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Board games that tell stories

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I didn't see it coming

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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'You made a mistake. You understimated it,' she said. She sees the hype growing and she knows I am not prepared for that. She knows I made a mistake. I didn't see it coming.

***


I signed Cry Havoc (Battle of York back then) in 2013. It was three years ago. Since then it's been an ongoing struggle. It meant months of work for Grant and Michał Walczak. Finally, when my disappointment with the results could not be contained any longer, I hired Michał Oracz to join the team and help with the development. More long months of testing came and went, long months of seeing the game on the table every week, and I would repeat one sentence to my team over and over again.

'I like Kemet better. Try harder.'

***


There was Grant working on the game. There was Grant and Michał Walczak working on the game. There was Grant, Michał, and Michał Oracz working on the game. Weeks became months. Months became years. Finally, they finished. It was ready.

I gave it to my small personal playtesting team. The few people I trust the most.

'It is not ready,' they said.

So Cry Havoc was back on the table. At that point, after two years of developement I was sick of seeing this game in the office again.

Step by step, my testers pushed it to its final stages.

In November we went to the BGG.Con and presented the game. The feedback was phenomenal. Grant himself was presenting the game and people loved it. We were ready to go. A few tweaks concerning the balance and we had a smash hit.

***


'Ignacy, you should play it,' he said. This was Marek. At that time I was struggling with First Martians and Aztecs, and Angry Ocean, and Crazy Karts, and one more secret project. Playing Cry Havoc was the last thing I needed.

'I have no time. Playtesters like it, people at the BGG.Con loved it. No need for me to play it anymore.'

'Ignacy, you should play it,' he said again.

'Why?'

'I don't know. Something is... I don't know. It lacks something. You have to play it.'

I did play it.

First Martians, Crazy Karts, Aztecs, Angry Ocean, and the secret project all had to wait for their turn. Cry Havoc was not ready.

***


It was six months ago and I remember this particular day as if it was yesterday. It was winter. We were in Paris. My wife and daughter were going to Disneyland. I stayed in the apartment and kept working on Cry Havoc.

I wholeheartedly hated this game. I hated every single minute I spent with it that day. I blamed it for ruining my vacations. I will remember this day forever. I had all the skills, buildings, and decks spread out on the table and I was tweaking this shit while my daughter was having a blast at Disneyland.

I so badly wanted this game to be ready. So I could never watch it again.

***


'You made a mistake. You understimated it,' she said.

I look at her. She is right. I didn't see it coming. I grew sick of this project. I hated it with my whole heart.

I didn't see that after all these years of extremely hard wok we finally nailed it.
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Wed Aug 17, 2016 9:23 am
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That's my team

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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His nickname is Multi. He’s been working with me for more than 10 years now. He is our art director. He is responsible for how Imperial Settlers, Rattle, Battle or Cry Havoc look. Fun fact: He got his job at Portal Games 10 years ago as a proof-reader for RPG books we were publishing back then.

We no longer publish RPGs and this is good news because he was terrible at that job. 

In the meantime, he learned everything about DTP. And became an artist in his domain. 

***

The other guy’s name is Marek. He helped us at cons, he never failed us and at some point I offered him a job. I needed support for our marketing tasks: managing our FB page, handling customer service, browsing forums and answering questions—that kind of work. He turned out to be a hell of a tester. Without Marek, Cry Havoc wouldn’t have been half as good as it is now. He pushed me and the whole testing team beyond our limits.

In the meantime, he learned everything about video editing. And become our movie department. Quite a talent!

***

You might recognize the nickname Scorn. He put that name on the Convoy’s single strongest card. That’s pretty self-explanatory, huh? He does all the DTP stuff for our licenses and he works like a robot running on two additional sets of batteries. It’s crazy how he just ticks the tasks off his list: done, done, done. 

Sometimes we let him do some artistic work, if the game is dark, moody, and involves post-apo themes. For example, he designed the look of 51st State. Or the new Convoy. This is his theme. His world.

In his free time he is passionate about photography and music. Quite a talent.

