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SPIEL of Regrets: 2019 Edition, Plus Final(?) Preview Updates

W. Eric Martin
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I'm on my way to Germany to attend SPIEL '19 — my fourteenth such outing! — and with that event due to start in a few days, it's time to wind up the previews and head into the views...and then the postviews.

I've been posting SPIEL '19 game preview videos since the day after Gen Con 2019 ended — starting with an overview of Queenz from Bruno Cathala, Johannes Goupy, and Mandoo Games — and many of my pre-Gen Con preview videos also serve as previews for SPIEL '19 given how many companies "release" games at both shows these days.

If you won't be at SPIEL '19, you can pretend you're there by watching the 40+ hours of livestreaming that BGG will be broadcasting from Wednesday, Oct. 23 through Sunday, Oct. 27. We'll have a new game on camera every 5-10 minutes, which is a nutso schedule to attempt, but we'll do our best to keep things flowing, with you getting a sample of hundreds of games so that you can determine what you want to investigate down the road.

If you will be at SPIEL '19, then note that I'm still making additions to BGG's SPIEL '19 Preview, partly due to what fans (and I) have spotted on Merz Verlag's 2019 SPIEL-Guide and partly due to final notes from publishers who have finally decided to make their wares public. I keep saying that I'm not going to update the preview any more, but I think that will happen only once we hit Thursday and the Messe doors open to welcome you and thousands of other visitors. Stop by the BGG booth (5-J122) if you have the chance!

To close out my SPIEL '19 preview videos, here's a sampling of what I didn't have time to cover on camera over the past few months. My apologies to all designers and publishers not covered. I am filled with shame and will try to do better in 2020 — and I do think I did more in 2019 than in 2018, so perhaps my regrets from that year were helpful to me. This will apparently be an annual tradition no matter what I do thanks to the staggering number of games on the market. So many possibilities for play...


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Designer Diary: Alice in Wordland, or Watch Your Language

Spyros Koronis
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The discussion topic is "Introduction". The forbidden letter is "B". Begin.

Chris: There is a saying I like a lot: "Every game has a story." I think the reverse is also true: "Every story has a game." Alice in Wordland is my second design, produced for the SPIEL '19 fair thanks to Drawlab Entertainment

You used a "B"! OFF WITH HIS HEAD!

Spyros: Hello, everyone, I'm Chris' co-designer. This is my first time designing a game. We're here to tell you the story that gave birth to Alice—

OFF WITH HIS HEAD!

Spyros: ...well, we're off to a good start.

The discussion topic is "How it all began". The forbidden letter is "K". Begin.

Chris: In the fall of 2016, I had a unique experience. It's not something I would easily do again; nevertheless, I came out the other side with unforgettable moments, my first published game, and a brand new project.

A couple of the Drawlab team members and I traveled by car from Athens, Greece to Essen, Germany in a van full of newly minted games (When I Dream, my first design, being one of them). In order to be at the fair on time, we drove constantly, stopping only to grab a bite and refuel. Our poor van Ivan was a real trooper.

I was one of the two drivers, and my co-driver was a very good friend of mine, Spyros Koronis—

OFF WITH HIS HEAD!

Spyros: As Chris' partner on the road, I helped him stay focused and alert, especially at night-time. As we crossed Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary and Austria, we whiled the long hours away discussing all sorts of things, from our lives to our views, hopes and dreams. It really was a bonding, if grueling, experience.

Naturally, one of the most popular subjects was our shared passion for board games. At one point, Chris told me about a game he wanted to make—

OFF WITH HIS HEAD!

Chris: Nice job.

Spyros: Like you're one to talk!

The discussion topic is "The partnership". The forbidden letter is "V". Begin.

Chris: I told Spyros I wanted to create a fantasy-themed game in which players would be restricted in their speech in some way, ideally teaching their teammates a made-up language to communicate, but I hadn't gone much farther than that. From my time with Spyros, I knew him to be a great playtester; he was one for When I Dream, after all. His considerable experience playing games and his quick, analytical mind are to thank for that, I think.

