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Designer Diary: Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Baker Street Irregulars

Dave Neale
United Kingdom
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"The game is afoot!"
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What follows is an account of my thought processes and experience designing Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Baker Street Irregulars, a game in the Consulting Detective line. It has been designed as an introduction to Consulting Detective for those who have never played before, while also giving experienced players something new.

Board Game: Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Baker Street Irregulars

The Case of the Missing Mysteries

It was a clear winter's day in 2013 when I was shown into the rooms of the world's most famous detective. He was standing at the fireplace, pipe in hand; his brow furrowed. I had no doubt he was tackling some fiendish puzzle of great importance on which, perhaps, the fate of the entire country depended.

"Holmes", I ventured, timidly, "sorry to disturb you, but I am here to ask for your help."

"Ah, Mr. Neale", he said, looking up. "I was just wondering what to have for lunch. Pray, join me — the table is laid for two."

"You expected me?"

"Of course."

"But how could you possibly..."

"Elementary, Mr. Neale. I noted that after you last helped me solve a case, you seemed restless. You have spent much of your time perusing the works of my good friend, John Watson, and although your countenance indicated you did so with pleasure, there was also an air of despondency. It was as if you felt something was missing. Clearly, you were facing an interminable problem." He moved to the window and gazed out at the passers-by, then added, "And when people have problems, they come to me."

I nodded, and took a seat at the table. "It is as you say, Holmes. Some time ago, I discovered an old copy of Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective and fell in love with the game. I eagerly sought out all of the expansions and played those, too. It is a game that perfectly captures the atmosphere of your adventures, drawing the players into the world of Victorian London with compelling and inventive mysteries. And it is an elegant system. First, you read the introduction, consult the map, newspaper and London Directory, and decide where to go to investigate the mystery. After reading the entry for your chosen destination, you repeat the process until you think you have solved the case. At that point, you answer the questions and read the solution. But now, I have played the last of the mysteries and I am bereft. My mind rebels at stagnation. I crave for mental exaltation."

"Very well put — particularly those last two statements", said Holmes, thoughtfully. "I'll remember them. And yours is a position I thoroughly appreciate. But there are no more mysteries. You know that. Even to a brain as astute as mine, no solution can present itself. It is simply..." He paused, and I detected a glimmer in his eyes.

"What is it, Holmes?"

"Well, Mr. Neale. There is one possibility. But it is so outlandish, so extraordinary, that I do not feel you should give it any serious consideration."

"Let me be the judge of that, Holmes."

The great detective raised his eyebrows. "Very well. There are no more mysteries. So why don't you create some yourself? You have written stories all your life, have you not? You have been reading Watson's works since you were eight. Correct me if I am wrong, but I recall that you even composed and performed plays featuring yours truly, for the other children in your school. Now would seem an opportune time to resume such literary endeavors."

From gallery of whitescar
Holmes puffed on his pipe and looked at me with an air of expectation. It took only a few moments for me to decide on my course of action.

"Yes, Holmes", I said. "You are right. I think I could even create a whole series of cases... I will begin at once. Thank you."

I began to stand, but Holmes said, "Hold on, Mr. Neale. Do not be so hasty. There is much to consider before you begin."

"Such as?"

"Such as the process of creating a case. Such as whether you will modify or extend the rules. Such as how you will ensure the wonder of my unrivaled intellect is as prominent as it is in the original cases."

"Some say you cheated in those cases."

"I never cheat! It is true that I make a lucky guess on occasion, but unless you are good at guessing it is not much use being a detective, as someone once said. I forget who it was."

"Still, perhaps we should minimize the guessing."

"Meaning I will expound a clear thread of impeccable logic that shows how I reached the solution? Very well. I can do that. In fact, some might say it is my raison d'etre."

"Quite. That's what I'll aim for, anyway. And at the same time, I may update the rules to address some other concerns players had with the original cases. I mean, it is an excellent game — still, perhaps, my favorite — and was a trailblazer in its time, bringing co-operative storytelling to the table long before it became the industry-wide phenomenon it is today, but it's now over thirty years old. Games have changed a lot since then, and players have had ample time to voice their likes and dislikes. For example, many players find it too hard."

"Too hard?" Holmes cried. "But Mr. Neale, the mysteries practically solve themselves!"

"For you, Holmes, but not for most people. In my first few games, we were happy when we got a score above zero. Out of 100."

"Perhaps it could be a touch easier, but many people adore a challenge."

"You're right, so I feel the cases should also cater to those people, but I can't do both, can I?"

"Yes, you can. It is all about the peripheral clues, Mr. Neale. Have a direct path that leads to a solution — the one which I follow, of course — but ensure that for players who wander from that path, there are some encounters that generate further clues, pushing them gently back in the right direction. Thus, those who crave a significant challenge can attempt to follow my path exactly, while those who find it too difficult will gain help by visiting the other locations. To some extent, the game will adapt to the ability of the players."

"That makes sense." I thought for a moment then added, "Although in some cases I have in mind that will be hard to do because there could be one specific thing players have to do to progress."

"Ah, like these 'escape room' games I hear have become rather popular."

"Indeed. And those games help stuck players by using a hints system, so I could do the same. I'll give stuck players help on those cases by making you more useful."

Holmes muttered, "I beg your pardon?"

"Sorry, I meant useful to the players. Some have pointed out that in the original game the rules say they can visit you if they get stuck, but the hints you give often aren't very helpful."

"I didn't want to spoil it for them."

"If they've got to the point where they come to you for help, they want some of it spoiled. They want useful hints."

From gallery of whitescar
Holmes refilled his pipe as he thought over my words. Then he said, "Very well. These suggestions could make this set of cases excellent as an introduction to the game — and new admirers... I mean, new players, are always good. But still, there is a problem. What if some players come to me for help early on in a case because they want to know why there was a pickled egg and feather duster at the crime scene, and others come to me towards the end because they cannot work out the identity of the killer? How can I cater to the second group, without giving too much information to the first?"

"A three-pipe problem, indeed," I replied. "But perhaps I can deal with it in the same way I intend to tackle another problem."

"Which is?"

"Sometimes, in the original cases, players would visit a location and the entry they read would not make much sense, referring to people and events they knew nothing about. The writers thought the players would go somewhere else first, and so the entry assumed they had knowledge they did not actually have. And I've realized that can be fixed that quite simply, using a tracking system. I will give the game a memory. At some points it will instruct players to circle a letter of the alphabet — for example, if you learn about a stolen wheelbarrow, it may say 'circle the letter H'. Then, when you go to the wheelbarrow shop, you will read one thing if H is circled, and something else if it is not."

"I'm not sure wheelbarrow shops exist."

"That's not the point, Holmes. The point is that the game will 'know' where players have been and what they know. And that means that if they come to you for help, they can read a different hint depending on which letters they have circled. They will get help related to where they are in the case."

"Excellent, Mr. Neale. I believe you are on to something. It also means that during a case, players could acquire useful crime-fighting items, such as a magnifying glass or a deerstalker hat."

"Yes," I replied, and then suddenly, my mind was racing. "And this means that some cases could have objectives! Rather than play until you think you've solved it, maybe you need to rescue someone or find something. And the final case could have multiple possible endings...and perhaps it is a sort of climactic finale like the last episode of a TV series, bringing hidden threads together, weaving them into an unexpected but..."

"Enough!" Holmes interrupted. "I suggested only players could find a hat, and you turn it into War and Peace. By all means, attempt these grand schemes if you are so inclined, but you haven't written one word yet, Mr. Neale, and I fear you are getting a little ahead of yourself." I nodded, suitably abashed. Holmes continued, "Instead, let's move to more immediate concerns — how will you go about devising these mysteries? If I may, I would like to make two suggestions."

"By all means, Holmes."

"It strikes me that one can approach this from the start or the end. If from the end, you create a series of events that lead to a crime, then devise a way of making them appear uncommon and mysterious. Conversely, approaching it from the start, you invent a perplexing mystery — something you find bizarre and cannot explain — and then devise a solution."