***

You saw her in our Crazy Karts gameplay video. Her name is Aga. She joined us earlier this year and brought a ton of talent to the team. We met her two years ago. She was in college back then and came to us for her student intership. She impressed me back then and at the beginning of 2016 when I saw we were expanding like crazy and I needed more talented people on board I said to Scorn: ‘Remember that girl who did the thing for Robinson? Find her.’

He found her. He wrote to her. She came. She is with us. The value she adds to the team is incredible. I am so proud to have her in my team. She did Tides of Madness and you will love it. 


***

Some of you met him, some of you heard about him. His name is Greg. He is our Production Manager. Two days ago I talked about Greg with Mr. Buonacore. ‘He is your Chief of Operations,’ he said. Well, it’s true.

I’ve known Greg for years. He was the guy who would take part in Neuroshima Hex tournaments and win them more often than not. At some point I offered him a job—we needed a guy to handle our webstore. 

A few weeks later he was handling the webstore and the warehouse. Then international sells. And then licensing. Finally the whole production. And now he is basically running the whole company when I shipped myself to the U.S. for 5 weeks. Knowing that Greg is covering my back, I feel much better.

The only problem I see with Greg... He really likes dry euro games. That’s a bummer 

***

Right opposite Greg’s desk we have Martin. You might have met him at Origins or Gama. Our Salesperson. The moment I met him, I fell in love with his talent, knowledge, dedication to work. I immediately offered him the job and after long negotiations I succeeded in bringing him to Portal Games. That’s the guy who won’t stop working unless you directly order him to ‘shut the f... laptop and go home’. He is passionate about what he does, he loves our company, and he lifted us to another level within just a few months after he’d come. 

Pure talent in his domain. 

His only problem is the one I actually can accept. He loves eurogames and but he cannot play them. We beat him every time he puts a eurogame on the table. It’s so funny.

***

We also have Mirek. The old guy. He’s, like, 50 years old. It doesn’t stop us from making jokes about him that he’s eighty. He literally owns our warehouse. I mean it. I dread visiting the Portal Games warehouse even though I happen to be the company’s CEO. When you enter our warehouse, you’d better listen to Mirek or you’ll be in trouble. Nothing comes in or out of our warehouse if it hasn’t been accepted by Mirek. He is the guy to keep our stuff safe. I like it that way.

Mirek hadn’t played board games before. And now he is with us, working at Portal Games. And yes, he plays now. Every Tuesday ‘the old man’ sits with us and shares our passion. 

***

Then there is Bogusia—our accountant, and as you can expect from her job position, she is less of a weirdo than the rest of the team. She keeps our invoices tight and clean. That’s a talent, huh? 

There is Chevee who sits in West Virginia, trying to talk with us in Polish through the Slack communicator, who is as crazy as the rest of the team and who tries to keep our conventions in the U.S. and our English website problem-free. Sometimes he succeeds.

And of course there is Merry, the best customer service you will ever have. She keeps our fans happy. And she keeps me alive. That’s the most important thing...


***

I left the office two weeks ago. I miss my team a lot. I really mean it. A lot.
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Wed Jul 13, 2016 3:47 am
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In search of heart

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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For the past weeks we were publishing Grant's Rodiek Game Designer Journals about designing Cry Havoc. Today we switch perspective to Michal Walczak, the lead developer for Portal Games on Cry Havoc and I thought I could repost it here - maybe not all of you follow Portal website and were aware about the series.

- Game Designer Journal #1

- Game Designer Journal #2
- Game Designer Journal #3





In search of heart...

Michal Walczak


It’s possible that the best thing about being a game designer is that with every project you get to learn something new. You can’t merely rely on fixed aspects of your work because it may happen that precisely these fixed elements will lead you nowhere. Believe me, well-trodden paths are as useful in the board gaming industry as road maps from the eighties.

So what did Battle for York teach me?

First and foremost: there is no algorithm, procedure, or method known to man that would infuse a mass of cardboard, wood, and staples with a bit of heart. You can search all you want, but Google knows nothing on the subject. Yet this is this bit of heart that makes a difference between a good game and an above-average game. Without it, you will never create a game that could become embedded in people’s memory. This bit of heart in the game needs to be fought for, and sometimes you just need to work it out. With every moment of working on the game, with every rejected idea, with every moment of testing, the game can gain its heart. Sometimes you’ll find it—by chance—in an inconspicuous idea, sometimes it will stand out as a brilliant solution, but the truth is that you need to remember about it even as you begin creating the game.