I thought it worthwhile to offer Spyros a "push" or "spark", an opportunity to work with me on a game from the very beginning—

OFF WITH HIS HEAD!!!


Spyros: I had already known Chris for quite some time by that point. I admired and appreciated not only his prowess as a designer, but also his warm personality and fun attitude. I felt truly honored to be offered this opportunity.

SPIEL came and went, and we returned to Greece with our suitcases full of games and our heads full of ideas. We started meeting up regularly at "The Cell", a well-known meeting place for board gamers in Athens, as well as other gaming venues. Only this time, instead of playing games, we set about designing one. It was very exciting—

OFF WITH HIS HEAD!!!

Chris: Really, mate? With the same word as me?

Spyros: Yeah, that was unfortunate...

The discussion topic is "The turning point". The forbidden letter is "P". Begin.

Chris: Although we were highly motivated, our initial sessions were not very successful. I had the main hook of "communication restriction", and the thematic justification of an enchantment enforcing it. We were gravitating towards a game between teams of two in which one teammate would have all information but no way to act, and the other could act but have no information. The challenge would be for information to be transmitted from one to the other without conventional language.

We then toyed with various ways one could get instructions across, including a fictional vocabulary, a modular language taught in real time, lines drawn in the air, and hand gestures. However, we were struggling to find a fast, effective, and fun code of communication, as well as thinking of an interesting set of tasks to go with it. During one of our breaks, to take our minds off the subject, I told S— my...friend...about a tangent off my main idea: a deduction game in which we would each have a single letter we were forbidden from using, the goal being to identify the taboo letter of each other based on how they talk.

And that's when it happened—

OFF WITH HIS HEEEAD!

Spyros: Chris' idea reminded me of an anime I used to watch called Yu Yu Hakusho. A minor storyline had the characters facing an antagonist with the ability of "Taboo": He could forbid certain letters, and anyone using a word containing them would lose their soul. Even in the show itself, this challenge was seen as a game of sorts, and it immediately intrigued us. From that moment, our design efforts shifted, centering around this new idea.

The basics were quickly established: There would be a discussion subject and two or three forbidden letters; using a word containing any of them would mean you are out of the round. Favoring a short game, we initially made it last just three rounds, with Chris introducing a time limit enforced by a mobile a— er...feature...to assist with the flow. I divided all letters into difficulty tiers according to their frequency in the dictionary, an effective tool when decoding substitution ciphers—

OFF WITH HIS HEEEAD!

Chris: And we were doing so well...

Spyros: I forgot "cipher" has a "P" in it. Give me a break!


The discussion topic is "Theme and Character Powers". The forbidden letter is "F". Begin.

Chris: Naturally, our developing game needed a distinct theme. Initially, we used wizards and magic as with the previous design, but we soon came up with something better. Spyros re-imagined the "taboo letter" mechanism as a law, one that a king or queen might decree. Obviously, one would have to be mad to pass a law like that. A mad monarch...

Well, there was one who instantly came to our minds: the Queen o' Hearts, a character in "Alice in Wonderland"! It was not hard to imagine the capricious queen inviting her subjects to a tea party and "encouraging" them to make small talk, with anyone breaking her laws losing their head — or, at least, their seat at the party table. It even provided us with a punny title: "word game" + "Alice in Wonderland" gave birth to "Alice in Wordland"!

"Alice in Wonderland" is a well-known tale. This was a bonus to playtesters, but also inspired us designers when it came to the next important point: character powers. I love variable powers in games. They're awesome! It's great when players under the same general rules can still do unique things and play the game their own way. This also gives a game replayability, strategic depth, theme integration, and above all, fun!

OFF! WITH! HIS! HEAD!


Spyros: I was hesitant to include character powers, worrying that they might complicate what I wanted to be a simple game. Luckily, Chris ultimately convinced me and I can't be happier that he did. Introducing this element to the game instantly made it much more interesting and entertaining.

In the beginning, coming up with abilities was much easier than expected. We simply allowed the Wonderland theme to guide us. It's only natural that the Queen can add a banned letter and select the discussion topic; she is the land's ruler and the party's host. Similarly, the Cheshire Cat turning invisible obviously means that he can vanish to skip his turn in a pinch. We were delighted.

