The Spiel des Jahres — Germany's "game of the year" award — turns forty in 2019, the award having first come into existence in 1979 with a list of nominees that included Sid Sackson's Acquire and Sly, Alex Randolph's Twixt, the electronic games Simon by Ralph Baer and Merlin by Bob and Holly Doyle, and eventual winner Hare & Tortoise by David Parlett.
For its first few awards, despite the "Jahres" in the award's name, the jury of journalists who ran the SdJ selected nominees that had been released within the past few years rather than only the year immediately preceding — a practice that makes sense given that the award was meant to shine a spotlight on modern games for an audience of casual players that might not have been paying attention to everything that was being released.
These days the purpose of the award remains the same — highlight and suggest games appropriate for an audience of casual players — but the jury focuses solely on games released in Germany within the past twelve months. From my understanding, a game needs to be available in a German edition prior to the end of March to be considered. This cutoff date gives the jury members enough time to play potential nominees and consider them against one another before settling on three nominees in what is now three categories: the original Spiel des Jahres (SdJ), the Kinderspiel des Jahres (KidJ) for children's game of the year, and the Kennerspiel des Jahres (KedJ) for enthusiast's game of the year, that is, for those already comfortable with learning and playing new games.
As part of its fortieth anniversary, jury chairman Harald Schrapers attended an exhibit about the SdJ at the Deutsches SPIELEmuseum in Chemnitz, Germany and announced the SdJ nominees during a live broadcast on Facebook:
In commentary on the nominees, Schrapers pointed out that the three nominees are all small games that you can learn and play almost immediately. Later in his commentary, Schrapers writes, "We now have a large number of titles on the table that are very high quality compared to decades past. Of the games that the ten jurors have played intensively over the last twelve months, probably more than one hundred would have been a candidate for the leaderboard in the 1980s."
I've heard it said that the easy way to start designing a game is to begin with a good base mechanism. The horrendous alternative approach that I most often follow is to start with a theme, then try to find the mechanisms that make that theme work.
The logic of starting with a simple mechanism sounds reasonable. It's something you can quickly make into a prototype and start testing. The sooner you can test your game, the sooner you'll get feedback from others and the sooner you'll know whether you have a marketable game. If strangers enjoy playing a game that is hand-written on a few index cards, uses a modified poker deck, or features a large geometric board with a few dice or shuffling thrown in, then surely thousands of Kickstarter enthusiasts will pay for the opportunity to play the same game with art, theme, and a little hype, right? It's a simple, straightforward, ideal route to success. Sounds awesome — why not start now?
The problem, in reality, is that a game with only one mechanism will not hold someone's attention for more than three rounds. It quickly becomes predictable, so you need a second mechanism to make the game a little more dynamic — but even with two mechanisms, you still have a game in which the choices you should make are pretty obvious. You really need three mechanisms all interacting with each so that unexpected layers of meta-gameplay emerge that players could not have predicted simply by knowing the base rules.
Ideally two of these mechanisms will be familiar to players or similar to other popular games, and one would be truly innovative or unique. This way the game is an easy sell. It would then have enough familiarity for it to find its true audience (those who like other popular games with these mechanisms would be drawn in by hearing a new game has the same mechanism), and your one new innovative mechanism would be the hook that leaves a little mystery to pique their curiosity. This is why most new games are a modified improvement of some other game from its genre.
Introducing too many new innovations too quickly can be overwhelming to players. As a megagame designer, I am speaking from experience. Many board game enthusiasts know what designer board games are, but are familiar with megagames. My audience is mostly high school and college students. Many of them don't even know what a designer board game is, so introducing them to a political science simulation that combines designer board game mechanisms with tabletop RPG mechanisms and LARP style theatrical roleplaying is completely overwhelming. For a little literature on this, you might find the books The Creative Curve and The Blue Ocean Strategy good to read. Both of them make the argument that when innovating and trying to be successful in a market, you want to be a little ahead of the curve on a rising trend, but not so far out that you are ahead of your time.
Okay, so let's start with a dynamic set of at least three mechanisms, two of which are familiar. Still sounds pretty reasonable right?
My Achievements to Date
After designing ALLIANCE: The Ultimate World Leader Political Science MegaGame, a game for 8-72 players that takes at least two hours to play, with my game design class of high school students, I decided to try something a little smaller, so I then successfully Kickstarted, then designed — yes, in this order as I prefer to do things backwards — from 2015-2016. Great Boy: The Game, which was based on the rules from T.I.M.E Stories, taught students how to understand a specific story from the Bible. Most of my games are educational because I am first and foremost a teacher. I became a game designer only because I saw that students learn better from simulations than they do from lectures.
But even my Bible Study simulation game took two to three hours of gameplay if you played the full version that included the optional social deduction mechanisms. My audience complained that the game was too long, and the rules too overwhelming to learn. (Most of them knew only Monopoly and Poker card games.)
Then I made a microgame slightly more complicated than Love Letter but just as short. This game simulated David hiding from King Saul.
Since then I have made another strategy card game called Conspiracy for 2-9 players in which you can choose who you want to ally with, and who you want to conspire against or betray. Many can win together, but one must die. It was my first non-educational game, but it's a lot of fun. I also created a sequel to my original megagame called ALLIANCE Last Days in which up to one hundred players are given four hours to bring the world back from the abyss of the Apocalypse.
Obligatory Shameless Self-Promotion
Starting May 19, 2019, I will be selling eighty tickets for a game of ALLIANCE Last Days that will take place at Gen Con 2019. You can see more about this game and my other ones on this website.
Okay, now that credibility has been established and all business aside, let's get back to avoiding the straightforward easy paths when designing games.
My Least Efficient Tried-and-True Fun Technique for Making a Game that Works: Take The Scenic Route, Not the Short Cut
So after designing four-hour megagames that can fit one hundred players as well as short fast strategy card games what have I learned? What actually works when designing a game? Here are a couple of the tips I've learned:
Play games. Admire their mechanisms and admire their systems, but keep in mind that what we really love about games is the emotional experiences that emerge from those mechanisms. Designing games is a lot of work, and very few of us are really making any money from it, so it should be fun — not work.