So we have this project called Battle for York. The game makes sense, you can play a battle, but put it on the shelf and it will drop off the face of the earth. The chances that the game sees the light of day and hits the table ever again are as low as a dead man’s pulse.

So let’s check off all the standard solutions: Maybe the factions should be asymmetrical? No. Varied mediocrity is still mediocrity.

Perhaps the map should be asymmetrical, then? Combined with asymmetric factions, this could yield a high replay value. No. Mediocrity is mediocrity, no matter how many times and from how many angles it is observed.

Maybe we can change the cards that drive the mechanic? Add some features? We can create new tactical options for the gamers to use with their chosen factions. Perhaps we should allow the factions to develop? Perhaps we should change the way the troops are deployed, speed up the gameplay, streamline the scoring system? No, no, and no. It’s still mediocrity. Not a bit of heart in it.

***


Yet it all takes time. Weeks turn into months, and the guys are already making jokes about what I do at Portal Games. I’m sitting over Battle for York. Week after week. I’m not working on it, just sitting over it. I’m going round in circles, the game is changing, but there is no course ahead. Still, more weeks go by.

But one thing should be noted here: Battle for York is a game that Portal had been lacking for years. Portal’s portfolio of “strategic area control games with negative interaction and plenty of tools to kick your friend’s ass” is strikingly empty. And I’m sitting over Battle for York, the game I’ve longed for all my life—as a gamer and as a designer; over a project so important to our publishing house—and nothing. Time goes by and the game still doesn’t have that “something”.

A pro-tip: learn to quickly identify a standstill at work and respond to it. I couldn’t do that back then. At some point, Ignacy initiated a serious conversation about how the game was developing. We talked for a while and I explained all the changes made until then: those I applied and those I backed out of. We discussed every modification that wasn’t a dead-end street. Features, tactics, cards and other components that now littered the box, useless. There could have been many outcomes of this conversation: Ignacy could have taken over the project, he could have assigned it to someone else, he could have accepted refined mediocrity, he could have abandoned it altogether.

Instead, he clearly explained to me again what I could do with the project, what I could change or throw out. And there were many things I could alter: essentially the entire game, with the single exception of the battle board.

“Michal, for this board alone, I bought the rights to this game.” he pointed at battle board.

So I’m sitting there staring at the inconspicuously looking board. True, it works outstandingly well during gameplay. It really is a cool idea to resolve battles this way—that is, in waves. Every tactic used in the game effectively comes down to affecting the situation on this board. What about the rest of the game? What about the other 90% of the game’s mechanic? We just toss it overboard for now. You’ll look into rest later. Now focus on battle board.

In case you didn’t know what just happened: By throwing out 90% of the mechanic, Ignacy gave the game a fair-sized chunk of its left ventricle, along with a few inches of a protruding aorta. It took me a while to latch onto that, but the truth is that Battle for York was—just like any other project—a constellation of various fragments, more or less autonomous and of varying importance. The mechanic was never bad and maybe I’m a bit too harsh when I call it mediocre. Actually, to give you a better picture I can even say that most of it was cast in gold. But sometimes you just have to kick out some golden parts to make room for diamonds. For Ignacy, the game’s true gem was the battle board. It was because of this element that we worked on this game.

***


So I took the battle board out of the box. For the time being I put all the rest on the shelf.

If you want to know what it means to work on a project with only a few constraints, the first thing you need to understand is that every project is a Great Opportunity. And if you’re passionate about designing games, this is how you see it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a micro-game or a huge project with hundreds of components. So when Ignacy approaches you and says that the game is going to be published but it needs some polishing you know it’s the Great Opportunity. A chance to work on the game, gain experience, face the problems and deal with them. It’s your Great Opportunity to create an excellent game, one that will hit the tables worldwide, conquer the rankings, change the course of the board gaming industry. Because why shouldn’t it? It’s a Great Opportunity and nothing holds you back. Each project is a great dormant potential, from the first half-second of your work until the project goes to print. Every game is a Great Opportunity.