Gradually, though, two issues emerged. Number one was balance. In such a short game, powers could — and should — have a great impact on gameplay. The Cheshire Cat's ability, while elegant, inevitably became the benchmark when evaluating new ones. Countless times, an ability was rejected because it was "strictly worse" than the Cat's. It's easy to see why: a turn with absolutely no risk in a game with such a small turn number per player was pretty strong.

Number two was the game's real-time nature. We noticed during playtesting that players rarely used their powers because they were trying to come up with an acceptable word within the time limit. This meant that powers had to be simple and strong enough to encourage players to remember and use them. It took considerable development with our publishers to create easy to use, balanced, interesting and thematic powers, but in the end we are confident that—

OFF! WITH! HIS! HEAD!

Chris: It's getting harder, isn't it?

Spyros: Yeah, avoiding words like "of" and "for" was a real challenge.

The discussion topic is "The Contest". The forbidden letter is "M". Begin.

Chris: "Epitrapezio" is a nation-wide design contest in Greece, with the finals being held in Athens. I always take part as it's a fun way to develop one's creations in a friendly clash with one's friends. Spyros and I participated in 2017's contest. The open playtest sessions that "Epitrapezio" offered gave us the opportunity to receive tons of useful feedback and helped Alice evolve, identifying and fixing a lot of issues along the way. It was then that our game—

HEAD OFF!

Spyros: It was then that Alice in Wordland really hit its stride as a newbie-friendly, yet still challenging design. We also received a lot of positive feedback during the finals, where we received the third Judges' award as well as the People's Choice award. Just like the Cheshire Cat, these results left us both with great big smiles—

HEAD OFF!

Spyros: How much longer do we have to do this for?

Chris: We're almost done, don't worry.

The discussion topic is "Getting Published". The forbidden letter is "N". Begin.

Chris: Some publishers saw our game at "Epitrapezio". We also pitched it with a home-made video:




A few replies showed promise, and after some thought, we decided to go with some familiar faces.

I had the best memories of Drawlab from their work with my first game, so I was sure they would do their best this time as well. Although it might take a bit more time compared to other publishers, I knew—

OFF, I SAY!

Spyros: We had zero doubt they would treat the game with care as they, of course, did. From the beautiful art to the multitude of playtests, from the scores of clever ideas to the cool musical teapot timer, they delivered, and we are truly thankful.

OFF, I SAY!

Spyros: I don't care. That was worth it.

Chris: I agree.

The discussion topic is "Conclusion". The forbidden letter is..."E". Begin.

Chris: What?! Uh...it was a long story, but it's about to finish. A lot of fun was had by both of us making this. It's finally all I and Spyros wish for — a quick and fun party game.

OFF WITH HIS HEAD!

Spyros: Um...I'm hoping you will join us at Drawlab's booth for a visit in Wordland! Insanity is not a must, but it helps!

OFF WITH HIS HEAD!

Chris: Whew, glad that's over. Fancy a cup of tea?

Spyros: Sure thing!

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Sun Oct 20, 2019 3:00 pm
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SPIEL '19 Game Preview: Last Bastion, or All Along the Watchtower

W. Eric Martin
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I have a few tasks still to do for SPIEL '19, so I must let this video overview of Antoine Bauza's Last Bastion — a new standalone game from Repos Production based on his Ghost Stories from 2008 — also be standalone.

Short take: Last Bastion presents the same challenge as Ghost Stories with a streamlined engine that had us playing without questions about the rules — only questions about whether we would survive.


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Designer Diary: Super Farmer: The Card Game

Yaniv Kahana
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Super Farmer: The Card Game is the second game that I've had published and the first game that I designed without a co-designer. I wanted to bring something new to the existing "choose a card and pass" drafting mechanism, and that is how "reverse drafting" was born.

What's reverse drafting? On your turn, you pick one card for yourself, but also choose another card for one of the other players.

