Some people hate the one-and-done nature of escape room games and legacy designs, viewing them as wasteful, antithetical to what games are, or both. I can appreciate the first concern, although I don't view such games as necessarily more wasteful than other designs, but in a grander sense, each playing of a game is one-and-done. Yes, some game designs invite and allow for repeated playings with the same components, but that quality isn't inherent in determining what is — and what isn't — a game.
The gist of each episode of Undo is that someone has died. People die all the time, of course, but for some reason you and fellow players, Weavers of Fate that you are, have taken particular interest in this person, so much so that you will revisit past events and meddle in those happenings to try to prevent this death.
You're not all-knowing, however. The past is laid out in eleven story cards (as well as one story card that takes place after the person's death), and over the nine rounds of the game, you encounter nine of these twelve story cards, piecing together what's happening so that when you're confronted with the A, B, and C choices of what should happen at the end of each story card, you make the best decision possible.
Based on my experience with each of these titles on review copies from Pegasus Spiele, each mini-scenario on a story card and its related choices spur lots of discussion among players, then you look at the fate card associated with your choice, e.g. 6C, to discover whether you've been assigned a 0 (meaning that you changed nothing about the person's fate), a positive number (which suggests a positive change), or a negative number (which suggests that you shouldn't meddle with such things because you're just making the situation worse).
After visiting nine locations in time, you sum the points on the fate cards, then look at the concluding elements to determine whether you saved the person. You also get to read a summary of events that brought the person to that critical moment as well as the most important elements in their past, the ones that ideally you will have switched onto a new track to undo the past.
That revamped version is Yggdrasil Chronicles, a game solely by Lefebvre for 1-5 players that keeps the co-operative nature of the earlier game, while adding a campaign mode with a fifty-page saga book. Here's an overview of the setting and gameplay:
In Yggdrasil Chronicles, each player takes the role of a Norse god and attempts to keep evil forces from devastating the nine worlds, destroying the world tree Yggdrasil, and surviving the onset of Ragnarök.
To set up, each player takes one of the seven Norse gods, 5-9 life points (depending on the player count), and a set of cards showing the six enemies who are attacking the nine worlds; you shuffle these enemy cards and place them next to you. These nine worlds are represented on a three-level, 3D game board, with the board having locations for artifact cards, creature cards, hero pawns, elf pawns, anonymous pawns, and more. Each level of the board depicts three worlds on it, and the middle board rotates.
At the start of a round, each player places the top card of their enemy deck on the "Wheel of Enemies". Players can take turns in any order. On a player's turn, they first reveal their enemy card. If this is the first appearance of this enemy this round, the player continues their turn; if not, then the enemy is activated, typically moving to a different world, then taking some action. If the enemy can't move, e.g., Surt is supposed to move up a level, but is already on the top level, you lose the game. If the enemy can't take its action, e.g., Loki needs to place an Iotunn pawn, but none remain in Iotunheim, you lose the game.
While normally you hope to avoid duplicating an enemy, you want to double up on Nidhögg as that enemy starts on the leftmost space in your saga book, and if Nidhögg moves all the way to the tree icon, you win the game. (Nidhögg might also trigger effects when moving to a new location.)
If an enemy moves to where another enemy is located, that world is devastated and no action is possible there except for healing the world tree.
Whether or not an enemy is activated, you can then move — either to a different world on the same level or a different level above or below your current location — then act, either performing the action of the world in which you're now located or fighting. Powerful god that you are, you always win a fight, but you suffer "risks" equal to the strength of the enemy. You can sacrifice heroes in Valhalla to remove risks or make saving throws on dice, possibly with an elf assist, but each risk you don't prevent costs you 1 life point — and if any god runs out of life points, you lose the game.
As for performing world actions, you can collect elves, heroes, artifact cards; remove Hel's anonymous minions or Surt's fire giants; or receive help from worldly creatures. If another god stands in this world, your action is improved; if an enemy stands in that world, then your action is penalized.
In addition to that base game, you can play Yggdrasil Chronicles on the hard mode, which increases the challenge of gameplay while giving each god unique powers. The game also includes a six-saga "Ragnarök campaign" that begins with Baldr's murder, then carries on from there.
• Rio Grande Games has a second printing of Vladimír Suchý's Underwater Cities heading to market, with this version now including the Biodome promo that was originally released separately (and that's still available via the BGG Store). This edition also features an extra sheet of single resource chips, cardboard player boards instead of a paper ones, and a reinforced box bottom to keep all this stuff in place.
Ken Hill, production manager at Rio Grande, notes that while an upgrade pack is available via some European retailers to make the original English-language release from Delicious Games match the production of the first printing of the game from RGG, no upgrade pack is available for earlier editions to match the new edition coming from Rio Grande. "There was no real practical way to make this happen", says Hill. That said, "Current plans from Delicious Games include even better player boards to be made available in the expansion which will be out at SPIEL '19." Rio Grande Games will distribute that expansion in English for those not making the trip to Essen.