Designing experiences is fun, so start by dreaming about the epic experience that you want to emerge from your mechanisms, not the mechanisms themselves. I like and want to make games in which players have to build trust between each other, then feel the tension of not wanting to betray that trust, but having such an overwhelming sense of desire to reach a morally justifiable achievement that they find themselves choosing to betray that trust. Or maybe you want a game in which no matter how much of a lead the winning player has they still feel fear that the losing player's big gamble could result in their own very personal humiliation at losing that huge lead at the very last second. These emotional experiences are what we remember and live to tell others about after the game. This is what sells games. This is what motivates us to make games. Start with the emotions.
This emotional experience you are designing for will not emerge from mechanisms that don't exist, so now I have to research like crazy, playing every game that I think might have the mechanisms I need to create this experience. Maybe I can combine some of the mechanisms from Dead of Winter with the mechanisms of Pandemic, and possibly even a little bit from the Fallout video game. This is how I designed ALLIANCE Last Days.
Now I'm working on a standalone expansion to ALLIANCE Last Days in which five different factions are all investigating Ground Zero. It borrows some decksploration mechanisms from T.I.M.E. Stories, a deck-building mechanism from Shadowrun: Crossfire, and a little from The Grizzled. This is how I work. I am so excited to create that overwhelmingly emotional experience that it gives me the motivation to do the research required. It's not the easy fast way to make games. It's the long scenic route, but it works for me.
I took the short easy path once, starting with a couple of simple mechanisms when I designed Conspiracy. The basic idea was that it would be a simple cloak-and-dagger strategy game like Coup (excluding the bluffing mechanism, which is really what makes that game fun), but with the simple twist that you always have the option to give away your secret role card at the end of your turn. This meant the odds were only 50/50 that a player still had their secret role card after they used it to stab you.
This was the fastest I ever designed a game, but I knew that this mechanism combined with secret alliance mechanisms would create the kind of emotional experience that I love about social deduction games. I got very lucky that the base mechanisms worked from right out of the gate. The only real issue was making those mechanisms tighter and not so clunky. This leads me to one of the biggest lessons I've learned from making games:
Begin with the excitement of designing the game you want it to be, but finish with the game that the game wants to be
2. Player Experience = Emotions
The player experience can best be described with emotion words or feelings. I want one player to feel betrayed. I want the players to feel the immense pressure of having to make difficult choices with horrible tradeoffs. I want them to feel morally calloused. I want my players to feel drunk on power. This player will be blinded by their ambition and shocked when a weak player humiliates them. They will feel a sense of mystery as they each have only partial information and feel pressured because they have to make critical choices in a timely manner based on faulty information. They will project a sense of false confidence by bluffing.
1. Mechanisms = Actions
Mechanisms, on the other hand, can best be described with action words. In order to introduce an element of randomness, players will shuffle cards or roll dice. They will have to choose which bonus they want. They will have to discard the card after they use it as their action.
This is backwards in the sense that emotional depth emerges from simple mechanisms, so to start with emotions and make them a priority I have to use what I call the shotgun approach with mechanisms. Try tens or hundreds of mechanical ideas until the experience you're designing for emerges from the mix. You are like Edison trying hundreds of different metal filaments until you find exactly the right one that will efficiently turn electricity into artificial light. This method is neither fast nor efficient, but it is the only way I really enjoy the process.
3. Adjust Your Dials: Information and Power Values
The third thing you need is to dole out information and to hold information back. But this is simply a dial you will crank up or turn down to facilitate balance between the other parts of the game. It's like the purchase cost of any card or its power value. You don't start with these values; at first you throw in somewhat arbitrary numbers, then you keep modifying them until they seem to create some asymmetric balance (at least in the kind of games I design).
You will have only a wild notion of what you think could make for a playable game. It might work with the initial mechanisms and values you first throw together, but more likely it will be wildly broken or uninteresting — and often both.
But that's okay because as long as some part of it seems interesting, then you can throw in or take out mechanisms randomly or try different modifications of the rules until the game becomes the game that it was meant to be. You have to let the game mature and sacrifice many of the initial groundbreaking ideas you thought would form the identity of the game. It's like raising a child. Raise it according to its own individuality once you give birth to your game. Converse with the game through playtesting. Find what works for the game. Ultimately, it should create one novel emotionally thematic experience.
For me, the emotionally thematic experience takes priority over clever mechanisms. If it comes down to it, I must sacrifice clever mechanisms for the greater emotional experience. Maybe you thought your son would grow up to become a great pitcher, but as it turns out he wants to play soccer. If he has the potential to be a good soccer player or have a lot of fun trying, then celebrate because your game loves sports.
This could also be said for theme, but anyone reading this article will already be familiar with the "theme should match mechanisms" message.
There is yet one more method I have used to make games. As you might have noticed earlier, I like to start with my favorite games as a template and turn them into the games I wanted to make.
My Painfully Backwards Four-Step Technique for Turning Your Favorite Game Into an Entirely New Game
I love Dead of Winter. I like the weight of the box created by the overwhelming number of counters. I like the stupid simplicity with which the mechanisms simulate a personal dramatic narrative. I like the severity of the meanest twelve-sided dice I have ever rolled in any game I have ever played. I even like the art. (I am a rare species of game designer who actually draws, paints, and designs all of my own graphics. I don't care for maybe 80% of the board games I've played, and I like the art of even fewer of those games.)
I also really like Coup. I like short cloak-and-dagger strategy games, social deduction games, and deep, long narrative games, and almost nothing in-between. I like learning games and admiring their systems, but I don't care for just playing them.
I also really like — and don't worry as I am getting somewhere with this — T.I.M.E Stories. Well, I like how they turned a linear narrative into a playable game, but I hate their narratives. Their mechanisms are also quite shallow, but at least their choices and exploration are really good. Basically after reading six books on scriptwriting and storytelling, I believe I can do better. And who knows? Maybe I can even add in some social deduction between the players. This idea was what inspired me to create Great Boy: The Game.