The Spark

My journey with Super Farmer: The Card Game began in July 2017. After two years of designing with partners, I decided to take up the challenge and go solo, and I began designing alone for the first time. It all started with the strike of a muse that hit me before I drifted into sleep. I was so excited! But first, let me tell you where it all came from.

The inspiration for this design was the popular game Sushi Go! I had tried Sushi Go! with my gaming groups. We always love to play fillers before our main course of the evening, but we all found it too light for our taste. On the other hand, I have always liked this simple and elegant drafting mechanism, which mitigates the luck element and can create interesting decisions, so I wanted to design a drafting game like Sushi Go! that would be a bit more complex, would appeal to gamers as a filler game, and would also be suitable for children and families.

Before drifting off to sleep, instead of counting sheep, lumber and bricks, I'm playing with game mechanisms in my mind — and this is how the idea of "take a card and give a card" emerged. As I said, I was extremely excited about this idea. To be honest, new game ideas always excite me because before I create the system around it and play the game, the potential seems endless.

Version 1: Fun, But Misleading

My first version of this drafting game had numbers and abilities, which created quite a complex game system. The game had a different theme originally and was called "Tussie Mussie". It was a game about a flower festival in which players compete to create the most astonishing bouquets.

A few iterations later, I simplified the game by removing all the numbers and abilities, replacing them with three icons: blooming flower, bud, and gypsophila. (Don't feel bad — I didn't know then what it was either.)


Two templates of the first card designs

First scoresheet design


The first stable version of this design was a classic set-collection game — the more icons you have of a specific flower, the more points you gain. But unlike the next version, you scored every one of your flowers even if you didn't have the most icons of a particular flower. The game was fun, but it was complex, with a scoresheet to mark your score at the end of the game and a points table cheat card.


Second scoresheet design


The playtesters and I loved the game, and we enjoyed the core twist for the drafting mechanism, which created a fresh kind of interaction compared to standard drafting games. Alliances and betrayals were formed throughout the game; some players chose to scratch each others' backs, while others tried to obstruct their opponents' plans.

The team mode was my favorite mode, with each team needing to decide whether they wanted to focus on building their flower displays or interfering and blocking the rival team displays. Team mode is a bit more complex because each player needs to manage two card displays — theirs and their partner's — and tries to understand what their partner needs.

In the end, although the game scoring system was overly complex, players asked for a copy of the game to play with their friends in their own gaming groups, which is always a great sign.

My first public playtesting was two months after I designed the game. I tested it with an audience of children and adults that I hadn't met before at the Dragoncon, and it was one of the favorite games at the convention.

Every Game Deserves a Makeover

After the convention, I stopped the design of the game and worked to prepare the art with the help of the amazing artist Sophie Noga Eden.


The new card designs


I put my game aside and left it alone for a while. A few months before the Spielwarenmesse toy fair in Nürnberg, Germany, I came back to it to see how I could improve it. I like to do this in every design process. I love to come back and look at my games again with a fresh perspective. It usually helps me focus on the flaws of the game and come up with new ideas to solve them.

My first goal was to simplify the game, especially the scoring system. Instead of scoring at the end of the game, scoring would take place each round and only the player with the most blooming flower icons would earn points. The buds would be engine-building points between rounds (as in the basic version of Super Farmer: The Card Game today).

In the beginning, each player who won a specific flower type earned points based on the round played, no matter how many flower icons they had, but when I explained the game to my son and his friends, he asked whether the number of points the winner receives matches their number of flower icons. Well no, it didn't, but wait...that was a great idea! It created an interesting competition between the players — the more you invest in a flower type, the more points you receive for it.

The new version was ready just in time to show at Spielwarenmesse 2018, and at that fair, I got great feedback and ideas from the talented designers Simone Luciani and Daniel Greiner. Their ideas helped to improve and streamline the game. They also introduced the idea of negative points for the wild card, which adds a smidge of interaction between players that I really like as it leads players to create more alliances and to promise to help one another during the game.