Any game designer passionate about his job knows this. And I know this, too.

And why is this Great Opportunity so important? Because you need to keep it in mind to improve the project with whatever best you have. You don’t hoard your best ideas to use them in one of your future projects, in one of the other chances, maybe in a game created solely by you—your original design. Nothing of the kind. You need to understand that as a designer, developer, test leader, or simply a tester, you must give your best. You don’t keep your best ideas for later. And it’s not about fighting the competitors in the market or increasing your sales. There’s something more to it. To be the best, the game needs to get the best from you. Otherwise, it’s just not going to work.

***


Once I was done with most of the previous mechanic, I gathered all the things I’d invented over the past years and tried to squeeze them into the game. The years of creating and remembering ideas—huge mechanics and minor features alike—bore fruit within a couple of weeks. All my dreams about board games, my demands, masterstrokes, and laborious considerations—all the best things I had—were soon loaded into this one game.

Imagine that a tactic your army can use is tied to a particular area. You’re fighting a battle for an important harbor, for a marine academy that will allow for more effective naval combat. Or you wage a battle for a fortress hidden among the hillsides because capturing it will help you train your troops in defensive tactics. Or think about extensive plains—if you command them, you can train cavalry and make it more effective in combat. Imagine that your faction behaves differently depending on the terrain you’ve conquered.

Or imagine that the game’s map is not merely flat—you can move through the tunnels and caves that riddle the entire area. Or maybe the actions you can perform will depend on the time of day—the planet you’re on rotates around its axis and while one side is enveloped in the dark, the other absorbs the scorching rays of the alien galaxy’s sun.

Hmm … What planet? What galaxy? What caves?

During these weeks, the game’s character changed somewhat. It turned out that Battle for York, originally set on an island in the Napoleonic era, had always been a sci-fi game in Ignacy’s mind. Do you know how difficult it is to change a game’s entire narrative? To transfer it to a different reality, to completely different technological surroundings? It may be disappointing but, in spite of appearances, when you begin working on the game this is just like a breeze. We gave our bayonet-wielding infantry space suits and better weapons, we turned the cavalry into machines, and cannons were now tanks. At this stage, the mechanic can forgive these things as it’s not too specific.

Battle for York sloughed its old skin and evolved into what was provisionally entitled Battle for Yrk. After all the changes the game now relied on worker placement, we could affect the planet by building various structures, we could learn new tactics and explore the planet. The game played quickly and was pretty intuitive, too. At this stage, this was no longer sitting over the project. When my rear end was in the chair, that was during rare moments of rest. For most of the time, I would run around the game cutting new components, writing down new rules, features, and tactics. Everything was still quite rough, but what began to emerge was promising.

***


Obviously, many of my splendid ideas turned out to be downright absurd. Many didn’t make their way to the final version of the game because they simply didn’t fit. Some others, however, fitted like a glove. It’s important to give the game everything you can, the best ideas you can come up with.

I did.

I don’t even know how and when, but suddenly we had the heart’s left atrium in the box. When I nudged it with a pencil, it rolled towards the left ventricle and stuck to it with a squelching sound. I had to present the project to Ignacy. We had to validate and verify it, then we’d think what to do next. One year had passed. Battle for Yrk had changed dramatically. I know that was when I was happy and could sleep soundly.

….to be continued.
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Fri Jun 24, 2016 6:00 pm
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It's quite a difference

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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Yes, I know, I know. I am obsessed with testing. I've written a ton of articles about this already. I spend huge parts of my seminars on design talking about playtesting. After all, this is an important part of the design process.

Here I am today, once again, talking about my recent playtesting sessions. This time—surprise!—I was playtesting First Martians.

***



It was Thursday. Rindert and Corina were able to playtest First Martians for the first time. I explained the rules of the game and of the particular scenario, sat them with Szymek, one of my trusted playtesters and I left the office. I had some things to do.

[Yes, me, the guy who claims he watches and attends every single test of his games. I just left the office.]

I returned after two hours. Szymek was as white as a sheet. 'Ignacy, I screwed up. We forgot about Low battery rules. This is the special rule for this scenario, I totally forgot about it. They won, but it was easier without this rule. I am very sorry. I screwed up.'