It's also the process by which I am currently working on a standalone expansion to my megagame ALLIANCE Last Days. The idea for this game is that I want to make a T.I.M.E Stories-like "choose your own adventure" narrative game that explores moral ambiguities like a great sci-fi novel. I also want it to have deeper mechanisms that actually serve the story. Pixar says "Story Is King", and they design all of their characters, write every line of dialogue, and compose every storyboard to serve the purpose of that story.
Also, if possible, I would like to make it into a game that can be played by as few as two players, but as many as twelve, so that it can be played through at least five different times five different ways or at least be completely replayable and have far deeper mechanisms.
My ambitions are big, and according to the method I described above, it's time to shotgun some mechanisms until the above mentioned features emerge. Where to start? My suspicion is that I could use deck-building (old familiar mechanism) to allow each player to fulfill conflicting objectives (old familiar mechanism) while exploring a set of locations with a linear narrative in the guise of five different factions from five different corners/starting points, each with 2-3 players/characters (a somewhat new mix of relatively new trending mechanisms).
To make this game I:
1. Researched all of the games I thought might have useful mechanisms, including three adventure deck builders, Fallout the board game, T.I.M.E Stories, and countless others. I created a word document that explained all of the mechanisms as abstractly as possible and looked for both the similarities and differences between all of these games.
I also created an elaborate list of possible mechanisms I could throw in to suit my game's theme or create the emotional experience I hope my players will have.
2. I created a hand-written copy of Shadowrun: Crossfire on index cards and played it with friends to hear what they thought of it, then played it by myself on TableTop Simulator.
3. I then built a spreadsheet of all the cards in Shadowrun: Crossfire and re-themed them, changing all of the key vocabulary to match the themes in my game.
4. I then removed many of the decks that complicate the game and replaced them with mechanisms/decks borrowed from other games. For example, I added some T.I.M.E Stories-styled mechanisms through tarot-sized narrative card location decks to go along with the newly themed deck-builder. I also threw in a secret objective deck.
Now I'm slowly but surely modifying and replacing every rule and every card to match the themes and facilitate the ugly trade-off between players working together or against each other that I love from Dead of Winter.
I'm also fine-tuning the game by doling out information asymmetrically to each player and withholding information. I also need to play the game enough to see whether the power values of each card are balanced or not, but this will easily get sorted as I playtest with more and more players.
The game will begin to break as you begin replacing the original mechanisms with mechanisms from other favorite games, but at least it will be dynamic. When starting from scratch, it's hard to get the bare minimum number of mechanisms interacting with each to make the game interesting enough for game testing.
My Technical Process
I use a combination of Photoshop, InDesign, and Spreadsheets to crank out large numbers of cards quickly. I do all the graphic design myself, and these days I do full graphics for even the earliest version of my prototype for two reasons, neither of which justify you following my example:
A) I love to do the graphics. Don't take my fun away from me. B) I'm a snob, and I demand the aesthetic appeal of playing a game that looks good.
These days I'm playtesting my games on Tabletop Simulator, which is a great cheap way to play both by yourself and with others remotely through the internet. If you are interested in playing any of my games, hit me up on my Discord server.
In Defense of My Own Backwardsness
I do have one major piece of advice I'd like to give, and not just to justify what I have already deemed as a backwards method: Take your project from the first phase all the way to the final phase as quickly as possible as many times as possible. Don't get stuck in any one phase. Don't spend an absurd amount of time obsessing over some minor mechanism as a form of procrastination to stave off the real fear of putting a real prototype in front of real players with real opinions. Print out an unfinished copy of the game and see what it looks like on the table being played. Deal with the real problems instead of avoiding or delaying them. Face them like a champ. Be astonishingly disappointed by aspects you didn't expect early on instead of later on. Find out that there is not nearly enough contrast to be able to read the text.
Is there some phase of this process that strikes you with terror simply because you've never done it before? Then focus on dealing with that fear more than any other aspect, especially more than on the aspects of the process that you are familiar and comfortable with. This is, of course, useful advice only for those of you who want to bring a game to market. If that's not you, that's okay. Then my advice is to enjoy your hobby and don't worry so much about your achievements compared to anyone else's. Know what your end goal is, whether that is to bring a game to market, or to enjoy playtesting your own creations only with trusted friends, and start with the end in mind as your top priority.
• In 2008, designer Adam West released Galactic Emperor through CrossCut Games, which he co-owns. More than a decade later, he's revisited and reworked the design, with Empire of the Stars due to hit Kickstarter in 2019 ahead of a planned 2020 release. Here's an overview of the game, which sounds similar to the original at this high level:
Empire of the Stars is a fast-paced empire-building game of exploration, conflict, and struggle for dominance. The last galactic emperor has met with a sudden and quite fatal accident. Now there is a power vacuum in the galaxy, and you're one of the Planetary Dukes who wants to fill it.
Each of the 2-4 players takes one of 30 asymmetric powers and controls their own throne and sector of the galaxy. Using a unique action selection system, the game plays over several rounds, and within each round, the roles players choose determine what happens next. There are seven different roles: Explorer, Merchant, Steward, Engineer, Scientist, Warlord, and Regent. All players get a turn to act during each role, so the game is fast paced and everyone is always playing. Combat is thrilling and daring using a unique card combat system. There are 75 unique technologies impacting all parts of the game from industry and culture, engineering and the economy, and (of course) military might. Once the galactic throne is taken, every round after the game ticks down automatically, adding to the tension and excitement! Finally a 4x sci-fi game that guarantees a fast play time while arcing through an epic experience!
The player who uses all of this to their best advantage by exploring new worlds, expanding their empire, exploiting their precious resources and income, and exterminating their opponents to score the most galaxy tokens wins the game!
In this BGG thread, West details the changes from Galactic Emperor (which was for 3-6 players) to Empire of the Stars.
• Polish publisher Nasza Księgarnia has released new versions of two old-school two-player games: Głębia, which is Polish for "deep", is a new take on Stephen Glenn's Balloon Cup, with players now trying to sink in the ocean instead of floating high over mountains.