Two more important improvements were added later, including the advanced version of buds that created another interesting interaction between players trying to interfere with one another. After the "advanced buds" version, I had three different majorities systems: the flowers, the buds (in advanced mode), and the gypsophila (the game's food), with the player who has the most gypsophila on their whole flower arrangement scoring their biggest group of flowers again.

But it was quite hard to track the amount of gypsophila that you and your opponents had, so I changed it to engine-point building. By doing so, players still didn't want to give other players cards with gypsophila to prevent them from scoring many points, even if they didn't need those cards for themselves.

Finding the Perfect Home

I first met Aleksander Redward, the editor of Granna, at Spielwarenmesse 2019. We had a short meeting at which I showed him my games, and "Tussie Mussie" was one of them. I was happy that he took an interest in most of my games, but he also told me that it would take a while before they tested them as they were very busy at Granna.

But then he contacted me after the fair to say that they wanted to publish a card game based on their Super Farmer IP for SPIEL '19, and he mentioned that "Tussie Mussie" might be suitable for it. I was up for the challenge to re-theme "Tussie Mussie", even though I held dear the comment of a friend's mom after she had played this gentle-looking flower game with him: "That was the most vicious flower game I have ever played!"

Aleksander and I started our Skype meetings on Fridays where we brainstormed how to transform "Tussie Mussie" into Super Farmer: The Card Game and which animals to use. I remember Aleksander saying that a cat does whatever it wants, so it should be the wild card...


The Super Farmer animals are back!


I wanted to add the wolf, fox, and dog elements to the game, and I tried a few options, including new cards with new symbols. I found that the best mechanism was the dog icons, which added another logic layer for advanced players.

I was very excited when Granna decided to take the game and publish it so quickly. This would be my second game to be released at SPIEL '19, along with the first game that I had designed,Kauchuk. (You can read more about developing Kauchuk here.)

Super Farmer: The Card Game is one of my favorite games that I have designed and the design that I have played the most thanks to my son Itai, who always asks to play it. This game was made possible through the help and collaboration of many people, from my sharp and loyal playtesters and fellow designers at GravitiX Games who are always happy to try out all my new ideas, even in the beginning stages where the game might be broken, to the amazing work of Aleksander who saw the potential of the game for the Super Farmer line, to my fabulous editor Sally Halon and all the Granna team who turned this game into a reality. Thank you for joining me on this journey.

Now, my fellow gamers, a new journey begins with you. Please share your thoughts and experiences with Super Farmer: The Card Game, and think twice about what you give your opponent...

Yaniv Kahana


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Sat Oct 19, 2019 1:00 pm
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Designer Diary: Wayfinders, or Finding the Right Path

Thomas Dagenais-Lespérance
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The idea behind Wayfinders came to me while I was working on a very different game.

That game, which was called "Storylines", was a story generator of sorts in which you could assemble story bits into larger stories using symbols, then read them afterwards and have them be coherent enough. The story system worked pretty well and produced what I thought were enjoyable stories, but I was trying my hardest to create a game around it and couldn't find the right path. It was an auction game for a time, then a rummy-style game, then many other things, and at some point I gave up and settled for something not unlike Ricochet Robot.

An example of a "Storylines" story. When reading it, you would replace all the words in capital blue letters with names found on character and location cards. This one is going to have a few inconsistencies; can you see why just from the symbols?

In the end, "Storylines" never became a marketable idea and is probably never going to get published, and it saddens me because so many hours were spent on creating it that my stomach aches whenever I see the prototype on my shelves.

However, some good at least came out of that experimentation. In one of my tests, I tried laying out the story cards on the table, and players would take turns either placing one of their tokens on a card, or taking back all of their tokens along with the cards under them. The most efficient way to play would be to place all your tokens before taking them back, but you would run the risk of having the cards you wanted stolen. I really liked that mechanism, but it was a bad fit for "Storylines". I decided to put it aside and go back to it later. This was in August 2017.

Cut to May 2018. I had recently stopped working at FoxMind Games, didn't have a job, and was trying to focus on creating games to pitch at Origins. I thought I would try my hand at making a Splendor-style game as I wanted to do a type of game that I would be able to play with my family, so I decided to bring back the mechanism I had tried while working on "Storylines". I modified it slightly to make it a bit more flexible: Players would place workers in front of resource columns instead of on specific resources so that each worker would always bring home a resource — just maybe not the right one.