This is the story of a nice story, one of those that should never end, such as a Ken Follett book or an HBO episode.
I work at Libellud with the best job in the world, awesome colleagues, nice projects, and a workplace located one hundred meters from my flat in the center of a welcoming city. My game has now been published by Libellud, a great French game publisher, as far as I know, even if I had never stepped around to the other side where designers and illustrators are interacting with us.
Episode I: Frustration
The Incident happened on the 24th of May in 2017. Wikipedia notes that May 24 is the birthday of Daniel Fahrenheit, Charlie Taylor, Bob Dylan, and Kristin Scott Thomas and that... Funny how the time can be wasted on Wikipedia!
This 24th of May was quite an event for me because it was the first time a publisher played one of my games — and this playing was involuntary.
I have made a lot of game prototypes, starting when I was ten with my bro Clément and my friend Camille, but the only purpose was to entertain our friends. Each time, it began with "Man, it would be awesome if we could do this", then we proposed some ideas. These ideas became games that existed in no more than a single sample, which gave us some bad/good times for an afternoon or evening. As we were far from the gaming world, we never thought one of our creations could be published. We also never used the word "prototype".
It is weird, but I did not have more expectations with this "Spies" prototype.
At that time, Libellud — especially the game designer team — was thinking about new image interpretation games that would function differently. This story begins with a Dixit-like prototype from Alexandre, who has done a great job of various experimentations with this game mechanism. I LOVE his One Key, and I like Illusions. Regarding the third prototype, I'm frustrated. It's May 15th, nine days before the Incident.
Do ideas come from frustration? In my case, often. Sometimes by writing, regularly by playing. A kind of internal "Man, it would be awesome if we could do this" that plants in the head and waits and grows. Then — sometimes — it meets some other seeds and Wham! something is born.
A light bulb turns on in my head: "Man, it would be awesome if we could plan several Dixit/Mysterium enigmas", that is puzzles that the guesser must solve. I talk about this idea to Alexandre and Valentin since both work as game designers for Libellud. One of them gives me the right answer: "That's a good idea. Guys from the game design team will think about it." The other one asks me why I don't do it myself. Funny question. Why not? The idea goes through my mind for several hours, and I decide to try that very evening.
In my view, the game plays out like a line. I know I have several consecutive enigmas to solve with my deck of cards; I must think about the best way to manage them all in a row, as a road — which will mean accepting that I cannot play the best card if it matches with an upcoming enigma. Hmm, a line could quickly become boring. I want to choose. I need to choose. Other roads? Some intersections? A map! As if we would move on a Mysterium/Codenames board card by card.
Then comes another flash. I have already had a similar "pictures-map" idea: The game takes place in 1944 in a Paris made from square cards viewed from above. Players are members of the French Resistance or German invaders. Moves are done from card to card, based on image interpretation. The Resistance leader gives several cards to their team, and some of these cards can be intercepted by the invaders' team. There's no real-time gameplay in this idea. Only a draft of this idea exists among everything else in my online sandbox on Google Docs. It has never been materialized.
Playing something similar, but in a competitive way fits the new idea. However, going from a square card to an adjacent one gives only four possible replies to an enigma. This is not enough for a Dixit player. By allowing for diagonal movement, each enigma would have eight possible replies, but this would be too complex while playing in real time. In the middle, there is the number six, as in Dixit.
Six, and therefore the hexagon.
Before building the first map, I decide that I want the first moves to be easy, then for gameplay to crescendo. By removing a few hexes around the central starting space, I can give players first the possibility of moving to one of three spaces (which helps them start in the desired direction), then one out of four, then one of five or six, which is where the adventure begins!
I think I missed my graphic designer destiny
Players now have missions. They must find two spots of the same color (one of them is probably on a purple hexagon) without stopping on the forbidden tiles marked "Ø". The game is team-based and real time. In each team, a leader provides information by giving one or two cards to make their teammates move, then refills their hand to six cards. When receiving one card, teammates move their pawn from one space to an adjacent space. Receiving two cards enables teammates to move their pawn two spaces, which helps them move more quickly during the game, but which increases the number of spaces that they must consider, thereby increasing the risk that they go where the leader doesn't want them to. Receiving two cards enables them to move through forbidden tiles without penalty.
It's still May 15th. The night was fruitful, but nothing exists outside Google.
Episode II: Spies
I don't like cutting and gluing to make prototypes. This is an exhausting task that will be repeated 2, 3, 8, 42 times, possibly for nothing. Lots of ideas are here, crouching in a link in the toolbar of my browser, thirty pages of ideas, with 95% of them never having been used.