'You were not testing. You were teaching them the game. You will playtest tomorrow,' I said with a smile. I didn't care about this gameplay. It was not a test. It was not playtesting. It was just playing the game. I didn't care about small details like making the game easier or harder and such stuff. I was preparing the real test.

***



The real test took place on the following day. I set up the game and put a new scenario on the table. 'Today you'll play a different scenario,' I said. 'The question I will ask you after the game is simple: Was it different from yesterday's gameplay?'

And they played. My employee was with them the whole time, carefully observing the whole game and the players' reactions.

Next day I asked them: 'Was it different?'

'It was very different. It felt really different.' Rindert said. Corina confirmed.

'After playing the first two scenarios, are you eager to see other scenarios and to see what more there is in the box?' I asked.

'Yes,' Corina answered without hesitation.

Generally I don't trust playtesters. They tend to lie a lot. I called my employee and asked for the report.

He confirmed what they said. They acted differently, they were focused on different aspects of the game, they felt different emotions. These two scenarios were different enough.

The goal of the playtesting session was met.
The answer to my question was given.
I could prepare another test...

***



Many times I've heard young designers saying things like: 'We playtested the game 200 times.', 'We had 300 playtesting games', 'We've been playtesting for 3 years.'

It's not about numbers. It's not how many times you played the prototype. It's all about questions you asked. It's all about the goals you had set for a particular gameplay. It's about objectives you met in this particular playtesting session.

Each time a designer sits to playtest a game, he needs to set a goal for the test.

Otherwise he is not playtesting; otherwise he is merely playing.

It's quite a difference.
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Wed Jun 22, 2016 8:21 pm
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First Martians: what about aliens on Mars?

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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First of all, thank you so much for the comments below the last post. They were extremely interesting to read, and I value this feedback a lot. I really, really appreciate every single comment. It's huge. Thank you for each and every opinion. These are the little pieces that help me build the final version of the game.


I've been studying Mars for the past few months. I learned how to extract oxygen from CO2 (of which Mars has an unlimited supply). I learned how to make water there. I learned how to build bricks, and then walls. I learned why old parachutes might be a valuable resource. It was like being back in college, with science books, with me making notes like mad, and trying to get my head around the topic. This was really a piece of hard science shit. I've been exploring the possibility of living on Mars.

Then I built a game around this concept. And with each rule, with each scenario, with each event I designed—I was struggling. The clash between what I knew about Mars mission plans and my need to create an exciting and interesting game was becoming apparent.

Want an example?

A big part of Robinson Crusoe, or Agricola, or Stone Age and many other modern games is food and feeding your people. On Mars? Well, it's not the case. They have enough food. End of story.

Do you really think NASA would send a billion-dollar-worth project to Mars without providing enough food?

'We have some good news. Our astronauts landed safely. We also have some bad news. One of them is a hungry son of a bitch and it looks like we'd underestimated the supply of steaks in their fridge.'

Really?

***



On the one hand, we build gameplays. We build interesting choices. We build games that have to offer the players tasks, puzzles, and challenges.

On the other hand, we want to be true to the theme. We want to keep the story coherent and we want it to make sense.

Astronauts with not enough food made no sense.

And trust me. This was just the tip of the iceberg.

To each problem you'd want to throw at the players, to every event you designed, to each scenario you developed, there is always one answer: 'NASA has already predicted this problem. Here is how the astronauts are prepared for that.'

***


I truly believe that Andy Weir's 'The Martian' is a masterpiece. Every page of the book is true to the theme. You feel like this is all real, like a documentary. All those numbers add up, everything makes sense.

And yet, it's entertaining. It offers what a book should offer. We laugh, we care, we get emotional. Andy Weir did it right.

Now it's my turn. Keep your fingers crossed.
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Mon Jun 6, 2016 3:54 pm
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First Martians: will they differ?

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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It was late at night, a few minutes after midnight. We've just finished the fourth game in the Lost signal campaign and we were preparing for the final episode, for the fifth, closing scenario. I was busy setting it up, while most of the other players went to get something to drink and took just a few minutes' break before the final game. Two of us stayed at the table, David and me. He was helping me with the setup, and we were talking about the game.