To bring the mechanism to life, I thought about having players move around a shared tableau of resources-to-points/abilities/resources converters as that seemed A) fair since everyone would have access to the same options, B) a good way to create tension since players could potentially compete for the same targets, and C) a good way to add replayability since the board was modular. I decided to set the game in Polynesia, with players moving around their boats and settling a tableau of islands.

From my first few tests, I could see the core ideas were working and the game had potential. However, there were three issues that took me a bit more time to fix...

An early version of the resource board. It's been reduced a lot in size since then.


The first issue I encountered was movement. In the first few versions, players were paying for every adjacent movement they made, which made for an extremely slow game. Then, I made it so they could move for free to their own islands, which was better, but it still felt like movement was too constrained. Even more important, it made it hard for players to compete for the same islands beyond the start of the game since the cost of moving to faraway islands was prohibitively high.

The solution to that (or at least the one that felt the best to me) was to make moving to a settled island free, even if it was someone else's island. This freed up movement later in the game and allowed players to always have the possibility to compete for the same islands if they wanted since the cost of moving to X island was almost always the same for everyone. This change also created a nice inflection point and made it so the beginning and the end of the game didn't feel the same.

The second issue was that players didn't feel stressed enough to get the exact resources they needed at the right time because players could accumulate as many resources as they wanted, which meant that everyone was almost always playing all of their workers before taking them back. I initially tried to find an alternative to just setting an inventory limit because it felt too much like the obvious choice. My first idea was to limit players in the use of the resources they accumulated from previous turns so that they would be incentivized to use resources right away if they could, but that proved too complicated for my tastes. After trying a bunch of things, I finally settled on the inventory limit. It remained the most efficient way to achieve my goal, even if it didn't feel the most original.

The third issue was figuring out what would happen if multiple players settled the same island, and whether that should be allowed at all. My first idea was to have decreasing rewards for second, third, and fourth place, but that forced me to put too much information on each island and wasn't super exciting. On the other hand, preventing players from settling the same islands was problematic with four players, and I wanted to avoid having a different ruleset for different player counts, if possible.

That said, I still wanted players to feel like settling an island after an opponent did so was undesirable, so that if someone settled an island they were coveting, it felt like a blow. In the end, I made it so that they would have to give the resources used to settle an island to the first player who settled it. It felt like a nice twist and created a situation in which most times (but not all) it was preferable to change course if someone settled an island before you, which was exactly what I wanted.

An early version of an island tile, which had too much information

As a side note, one of the things I tried to do with the design of Wayfinders was to contrast a fixed and entirely visible tableau of options with a somewhat uncertain resource-collection mechanism. Since it's technically possible to find the objective best set of islands to settle in a particular game (although that set will differ from game to game), I needed to ensure that uncertainty remained as to whether players would be able to achieve their plans. Somewhere in the decision tree of a game there needs to be an unknown quantity for it to be interesting, and with a fixed tableau the unknown needed to be about the resource collection aspect. Maybe those eight islands are the ones that are going to give you the most points on paper, but maybe the right resources to settle them won't be there, so how are you going to adapt? Or the right resources might be there, but what if other players take them before you?

After about a month of development and testing, I thought my prototype was good enough to show publishers, and I went to Origins with it. I was overjoyed to see that multiple publishers were interested in the game, and it actually was a small problem for me since they were all great publishers and I would have wanted to work with all of them.

The prototype I brought to Origins

I ended up signing with Pandasaurus Games, and I don't regret a thing. Development with them was great: They had around fifty different groups of testers submitting test results through a Google form, with new results coming in almost daily, which helped make sure everything was the best it could be. It was a learning experience for me as I wasn't used to getting so much feedback at the same time, and I was initially overreacting to a lot of the issues that were coming up. People are going to have contradictory expectations and tastes, and sometimes an issue is just going to be an isolated case.

