 2011 6:58 pm
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Playtesting: Landscapes, London and Laundry

Brett J. Gilbert
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Yesterday I had the honour and privilege of attending the playtest group organised by Rob Harris (@playtestuk) in the unassuming corner of a London pub borrowed from the London on Board crew. Rob and I were joined by Jonathan (@joffwarren), Chris and Brian, and after drinks, a light lunch and some introductory banter, we got down to business.

And first to the table was my own prototype Mēxihco, the new take on my old tile-laying game Terraform, now with added LEGO. The game does take rather longer to fully explain than I would like, and it’s not a game that lends itself very well to a ‘learn as you go’ approach so start-up time is relatively long for new players. But since this was the beginning of the session Rob, Chris and Jonathan were alert and patient and took in most of the rules (at least the ones I actually remembered to explain!) with sage nods.


The game mixes card drafting with tile laying and area control, so is likely to seem relatively familiar to the average eurogamer in terms of structure and mechanisms. This means that most players will come to it with a number of expectations mapped from other games, and it’s only, of course, where these expectations conflict with the game that things can get tricky.

However, overall the playtest was a success and I think everyone enjoyed the game, but that’s not to say there weren’t plenty of interesting wrinkles and keenly made observations from the playtesters. Was the set-up a little too fiddly? How necessary was the split of the tiles into two phases? Could the card drafting be made less frustrating? Can you clarify the scoring — for example with a player aid — please? Should the variable game-end timing be made, well, less variable? And finally, why did the game forbid the player from taking (apparently) reasonable actions?

That last one, for me, was the most interesting, although the others are certainly no less important. Players lay tiles to create and expand territory, but can also (in certain circumstances) overlay tiles, meaning that territories once created are not necessarily immutable. Players can (again, in certain circumstances) protect some of their territory, but in doing that territory becomes ‘locked down’ and, in the words of the rules, “cannot be enlarged or reduced by any player”.

I thought my rules were clear, and that they accurately reflected both the law and the spirit of the game. But — rather excellently — Chris was, in one turn, in a position where two apparently possible and equally desirable moves directly challenged both of these concepts. My intent, in formulating the game, was to render a protected territory inviolate. Players are able to choose to protect their territories and stop others from interfering with it, but the ‘cost’ of this choice is that any further expansion is explicitly forbidden. Hence the phrase “cannot be enlarged or reduced”. That seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?

Well, as it turns out, not so much. Or rather, it is a clear instruction, but it is not one that completely describes the intended limitation. There is a loophole! At the end of my post Game Spaces: Why Everything Not Forbidden is Compulsory, I explained the nature of loopholes as follows:

In this case the possibility of moving outside of the game space is neither explicitly forbidden nor allowed, rather the rules have created a ‘grey area’, a crack in the boundary drawn by the rules through which players can choose to play. Often players themselves will veto expanding the play space in this way by reasoning that to do so would break the ‘spirit of the game’, but there will always be others who seize the opportunity and point out, correctly, that no rule forbids it.

What is the loophole? You may be ahead of my here, but saying that a territory “cannot be enlarged or reduced” says nothing about the legality of an action that leaves its area unchanged. And, as it happens, there are very good reasons why a player might seek to do this and Chris quite rightly asked why he shouldn’t be allowed to. Much discussion ensued!

At the same time — in the very same turn — another possible move highlighted how explicitly preventing “any player” from enlarging or reducing a protected territory, though unambiguous, directly challenged the spirit of the game intuited by the players.

The intent of the rule was to draw a very clear line around these inviolate territories, and everyone accepted that it did indeed make perfect sense that expanding your own protected territories ought to be forbidden. But what about expanding a protected territory belonging to another player? Did it make sense to forbid this when there could be circumstances — as aptly demonstrated by Chris — when to do so was the consequence of an entirely reasonable and desirable move? Much discussion ensued about this one, too!

Chris’s turn, which probably created a 15-minute hiatus in the game while all the options, expectations and ramifications were closely scrutinised, only goes to show how difficult it is to create truly bullet-proof rules and why, as a designer, you need to take into account not just what your players can and cannot do, but also what they would, all things considered, wish to do.

All games might be said to set up a series of playful obstacles for the participants to overcome. Rules codify these obstacles, and are therefore primarily designed to stop players doing whatever the hell they want whenever they want to. When people choose to play they enter into a contract: they agree to play their game by your rules. And I think the designer has an absolute duty to make a fair bargain in return: to respect and reward the player’s faith in your game by demonstrating more than a little faith in your players.

And so, when Chris challenged my game — challenged me, indeed — to defend the logic of its internal law I found that I could not, in all good conscience, do so. I could not wag my finger and deny his entirely reasonable and reasoned request, and so we agreed that the move — which safeguarded his own territory while expanding Jonathan’s — should in fact be allowed and played on.

The game ended with a surprisingly close win for Rob: 26–25–25–23, and the dissection of its vices and virtues continued. Exactly how variable the variable timing of the end of the game should be, and what mechanism should be used to achieve it, remains an open question. My first playtest last week resulted in a 400-to-1 ‘play till the bitter end’ result; yesterday’s was a more modest 7-to-1 result in the other direction that led to a shorter-than-average game. But was it too short? That was the question! I need to go back to the maths on this one and make sure I really do know what I am letting myself (and my players) in for. Personally, I don’t mind the idea of unpredictability, but I appreciate that it won’t be to every player’s taste.

I won’t dissect the other games we played in quite so much detail (you will probably be relieved to hear), but next up was Rob’s London Game, which I have played before and which, delightfully, continues to defy obvious categorization. Is it a deduction game? Possibly. Is it a casual or gamer’s game? Both. Are there meaningful strategies? Perhaps. If so, what are they? Ah, well, now you’ve got me! Is it, in the final analysis, even a game? Yes. And possibly no, depending on what you mean.

You see, it really is the most mercurial of animals! We played twice. And I won twice. But I couldn’t tell afterwards if I’d played the game, or if it had played me. Don’t get me wrong: I like it, as did the others, but exactly what ‘it’ is remains shrouded in mystery.

Finally — provided, that is, we don’t count my other prototype, Rumba, and I would prefer not to — we played a round of Hung Out To Dry, a prototype designed by Jonathan in collaboration with his trans-Atlantic design partner Rebekah Bissell. This was a very neat and nicely thematic set-collecting card game, designed for children and families. We all enjoyed it, but agreed that it was over a little too quickly with four players. Jonathan already knew this, and Rob confirmed that in with two or three players the game allowed more time for the more interesting aspects of the game to emerge. There was a lot to like about the game’s theme and colourful artwork which will both definitely appeal to children, so I wish Jonathan and Rebekah all the best with the game’s continued development.

I did get Rumba to table, but it was a rather inglorious and disappointing experience which I, Rob and latecomer David endured rather than actually played. Somewhere this design has got lost, and every attempt to take it forward has failed (yesterday was no exception). It’s not that there’s nothing there, it’s just that I haven’t figured out what it is yet. The latest prototype was just too fiddly and ungainly and inescapably dull. There’s too much of it, and it collectively delivers far too little. Less said the better, to be honest.

Does any of that sound like fun? (Apart from the last bit.) If so, and you are either a game designer with a prototype in need of playtesting, or a gamer willing to suffer the slings, arrows and outrageous fortunes of unfinished and thoroughly rough-around-the-edges gaming experiences, do keep an eye on Rob’s website for details of future get-togethers and feel free to come along.

This post also appears on my regular BrettSpiel blog, which you are, of course, more than welcome to come visit!
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Mon Sep 26, 2011 11:06 pm
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