After these four scenarios we were both impressed how the story developed, how the astronauts' situation has been changing for the last two days of our playtesting and how many things happened in the HUB during this time. It was a crazy roller-coaster.

David asked: 'How much will the gameplays of different groups differ?'.

That was a very good point. Let's talk about this today.
***


The stronger story you put into the game, the more interesting and better-designed turning points and twists you want to incorporate, the less freedom you leave for the players' choices. That's the main difference between books and board games. A writer creates an immersive story and puts the protagonists into it, while keeping a full control over every single decision a character makes. A designer creates conditions, a framework for the immersive story to emerge, then gives it to the players. They come and act like a bull in a china shop.

Now that board game designing trends change and players' expectations evolve, we see more and more board games drift towards story-driven experiences.

The most famous last year's examples are surely Pandemic: Legacy and Time Stories, but of course we've been seeing story-driven games for years. My personal favorite of all time is Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, but we definitely should mention Tales of Arabian Nights, the upcoming This War of Mine, or my very own Robinson Crusoe (especially with the HMS Beagle campaign expansion).

The question remains legit for First Martians as well as for every other game I mentioned. Can we solve Case #1 in Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective in any different way? Can two or three groups have truly different experiences? Different paths to victory? Can we solve a Time Stories mystery in a few different ways? Can two groups of players discuss the game after they've finished it and tell each other two different stories?

The real question is actually different—the question is: 'Do we need to have unique experiences?'.

What would you choose if you had a choice: to have a freaking awesome story to discover but one that is pre-constructed to some degree with the main twists and plot points already fixed or to have a slightly less immersive story and experience but to have a full control over every single moment of the game and have no pre-constructed plot?
***


I put strong plot points into the campaign, I design epic events that will throw new tasks and quests at the players. They are scripted, they are the plot points, they are my huge story elements. At the same time I shuffle a ton of random shit into the event deck, hundreds of cards that will surprise the players. In Scenario #2, every group will face a sandstorm that will turn off the solar panels for the whole scenario. It's scripted. One group, though, started this scenario with a destroyed oxygenator (a result of them playing Scenario #1), the other had a seriously sick astronaut in their HUB, the third one had a very low food supply because of a previous scenario's pest.

The plot point remains the same, big and epic. The details, the scenery, the conditions—they differ. Two groups will, hopefully, tell a different story that took place within the framework I prepared for Scenario #2.

It's hard. It's like combining fire and water.
***


As always, I am super eager to hear your thoughts on the subject. Is pre-contructed immersive story good or bad? What do you think about Time Stories and its scenarios? Would it be a problem for you if you knew that a different group played exactly the same way? Is having only one way to solve a Sherlock Holmes case a problem for you? Have you ever thought about it when you played the game? Have you ever felt that playing a game with scripted events is just like reading prepared stuff?

Give me your comments. I need them. I need your feedback on the subject. Thank you.
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Mon May 30, 2016 5:31 pm
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Every once in a while

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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This article was first published at portalgames.pl


Every once in a while we receive a prototype that blows our minds. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen. We found Legacy: Testament of duke de Crecy in 2012. Tides of Time happened in 2014. Crazy Karts came to us in 2015…

***


I remember exactly the first afternoon we played the Crazy Karts prototype. It was during a whole day that we at Portal Games dedicated to playtesting the submitted prototypes. After a few games, I was tired. I was disappointed. I was one step away from leaving the office and going home. There was nothing new, nothing exciting, nothing immersive in the prototypes we played that day.

Greg put another prototype on the table. “It’s a racing game”, he said. Hundreds of little hexes printed on a small board almost made me run away. The player boards were in French. The player screens were slender and tended to fall over. What a mess.

Anyway, we played. Sixty minutes went by like a second.

***


I remember looking up from the table at the other players. I remember looking at Greg and trying to make eye contact with him. I remember the smile slowly appearing on my face.

I remember thinking: ‘Well, that was actually fun. We've got something here. Oh dear, we've got something here…’

***


There were many issues with this game. The board, full of these small hexes, looked super boring. The rules for movement were too complicated. The scoring was… well, there was scoring in the first place! I was surprised. I didn’t race to score. I raced to be the first one to drive my cart across the finish line! I didn't want to score points...