Also, it's harder to decipher text-only feedback as you cannot have a conversation with the tester, and you cannot watch the person's body language. That being said, I became better at dealing with the Google form feedback as time went on, and it proved to be a powerful tool.

Wayfinders was in intensive testing for about two months, so a relatively short period all considered. Mostly little things were tweaked — numbers and such. The biggest change was probably reducing the size of the resource board, which proved to be controversial with some of the playtesters, but in my opinion a significant change for the better as it increased player interaction as well as tension around resource collection. After testing was done, things moved quickly, with most of the artwork finished by the end of May or so.

What the game looks like now after the amazing work done by Pandasaurus and Michael Parla. Wow!

The game is finally coming out at SPIEL '19 this October. It's a game that I've had a lot of fun creating, and I hope people will have as much fun playing it!

Thomas Dagenais-Lespérance
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Fri Oct 18, 2019 1:00 pm
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SPIEL '19 Game Preview: Pharaon, or Prepare to Weigh Your Heart

W. Eric Martin
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In Pharaon, a big box game from designers Henri Pym and Sylas and publisher Catch Up Games, you are preparing for your death — or more specifically for your afterlife. Your actions in the world will be judged, and in the end you or someone else at the table will be judged the most worthy player.

Pharaon is set in ancient Egypt, and over the course of five rounds, players take actions in five sections of the game board to improve their standing. In more general terms, you'll start with a few resources, and over time you'll attempt to transform those resources into dozens of points in a variety of ways.

On a turn, you either pass to sit out the rest of the round or pay the action cost of one of the five actions, then carry it out. The action cost is partly determined by a wheel that rotates at the end of each round and partly by the action itself; the combination of these two keeps your choices challenging throughout the game as the cost on the wheel can be used to pay part of the cost of the action itself. If, for example, the cost to take an action is a red resource and a yellow resource, and the cost on the wheel is red, then you pay only red and yellow; if the cost on the wheel is blue, then you must pay red, yellow, and blue.


The more efficient you are in taking the right actions at the right time, the more that you can do — yet you often need to pay a higher cost to act now because time won't last forever. These action locations are:

Offerings: Pay the cost on the wheel, then take one of the pairs of offerings on display. Pay an additional resource of the same color, and you can take a third offering.
Nile: Pay the cost on the wheel and a specific pair of resources (with the former cost possibly being part of the latter), then take the resources indicated and advance one or two of your tokens on the Nile tracks.
Artisans: Pay the cost of the wheel and three matching resources (again, with the former cost possibly being part of the latter), then draft one of the four artisan cards on display, with you earning endgame points and resources from this card.
Burial chamber: Pay the cost of the wheel and the cost of the next space on the path of tombs, and you advance to that space, which is worth points at game's end.
Nobles: Pay one of each of the five basic resources, then draft one of the three nobles on display. Each noble is worth endgame points, with that value sometimes based on other factors, and it has a special power that you can use once, once per round, or constantly as indicated on the card.


The number of actions in each space is limited, so you risk being locked out of an action if you don't take it near the start of a round — yet often you take certain actions in a certain order so that you can do whatever it is that you want to do. Taking a Nile, artisan, or offering action sometimes lets you net resources over the cost — perhaps spending three resources to get four — or at least break even, so you often want to take those actions before drafting a noble or improving your burial chamber. Do that, though, and you risk someone else drafting the noble you want first.

I've played Pharaon three times on a review copy from Catch Up Games, twice with two players and once with four, and I've improved my play over time. In the second two-player game, each of us scored at least thirty points more than in our initial game as we discovered how to work the levers in a more efficient manner, so to speak. Everything in the game design threads through everything else, so you're competing against yourself as much as you're competing against others for nobles, offerings, artisans, the pharaoh bonus, and the actions themselves, which are limited based on the number of players.