Kruki ("ravens") is a Polish version of the second edition of Odin's Ravens from Thorsten Gimmler, with the game's setting remaining the same and the otherworldly artwork being brand new courtesy of Marcin Minor.
Nasza Księgarnia has also released its own version of Zachary Eagle's Go Nuts for Donuts under the name Niezłe ciacho, which translates as "Pretty nice".
And the reprints continue with Fabryka czekolady ("The Chocolate Factory"), a new version of Nao Shimamura's Throne and the Grail, a two-player-only design that first appeared in 2016 from Taikikennai Games. In this game, over three rounds players either add a card from their hand to the river of cards or they take the most recent five cards from the river and add those cards to their collection. Collect majorities to score points, or collect all three grail cards to win instantly. The new version lacks a grail, of course, so you can try to collect the three bits of white chocolate instead.
Finally, we have Magazynier ("Shopkeeper"), a new version of Jog Kung's Small Warehouse that is for 2-4 players instead of only two. Each player builds their own collection of goods from cards that depict 3-5 types of merchandise on them. You can overlap the cards to create larger blocks of merchandise, and after you have eight cards, you score for each type of merchandise by multiplying the number of goods in that largest block by the number of different blocks you created.
I don't imagine that designer Phil Walker-Harding thought he'd be connected with sushi for the rest of his life when he self-published Sushi Go! in 2013, but here we are in 2019 with Sushi Go! being a staple title in the game industry, a go-to suggestion when someone wants to gift a game to a stranger or introduce a newcomer to modern games.
Sushi Go! is appealing to many people because it's quick and easy to play; in each of three rounds, you pick up the cards dealt to you, choose one, reveal it and see what everyone else has chosen, pass the cards left, then choose again. You get a little surprise each turn, whether it's in the cards you've been given or the discovery that someone else has taken the lead from you for the endgame pudding bonus. When a round ends, you score points for the sets and individual cards you've collected, giving everyone a chance to evaluate who's in the lead and what you might want to do next round — assuming the cards work in your favor, of course.
Sushi Go Party! in 2016 expanded gameplay to eight players (instead of the game maxing out at five), and it included a catalog of card options that allowed you to customize the deck each game. Set-up time increased, yes, but so did the variety of the game experience.
For 2019, Walker-Harding and publisher Gamewright have released another tweak of the game system: Sushi Roll, a 2-5 player game that places the sushi on dice instead of cards. Gameplay is similar to Sushi Go! with players drafting dice over three rounds, scoring at the end of each round, then evaluating the pudding bonus at game's end, but the introduction of dice over cards changes a few elements of the game.
First, the game lasts fewer turns, with players starting each round with 5-8 dice (based on the number of players) drawn at random from the bag. Instead of having maki cards that depict one or more rolls, you now have a maki die that depicts 1-3 maki on its six sides; instead of a three types of nigiri cards, you have three types of nigiri on one die. All the sides of all five types of dice are helpfully presented on the menu that lies in front of each player, letting you know the odds of what might come up a die.
At the start of the round, you roll your dice, place them on your personal conveyor belt card, then draft one die from this card into your personal tray. After each player has chosen one die, you rotate the conveyor belt cards left, roll all the dice you just received, then choose one die again, and you repeat this until all the dice have been chosen. Each player starts with chopstick tokens that let you yoink a die from someone else's conveyor belt and replace it with one of your own and re-roll tokens that let you re-roll as many dice as you want on your conveyor belt before making your choice for the turn.
With dice replacing cards, the drafting choices are now open. When I pick a purple die with a tempura symbol, I can see how many other purple dice are in the game and where they are — which is important since I want to have some idea of how many such dice might be available to me over the course of the round — but I won't know exactly what's available to me on those dice since I have to roll them at the start of each turn. Sushi Roll replaces the mystery of which cards are being handed to you to which faces you'll see on the dice, while also giving you tools that allow you to manipulate fate in your favor — well, at least some of the time because you might bomb out repeatedly on rolling the sashimi you need to complete a set.
All menus, conveyor belts, and dice fit in the bag, with the tokens needing a doggy bag of their own
The other big change that comes with using dice instead of cards is that players now draft sequentially instead of simultaneously, possibly giving you a chance to respond to what someone else does. If you're leading someone in maki, which awards 6 points to whoever has the most rolls at the end of the round, and you each have a maki die on your belt, that player knows you can retake the lead if they choose it, so they might take something else. When you take a wasabi die, you place it on your tray, then place the next nigiri die you draft on top of it, tripling the value of that die — but you and everyone else can see where those nigiri are, and someone else might use chopsticks to take what you need before you get the chance to.
You can also use chopsticks to set up future turns, perhaps by swapping a die on your tray for a die on the player to your right. You'll get the die you want right now from that other player, then that player will ship that die back to you on the next turn, giving you another chance to roll what you need.
I've played Sushi Roll four times on a review copy from Gamewright, and gameplay with two seems notably different from gameplay with three and four players. You use only 16 dice at a time with two players, with each of you of seeing everything available, and the choices seem to play out in a somewhat obvious manner.
With three players you have 21 dice in play and with four players 24, so with more players you have more dice in play, with the turn order mattering (since you're not simply handing trays back and forth as in a two-player game) and with players competing for different things. It's not just you and me fighting for both maki and pudding and sets, but now I'm competing with Alice for maki and Bob for pudding and Cecily for sets, so you're pulled in multiple directions, while at the same time drafting fewer dice than in a two-player game, which makes each choice feel more important.
• Yesterday's post featured a new title from AEG that folks will first see at SPIEL '19 in October, so let's continue along those lines with even more games that most people will first experience in Essen.
On the stage of the Pacific battle, there was a concrete confrontation that marked a milestone in history, that of the American aircraft carrier USS Yorktown against the Japanese aircraft carrier IJN Shōhō. It is said that it was the first naval battle where the ships never saw each other, and they faced each other launching airplanes to locate their enemy and bomb them.
In 1942 USS Yorktown, you take the role of American pilots who take off from the USS Yorktown to try to locate and sink the Shōhō while you fight against the planes it throws at you. Time will be your main enemy since the whole game will be against the clock and there will be no time to prepare great strategies or for the dreaded "leader effect".