But, below all of that, below all the mud and dirt there was a gem. There was pure fun. There was a brilliant idea of two drivers trying to steer one kart.

We contacted the designer. The work began. Time to polish this diamond.




[To learn more about Crazy Karts, please, visit website dedicated to the game]
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Thu May 19, 2016 6:01 pm
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First martians - Try again...

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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You play TIME Stories, you reach a point when there is not much to do because of your previous decisions. You make a time jump and start over with all the knowledge you gathered during the first run. This game is all about runs. The first, second, third. Time stories, huh?

You play Pandemic: Legacy, you reach a point when there is nothing left to do, the disease will just explode in a second. You shuffle the cards and play the month again...

You play Imperial Assault, you reach a point where the bad guys kicked your ass and are clearly winning the game? Well, sorry, but the game continues. The bad guys get some cool rewards and powers and will make a harder opponent next time but the campaign won't stop. You just gave them a few additional tools to screw you up.

Yeah, the campaign games. There is some tricky stuff going on there. Let's talk about our options.

***


Pandemic: Legacy keeps it pretty simple. Whether the players succeed or not, the story continues. They are—after all—only little human beings trying to stop the unstoppable. Pandemic doesn't give a crap about those few dudes trying to save the world. Pandemic is marching onwards no matter what. Players struggle, the game moves forward every single round (every other round, to be precise . It's both thematic and simple. Works perfect.

TIME Stories has a super-smart solution, too. When the players are stuck, they just restart the story and try again. Everybody who plays the game tries to do it in one run, but let's face it—we know a couple of reruns is needed to finish the story. We know that. We are prepared for that. We don't complain that, OMG I need to play this again from the start!! The idea of replaying the same scenario over and over is actually at the heart of the game.

Imperial Assault has this very efficient way of resolving the scenario effects—the winner gets a reward. The story continues. Clean and swift.
***


OK, let's talk about First Martians now, huh?

An average campaign takes about 5 scenarios. The story evolves, the players struggle, the tension builds up by the hour, with every successful roll, with every emotion experienced, and with every important decision made. Players got attached to their characters, they couldn't wait for the grand finale and the story's resolution.

Sorry, but this was not going to happen. In the middle of the fourth scenario, one of the characters kicked the bucket. End of story. He is dead. That's it. You didn't finish the campaign. You will never see the grand finale.

Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat?!
***


This problem is a tough one. Should I ask the players to actually play the whole campaign from the very beginning? Start with Scenario #1 and go through the whole campaign again? Or should I let them replay only the fourth scenario? How would you feel if you were to play again this one scenario that saw you die? How would you feel if you were to do it over and over, if this particular scenario was a difficult one and killed you time and time again?

At this moment—and you need to remember I'm writing these words when the game is still in development—I managed to teach the players that scenarios' goals, the objectives given by NASA are important, but surviving is crucial.

The game's campaign mode is built in such a way so that fulfilling the Objective is not mandatory to continue the campaign. The setup or the next scenario's objective will differ depending on the outcome of the previous scenario, but if you didn't achieve the goal the campaign will simply continue. The only problem is—the next scenario will probably be more difficult. If NASA asked you to give them coordinates for where to drop the supplies and you screwed this up... well, in the next scenario you will need to search for the place of this drop, because the supplies landed somewhere and only God knows where...

So failing one objective doesn't end the campaign. It only changes your situation for the next scenario.
However, what ends the campaign is getting killed.

Would you restart the scenario you died in?
Would you restart the whole campaign?
Would you just assume you didn't finish the campaign and moved on to the next campaign?

I REALLY REALLY appreciate your feedback here. Give me your thoughts on the subject.



P.S. First Martians now has its Facebook Page. Check it out!
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45 Comments
Mon Apr 25, 2016 7:10 pm
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First martians: Learning how not to play for a touchdown!

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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First of all thank you for all the feedback below my previous post. I very much appreciate all the comments.

One important note - many of you posted solutions how to fix the game. The game is not broken, there is nothing to fix. I wrote the article to show you how the players' behavior changes with the theme. The same mechanism, a different theme, different behavior. There is no problem with the game itself, though. Listen to today's story...