How to produce in an easy way around sixty cards? That's not difficult, but you have to commit an irredeemable act by selling your soul to the devil. Faint-hearted, please avoid reading the remainder of this paragraph and shield yourself from the image below while going directly to the next one. I gathered cards from Dixit that are related to mystery, doors, keys, races, vehicles, city, streets, documents, men in suits, money...and I used a pattern to cut them up. Four snips of scissors to shape the mythic Dixit cards into hexagons. Two evenings later, the result is quite satisfying.
Those with faint hearts should look away...
Technically, I have all that I need. On Tuesday, May 23rd, I informed Valentin. His answer: "Cool. You'll bring it tomorrow, won't you? - Oh… well... OK." The goal was to playtest it with colleagues before they would go to Libellud's games night.
Battle stations! I needed to come up with an ending for the game. Once brooding in bed, I came up with one, with poker chips standing for the markers that need to be collected because I love the Splendor effect.
I then tested it with my former partner in order to confirm that the movement mechanism does work. I set up the game. It looks like Codenames, a bit. I haven't figured that out before. At this moment, it freaks me out. (Today, I think that the game screen in Mysterium is also a kind of giant Codenames key-card. The matrix is just transcripted in a different way.) We start playing the game, me proud and anxious.
And it's a flop. Sure, there is only one team, but the game itself does not work. There is no tension, and we keep moving around the board several times without winning or losing. I am peeved. It's 10 p.m. I have a spatial Mysterium/Codenames that does not work. We are the day before the Incident.
I can't go to bed after this. I know I will not be able to sleep. I reopen InDesign, needing to correct two things: tension and experience time. Yes, the game will have more tension when two teams are competing in real time, but the game still needs more. However, there must be an accomplishment, too, and for the moment, that is too weak. I increase the number of markers in the game to nine, with them becoming briefcases containing intelligence. Some spaces now contain several briefcases in order to bring interaction and decrease frustration. By adding markers to the game, I create room for players to make mistakes; even if you start moving the wrong way, you have more of a chance of arriving next to another briefcase.
I create nine stickers ready to be glued on poker chips the next day. I also add two "Exit" spaces where you have to go after having collected three briefcases. The theme is slowly being shaped, largely thanks to the images: In a cold-war atmosphere, two CIA teams have infiltrated Moscow. Each team must pick up three briefcases, then be the first to exfiltrate.
To increase the stress, I add a new element: Each team's pawn is a 30-second sand timer. If a team arrives on a KGB agent space (the spaces that previously showed a Ø), the team has 30 seconds to move two spaces away from the agent without running into another agent. At 3 a.m., I go to bed. It seems to be clearer, but I didn't playtest it.
The day after, at lunchtime, all is printed and glued, ready to play.
Episode III: The Incident
I set up the game at 6:15 p.m. seven players are here to play. I start explaining in a desultory way. In addition to my fatigue, all the information seems to come out randomly. The aim of the game is hard to comprehend, even by my colleagues which are used to Dixit and Mysterium. I decide to observe rather than play.
The first game starts, some additional explanations are required, then it ends after a two-minute hesitation following a KGB agent's encounter.
The second game is longer and, for the first time, intense. The race is real, stress is present as well as some insults and bullying. I can't remember how it ends, but it is quite positive — except for comments about the 30-second sand timer mechanism.
A third game starts with Alexandre and Léa as chiefs of their respective teams. You can feel the stress everywhere.
Then the incident occurs: Everybody likes or enjoys the game. I hear some sentences such as "heart-stopper", "ready to be published", and "Régis must play to it!" — Régis being Régis Bonnessée, the founder of Libellud and the designer of Himalaya, Seasons, and Dice Forge.
To my mind, it was an incident, meaning something abnormal was happening. I was expecting a bit of employer benevolence with a sentence such as "Quite cool game, but you should maybe rework some mechanisms...". Instead, I was destabilized by this positive feedback. That was completely confusing!
Back home, I created a file to follow up the versions: V0 for the version of the previous evening, and V1 for the first playtest version:
• V0 - Moderately smooth. goals are too linear. We go round in circles. Multiple exit spaces are needed. • V1 - Hard rules explanations. The aim is not easy to get. It works. Poor interaction.
The next day, I bring the game to the Game Design department to present it to Régis. They have already got some development ideas. One week after, they do the presentation to Régis, and I do not join them since I have work to do. A few days later, Régis calls me into his office to tell me that Libellud will take my game into development in order to publish it. That's a surprise, a very amazing surprise.
• Every year ahead of Gen Con and SPIEL — the two conventions with the most new game releases — I discover that we've added lots of new titles to the BGG database in the early months of the year that I thought would have been fleshed out by the time the convention opens, but they haven't been. When possible, I poke publishers to see whether they can provide more game details or pass along the rules so that I can do the fleshing.