For centuries, the relationship between Britain and France has been marked by wars and rivalries, but also by mutual alliances. Both societies have a markedly different conception of Europe, but an intense commercial relationship that allowed them to work together in a common interest: the construction of the Channel Tunnel.
In 1987 Channel Tunnel, you get to put yourself in command of a team of builders from Britain or France to unite the two countries under the sea! You need to lead your team of workers, develop technology, and seek funding to bring the tunnel boring machine to the meeting point at the heart of this epic engineering feat. When the center of the tunnel length is reached, players earn points based on how far have they developed their technology tracks, which cards they have, and whether they haven't deviated with their machines too much.
When taking an action during the game, players play part of their tower of colored discs to perform it. This action won't be available for the rest of the round unless someone plays a taller tower (with more discs) on it. As soon as both players pass, return the discs to the bag, then start a new round.
• Michel Baudoin, who designed and illustrated 2011's Space Maze from Wacky Works, is launching new publisher Cinnamon Games with the SPIEL '19 release of Oh, Fox!, a quick-playing game for 2-4 players from first-time designer Hurby Donkers. Baudoin plans to demo the game at the UK Games Expo, which is becoming a familiar statement from European publishers who have new releases for SPIEL. Here's what to expect:
Only a few steps and those sweetly delicious berries you craved so much are yours to eat. They're right there, just take them! But you hesitate as things may not be as they seem. That vague shadow you spotted earlier could be anything and anywhere. It could be one of your forest friends, looking for food, as usual — or it could be something more dangerous, watching your every move, planning its time to strike...
In Oh, Fox!, players secretly take on the roles of animals of the forest, each with their own unique ability. Prey animals are gathering food while being hunted by the predator. Over seven turns, players move across the board by simultaneously playing one face-up movement card each turn. However, their figurines don't actually move until the end of the game! Until then, players try to hide their own identity while attempting to figure out who the others are before it is too late.
Turns out that this duo has several other titles in the works. Ecos: First Continent is a simultaneous play game — a genre also inhabited by AEG's recently released Tiny Towns — for 2-6 players that will debut at SPIEL '19 in October. Here's an overview of the setting and gameplay:
What if the formation of Earth had gone differently?
In Ecos: First Contient, players are forces of nature molding the planet, but with competing visions of its grandeur. You have the chance to create a part of the world, similar but different to the one we know. Which landscapes, habitats, and species thrive will be up to you.
Gameplay in Ecos is simultaneous. Each round, one player reveals element tokens from the element bag, giving all players the opportunity to complete a card from their tableau and shape the continent to their own purpose. Elements that cannot be used can be converted into energy cubes or additional cards in hand or they can be added to your tableau to give you greater options as the game evolves.
Mountain ranges, jungle, rivers, seas, islands and savanna, each with their own fauna, all lie within the scope of the players' options.
• Yet another design coming from Clair and AEG is Dead Reckoning, which features the "card-crafting" system seen in other Clair designs, along with a whole lot of other material. Dead Reckoning is for 2-4 players, bears a 90-120 minute playing time, and is due out at some point in 2019. An overview:
Dead Reckoning is a game of exploration, piracy, and influence based in a Caribbean-eque setting. Each player commands a ship and crew and seeks to amass the greatest fortune. They do this through pirating, trading, treasure hunting, and (importantly) capturing and maintaining control over the uninhabited but resource-rich islands of the region. During the game, you can:
• Customize your ship: Your ship is represented by a token on the board. The board starts mostly unexplored and will be revealed as you venture into uncharted waters. You also have a ship board where you load cargo and treasure, and you can customize the guns, speed, or holding space of your ship.
• Card-craft your crew: You have a small deck of cards that will drive your actions in the game, with each card representing one of your crew members. This deck functions like one in a deck-building game, but the cards in the deck are sleeved, and rather than add new crew cards to your deck, you improve the skill and abilities of your crew cards by placing transparent "advancement" cards in those sleeves. Aside from the transparent advancements, your crew will also "level up" naturally during the game using a new card-leveling mechanism not seen in other card-crafting games such as Mystic Vale.
• Control the region: The region is filled with many deserted islands. These islands are a major source of treasure, and players will battle for control of these islands.
• Battle via a dynamic cube-tower: You can battle other players' ships or NPC merchant ships, and these battles are resolved via a new take on what a cube tower can be, with crew cards and ship powers increasing your chances of victory.
• Uncover secrets of the sea: Expansions for Dead Reckoning use a "saga" system in which certain content remains hidden and is discovered and added to the game organically only via playing. Rather than add everything at once, you gradually add it by playing and discovering. Depending on luck and player choice, less or more new content may get added each game.
• Aside from those two standalone games, in August 2019 AEG will release Clair's Space Base: Command Station, an expansion for Space Base that includes components for two additional players (allowing for up to seven players to be in the same game) as well as "pre-deployed" ship cards "to adjust for balance and gameplay with more than five players". Introduce a problem, then solve it in the same box — sounds like a plan!
Space Base: Command Station retails for US$40 and is packaged in a large box that can serve as storage for the Space Base base game, the Shy Pluto expansion, and additional future expansions.
In how many game designs can Ted Alspach place werewolves? The answer, apparently, is all of them.
Alspach's Bézier Games has announced a new line of games that could be dubbed the "Silver line", with Silver debuting at Gen Con 2019 in August (ahead of a September 2019 retail release) and Silver Bullet arriving at SPIEL '19 in October. Each game is for 2-4 players, and the heart of the games is based on Mandy Henning and Melissa Limes' card game CABO, with Bézier not coincidentally having released a revised edition of this game in April 2019.
CABO is based on the public card game Golf, with players trying to have the lowest score at the end of a round. Most cards have only a numerical value, but a few of them have special powers, such as allowing the player who draws it to peek at cards and swap cards with an opponent to eliminate their high-valued cards. Silver and Silver Bullet build on this engine by having fourteen special-powered cards in each game. Oh, and werewolves, as explained below:
Your village has been overrun by savage werewolves, which are represented by the number on each of the cards that make up your village. To get rid of these fanged fiends faster than the neighboring villages, use your residents' special abilities and your powerful secret weapon: a silver artifact awarded to the village's protector.