Learning how not to play for a touchdown!


When we play games, we have a clear goal to achieve. Get 25 points. Control most regions. Build 10 Wonders. When we get there, we win the game. It's like a touchdown.

Magic the Gathering is about reducing enemy's Life to 0. No matter how many points we have, no matter how great monsters he has, no matter what he would do to us next round and how badly he would kick our ass. Reduce him to 0 and you've won. Touchdown!

Race for the Galaxy? Build this tableau of 12 cards in front of you and finish the game - even if your opponent has a better Production/Consume combo under way and would win in the long run, you just score a touchdown and win the game.

Kemet? Grab 8 Victory Points - even temporary ones and you will be fine! No matter what happens next, no matter how weak your forces are, if you manage to get 8 points, you'll win no matter what.

Games teach us achieving goals. This is what you have to do. Do it, win. Touchdown.

And to be honest... actually that's what the games used to teach us. Because then Rob Daviau came and shook the box a little.

It turned out that blocking China in Pandemic: Legacy is awesome and will let you win the game, but now the road is blocked and you will have problems with that blockade for the next 6 long months. Legacy style game changes your approach. Suddenly you need to play wisely.

***


The case with “I am not rolling these fucking dice in space” is a perfect example of a classic approach to games. The player wants to achieve the scenario's goal and is not thinking about the upcoming scenarios or the big picture. He plays the way most games are played. He plays safe, he focuses on the goal and on nothing else, he achieves the goal. Touchdown, win.

In the second scenario he dies of hunger.

That's an interesting lesson, huh?

So he's learned his lesson. He plays again. And this time he does all he can to see the whole picture. The whole campaign.
A small problem with the Oxygenerator? It is a problem that might kill you sooner or later.
A warning of sand storm that might be heading towards the HUB? It is a signal that cannot be ignored.
Suspicious noises from the Command Control computer? They are no longer only stupid distractions. They are a clear signal that there is a problem with the Command Control and you'd better find out what's going on in there. Because sooner or later it might kick you in the guts.

In Legacy games, or let's call them Campaign games, everything matters because you play with a longer perspective in mind.

***


Playing Legacy games, or any campaign games, or playing First Martians, is actually learning to play board games from scratch. You will learn that your environment is so important. That you cannot devote all your attention to the goal of the game and ignore everything else, ignore things that keep your character alive or protect the cities from infection. You act in a more realistic manner, you act more like in real life. You care about your life and then you try to achieve the goal. Not the other way around.

Achieve the goal? Yes.
At any cost? Nope.

And that's something super interesting that changes entirely the way we play. When you play First Martians, there is no touchdown moment. Because there is always a new story behind the corner. And you'd better prepare yourself for that.
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Mon Apr 4, 2016 10:23 am
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Let's play... outside the box

Ignacy Trzewiczek
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It was a game of Elysium. I didn't pay enough attention when the rules were explained and it cost me a lot from the very beginning—I had no idea what to do.

And then I saw a card with an artwork by my favorite illustrator—Vincent Dutrait!

I grabbed that card and looked through the deck if there were any other cards that he illustrated. Indeed, there were.

I smiled. I had my goal for that game! Collect cards illustrated by Vincent Dutrait. Those cards only, and none other.

As you can imagine, this tactic didn't bring me many Victory Points, but my tableau looked amazing and I called the game a win!

***



We sit and play a board game with an obvious and clear goal—to win. If we play with a different goal in mind, we may ruin the game for somebody else at the table. Other players assume that our actions will be reasonable and lead us to victory. They adjust their strategy accordingly to that assumption.

If we start playing like a madman, doing random stuff, play in an unpredictable way—we will ruin the game.

That's bad. That's not why we play at all. But...

***



If we come up with a little twist for our strategy, if we announce that new goal and we make sure we will not spoil game for other players... it might be worth a shot. Build 7 buildings during a game of Citadel, each with a different value on it. Collect the most monsters in Kemet. Pick only the ugliest spouses possible in Legacy and build the ugliest family in the game.

Did you ever try playing outside the box?
Which game? What was your goal?
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15 Comments
Wed Mar 30, 2016 5:50 pm
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