With that in mind, here are detailed descriptions of two titles from Blue Orange Games that will debut at Gen Con 2019, with one of them being the 2-5 player game Pappy Winchester from Jérémy Pinget. Turns out that Pappy Winchester is an auction game through and through, with 19 nineteen plots of land being auctioned over the course of the game and with the winning bids being distributed among the other players a là Traumfabrik. Here's a detail description of the game:
Pappy Winchester has kicked the bucket! Poor thing, he was the king of swindlers and everyone knows he was filthy rich! His final wish was that his descendants would share his fortune and the plots of his ranch, with the richest becoming the new head of the family. After all, for him the most important thing was that his money stayed in the family! Pappy thought of everything and left an outline of his belongings. In Pappy Winchester, you and the other heirs are now assembled around this map to divvy up Pappy's possessions...
The game board features 19 plots of land, divided into seven desert plots, six prairie plots, and six forest plots, with train tracks and a river running crossways through the land, and a saloon set apart from everything else. To set up play, give each player $8,000 and two secret objective cards, then place a bonus token face down on each plot of land.
On a turn, the active player draws a plot token at random, then players hold an auction for that plot, with the winner marking it with one of their tokens, then revealing the bonus token and carrying out its effects. This token might let you look at the face-down mine or ranch cards to determine the value of those plots; move the train or boat along the tracks or river, with players owning properties adjacent to this vehicle's location earning money; or collect funds from the saloon. The winner of the auction then divides their bid as equally as possible among all other players, with any remainder being placed on the saloon.
Each player starts the game with a duel token, and when a player is involved in an auction that's down to them and someone else, they can decide to sped that token. If they do, a third player shuffles two duel cards — one showing a gun being fired, and the other not — then each bidder takes one of them, with the player holding the firing gun winning the auction.
Five piles of banknotes are laid out at the start of play, with a different shared objective card placed on each pile. If the completion of an auction allows a player to meet one or more of the objectives, such as owning one of each type of land or having three plots that don't touch the river, then that player claims the banknotes under that card. After the 19th auction, players reveal their secret objectives, earning money for how well they've met those goals, and whoever owns the most plots of land receives $5,000. Whoever now holds the most money wins!
In Dragon Market, players attempt to manipulate boats on a river in order to pick up the items they need to complete objective cards.
In more detail, each player starts the game with their figure on a pontoon in the corner of the board, and they take turns placing boats on the board, with each boat taking up three spaces; some boats have a sailor in the center space, while others have a sailor in the end seat. Each of the two empty spaces of each boat are then filled with two identical merchandise tokens, with the game including twenty types of merchandise. Each player starts the game with an objective card showing four different types of merchandise.
On a turn, the active player rolls the dice to determine how many actions they can take; they can spend 1-2 coins to add to this number of actions. Actions are:
—Slide a boat: You can move a boat any number of unoccupied spaces either forward or backward; a boat cannot move sideways. —Rotate a boat: You can rotate a boat 90º around its sailor through unoccupied spaces. —Move your figure: You can move your figure one space from a pontoon to a space on the boat that's empty or occupied by merchandise tokens or from one boat space to another or from a boat to a pontoon; you cannot move your figure over a sailor. When you move your figure onto a merchandise token showing on your objective card, you can pick it up.
If you don't spend all of your actions, take coins equal to the number of unspent actions to bank them for later. As soon as you have all of the merchandise needed for your objective card, return to your pontoon. Once you do, you draw a second objective card, and whoever completes two objective cards first wins.
Dragon Market also contains advanced objective cards that show 3-4 types of merchandise as well as a bonus. At the start of the game, each player draws two cards and keeps one of them. As soon as the player returns to their pontoon with the depicted goods, they reveal this objective card, then have access to this bonus, which provides either a one-time effect or an effect that can be used once each turn. They also draw two new objective cards and keep one of them. Whoever first completes three objective cards wins!
The game also includes team rules for both the regular and the advanced objective cards.
Okay, that's two more games detailed for our Gen Con 2019 Preview, which recently topped five hundred listings. Far too many to go...
• Rather than talk of a game's theme, I prefer to talk about its setting — that is, the environment in which the action of the game takes place. When you have an understanding of that environment, you can then imagine your role in it and make sense of game actions in those terms. I realize that one meaning of "theme" is "setting", but if I can use the word "setting" instead, then why not remove that additional mental step and be more direct in what I'm saying.
One of the most common go-to settings for game design is Wonderland, as in "Alice's Adventures in". Lewis Carroll's novel is a fixture in cultures the world over, and the book provides a multitude of fanciful environments, conflicts, and characters that designers and artists can draw on when deciding on a setting for their own creative works.