Call for a vote when you think you have the fewest werewolves, but be careful; everyone else gets one more turn to save their own village first...
Silver is a fast and engaging traditional card game with a werewolf twist! Everyone starts the game with five face-down cards, with everyone being able to see two cards of their choice. Cards are numbered 0-13, with the number showing how many werewolves the character on that card attracts, and each character (number) has a different special power.
On a turn, you draw the top card of the deck or discard pile, then either discard it to use the power of the card (but only if it came from the deck), discard it without using the power (ditto), or replace one or more of your face-down cards with this card; you can replace multiple cards only if they bear the same number, and you must reveal the cards to prove this, being penalized if you're wrong.
Silver can be played as a standalone game or combined with Silver Bullet or other Silver decks. Each version of the game has different card abilities.
I've played Silver three times, once at PAX Unplugged and twice more on an advanced review copy from Bézier. The game is reminiscent of CABO, as you might expect, but thanks to the special powers, the variety of gameplay each round is wider since more things happen beyond people just hoping to snag a 0 quickly.
In more detail, Silver is akin to CABO in that you're trying to have the lowest total on your face-down cards each round. Some choices are easy; if you draw a 1, you're going to keep it and throw away one of your other cards, placing the 1 face down so that only you know what it is. Ideally you discarded a high-value card, but you know only two of them at the start of the game, so sometimes you just gamble on throwing away something unknown.
Once a card is discarded, it stays face up for the rest of the round, even though it might be brought back into play, say by using the power of the witch. Some cards have a power only while they're face up in someone's village, perhaps allowing you to draw multiple cards, keeping the one you want and returning the rest, thereby giving you information about what others take. Another face-up power creates multiple discard piles (sort of), which gives players better choices and accelerates the pace of the game. The bodyguard (3) can be used to protect another card, keeping an opponent from swiping it or forcing you to discard it.
As in CABO, when you place a card into your village, you replace one or more cards already present there as long as they have the same number. The doppelgänger in Silver can match any other card, so you want to use it wisely to get rid of something high-valued, but it's worth 13 points on its own and points are bad, so don't wait too long.
As soon as someone thinks they have the lowest sum, they can call for the end of the round. Each other player gets one more turn, which means they get one final chance to lower their sum or mess with you, then everyone reveals their sum. If you called for the round to end and were correct, you score no points and receive a special token — a silver amulet in one game, a silver bullet in another — that grants you a special power in the next round; if you called and failed to have the lowest sum, then you score the sum of your cards plus ten penalty points. Each other player scores the sum of their cards, and whoever has the lowest total sum after four rounds wins.
To integrate Silver with Silver Bullet — or one of the other Silver games that will inevitably follow — you use all the cards of a number from the same set, and you create a deck with numbers 0-13, with two copies of 0 and 13 and four copies of everything else. Thus, you could simply swap the 6s from Silver with the 6s from Silver Bullet, or you could do something more complex, such as having even numbers from one set and odd numbers from another, or you could have players draft the cards they want to use.
You find yourself back in Sydney, Australia, around Christmas in 2017. You enjoy being back home and escaping an English winter, as well as seeing your family. You have some spare time one day and are wondering what to do.
If you want to design a game by yourself, go to . If you want to try to find a co-designer to generate some new ideas, go to .
In return for meeting up to discuss designs, you offer Phil a veritable horde of riches and wealth, an offer that in reality amounts to paying for a few drinks. Phil, being the extremely kind person that he is, turns the table and in fact invites you to his house to work — no bribes necessary! Go to .
Considering the rough state of the game, you decide to show the game to only a few publishers in Nürnberg. You get some interest — and even play a full scenario in one meeting — but no one quite sees the promise in the game that you and Phil see. That's not surprising considering how new the design is!
One of the final meetings you have is with Wolfgang Ludkte from KOSMOS, someone you have been meeting at fairs for the last eight years or so. It is always a pleasure to meet with Wolfgang, especially as he is particularly willing to be shown absolutely anything you are working on. He always wants to see designs — even if he will quickly say it is something KOSMOS is not interested in.
Brett Gilbert (center), Wolfgang Ludkte (right), and I at SPIEL '18
This is key as you had not really considered showing the Adventure Game to Wolfgang. KOSMOS publishes the already hugely successful Exit series, after all, and isn't this game just a bit too close to it? What do you do?
Leave the prototype in your bag — better not to risk it. Go to . Take Wolfgang's encouragement and show him the prototype. Go to .
It starts with Phil's desire to make a system for an open adventuring game, something that acts as a scaffold for any type of story or mechanism, while offering interesting yet clear decisions. You quickly think about the old point-and-click video games — games, puzzles really, that relied on the myriad possible combinations between a few simple elements. Going straight from this inspiration, you think about having a deck of actions — Search, Talk, Take, or Use — and a set of cards laid out that represent different locations where you can perform these different actions. Players have a hand of action cards, and on their turn will move to a location and use a specific action there. Then they would draw a new card, and the game ends when the deck of actions is depleted.
Because each of the locations potentially has five different results based on which action you choose to use, we needed an easy way to access these results – it would be too difficult to list them all on the back of the card! Sometimes you don't need to reinvent the wheel, so in the tradition of games like Tales of the Arabian Nights, we turned to a paragraph book. Each action card has a specific number, as do the location cards, and to show the interaction between the two, you would simply add one to the other (a lá Unlock) and turn to that entry in the book. For example, you encounter a knight at a crossroads. Do you...
Search him? Go to . Talk to him? Go to .
Cards from the first prototype; I'm not known for my artistic skills!
You enjoy some alone time, but can't seem to get any new ideas brewing. It's hard to concentrate when the weather is so good! But you still really want to make a new game, so you reach out to some friends. Go to .