"Hmm, I see", I said, mulling this over. "I think I will use both. But I particularly like the second option — in a sense, it means I'd be solving the mystery myself. For example..." I paused to glance around the room, and my eyes settled on the table laid for lunch. "A man is at a restaurant dining with a friend. He leaves the room for a moment part way through the meal, and when he returns the friend is gone. No note, no word, there was no argument or anything he can think of to explain the disappearance. He has not seen his friend since. That seems like an intriguing beginning, so now I just need to think of an explanation that makes logical sense."

"Explanations."

"Sorry?"

"More than one explanation, Mr. Neale. The first one you devise is likely to be the one most players will settle on first, and it will be more interesting if that is not the actual solution. So reject your first solution, and find another."

"Find two logical solutions for an apparently inexplicable series of events?"

"Indeed. Or maybe three or even…"

"I'll stick with two, thank you."

There was a moment of silence, then Holmes suddenly let out a sharp laugh and exclaimed, "Capital!"

Seeing the look of bafflement on my face, he said, "Apologies. An idea just occurred to me that would be highly amusing. As I have often said to Watson..." He paused a moment. "I feel if I spoke this aloud it could constitute what you call a 'spoiler'."

"Perhaps you should whisper it."

Holmes nodded, leaned forward, and whispered seven words in my ear.

I laughed and said, "Yes, I will use that. I think I can make it work."

"Excellent," Holmes replied, with a smile. "Now, Mr. Neale, the game is truly afoot."

From gallery of whitescar

From gallery of whitescar
The years following my consultation with Holmes were life-changing for me, although I did not realize it at the time.

Writing the cases was a long, difficult, but rewarding process, and a lot of playtesting was required. And as all designers know, people never do what you expect them to do. I remember some of my first playtests, when, after creating what I felt was a perfectly crafted case, I would watch with growing surprise as the players latched on to viable theories I had never considered, tried to follow up clues I had never intended to be there, and missed clues I had feared were far too obvious. Sometimes, entire rewrites were required. Slowly, from 2013 to 2017, I created ten cases. Thankfully, I found the process became a lot faster and easier as I progressed; I was learning how to anticipate players' decisions and thought processes far more accurately.

Wanting to ensure as far as possible that the logic of the cases was strong, I set myself the benchmark that until at least six groups in succession — all composed of strangers — said they found no problems with Sherlock's solution or the plausibility of it, I would not consider that case for inclusion in the set. A couple of cases never reached this point and were dropped. Those that did reach that point entered another round of testing and were then sent to the publisher (who did more testing).

Early on, I decided I wanted my set to have some kind of coherent theme. In the original Consulting Detective, you are told that you are members of the Baker Street Irregulars, but I felt that, apart from their leader, Wiggins, they never felt that present in the game. I realized that putting them under the magnifying glass was a great way to connect a series of cases and make players feel more invested in the game world as part of a team of recognizable characters.

To this end, the first case in my set is the first full case the Baker Street Irregulars ever worked on, and the following three cases each center around a different member of the Irregulars. After that comes a series of six cases telling the story of a particular year and the arrival of a new Irregular. When Space Cowboys asked me to write a free introductory case, the narrative was complete. Starting with the short demo, An Irregular Meeting, and playing through to the final case in my set, Death of a Detective, players can now follow a story that spans a decade. They will witness the beginnings of the Baker Street Irregulars, learn more about the lives of some of the members, then experience the dramatic and emotional conclusion of one of their most challenging years.

From gallery of whitescar

It wasn't until 2016 that I learned my cases would be published. I had sent the first case, The Curzon Street Kidnapping, to Ystari Games in 2014, then sent another two cases in 2015, but various factors meant a long delay before I received a response (mainly the merging of Ystari with Space Cowboys, and internal decisions about what they wanted to do with the line). But I was understandably thrilled when, eventually, they emailed to say they wanted me to create an entire set, and I am forever indebted to Thomas Cauët for championing my cause and persuading the Space Cowboys team of the quality of my work.

And that was only the start of my journey. While writing my cases, I discovered the excellent Playtest UK and met designers Brett Gilbert and Matthew Dunstan, among others, at the Cambridge group. I went to SPIEL, which is now an annual trip (bar 2020, of course), where I pitched new narrative games to publishers and was offered more contracts. When Space Cowboys asked me to visit them in Paris in 2018, I came up with an idea for a Sherlock Holmes Unlock! scenario, which I pitched to them, and they published.

In sum, writing that first Consulting Detective case was the spark that ignited my game design career — a small project that completely changed my life. And it was a meaningful moment for me in 2017 when I was put in contact with one of the original designers, Suzanne Goldberg, and was able to tell her that.

From gallery of whitescar

From gallery of whitescar
"Mr. Neale, do stop dallying at the door and come inside!"

Slowly, I entered the room. Holmes was once again at the fireplace, but this time he looked entirely relaxed. A gentle smile played at his lips.

"I imagine", he continued, "you are hesitating because you feel a sense of guilt for not having visited me in so long."

"Yes", I replied. "I am sorry not to have called, but what we talked about last time — it's all come together, better than I could have imagined. And it's occupied my time, I've been..."

"Solving tantalising mysteries."

"Yes, and..."

"Lost in the gaslit fog of Victorian London."

"Indeed, and..."

"Re-reading Watson's works with a new appreciation; noticing things you never noticed before."

I realized there was no point in speaking. I just nodded.

"In short", he continued, "you have been engaged in all the things you were searching for when you last came to me. Your absence has been proof of my success — do not feel guilty for it. My only question is, why have you come to me now?"

I shifted uneasily. "Because I have an idea. Well, more than one, actually." As I spoke, I handed him a file with some sheets of paper: sketches, names, plot outlines, diagrams...

He spent a minute or two looking over them, and I noticed him grin when he saw a familiar face. Then he said, "I see. You are concerned that in writing mysteries where I am not the central figure I may feel resentment; that perhaps in some way you would be betraying me. Well, I can assure you that is not the case at all, Mr. Neale. I may be the greatest detective, but I know I am not the only detective. This simply shows your problem will not return for some time yet, if ever. You have found a way to keep mysteries at the heart of your life, and there are so many stories to tell. Go and tell them, with my blessing."

"Thank you, Holmes."

As I moved towards the door, he said, "I have also had an idea."

"You have?"

"This set of cases you have written. What if there was more for players to discover?"

"What do you mean?"

"Ha!" He exclaimed, his eyes sparkling with excitement. "I am aware this may be another 'spoiler', so I have taken the liberty of writing it down for you." He passed me an envelope, which I pocketed.

"I will be sure to include it," I said.

"Excellent. And remember, whenever you need me, I am here." He gave a small bow, then walked over to the armchair.

Outside, I paused to look up at the window where he sat. He had lit his pipe and was letting the smoke drift and curl around him as he gazed over Baker Street, bathed in the last of the evening light. Seeing his meditative expression, I suddenly realized it reflected his confidence that there will always be more problems to solve, and that the world will never fail to present new and intriguing mysteries to those who go looking for them.

Dave Neale
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New Game Preview for Sept/Oct 2020; Request for Feedback on BGG's Gen Con Online Livestream

W. Eric Martin
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From gallery of W Eric Martin
As with all other game conventions scheduled for March 2020 or later, SPIEL '20 has been replaced by a virtual convention. As a result, instead of the standard SPIEL Preview that lists every possible title you might see in Essen — whether published, pre-Kickstarter, or prototype — I've created a preview list of games that have a retail release date scheduled in September and October 2020. (Those prototype games are still out there, of course, but I need to focus my efforts instead of trying to record all games in every stage of progress everywhere.)