One such upcoming release that draws on that setting for source material is Gabriele Bubola's Hats, which ThunderGryph Games will debut at Gen Con 2019. In this 2-4 player game, each player starts with a hand of nine hat cards. On a turn, either you place a card face down in front of you as a "black hat" for 1 point, or you swap a card from your hand for a card of the same type (color) from the tea table board or a card of any type but of a lower value, adding this newly acquired card to your collection. At the end of eight rounds, the final card in your hand earns you points for all collected hat cards of the same type, while losing you points for the value of that particular card, and the placement of cards on the tea table board determine the value of matching cards.
Hats doesn't need to feature the Mad Hatter, of course, but the character and world of Wonderland provide material upon which to draw for imagery. I've played the game twice so far on a review copy and will post an overview video ahead of Gen Con 2019. ThunderGryph plans to release the second title in its "Made in Wonderland" game series — Tuned — at SPIEL '19 in October.
War is on the horizon for the future of Wonderland. Gather the resources you need to build legendary items, gain strange tactical advantages, and recruit the infamous denizens of Wonderland to fight for your side. Each Wonderlandian you encounter offers a unique ability to help you further your goals, but will you be tempted to turn on them to push yourself ahead of your enemies? Gather your army and take them through the looking glass and onto the field of battle. Unleash your soldiers with all the fiendish tricks, powerful items, and recruited Wonderlandians to gain control of the realm and seize your destiny in Wonderland's War!
• Alice Assemble, a.k.a. アリスアセンブル, is a puzzle-y card game from designer Hakushi and publisher Kuuri Keikaku that was released in 2018. Players build automatons by drafting cards that depict gears, trying to connect their gears to make patterns and score points.
• Alice is also a playable character in Unmatched: Battle of Legends, Volume One, a design from Rob Daviau, JR Honeycutt, and Justin D. Jacobson that Restoration Games will debut at Gen Con 2019, and some characters from Wonderland show up on the cards in her deck, in addition to other story actions being referenced:
Rodney Smith just posted a "how to play" video on this game if you're curious to see the game in action:
Amul is for 3-8 players, and the deck scales based on the player count so that you use every single card no matter how many people you have at the table. What's more, the nature of the cards in the deck change as you add more players to the game, so while in some cases you're adding more spice and silver cards so that players can create sets of them or pair them with traders to complete orders (sort of), at other times you're adding a new type of card that wouldn't make sense with fewer players or a card that plays off of all the cards already in the deck, thereby varying their values with this particular player count.
Gameplay is straightforward. Start with traders in the bazaar equal to the number of players (with these cards being specified by player count), with cards equal to twice the number of players in the palace (ditto), and with each player having a hand of five cards.
On a turn, you receive a new card from the deck, choose one card to add to the market, add 1-3 more cards to the market from the deck based on the player count, draft cards in player order (which sort of rotates), then add a card to your personal collection at the same time as everyone else. Some cards score based on you collecting a set of them, some score based on what your left- and right-hand neighbors collect, some score based on you and your neighbors, while still others score based on how many are in play overall.
End of game tallying a là 7 Wonders at BGG.Spring 2019 (pic by Steph Hodge)
You need to watch what everyone else is drafting so that you can play off of their actions for your own benefit. If lamps have been discarded a few times (as all leftover cards in the market are removed from play at turn's end), then oil becomes less attractive since you can't pair with a lamp for additional points. If the spices are being hoarded by others, then avoid collecting a trader since the contract will likely go unfilled. If you see camels being drafted but not played, expect them to trample out at game's end, lowering the value of all camels played.
In addition to their point values and other symbols, each card shows a table, a hand, or both, which tells you where the card must be to score you points. Over the nine rounds of the game, you'll play nine cards to the table (all of which better have a table icon), possibly claiming other cards from the palace, bazaar or market, then at game's end you'll still have five cards in your hand to score (all of which better have a hand icon). Thus, over the course of the game you're trying to piece together points in sets and combos, while also balancing your public and private scoring (since any table cards in hand are worthless at game's end) while also watching what your neighbors do so that you can profit from them, too.
I've played Amul five times to date on a pre-production copy from Lautapelit.fi, with three, four, and six players, and it's been fascinating to see how the gameplay changes with different player counts. One additional wrinkle: After each player has been the first drafter once, the drafting pattern changes, with whoever has the most military symbols drafting first, then the player with the secondmost military symbols, and so on. In a three-player game, the player with early military can (potentially) draft first for the final six rounds of the game — yet that's not necessarily going to be a winning strategy since you still need to pair and combo cards to get the most out of everything you grab.
I just couldn't think of a way to do it. The key issue I had to tackle if I wanted this Unlock! scenario to work — namely, the translation of a detailed mystery solution into abstract mechanisms — seemed impossible. Can I do this? I asked myself, and the answer seemed to be negative. But there was some part of me convinced that I could eliminate the impossible, and then a way to do it, however improbable, must come soon.