One hot December day, you trudge through suburban Sydney to Phil's apartment. Once there, you undergo the usual meeting of design minds: seeing what each other is obsessed with playing at the moment, which games are in your collections, what it was like to work with publisher X. But the question that propels the discussion is this one: "What game are you really itching to make?"
"I want to make an easy-to-learn family game, maybe something with brightly colored pieces?" Go to . "I want to make a crazy ambitious open-world adventuring game!" Go to .
You try to get started on an idea based on a deserted island and pirate treasure, but in the meantime Phil is so productive that he manages to finish a scenario with that same theme in only a few days! Cyberpunk it is, then! Go to .
While you haven't lived in Australia for almost ten years, you reach out to Phil Walker-Harding, having only met him a handful of times — fun side fact: you were the very first distributor of Sushi Go! in Europe, which in reality means posting a lot of parcels to the original Kickstarter backers — to see whether he is open to working on a game with you.
If you want to try to convince him by flattery, go to . If you want to try to convince him with a bribe, go to .
This is the option you should have taken. It is certainly not recommended to show games to publishers that you haven't had time to playtest and iterate extensively. You don't want to waste their time, after all!
But in this case, well, you and Phil just instinctively know you have something here, even if it is still rough. You decide to show it to a few select publishers anyway. Go to .
You want a scenario that is a bit more sinister and dark. What better than a shadowy corporation in the near future that has developed a new wonder drug? And while Phil's excellent graphic skills are on display in his scenarios, your meager artistic skills lead you to rely on images from computer games with the required look. It's a tough slog, building a scenario from scratch, but you eventually have a first draft ready to send to KOSMOS.
Initial prototype location card from what would become Monochrome Inc.
But this is only the start. Over the coming months, you and Phil work with Ralph and Michael Sieber-Baskal, a role-playing expert at KOSMOS who takes the development lead for the project, going through iteration after iteration to find the best experience and story for the two scenarios. A lot of work is done to remove any elements not absolutely essential to telling a compelling story, and to reduce any overly mechanical experiences. You know that you couldn't have done it without Michael and Ralph (and indeed the rest of the KOSMOS team), and when the final product is ready to go to print, you are all extremely proud of what you've accomplished. Adventure Games: The Dungeon and Adventure Games: Monochrome Inc. will launch in German on May 16, 2019, and in English in October 2019, and you and Phil can't wait to see players making their way through the adventures!
The launch is imminent, and you consider writing a designer diary for BoardGameGeek. Do you...
Write a conventional kind of story, with a linear narrative? Go to . Do something a bit different, more befitting the adventure games? Go to .
This system worked well and allowed a lot of surprising results, often from the fact we had to choose relatively generic actions that could work with people and inanimate locations — although even then it stretched logic a bit! For example, what would you happen if you "Interact" with that knight? What happens if you "Talk" to a lake?
But we also wanted a sense of progression, of discovery, of finding that key interaction that suddenly opens up all of these new options. Again turning to the source material of point-and-clicks, we remembered that these usually allowed you to pick up various items along the way, with these items then becoming a new way to interact with locations. It was relatively easy to implement new numbered items that you would receive at different locations, such as gaining an empty bottle when you Search the tavern. A player would keep items in front of them, and on their turn they could combine these with a location, or another item, again looking up the sum of the two numbers in the book. We also added new locations that were revealed if the players did certain actions, again opening up new options. Here we reached the same complexity of combinations from a small number of components that we were looking for!
You meet Phil a second time to work on the scenario in early January 2018, and before long it is time for you to travel back to the UK. With a little bit more writing, you have a full playable prototype, and Spielwarenmesse — the annual toy fair in Nürnberg — is only two weeks away! What do you do?
Work more on the game. After all, it's only about a month old and has barely been tested! Go to . Playtesting — who needs that? Show it to publishers in Nürnberg! Go to .
Hasn't this story taught you anything about following your gut and taking a chance? Obviously it hasn't. You lose. Go back to .
You wax lyrical to Phil about the elegance and simplicity of his designs, from the moorish Sushi Go! to the chunky decision making of Imhotep. Despite him being extremely modest about his accomplishments, you sense your words have convinced him, and he invites you to visit him. Go to .
Phil takes out his enormous box of many colored cubes, and you start randomly moving them around on a piece of paper. Then a kind of slot machine mechanism starts to form, with you dropping pieces into different chutes and trying to get them to match colors where they land. Maybe the pieces are differently colored candies? But most importantly — there is something here with this idea...
You have designed a different game than what you were destined for. This is the end of this story, but it will be continued...! Go back to .
Here goes! You set up the game and start explaining it to Wolfgang. Within five minutes, he gets up and gets a colleague to join you at the table. This turns out to be Ralph Querfurth, the person at KOSMOS who had the original idea for the Exit series. Immediately they are both extremely excited by the game and start thinking about possibilities for the system. Rather than this idea competing with Exit, they think it could be a new line to follow it! They ask to be able to take the game back to their offices and test it further.
In the meantime, Phil has been working on another version of the system called "Trek" in which there are no specific action cards; instead the location cards simply show a series of numbers on different features of the card, and players can choose which thing they want to interact with by turning to that number. If, for example, you are in a dungeon, you can examine the window or the door, or perhaps look under the bed, and in each case you turn to a different number. You still have items, and these can be combined with any number present in a location or with another item; to do this, you place the smaller number in front of the larger number, then to that combination. In the example below, if you turn to entry 1011 this details your success in using the can opener on the can of cat food, and it gives you item 12 — an open can of cat food!
An example of how combining items works in the Adventure Games
Seeing as the game is still progressing, we send this version to KOSMOS as well, and they begin testing both versions. It is quickly apparent that the Trek system is superior. Gone are the strange combinations of action and place, and it more closely resembles the adventure games: You can look at a location and directly decide what you want to investigate more closely. Furthermore, you can control the rate at which new location cards are added to give a better sense of pacing. Finally, the game is simple. On your turn, you simply examine a location or use an item.
KOSMOS agrees as well, and within two months they sign the game for publication! But the work is now only just beginning: KOSMOS wants new scenarios to test, to see what works and what doesn't. Phil continues to work on his dungeon concept, as well as [redacted] and [redacted] scenarios. Now you get a chance to write your first scenario with Phil's new system — what type of story do you want to tell?