The new game release preview for Sep/Oct 2020 is now live, with 134 titles listed as of the writing of this note. Some publishers have already sent lists of titles to be added to this preview, and I'm writing to all the publishers in my database this week to (1) request information and images and (2) solicit their interest in participating in BGG's livestream as part of SPIEL.digital 2020.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Each year at SPIEL, BGG typically records video overviews of 300+ games, whereas at Gen Con and Origins we record overviews of about two hundred games. During our Gen Con Online livestream, we covered just over sixty games, and we did the same during our livestream from Comic-Con@Home — which means we can't cover anywhere close to three hundred games unless we livestreamed for twenty days, which is impossible given that four days of streaming tired us out as much as a regular in-person convention.

Hmm.

With that thought in mind, if you watched any part of the BGG livestream during Gen Con Online and have feedback, I'd love to hear it. How well does the format work in terms of presenting new games? What's missing that we could possibly add? Which presentations stood out as most effective? Which were not effective?

We had many publishers ask about presenting games on TTS and Tabletopia, but we want to stick with physical games as much as possible since this is BoardGameGeek and since the look and presence of the actual components matters when you have the game on your own table.

Whatever we do, though, we're going to have to be much choosier when it comes to booking presenters for SPIEL.digital 2020, and I apologize in advance for all the designers, publishers, and game players we disappoint by not featuring game Y instead of game X. I love being able to feature a huge variety of games and publishers to ideally highlight something for everyone, but we're going to have to find new ways to do things this year, which feels like the de facto motto for 2020.

Board Game: Escape the Room: The Cursed Dollhouse
Shot of me thinking about going outdoors...
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Fantasy Flight's Announcements from Gen Con Online 2020: Twilight Imperium: Prophecy of Kings, KeyForge: Dark Tidings, X-Men: Mutant Insurrection, and More Colonized Titles

W. Eric Martin
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Despite Gen Con 2020 being an online event that required me to travel only to the recording studio on the top floor of my house, my schedule for this event took up even more time than for Gen Cons past, leaving me no time to post about any of the many game announcements prior to and during the show.

The biggest reveal each year at Gen Con is the Fantasy Flight Games In-Flight report. Due to technical issues, FFG could not go live with the report as planned on Wednesday evening, instead publishing a recording of the report on Twitch and YouTube. Aside from gobs of new figures and ships for Star Wars: Legion (Clone Wars-era expansions summarized here), Star Wars: X-Wing (six expansions detailed here), and Star Wars: Armada (summary posts here, here, and here), FFG has a couple of big boxes on the way, such as Dane Beltrami's Prophecy of Kings expansion for Twilight Imperium (Fourth Edition), which is due out in November 2020, bears a $100 MSRP, and has this description:
Quote:
The Prophecy of Kings expansion is packed with new content for Twilight Imperium (Fourth Edition). The galaxy has grown far larger as seven never-before-seen factions enter the game, each boasting its own unique strengths and weaknesses, from the gene-altering powers of the Mahact to the watchful guard of the Argent Flight, to the mysterious and ancient Empyrean. And new factions aren't the only way the galaxy grows bigger! Forty new system and hyperlane tiles add new planets and obstacles to the map, and with two new colors of player components included in the box, you can play Twilight Imperium with up to eight players.

Board Game: Twilight Imperium (Fourth Edition): Prophecy of Kings

But that's only a fraction of what you'll find in this expansion! Adding even more flavor to your chosen species, a wealth of unique leader cards arrive to support every faction in the game, giving you powers to unlock during the game. Lumbering mechs stomp onto the battlefield as powerful new ground forces with unique special abilities for every faction. As you venture into the unknown regions of space, brand-new exploration decks seed new planets and the void of space with new discoveries, including fragments you can combine to create awe-inspiring relics. On top of this, Prophecy of Kings includes new action cards, agenda cards, objectives, technologies, promissory notes, legendary planets, and more.
The fourth series of Richard Garfield's "unique deck game" KeyForgeMass Mutation — debuted in July 2020, and during the In-Flight report FFG was already looking ahead to the fifth series: Dark Tidings, which will debut in February 2021. Some details on this series:
Quote:
As always, each deck in the line contains cards from three of the seven houses included in the line, but for Dark Tidings the Dis house will be replaced with the Unfathomable, which specializes in controlling their foes by exhausting enemy creatures. Some cards keep your opponent's creatures down, making it difficult for them to muster a fighting force or reap enough æmber. Once your enemies are exhausted, you can keep them out of commission with other cards or even wipe away their board.

Board Game: KeyForge: Dark Tidings

Each Dark Tidings deck also includes a high/low tide card. The card starts the game out of play, but eventually one player will bring it into play, especially since some cards in Dark Tidings can carry out their effects — or have a massively larger effect — when the high tide is on that player's side. Many effects can raise the tide, but if they're not available, the player with low tide can always suffer three chains to turn the tide in their favor.

Dark Tidings also features the debut of "evil twin decks", a new type of deck. For example, you may open a deck that's entitled "Speaker Domitia's Evil Twin". This deck is an exact copy of "Speaker Domitia", a real deck that has been printed and can be found by another player out in the world. The crucial difference is that in an evil twin deck, many of your creatures look a little different. Specifically, in Dark Tidings, many creatures have evil twin variants, and if you find an evil twin deck, every creature with an evil twin variant appears in that form. These evil twin creatures feature new artwork, graphic design, and abilities, making them a significant departure from the original creature.
Marvel Champions: The Card Game will continue to see new monthly releases into Q1 2021, with the Ant-Man Hero Pack debuting in November 2020, followed by Hero Packs for Wasp, Quicksilver, and Scarlet Witch, with both the first two and last two packs synergizing when combined, given the close relationships of those heroes. These will be followed in February 2021 by Galaxy's Most Wanted, the second campaign pack for Marvel Champions following the September 2020 release of The Rise of Red Skull.

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Aside from these expansion, FFG will release the standalone game X-Men: Mutant Insurrection from designers Richard Launius and Brandon Perdue in Q1 2021. An overview:
Quote:
Though the world may despise them, the team of heroic mutants known as X-Men fight tirelessly to protect humanity from the sinister machinations of evildoers. Leap into the action with X-Men: Mutant Insurrection, a fast-paced, co-operative, dice-driven card game for one to six players! You'll build a team of iconic heroes such as Wolverine, Rogue, Storm, and Jubilee from the sixteen heroes included, embark on dangerous missions around the world, and accelerate toward a thrilling showdown with a villain such as Dark Phoenix, Magneto, or the Hellfire Club.

Board Game: X-Men: Mutant Insurrection

X-Men: Mutant Insurrection invites you to travel the globe on death-defying missions to recruit new mutants, capture criminals, protect innocent lives, and battle some of the most memorable X-Men supervillains. Eight distinct scenarios await you and your X-Men, each with their own challenges and each leading to a no-holds-barred showdown against the villain. The Blackbird is ready to launch — join your team and fight for the future!
FFG posted a long overview of the game, detailing how heroes can work together to overcome a villain's objectives and how the ties between heroes can break over time.

The final big item from FFG's In-Flight report was a last-second tease of Descent: Legends of the Dark, a title that was inadvertently leaked in early July 2020. This title from in-house developers Kara Centell-Dunk and Nathan Hajek — who have worked on many expansions for Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition) — carries an "Act 1" logo in the lower-right corner and comes packaged in what appears to be a cube-sized box that's about twelve inches on each side. Now that's how you leave an audience wanting more!

From gallery of W Eric Martin
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Designer Diary: Nevada City, or Refining in the Old West

Alan Ernstein
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Board Game: Nevada City
As a designer, one of the themes I enjoy working with is growth — as in expanding an empire or developing a city. Nevada City is part of a series of designs about the growth of an Old West town. The trajectory began with Dry Gulch, was followed by Dry Gulch Junction, and culminates with Nevada City.

One of the approaches I favor is using familiar game mechanisms in unusual ways. Dry Gulch was based on assembling combinations of cards, as in rummy, which matched the requirements of completing a particular task, e.g., construction of a building. Expanding on the rummy comparison, instead of numbers and suits the Dry Gulch cards assume the form of building materials and skills. I also include a deck of events that affect players by forcing them to draw or lose random cards.