A few days earlier, I had sat down at the table and picked up a deck of blank cards. I was meeting with Space Cowboys in just over two weeks to discuss my box set for Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (due out before the end of 2019), and had suddenly been gripped with the idea that a Sherlock Holmes scenario for Unlock! could be an awesome thing. What's more, the skeleton of a murder plot had presented itself to me almost immediately, and I knew I had to see whether this vague notion might actually have legs.
At heart, I'm a storyteller, so I asked myself: How can I bring out the storytelling potential of Unlock! to its fullest? How can I make players feel immersed in Holmes' world with just a deck of cards and an app? And then there was that third question, which I soon realized represented the biggest challenge I faced in making this scenario. In Unlock!, the main things players do are combine cards and enter four-digit codes, but I wanted a murder mystery. How could I translate the intricate solution to a murder mystery — in essence, a story — into a combination of two cards or a four-digit code? And how could I do it in such a way that if players worked out what to do, it meant they had definitely solved the mystery?
I decided to put that question aside for the time being and consider more broadly how to represent a murder investigation using Unlock!'s established mechanisms. I realized that although the idea of combining red and blue cards was originally about combining items, it was incredibly flexible. Combining one card with another could represent (minor spoiler)
Spoiler (click to reveal)
asking someone about something, for example.
This gave me the way into the story that I needed to get the design off the ground: I could have a crime scene, then players would do things in a fairly realistic way to discover clues and track down suspects.
As I worked, I discovered interesting new directions for my original plot and more ways to insert realistic deductive elements into the scenario. It took me a weekend to create the first set of prototype cards, and I play-tested it two days later. The puzzles worked well. The way I used the blue-red combinations worked well. People really liked the theme and the story — but there was one big problem, and I could have guessed what it would be.
When they got to the end, the way players had to give their solution to the mystery was based on letters in certain key words that could be turned into numbers. At the end of the day on Sunday, as I was finishing the prototype, it was the best answer I'd come up with to my key question of how to translate a murder mystery solution into an Unlock! mechanism, but it just didn't work. No one saw how they were supposed to use the letters, and when I told them what they were supposed to do, they said it was too vague.
Worse than that, I quickly realized that the way I had constructed the ending didn't do what I wanted it to do. A group could do the correct thing and complete the scenario, but it wouldn't necessarily mean they had actually solved the case. They might have a vague hunch about the sequence of events or have guessed the culprit correctly, but have no real idea of what had happened, no real idea of the story. And this is when I began to question whether what I wanted was actually possible.
As Holmes might say, it was a three-pipe problem, and viewing it that way, I realized what I had to do. There was nothing else for it. I donned my deerstalker, told my landlady I would take no callers*, sat at the window, and began to think.
It was probably a good hour or so of thinking before an idea began to form in my mind. Yes...what if players had to do that? They wouldn't be able to do that without knowing exactly what had happened, right? And then that could lead to...
Suddenly, there it was. The answer to the main design question I faced for this game. Very simple, really. If you want to know it (and it's a big spoiler), click on the box below.
Spoiler (click to reveal)
I realized that if cards represented specific events leading to the murder, they would tell a clear story of that murder, including the motive, if placed in the correct chronological order, which meant that I could conceal a four-digit code in those cards that was discoverable only if they were placed in that order. As players would have to know exactly what had happened to place the events in that sequence, they could get the final code only if they worked out the full story, the killer, and the motive.
The icing on the cake was that this solution gave me the title of the scenario (coming directly from a famous quote by Holmes) because to find the final code players had to trace "the scarlet thread of murder".
I took my scenario to Space Cowboys two weeks later and sat there as they played it with a series of questions going through my head: Will they like it? Does it make sense? And, most importantly of all: Have I succeeded in bringing out Unlock!'s full storytelling potential in the way I wanted to? I sat watching, on the edge of my seat, waiting to find out the answer.
When they finished the scenario, there was a moment of silence, then Cyril Demaegd, the original designer of Unlock!, sat back in his chair and smiled. He nodded, looked at me, and said, "It's like taking part in a real investigation."
*I'm not sure I actually have a landlady, so I might have just shouted down the stairs to an empty house and a confused cat. Still, I had no callers while I was busy thinking, so if I do have a landlady, she did a great job.
• Designer Mike Selinker and publisher Scott Gaeta of Renegade Game Studios have written about the potential tariffs that the U.S. government might impose on goods coming from China, a change in economic policy that could have a huge impact on the game industry. An excerpt from Selinker's article in Polygon:
When a company has to consider the cost of making its games, it adds all of that printing and shipping together. Then they typically multiply that price by roughly five, and that ends up being the price the consumer pays. That's because in distribution and retail, the publisher only gets about 40 percent of the retail cost. If printing and shipping their game takes 20 percent of retail, the creator of the game has to live on that 20 percent that's left from the 40 percent they receive from a distributor. It's a brutal business with the thinnest of margins.