Pirates! Go to . Cyberpunk! Go to .
(Real entry from the initial prototype) Hello, stranger! I am afraid I cannot let you pass. But I am extremely thirsty and would happily share a drink with you if you had one.
Hmmm...where will you find a drink for him? Go to .
In some adventures you have to take a chance...but this is not one of those times. You leave Nürnberg with no interest in the game, and your adventure ends here. Go back to , and maybe try taking a chance this time!
(Real entry from the initial prototype) "What are you doing?" The knight doesn't take kindly to a stranger attempting to search his person, and he "thanks" you with a punch to the head. Discard all of your action cards, then draw three new action cards at the end of your turn.
Well, that didn't go too well! Go to .
I hope you enjoyed your adventure! You have made it the end of this designer diary, and the Adventure Games have become a reality. You win!
• Let's look at another batch of games that will debut at Tokyo Game Market in May 2019, with these titles joining the others on BGG's TGM May 2019 Preview. For every game that I add to that preview, at least ten others are announced and will never be seen outside TGM. So sad, but I'm doing what I can to shine a light on some of the newness, such as Heiki Strike Alternative from Jesse Li, Afong Lee, and Moaideas Game Design.
Yes, Moaideas is a Taiwanese publisher, not a Japanese one, but for the past couple of years they've used TGM as a launching ground for new titles that will be available at SPIEL later that year, so it's good to take our previews when we can. Heiki Strike Alternative is a two-player-only game that works as follows, assuming that I've understood everything correctly in the Google-assisted translation:
In Heiki Strike Alternative (兵姫ストライク オルタナティブ), the two players each build their own deck from the cards in the box, then deploy their princesses and anthropomorphized weapons to sea and air spaces in a fight to occupy the battlefields. To do this, a player must meet the "occupation conditions" for a battlefield, after which they take the battlefield card. Whoever claims three battlefield cards first wins.
Players will grow stronger over the course of the game through the playing of cards. If a player empties their deck, they shuffle the discarded cards in their reserve to create a new deck, rebuild their base, and now get more resources each turn — but if they run through their deck a third time, they lose.
The phrase "anthropomorphized weapons" was used a couple of times in the description, and one post about the game had what looked like a WWII airplane transformed into a manga-style princess — but with propellers and wings.
• Moaideas Game Design will have two other new releases at TGM in May 2019: Shadow Rivals, a 2-5 player design from Halifa in which everyone is trying to rob the same mansion, and マーダーミステリー～約束の場所へ～ (Murder Mystery: To the Promised Place), a six-player-only murder mystery game that plays in 2-2.5 hours and initially seems available solely in Japanese (whereas most Moaideas titles include rules in Chinese, English, and Japanese).
You've opened a new board game café and want to earn as much money as you can — but others are doing the same thing, so you better figure out how to succeed better than them!
Board Game Cafe Frenzy is a tactical trick-taking game that consists of two phases, "Preparing" and "Opening the Door", with each phase lasting ten turns. In the "Preparing" phase, each player buys a card from the market each turn, and cards come in five types: board game, snack, clerk, store, and wi-fi. Each kind of card gives you different items that are important for managing your board game café.
During each turn of the "Opening the Door" phase, each player plays a card from their hand that they acquired during the first phase; players must play a different color than what's already been played, with higher numbers also being important. Hope that you prepared well! At the end of a turn, each player can use one action disk from their action bar to perform one specific action. After this phase ends, players undergo a final scoring, then add their coins to see who has the most money and has won the game.
The Eternal Throne sits empty as scions of the royal family struggle for control. Dispatch those who oppose you by recruiting allies to your cause, researching powerful spells, and acquiring valuable relics!
Eternal: Chronicles of the Throne combines deck-building games and strategy card battlers into an intense strategic experience. Summon powerful allies to attack your opponents, or build an unbreakable defense. Will you exhibit patience and seek the power of the Eternal Throne, or forgo such a risky path?
• Dragon's Interest was released by designer Jesse Li's Bwunsu Games in 2018, and now Tasty Minstrel Games plans to run a crowdfunding campaign in May 2019 for a new version of this 3-5 player design that plays in 60-90 minutes. What is the dragon interested in, you might ask? Interest, as explained below:
The war just ended. You spent almost every coin for the war, so now you need more funds to rebuild your kingdom. You have no choice but to beg the dragon for help. "Money for a new harbor? Interesting. I am happy to help you with all my treasure, but...", says the dragon, as she stares through tiny glasses on her nose, "...how much should you pay back?"
You don't have to worry about the financial crisis for now — but if you don't pay the debt on time, the flame from her mouth will bring an end to your kingdom!
In Dragon's Interest, players are going to borrow money from the dragon to build their own kingdoms. To pay the interest, players have to manage their money and knights carefully. Players are also able to activate their buildings' special abilities and buy buildings from their opponents. If someone cannot pay the interest, the game ends immediately. The player who can pay the interest in the last round and has the most victory points wins!
• U.S. publisher North Star Games plans to release Wolfgang Warsch's Die Tavernen im Tiefen Thal in English in Q4 2019. (For those curious to know more about this big box game, you can watch this overview video from Spielwarenmesse 2019 or await my personal overview video that I plan to publish on May 20, 2019, the day that the 2019 Kennerspiel des Jahres nominations will be announced. I'm not saying that I know anything about these nominees in advance — only that I suspect this title might be on that list. We'll see.)
• Ahead of the May 16, 2019 retail release of two Adventure Games titles in Germany by designers Phil Walker-Harding and Matthew Dunstan, KOSMOS has announced that a third such title will be released in the second half of 2019. (For more about these titles, check out Dunstan's designer diary on BGG News on Monday, May 13, 2019. The English version of these titles is due out in October 2019.)
• Ahead of the 2019 UK Games Expo, Board&Dice is teasing two announcements: a deluxe reprint edition of a game originally released in 2012 and a new design from Daniele Tascini that will be delivered with a cat on top of it.