Board Game: Dry Gulch
Dry Gulch

From here, Dry Gulch Junction elaborates upon the same set of buildings and adds drafting and a second deck of cards, known as "improvements", which are cards that add value to a building. These improvements assume the form of added height, but they also have a second use in the form of a claim that is printed on the card. The claim provides the mechanism by which everyone at the table earns the cash required to pay for construction activity.

Board Game: Dry Gulch Junction
Dry Gulch Junction

In moving from the creation of Dry Gulch Junction to Nevada City, I wanted to explore worker placement as the game's driving engine. The evolution of play moved from each player taking only a single action per turn (as in Dry Gulch Junction) to being able to perform multiple actions or tasks each turn. This evolution represents a departure from traditional worker placement. In service to this, I created "family" characters in the form of Pa, Ma, Son, and Daughter. Each character has a different number of actions and unique set of skills available to them. Consequently, instead of taking one action at a time, players activate a character and take all of that character's actions at once. With those provisions in place, we were off and running and it was time to put the prototype together.

Board Game: Nevada City

Once again, town growth in Nevada City starts outward from a familiar set of buildings: city hall, Sheriff's office, bank, etc., to form the basic town layout, which includes a central Main Street and two side streets. The buildings bear an associated cost similar to those in Dry Gulch, and this cost assumes the form of a thematically-appropriate set of materials such as lumber, iron, brick, etc. After their construction, each building not only earns its builder victory points, but also provides opportunities to improve the town more efficiently.

The First Try

Now it was time to put my notes into something that could be recognized as a game. That process included the following steps and considerations:

• I created a board similar to Dry Gulch — one long Main Street with city hall, a bank, and a hotel at one end and a trading post, market, and stock yards at the other. These represented the buildings and associated actions that would be needed by every player at the start of the game.

Board Game: Nevada City

• The economy needed to be more than just finding things or buying things, so I began with a homestead from which players could mine, farm, and ranch. These resources would then be the items that could be sold to earn money. As part of the Old West theme, I also wanted the "production" of resources to be the inverse of their "market value", so I created two charts with a set of cubes that filled both aspects of the economy. If a random draw filled the production track with crops so a farm produced a lot, the market value of those crops dropped because the cubes could be on only one track — as the availability of a product increases, the price decreases.

Board Game: Nevada City

• Once players generated revenue, they could then purchase the commodities needed to construct buildings. Of course actions would be required to do all of these things. A character would have to take an action to work a field, to sell those crops, to buy materials, and to use those materials in construction activities.

At the time, it seemed as though a lot of actions were necessary to accomplish anything, so the idea of "skills" made the process more efficient. For instance, a character might have a farming skill that allows the character to farm two fields with a single action. A character might have a carpentry skill that allows them to bring the equivalent of one lumber to the construction of a building. Of course, during the game, players might discover abilities their characters previously lacked, so I allow for characters to spend actions on education, with which they gather new skills and abilities.

The Theme

From here it was time to make the theme an integral part of the design. I have found that the more I design systems, the more important the story becomes to how action unfolds in the course of play. This process included the following considerations:

• The buildings need to fit the needs of a growing city, so the buildings that start on the board are the ones necessary to get the game rolling. Buildings available to construct each year are improvements — that is, they make the process more efficient, so instead of buying iron one unit at a time from the trading post, a player might build a blacksmith to provide iron 2-4 units at a time. Of course, the blacksmith should get paid for doing their work, which generates a new source of income.

Board Game: Nevada City

• The improvements to the city, in the form of "contracts", had to improve a specific building (e.g., bellows for the blacksmith) or provide something for the entire community (e.g., a prize-winning pig at the fair). In addition to more income, the buildings and contracts become a source of prestige—which assumes the form of victory points.

• The rough, random aspects of Western life also needed to be a part of the game. Events represent all of the things that happen in an Old West town that affect players both positively and negatively — everything from the positive arrival of the Wells Fargo wagon to the less positive occurrence of an Indian raid. Since the most important commodity in the game is actions, events need to affect the number of actions players have available. Events also need to affect the economy — for instance, drought reduces crop production (and therefore increases the market value of the crops when brought to market).

Board Game: Nevada City

• And somehow the town would need new blood as it grows — and this takes the form of workers.

The Reality

The next step in the evolution of making an idea a reality is repeated playtesting. The first few plays of the game took hours. Well, some of the sessions took minutes as we set up, played a few turns, and immediately broke something. I like to work with printed paper in sleeves so that minor changes can be made immediately. Cards frequently bore hastily scribbled notes on their back and changes penned in on the front. From week to week, I would then print replacements to slip into the sleeves before the next play session. I also like to keep older versions of cards, so I usually slip the replacements right in front of the original card. That said, some of the card sleeves got quite thick.

Here are some of the things we learned in these early playtesting sessions:

• Education seemed too slow for the game. A solution seemed to be that instead of going to school as adults, families would probably fill needs in skills and actions by hiring additional workers. As a result, the workers that come into town to be hired needed to become more useful.

• Then there is the idea of gunslinging in the Old West — and the logistics of how to do shootouts that wouldn't give one player a huge advantage over another. Shootouts became event driven. A renegade might arrive as the result of an event card. In addition, workers who were not hired in a year became a liability. What else would an un-hired worker do but get drunk and shoot up the town? In this way, troublemakers were created. Characters who were shot would lose an action, or they could pay the doctor to heal their wound.

• Originally, all of the buildings were available for construction at the beginning of the game. Players began claiming valuable buildings early, and our city often had an opera house before it had a post office — not really the thematic story based in history for which players were looking.

• Events could take a player out of the game. They needed to be balanced so that the effects were similar for all players.

• The game originally had three different ways of ending, which led to the player in the lead being able to control the end of the game.

• When the game ended, the scores were final, which seemed a bit boring.

Repairs

Playtesting revealed that changes were needed. Many changes were introduced to balance the game, but a large number of changes were also needed to reduce its playing time. Here are some of the most effective changes introduced so as to improve the game's playability:

• Instead of drafting each type of character (i.e., Pa, Ma, Son, Daughter), families were created that had comparable numbers of advantages (actions, skills, and starting property) so that an entire family was drafted instead of one member at a time.

• Instead of educating families, workers were changed so that they were more useful. They were great to hire, but they left town at the end of their contract.

• A worker could be married into the family if a player wanted to keep them.

• The end of the game needed hidden scoring, so goals were created. Each player got to look at two goal cards and decide which one was going to score and which one was not. These goals were things such as the player with the most cash on hand or the player with the most completed contracts.

• The events needed to be balanced; the impact of the events were reduced, and starting events were added that guaranteed positive or neutral events in the first year of the game.

The Producer

Once the game worked, there were still changes to be made. Every production company has preferences. Some of these relate to style of play, some relate to game length, and all of them relate to the audience the company wants to convince to purchase the game. Some of these changes are hard on the designer — requiring that some favorite element of the game needs to be revised. Some of these changes are easy, some not.

Here are some of things that happened between Rio Grande Games' acceptance of the initial project and the finished design:

• Gunslinging created problems because the company disagrees with the idea of killing a character. In order to justify it, characters could no longer be killed and removed from the game. Instead, they could be wounded (losing actions), and the doctor could heal wounds.

• Events still could have a disproportionate impact on players. This resulted in a change by which the events no longer occur at the start of every turn, but instead on turns one, two, four, and six. This allows time for a player to recover if they are adversely affected by an event.

• The game ran long. Many of the minor changes in play were introduced to streamline action so that the game would play in about 90 minutes. In addition, the game was limited to exactly four turns.

• The biggest change to facilitate the time reduction was to reduce the number of actions each character could take. Families now have only nine total actions. At first I was reluctant to make this change, but after playtesting the reduced number of actions, I found that workers became much more important to the game and a more interesting aspect of play with the introduction of this change.