Tariffs get imposed on the "first sale" price — that is, at the point of import, before the publisher gets the goods. So if printing and shipping what was once an $80 game takes $16, then an additional 25 percent adds $4 to the cost. Multiply that new number of $20 times five and now to the publisher it's a $100 game.
Making hard decisions like cutting games we love isn't fun but making a business decision that assures we are a healthy company is what separates the publishing hobbyist from the professionals in this industry. It's easy to let your passion for a game cloud your judgement but even without tariffs you should not be producing games that don't make good business sense. It sounds harsh but your long-term viability depends on it. We all love what we do and want to make things we love but you can't have it both ways for long if you continue to make products that don't make sense from a business point of view. Check your P&L's (you do create P&L's for every product, right?) and be honest with yourself.
However, as of Tuesday, July 2, 2019, those tariffs are on hold according toThe Wall Street Journal, with the non-paywalled Gizmodorelaying this info as follows: "The Trump administration has halted its plans to impose additional tariffs on $300 billion 'List 4' goods, which would have included a 25 percent tariff on select tabletop games and accessories, toys, and video game consoles. The tariffs were designed to escalate Trump's ongoing trade war with China (of his own making), but following his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping over the weekend, he decided to postpone."
Even so, I think these two articles give an interesting window into game production, so here they are just the same.
• In February 2019, Make magazine ran an article by Elan Lee about the making of the Exploding Kittens vending machine that has become a fixture at conventions such as Gen Con, PAX Unplugged, and the upcoming San Diego Comic-Con. I've mentioned this in passing previously, but to repeat myself: The Exploding Kittens vending machine is a work of genius and something that game publishers should look to for inspiration regarding their own convention booths. An excerpt:
The first year we went to Comic-Con in 2016, we did what we were supposed to. Our booth looked just like everyone else's, and we got buried beneath a torrent of other peoples' plastic toys, cookie cutter games, and utterly forgettable booths. We accomplished nothing. By the time we started prepping for year two, we knew we had to come up with something better.
We started deconstructing the notion of a "booth".
Q: What does a transaction look like? A: Give money, get product.
Q: How long is each interaction? A: 20 seconds.
Q: What are the physical attributes? A: Audience-facing attractors, sample products displayed, prices listed, hidden inventory.
Basically, every booth is a vending machine but designed by someone who doesn't realize they're building a vending machine. To succeed at conventions, we realized, we had to build the world's best vending machine. So we did.
We had to learn a lot in a very short amount of time. We learned that balloon animals were a huge crowd favorite, and so we had to frantically watch YouTube videos backstage to learn how to make them. We learned that in many states you have to be a registered grocer to have produce delivered to a convention hall, so Exploding Kittens is now a registered grocer in 14 states. We learned that we could interact with the audience on a personal level, like when we spotted someone dressed as Daenerys Targaryen (the Mother of Dragons from Game of Thrones) in line, we bedazzled an entire watermelon so that when she got to the front of the line, we could instantly deliver a dragon egg and blow up her brain.
We worked so hard to play with the crowd, and they played right back.
They wrote love notes to the machine, and one person actually proposed marriage (for which she received a massive bouquet of 50 red roses). People shared their stories all over the convention floor, in the hallways, and on social media. It was one of the biggest hits at every convention we brought it to.
• Designer James Hudson has launched a new video series on the GammaRay YouTube channel called "Starting Roll", with his first guests being Rodney Smith, Suzanne Sheldon, and Ivan Van Norman:
This is the time of year to move into overdrive. With less than a month before Gen Con 2019 opens, I'm still adding titles to our Gen Con 2019 Preview, although we've hit a lull recently in terms of publishers submitting information. Summer doldrums, perhaps, or a few days of recreation before diving into final plans for the upcoming shows. I'm working on video previews for Amul, Las Vegas Royale, [redacted], the Undo game series, and many other titles. We'll see how much I can finish in the next, eep, 3.5 weeks...
On top of that, on July 5 I sent out an RFI letter to hundreds of publishers asking about their plans for SPIEL '19, and those info forms have started to trickle in, with Gavin Birnbaum from Cubiko Games winning the No Prize for first submission. You can make plans to check out Paras in Essen, an all-wood game with a dice-based dexterity element in which you try to claim as many territories on the board as possible, but Birnbaum's creations are all handmade with no more than a couple of dozen copies on hand, so visit early on Thursday!
Launch yourself into new territories!