Board Game: Nevada City

• Buildings and events were constantly tweaked to balance their effects. The fire events were the most altered. Many playtesters wanted them removed, whereas I wanted them to remain since fire was one of the most common threats to Old West towns.

Board Game: Nevada City

The Result

Nevada City has been an adventure. It has taken years to achieve its current form. I have personally played or observed more than fifty tests of the game. The groups of playtesters in Maryland, Indiana, Nevada, and Ohio who have been subjected to the assorted iterations of the game's prototypes have been instrumental in this process, and I am grateful for their time and candid feedback.

And now the final version is in print. It looks like this:

Nevada City is, at its core, a worker-placement game.

• Every aspect of the game relates to the Old West theme. Character names are spoofs of real or fictional characters from the past. Events and contracts relate directly to the development of, or damage to, a town of the 1850s. Even simple activities are thematic. For example, if a player wants to marry a worker into their family, the cost is two spirits (there must be a wedding) and a combination of any two silver, livestock, or crops (there must be a dowry).

• Players have four family members, each with a different number of actions and a different set of skills. The families start with a homestead of at least one mine, one farm, and one ranch as well as a starting building (Sheriff's office, assayer, market, or stock yard).

• Each year, action markers are placed on each character, four contracts are displayed, workers for hire are displayed, and the production/market value of resources is established.

• The first turn is begun by the Sheriff, who reveals an event that affects everyone, then each player activates one character who uses all of the action markers on the card.

• Actions can be to mine (find silver), farm (grow crops), ranch (raise livestock), use one of the actions at a building (to either sell resources or purchase commodities), construct a building, or pick up or complete a contract. This cycle is repeated until all characters have used all of their actions.

• The board is reset with workers either leaving town or marrying into the family.

• Points are scored by completing buildings and contracts.

• After four years, hidden goal cards are revealed and scored, then the player with the most points wins.

It looks simple when pared down to the basic steps, but the best laid plans can be sidetracked by a poorly timed negative event or another player's choice.

Board Game: Nevada City

I hope that you enjoy Nevada City as much as I have enjoyed researching, designing, and refining it.

Best wishes,
Alan D. Ernstein
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Fri Jul 31, 2020 1:00 pm
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New Game Round-up: Craft a Magical Engine, Combo Guilds’ Elementals, and Battle for Lost Lights

Candice Harris
United States
Los Angeles
California
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Board Game Publisher: Grey Fox Games
Card drafting + <<insert any game mechanism>> is typically a winner in my book. I love that mental struggle of wanting or needing to keep a card to help myself, and at the same time wanting or needing to hold onto a different card because I don't want to pass it to my opponents. It doesn't matter whether card drafting is a main feature of the game, as in Bunny Kingdom, Among the Stars or 7 Wonders, or a less prominent feature or variant in games like Capital Lux or Terraforming Mars.

Drafting cards in a game tends to create more strategic choices, mitigating some of the randomness of drawing cards, and makes games more interesting in my opinion. As you might expect, my ears always perk up when I hear of new games with card drafting, so I figured I'd share three upcoming fantasy-themed, card-drafting-ish releases that I'm looking forward to hearing more about.

Grey Fox Games will launch a Kickstarter campaign in August 2020 for Tim Armstrong's Arcana Rising, a card-drafting, engine builder for 2-6 sorcerers that plays in 20-60 minutes. In more detail from the publisher:
Quote:
Arcana Rising invites up to six spellcasters to participate in a competition to acquire arcane artifacts and cast mighty spells in an effort to gain knowledge and power. As they gather their mystical relics, they note the passing of the moons which amplify the power of certain schools of magic allowing wizards to cast spells at the peak of their power!

Board Game: Arcana Rising

Arcana Rising is a drafting and engine-building game in which players compete over three rounds to craft a magical engine that will power their collected artifacts and generate points for them at the end of the game.

On a turn, players select a single card from the pile they are passed. Once a card has been selected, players pass the remaining cards clockwise, then choose whether to add the newly acquired card to their tableau or discard the card in order to run their engine and cast their spells. Randomized moon tokens tell players which of their spells may be cast. Therefore the timing of executing your powers is nearly as important as the powers themselves.

The cards fall into schools of Charms, Herbology, Blood Arts, Potions, Alchemy, and Artifacts. Only a single type of spell can be cast each turn, depending on a randomized order for that round.

After three rounds of drafting, players calculate their scores based on the unique set of artifacts they have collected and the player with the most victory points wins!
After checking out a demo of Arcana Rising during the BGG livestream for Comic-Con@Home, I suspect this will be an instant hit for fans of Res Arcana and It's a Wonderful World — but you don't have to take my word for it as Arcana Rising is currently available on Tabletop Simulator, so you can play it and decide whether it's something for you.

From gallery of candidrum
Spell cards from Tabletop Simulator

The box cover and card art by Yaroslav Radetskyi is beautiful, and the style might be familiar if you've played Reavers of Midgard as that game also features Radetskyi's artwork. In Arcana Rising, each of the three rounds uses its own deck of spell cards, and I dig the way the images progress from round to round for common spells. It's a nice touch and helps make the theme pop.

Board Game Publisher: 1 More Time Games
• Vienna-based 1 More Time Games is launching a Kickstarter campaign in September 2020 for its first release: Riftforce, a deep, yet accessible duel card game designed by Carlo Bortolini and brought to life by Miguel Coimbra's vibrant illustrations (7 Wonders Duel, Cyclades, Small World).

Riftforce intends to fill the gameplay gap between conventional duel games and LCGs, without the expensive buy-in and need to learn a tons of different abilities. Here's the backstory and a brief overview of what you can expect from this 20-30 minute, hand management, deck construction battle for two:
Quote:
The Rifts changed our world. Villages were torn apart, then Riftforce emerged from it and spread across the land. What seemed lifeless before started to rise and wake. Flames left campfires, and waves poured out of their riverbeds. Even the sun and moon leave their footprints in the ground.

We learned how to control those living elementals and formed guilds to perfect this knowledge. While competing for Riftforce the guilds forged temporary alliances to share their unique abilities and guard the access to the Rifts.

Now it is your time! Choose your guilds, combine their powers and rush into battle. Gain Riftforce from the land you control and all the elementals you destroy until you have enough to ascend into a higher state of power.


Board Game: Riftforce

In Riftforce, each player starts by drafting four of the ten different guilds, each with a unique power, to forge their own asymmetrical alliance. Every game of Riftforce gives you a chance to discover new synergies between guilds, which will greatly influence your overall strategy and strengths. Can you combine the flexible and mobile water guild with the all-consuming fire elementals who even harm their allies and unleash their full potential?

The guilds' elementals are the lifeblood of the game; they are your troops and at the same time the resource necessary to attack. Soon you will find yourself wondering how to use them best. Each turn you are torn, choosing one of three possible actions. Do you want to strengthen your position at the Rift, sacrifice elementals for powerful combo attacks or gather support for your next turn?

Gain Riftforce by destroying the elements of your opponent and by controlling locations along the Rift. Only then will you ascend and win the game.

Discovering new synergies between the different guilds, clever gameplay combos and the deeper layers of strategy will keep you coming back to enjoy the game again and again.
Board Game Publisher: Board Game Circus
Lost Lights is a two-player, hand management, area control game from Julius Hsu and Board Game Circus that's coming to Kickstarter in October 2020. As a reimplementation of Hsu's self-published 2017 release Cube War, Lost Lights plays in 15-25 minutes beginning with an interesting "draw 2, keep 1 and pass 1" card draft and features card-driven, dice-rolling battles for area control.

Here's an overview from the publisher:
Quote:
A certain something filled the air. While energizing the magic crystal in his wand, Orly suddenly felt a change he couldn't name. Usually this ritual took only seconds before the crystal power kicked in. Not today...it took him minutes to obtain the desired power required to load his wand for the adventurous travel ahead of him.

While waiting for the blessing of the crystal power, he noticed something dark. Something was lurking in the mist absorbing the essential and much needed crystal power from the crystal fragments orbiting around their world, Amanaar. In light of the immense threat to their habitat, Orly decided to set off on a journey, visiting some of the remarkable creatures of Amanaar in order to seek out the dark power that threatens their very lives. Never in his humble existence would he have imagined that some of his friends would turn against him in a battle for the Lost Lights of Amanaar...

Board Game: Lost Lights
Non-final box cover

In Lost Lights, two players battle with their party of diverse animalistic characters for control over the Regions of Amanaar. During set-up, each player drafts 10 of 27 beautifully and individually illustrated cards.

On your turn, you play a card from your hand and take a number of actions equal to the action point value on the card. Actions allow you to reinforce your party with new followers or move your followers between the areas on the map. In areas where both parties meet, you battle. To resolve battles, both of you secretly choose one character card from your hand as a leader in this battle, using their special ability. After the special abilities are resolved, your combined battle strength is summed. If you lose the battle, remove your party from the contested area; if you win, you are now the dominant force in that area.

The game ends immediately if one of you has no party members left on the map or if both of you run out of cards. When the game ends, you add up your scores for each area to see who has the higher score.
Board Game: Lost Lights
Rendered 3D mock-up with prototype components
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Thu Jul 30, 2020 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Undaunted: North Africa, or Taking the Fight to the Desert

Board Game: Undaunted: North Africa
Greetings, all. July 2020 marks the release of Undaunted: North Africa, the second game in the Undaunted series. We thought it would be a good idea to post a design diary to share some background info, design decisions, art, and more.

The Initial Concept

Undaunted: North Africa's origin is directly tied to that of its predecessor. At SPIEL '17, Trevor and I met with the folks from Osprey Games to officially sign Undaunted: Normandy. During that same meeting, we were asked to start thinking about a sequel. In fact, the design for the sequel needed to be completed before Normandy was even released in order to have the sequel ready for mid-2020.

We tossed around a few ideas. We knew we wanted a different theater and preferably different nationalities. There were tons of great options, but ultimately we settled on North Africa. It seemed like an interesting topic with lots of room to explore new thematic elements and gameplay concepts.

But What Role Do the Players Take?

Once we had chosen the setting, we needed to decide what roles the players would take. In our earliest discussions, which dated to February 2018, I had proposed to Trevor that we use either the Special Air Service (SAS) or the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). The SAS had the benefit of being better known, but the LRDG were interesting in that they were more closely linked to their vehicles, which we knew we wanted to be part of the game. The LRDG was also a more interesting Commonwealth melting pot, including Brits, Scots, Indians, Southern Rhodesians, and New Zealanders.

We also briefly considered basing the game almost entirely around tank-on-tank combat. That would have meant a rather significant change in scale, and it would have also meant shifting the focus from people to vehicles. More important, the wide open tank battles in the North African campaign weren't an especially good fit for the Undaunted system. In the end, we came back to the LRDG as our focus — but now we needed their adversary.

During the North Africa campaign, the LRDG encountered both the Italian and German armies, but most of their skirmishes were with the Italians and their Libyan allies. After researching all the main LRDG engagements, we settled on the Italians as our second faction in the game.

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics
Men of the LRDG

Vehicles!

From the beginning, we knew vehicles were going to play a critical role in the game. This is an excerpt of an early email discussion Trevor and I had about the vehicles. Here Trevor is laying out his vision for how vehicles should work:
Quote:
Here's the basic picture: There are no cards directly mapped to vehicles. Instead, vehicles are objects on the board which soldiers (Scouts, MGs, etc.) can use. Each vehicle has one or more positions: Driver, Gunner, Radio, etc. Soldiers spend an action to enter a vehicle, picking an unoccupied position in it. They can then spend a card to perform the action associated with that position — move, attack, etc. — or to leave the vehicle, or to switch positions. I have some more ideas around vehicle damage/repair, cover bonuses, and around position-based bonuses/restrictions (some soldiers could be better drivers than others), but that is the basic picture. It's super flexible, not too complex, and it allows us to maintain our thematic, narrative focus on the soldiers.
What's remarkable about this is that it almost perfectly describes the way vehicles ended up being used in the final design. Typically Trevor and I work through countless iterations of ideas before finally settling on something we're both 100% happy with. In this rare exception, the initial conceptual sketch proved spot on.

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics
Early art by Roland MacDonald

An Issue of Scale

Unlike in Undaunted: Normandy, players do not have symmetric decks in Undaunted: North Africa — far from it. Both the LRDG and the Italians feature individuals, each with their own unique set of actions. In Normandy, tokens on the board represent small groups of men, with each man (generally speaking) tied back to a single card. In North Africa, each token on the board represents an individual soldier, and that soldier has four associated cards. The cards represent everything from the soldier's morale to their health.

We discussed this issue of scale for a long time during the design process. It was important because it tied back to our concept that each member of the LRDG was an individual with unique characteristics, but it meant that the two games would be a different scale and would not be compatible. In the end, we decided a better experience for North Africa was more important that trying to force compatibility across the two games.

From gallery of Skirmish_Tactics
LRDG soldier art by Roland MacDonald

From Design to Development

The actual design process for Undaunted: North Africa moved fairly quickly due to the fact that it was based on an established core. For the second half of 2018, we researched LRDG and Italian army skirmishes and crafted scenarios that evoked those battles. We pushed the Undaunted system in new directions, incorporating new victory conditions (such as escaping from the board) and new ways to claim objective points (through demolitions). Of course, introducing tons of new asymmetry required even more testing, but it was worth it in the end.

We delivered the initial design to Osprey in early 2019, then we shifted to the development process. Filip Hartelius and Anthony Howgego — the lead developers at Osprey — began putting the game through its paces and making suggestions for gameplay improvements. During this time, we primarily focused on getting the balance right for vehicles and soldiers who had an anti-tank capability, as well as improving the synergy for the Italian's tank crew.

Board Game: Undaunted: Normandy
The Finishing Touches

Trevor and I delivered the final version of the design to Osprey in the middle of August 2019, right as Undaunted: Normandy was launching at Gen Con. It was awesome to see Normandy received so positively just as we were putting the final design touches on the second game in the series.

So that's the story of how Undaunted: North Africa came to be. It was a joy to see Roland MacDonald's gorgeous art throughout the design process, and it was great working with Filip and Anthony on the game. For more details, you can take a look at the rules in this video from Paul Grogan of Gaming Rules!

David Thompson

Board Game: Undaunted: North Africa
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Wed Jul 29, 2020 1:00 pm
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Game Preview: Renature, or From Badgers to Bushes, From Turtles to Trees

W. Eric Martin
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Apex
North Carolina
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Board Game: Renature
The designers Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling have released many classic games over the years, both individually and as a team. In 2020, their credits can be found on a new version of Maharaja (first released in 2004), the large strategy game Paris, the domino-based game Jubako, and a second domino-based game — the subject of my preview today — Renature from new German publisher Deep Print Games.

While new, Renature feels like a classic game from the early 2000s, with simple rules and abstract gameplay wrapped in a setting that makes no sense from a narrative point of view.

On a turn, you place one of your three dominoes on the game board, either on one of the four starting spaces or next to one or more dominoes already on the board so long as all the pieces match. (One critter at a time is a joker and can be placed next to whatever you want. The butterfly starts as the joker, and you can see multiple uses of butterflies this way in the image below.) The game includes ten types of critters, and each pairing of critters appears once on the 55 dominoes.

Board Game: Renature

After placing your domino, you can place a plant in an empty dirt space next to that domino, scoring 1 point for that plant and 1 point for each plant of the same size or smaller in that dirt area.

If your domino placement surrounded an area, as in the upper-left area shown above, then you score that area. (The domino currently being placed doesn't close an area since a 1x2 space remains open to the right of the snail.) Plants come in four sizes, and you sum your "plant strength" in an area to determine who scores it. Whoever has the most plant strength scores the larger value on the area tile, and whoever has the second most strength scores the smaller value.