BoardGameGeek's SPIEL '19 Preview will go live on Monday, August 5, the day after Gen Con 2019 ends. As on the Origins 2019 Preview and the Gen Con 2019 Preview, publishers will be able to create preorders for their titles on the SPIEL '19 Preview, giving you the chance to lock in a game and not risk it selling out and giving them the chance to complete sales in advance and not have so much cash on hand during the fair.
What's more, for SPIEL '19 BGG is partnering with Funagain Games on a service we're calling Cardboard Caravan. For fifteen years, Funagain Games ran "The Essen Mule Service" in which it took orders for games available at SPIEL, bought those games directly from the publisher, picked them up at SPIEL, airshipped them to the U.S., then either delivered those games to buyers at BGG.CON or shipped those games to buyers around the world.
For SPIEL '19, Cardboard Caravan (CBC) will function the same as The Essen Mule Service of old — Funagain will buy games directly from publishers, then deliver those games to buyers — but sales of these games will take place through BGG's SPIEL '19 Preview and gamers will be able to pick up orders at PAX Unplugged in Philadelphia, PA (with no shipping charge), in addition to having games shipped to them (for a fee) or getting them at BGG.CON (also with no shipping charge).
As with our convention preview preorder program, signing up for Cardboard Caravan is optional, but Funagain says that 150-200 publishers have participated annually in The Essen Mule Service, so ideally just as many publishers will sign up for CBC, giving you the chance to get games you want from SPIEL '19 without making the trip to Essen yourself. We'll see who's on board on August 5 when the SPIEL '19 Preview goes live, and publisher will have two months to sign on after that time should they decide to get involved later.
We have lots of other plans in the works as well. The challenge is finding enough time and ready hands to do everything...
• I love the look of everything coming out of Mondo Games, with the most recent announcement from the company being Video Vortex, a 2-4 player game that will be demoed at Gen Con 2019 ahead of a planned release in September 2019. Here's an overview of the game, which only hints at the world in which this takes place:
Video Vortex is a competitive deck-building game for 2-4 players set in a radioactive future Earth inhabited by video-obsessed mutants. Each genre-worshiping character must strategically employ their individual mutant powers while battling opponents and navigating game effects in an attempt to seize control of the wasteland.
On their respective turns, players will spend Energy to play special cards, power their deck with Rentals from the local video store, and Eject chosen cards from play to weaken foes. Runtime, the measure of mutant health, is limited and unique to each character. By advancing an opponent's runtime beyond their limit through Lo-Fi and Hi-Fi attacks, mutants collect Be Kind tokens as trophies representative of their conquest. Once three distinctive trophies have been collected, victory is declared by the reigning champion.
• The newest title from Uli Blennemann's Spielworxx is now available for preorder, with this game having a print run of only 500 copies instead of the normal one thousand. Jimmy Maas's Auf der Walz draws on an interesting and unusual inspiration for source material in the game's setting:
Auf der Walz is a game that has the "journeyman years" as the topic. This is a tradition that dates back to medieval times and is still alive in German-speaking countries. A craftsman has to be "Auf der Walz" (roughly translated as "on the road") for three years and one day without ever getting closer than fifty kilometers to home. The young journeyman wears a traditional dress: flared pants, waistcoat, jacket, black hat (as a symbol for freedom), the "Stenz" (traditional curled hiking pole), and the "Charlottenburger" (coarse cloth to wrap up the belongings). They work (for a little bit of money but also for board and lodge) for people on their journey.
Auf der Walz is a "travel game" with resource management that takes place in the second half of the 19th century. Like life on the Walz, it includes uncertainty and random elements. Each player earns points at the end of each year on the journey and in an end-scoring after that additional one day.
The engine of the game is a deck of cards. Each player has six cards per year (and an additional card for the last day) and conducts actions with them: traveling, working, finding travel mates, etc. as well as leisure activities: music, writing, painting.
• The Dietz Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by Jim Dietz, who ran Jolly Roger Games from 1996 to 2015. The purpose of the organization "is to produce games which enhance critical thinking, the use of math, and historical knowledge with the goal of generating revenue to endow scholarships for budding teachers and current teachers seeking to bring creative new means of education to the classroom".
For its first release, which will hit Kickstarter on July 8, 2019, The Dietz Foundation plans to release Jason Little's 3 Years of War, a 4-5 player game set during the Thirty Years' War that Little describes as "The Grizzled meets Knizia's Beowulf meets... Russian Roulette?" Here's a short description:
War is upon you. The major houses have all but forgotten you, yet your neighboring rivals have not. Be wary lest your enemies — and the crushing despair of war — destroy you once and for all!
3 Years of War is a card-based hand- and resource-management game. Through cunning card play, players vie for precious resources while making the most out of desperate situations and increasingly bleak options. The player who best navigates this barren and bitter landscape, minimizing their setbacks along the way, may have what it takes to survive...three years of war.