As in the Rüdiger Dorn game Las Vegas, ties are unfriendly, with the tied colors in an area being treated as not present. Another similarity to Las Vegas — well, to an official variant of that game — is that each player has plants in their color as well as neutral plants, and you can try to use these neutral plants to engineer ties to keep other players from scoring. Even better, if the plant strengths in an area end up as, say, 4 for blue, 4 for neutral, and 1 for orange, then the orange player is treated as the only player in that area — and if you're alone in an area, then you score both the larger and smaller point values on an area tile. Whatever you do, you want to place all of your plants on the board because you're penalized at the end of the game for each plant unplayed.

From gallery of W Eric Martin
End of a three-player game

Each player starts the game with six cloud tokens, and on a turn, aside from your regular action, you can spend:

• two clouds to change the joker animal,
• three clouds to take another turn, or
• 1-4 clouds to reclaim a neutral plant or one of your plants (in the appropriate size) from the board as long as you have space for it on your personal player board.

A few spaces on the game board contain cloud tokens, and when you place a plant on a cloud, you place it in your reserve if you have room.

Renature reminded me of Michael Schacht designs from the early 2000s, designs like Hansa and Web of Power that have a strong tactical element, designs in which your turn often risks giving the following player a large advantage. (In Hansa, you might refill empty ports with goods, which gives others things to buy, and in Web of Power, when you're the first in a region, you can place only one piece while after that everyone can place two pieces if they have the right cards.)

From gallery of W Eric Martin

Kramer's own games Wildlife Adventure and Expedition contain a similar piggybacking element as in those games players share three expeditions around the world, with each new segment of an expedition being placed after the most recent one. You want an expedition to reach secret locations in your hand so that you can score them, but ideally you can let someone else spend their turns getting an expedition close to such a location, then you can profit from it with little effort.

In Renature, which I've played twice on a mock-up copy from Deep Print Games, once each with two and three players, with each domino you place, you have to consider where your opponents might go next. If you place the first plant in an area, can they follow you with a larger plant, superceding your growth? You want to claim all the areas, of course, but you don't have the plants to do so, which means you need to grow with care — although sometimes a throwaway plant will prove profitable if everyone lays dominoes in other directions and doesn't return to that area. After all, each area not surrounded still scores at the end of the game based on the division of plant strength; the area tiles are discarded instead of being awarded, but even a small area can be worth the effort if you collect both rewards yourself.

The only drawback to the game's design — aside from the setting, as I'm not sure how placing critters on brooks leads to plant growth in bare patches of dirt — is that the neutral pieces are easily confused for the white pieces. In the image above, you can see that the white pieces are oriented in one direction while the neutral pieces are at a 90º angle to the white pieces. In both games, which were played with different people under different lighting sources, it was next to impossible to distinguish the two colors. Maybe these will differ in the published version of the game, but if not, you'll likely want to mark one set of pieces to make them stand out.

As for the game's availability, Renature will be released by Capstone Games in the U.S., and the game will be available in eight languages overall, with a debut during SPIEL.digital in mid-October 2020 and a retail release date of October 28, 2020.

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Thu Jul 23, 2020 1:00 pm
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Developer Diary: Spicy, or Three Years Full of Half-Lies

Roland Goslar
Germany
Miltenberg
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From gallery of RoGo
Our little bluffing game Spicy from HeidelBÄR Games, which was recommended by the Spiel des Jahres jury in 2020, stands out not only because of its simple rules, but also because of the long-lasting process it took to get the rules down to that size.

First Contact: Multiplied Tension

In 2017 at the annual SPIEL convention in Essen, my colleague Sabine and I had an appointment with our old partner and friend Zoltán Aczél from the Hungarian publisher Gém Klub. Zoltán showed us an already finished prototype with the title "Rossz Cicus!" (Bad Kitty!) by his friend Zoltán Győri.

From gallery of RoGo
This prototype was already decorated with cat illustrations, but these cheeky kittens differ greatly from the final SPICY illustrations

After Zoltán explained the game, I thought: "This I already know! A schoolyard classic known by various names: Bullshit, Cheat, I Doubt It, Lies, Cheating, etc." On a turn, you should play a card of the proper type that's higher than the previous player's card, but you can play what you want and say what you want at the risk of being called out by others. Get caught, and you take the played cards, losing points.

Nevertheless, we started playing. At the first challenge when I accused another player for lying, I felt a strange, new, stronger emotion than with the cheating classics — I had to announce what was wrong: color or number? The tension didn't disappear with the calling of a lie. Indeed the moment of doubt became stronger on both sides. On one side: What do I doubt? On the other side: What if I fall for a half-truth?

Apart from that element, the game was very simple: five suits with numbers from 1 to 14, with each card appearing once and with the main objectives being to get rid of all cards and receive as few penalty cards as possible. I wanted to take it with me and work on it.

First Frustration and Research

After tests in various pubs and with my children, I was quite frustrated. With five suits, the last card usually turned out to be the wrong spice. With anxious players, the card pile in the middle grew fast, which made them even more anxious. Those who took a big minus pile were frustrated and hopelessly behind. The middle ranks felt meaningless — yet there was still this moment of doubt after you had announced that something was wrong: suit or number?

From gallery of RoGo
For research, our publishing team played their way through the bluffing sector landscape; this is only a small selection of titles that a new bluff game must be able to stand next to

I wondered whether the question "Correct suit or number?" had been asked in other bluff games. It's so simple, so seemingly compelling. I went through the bluffing category on BGG, browsed Hugo Kastner's Kartenspiel-Enzyklopädie [url][/url] (this being a German card game encyclopedia), and skimmed various books in our archives. Nothing was exactly like that. The closest game that came to the idea was MammuZ from Hobby World, a game in which you claim to play several cards of the same type with the challenger revealing only a part of them, but I was not sure.

In 2018, I took the prototype to the Hippodice competition and played it with eight other editors in the evening. No one was familiar with this concept of the half-lie, but I sensed that they liked it, which encouraged me to push the game release by all means.

First Variations

We tested additional chips that could be used to change the number or the suit of a card. It was way too brain-locked. Then came the wild cards: We didn't want to have wild cards that were always right as in Uno or MauMau. You should always keep a certain amount of risk. We tried the game with two suits without numbers and four numbers without a suit. They were too weak.

From gallery of RoGo
Sticheln from our old friend Klaus Palesch is my favorite game when it comes to repurposing a card game to build a prototype. I bought at least twenty copies. Here we tested wilds with two suits without numbers.

The first real progress was the reduction to three suits and numbers from 1 to 10. Thus the suit of the last card was wrong in only two of three cases — and probably less if you had started the round yourself. With three suits and numbers from 1 to 10, we could triple the quantity of each card, which made memorizing superfluous.

A second advance was the introduction of trophies for the successful playing of your final card in hand. These trophies prolonged the game, and the game end did not seem so random anymore.

From gallery of RoGo
Here are trophies with ascending values or the ability to kill penalty cards of a certain color, along with 2VP markers for correct challenging to encourage it

With this set-up, we played the game again with Zoltán at Spielwarenmesse 2018, with Zoltán being our middleman to the author, Zoltán Győri, a.k.a. the second Zoltán.

Superpowers, a.k.a. Spice It Up Cards

Zoltán Győri's original game contains special cards and special effects. We wanted to have these "superpowers" in the game, too, but just as an addition.

Only the Copy Cat — which allows you to play the same card as the previous player — was integrated into the basic game for a long time because it creates wonderful moments and for larger rounds, it ensures constant participation of everyone. The important thing was that it had to be riskier than a normal announcement because otherwise you could constantly jump in with half-lies, and chaos arose, but it was exactly this different kind of challenge that always caused confusion and mistakes by newbies, which is why we finally removed it from the basic game.

From gallery of RoGo
In the end, six variation cards made it into the game, and all variants can be combined with each other without causing problems

Unsolved Problems, and a Surprisingly Positive Winter Turnaround

We tried to cancel the frustratingly large minus point piles through the use of positive points for correctly announced challenges, either in the form of chips or by allowing you to throw away penalty cards. But this never felt right, and the game could still run dead if nobody wanted to risk a challenge, which meant the minus pile would just become bigger and bigger.

In the winter of 2018/19, the fine-tuning was about to start. The Zoltáns tested intensively, especially the superpowers. There were tests with a single superpower for everyone, and tests with special superpowers that only one player could use; tests with positive special effects such as Copy Cat, and tests with handicaps in which the player of a card had to be declared a "man of honor" or "honor taken" to avoid a penalty. The handicaps often caused laughter but were too silly for all of us in the end.

Even worse still was that in the Zoltáns' test groups of pro-players, the game kept getting stuck on large piles — and the game got fun again only when one player sacrificed themselves.

Then our long-term intern Christoph had an idea during another round of bluff in a Bürgstädter Heckenwirtschaft, which is a local tavern with restricted seasonal opening: "Let's try the game with positive points!"

A quick test worked. Not only was the angst gone, but we could also simply turn any cards left over in your hand at game's end into negative points. The problem that had caused us to search for additional positive incentives vanished into thin air.

After one week, the new rule was ready, the superpowers were adjusted, and we waited for feedback from Hungary. It was, as hoped, pleasantly positive. The only small flaw was and still is that the (negative) emotions are much stronger when you collect negative cards than when you collect a few positive cards — but creating an overall positive mood is much more important.

From gallery of RoGo
Our "final" prototype, without illustrations or card design

Along the way, the punishment for the loser of a challenge got much easier and was compensated with a bonus: The challenge loser draws two cards (which are minus points while in hand), then starts the next pile. Thus, the former loser can get rid of one card right away and can also choose the suit of the next pile, which is very strong.

In retrospect, I can only wonder why it took us so long to find this positive twist for such a little bluffing game.

No Elimination for Long-Lasting Tension

Many well-known and successful bluff games use player elimination down to the last man: Bluff, Coup, Poker, Werewolf, and Skull. When a bluff game is all about survival, players often make passive announcements and just hope that someone else is caught. The bigger the round, the more pronounced this behavior is.

We are very happy to have found a way for Spicy that creates enough tension without player elimination. Often the game is not decided until the final trophy. Apart from the trophies, you can score points only if you actively doubt correctly or lure another player into a trap. Both of these actions are possible only when it's your turn, which is why we allow anyone to doubt at any time. (If you play with Copy Cat, you can even play a card at any time. Doing so is combined with the risk of being called out so that the game does not collapse.)

I am proud of how these rewards, punishments, and risks work together in Spicy, and I am glad that my boss Heiko Eller-Bilz gave Spicy the time to mature.

The World's End Card

From the beginning, the game ended in one of two ways: One player gets rid of their cards, or the deck is empty. We had replaced the former condition with several trophies being in play, with three trophies working best as winning the game with two trophies felt really huge.

Ending the game via an empty deck unfortunately sometimes led to tactical doubting and to small extra rules for who had to draw which cards at the end.

The typical shuffling in of a "game end" card was too uncontrolled as it led to games that felt too short or too long. I then remembered Tiefe Taschen by Fabian Zimmermann, which we had tested intensively in Heidelberger times. I asked Zimmermann about the authorship of that game's ending condition, and he told me: "An editor showed to me during a game set-up at the game designer convention Spieleautorentreffen in Göttingen how he does it at home: 'Just slide it in!'"

In the final game, you slide the "game end" card at an approximate height based on the number of players. You all have an idea of when the game will end, but cannot know for sure.

From gallery of RoGo
Many thanks again to Fabian for the great tip with the end of the game card!

Gold

For many years, Heiko has been a fan of Coup, the successful bluffing card game by our old partner Indie Boards & Cards. This is one of the reasons why he was critical of the concept of Spicy for a long time as Coup attracted him more. Not only the bluffing but also the silver box fascinated him — yet the path from silver to gold was not a difficult one.

Theme Selection

For a long time, my favorite theme was "Chuck", based on various "facts" about Chuck Norris: A few wannabe daredevils meet for a wooden board, brick, anything else smashing contest: I finish "3 boards", I break "7 boards", and the 10 is Chuck because "Chuck finishes all", and then the claims have to start all over again. After the challenge, the loser gets all the junk in front of their hut.

With the new, positive game experience, the search for a fitting theme and the development of the graphics went into a new round. The brainstorming led us from fire-breathing dragons, strange unicorns, etc. finally to cats once more, which pleased the Zoltáns as they had cheered from the beginning for "Bad Kitties".

From gallery of RoGo
Various preliminary versions of the box design

Heiko and Marina were on fire for big cats in combination with traditional Asian cat pictures. Our Korean partner Thomas from UBO CnC arranged contact with Jimin Kim, an artist from Busan who at first could not believe we wanted a bunch of crazy twisted cats on our golden box. In the end, the big cats found their fans, with a special thread on BGG for the Spicy illustrations.

Learn to Lie?

Bluffing games are a controversial genre, but Heiko and I have enjoyed them for a long time. Bluff has accompanied me for decades. You can play Spicy as soon as you can hold a hand of cards, count to ten, and mischievously lie, so five years and up is fine.

But beware: I have experienced some educators who refused Spicy outrageously, especially for children because it would teach them to lie. I think that's nonsense. To me, acting, tricks, probabilities, trash talk, and the assessing of gestures are wonderful at any age, especially if you can laugh as much as you can with Spicy. To take freely from Nietzsche: "He who cannot lie doesn't know what playing is."

Roland Goslar

Board Game: Spicy

Board Game: Spicy
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Tue Jul 21, 2020 5:19 pm
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Pictures Wins Spiel des Jahres 2020; Die Crew Claims Kennerspiel des Jahres 2020

W. Eric Martin
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From gallery of W Eric Martin
Pictures from designers Daniela and Christian Stöhr and publisher PD-Verlag has won the 2020 Spiel des Jahres, German's game of the year award.

Each round in Pictures, you recreate one of the sixteen images on the table as best you can with an odd set of artistic equipment: two shoelaces, six wooden blocks, four sticks and four stones, 2-5 symbols on cards, and colored cubes placed into a 3x3 grid to create a pixelated image. The image you must recreate is determined at random by drawing a token from a bag, and each token appears in the bag three times. You score points for guessing which image matches other players' artistic creations and for them guessing which image inspired your work. For a more detailed overview of the game, both written and on video, head to my write-up from January 2020.

Pictures beat out My City by Reiner Knizia and Nova Luna from Uwe Rosenberg and Corné van Moorsel for the Spiel des Jahres, which is probably the best known and most influential award in the hobby game market.

Board Game: Pictures

For the Kennerspiel des Jahres, an award intended for enthusiasts comfortable with a slightly more involved game than the mainstream-friendly Spiel des Jahres winners, the SdJ jury chose The Crew from designer Thomas Sing and publisher KOSMOS.

The Crew is a co-operative trick-taking game for 2-5 players in which one or players are given a task to complete for whatever mission the group is currently attempting, such as capturing a trick that contains a particular card, taking no tricks at all, or winning a trick with a 1. The co-operative nature of the game — and the particular challenge of whichever of the fifty missions you're undertaking — forces you to re-evaluate whatever trick-taking skills you have since you all win or lose the game together. For a more detailed overview, both written and on video, head to my write-up from December 2019.

Board Game: The Crew: The Quest for Planet Nine

Congratulations to all involved with these two games!
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Mon Jul 20, 2020 11:14 am
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Game Overview: Finished!, or Clear Your Desk Before the Day Is Done

W. Eric Martin
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I want to write many things about Friedemann Friese's Finished!, a title he released in 2017 from his own 2F-Spiele, but time has been tight this past week, so for now I must let this playthrough video stand on its own.

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Mon Jul 20, 2020 3:05 am
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