For much more on the gameplay and how it all works — including the additional challenge of how to please the gods at game's end — check out my video overview:


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Thu Oct 17, 2019 7:53 pm
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More Dominion, More Agricola, More Fluxx, and More of More Games

W. Eric Martin
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I've been focusing on preparations for SPIEL '19, including the publication of as many designer diaries and game previews as possible, but plenty of other game announcements are taking place as well:

Grail Games has already released its own versions of Reiner Knizia's Medici and Medici: The Card Game, and now it's taking the next step that people so often joke about with the announcement of a 2020 release of Medici: The Dice Game. What's more, this design is a dice-drafting, roll-and-write game, so the segment of the audience irked by the prevalence of such things can feel irked alongside those bothered by "X: The Dice Game". A short take on how the game works:

Quote:
Medici: The Dice Game is a new design by Reiner Knizia that shares the setting and feel of his classic Medici board game, but using dice! Over the course of three rounds, 2-4 players fill their ships with the goods presented at the wharf. They earn money for having the most valued loads, as well as for collecting majorities of the different goods.
If only zombies could be fit in somehow, or perhaps Munchkin and Fluxx.

• Speaking of which, Looney Labs has given a January 9, 2020 release date for Astronomy Fluxx, the next title in its line of science-based Fluxx titles following Math Fluxx, Chemistry Fluxx, and Anatomy Fluxx.

• To continue with game brand extensions, Dominion designer Donald X. Vaccarino announced on Reddit, "There will be an expansion next year [i.e., 2020], probably first quarter." He added that initial info about this release will likely emerge in early December 2019.

• As is its custom, at SPIEL '19 Lookout Games will have all the titles listed for it in our SPIEL '19 Preview, as well as lots of promo cards, including Expedition to Newdale: The Pfistries, a five-card item for Alexander Pfister's new Expedition to Newdale; seven new Agricola cards that bear a Newdale theme and nine new L-Deck cards; two new cards for Foothills; and "News from Lookout", which includes new Patchwork Doodle cards, a scenario for The Colonists, and more. So many BGG database listings waiting to be made...

• Finally, Upper Deck Entertainment has revealed its plan for expansions to Vs System 2PCG: The Marvel Battles in 2020:

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Wed Oct 16, 2019 2:41 pm
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SPIEL '19 Game Preview: No Return, or Say Hello, Wave Goodbye

W. Eric Martin
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I've already presented an overview of the gameplay in No Return: Es gibt kein Zurück! — a game by Marco Teubner and moses. Verlag — in mid-September 2019 in this space, so let me quote that again before going a bit further:

Quote:
No Return: Es gibt kein Zurück! ("There's No Turning Back!") is played in two phases, with players collecting tiles in phase one, then scoring their tiles in phase two. People move into phase two at their own pace, and once you go in, you're there for the rest of the game — which might not be long!

The game includes 132 tiles, specifically two sets of tiles in six colors, with the tiles being numbered 1-11 in each color. Each player starts with eight tiles in hand, and you can discard and redraw once before the game begins. On a turn, you either (1) discard up to four tiles in your hand from the game, then draw that many tiles from the bag or (2) play one or more tiles from your hand to a color on your board, then draw that many tiles. You can play tiles of only one color, and all the tiles played must be equal to or less than any tiles of that color you already have in play. You place these tiles in descending order, and you can build at most six rows during the game, one of each color.


Whenever you want, you can switch to phase two. Once you do this, on a turn you either (1) discard up to four tiles in your hand from the game, then draw that many tiles from the bag or (2) clear tiles from your play area to score them. To do this, choose one or more tiles in your play area of only a single color, starting with the lowest valued tile (or tiles), then sum the tiles you want to score. You must then "pay" to score these tiles by discarding tiles of one color from your hand that sum to this same amount or higher. The tiles you discard from your hand don't have to be the same color as the color of the tiles you're scoring. Remove the tiles you paid from the game, and place the tiles you've cleared face down in a score pile. Refill your hand to eight tiles at the end of your turn.

As soon as someone draws the final tile from the bag, you complete the round so that everyone has had the same number of turns, then the game ends. A player's score equals the sum of the tiles that they've cleared minus the sum of the tiles they still have in play. (Tiles in a player's hand are discarded.) Whoever has the highest score wins!
I've now played No Return eight times on a review copy from moses. Verlag (with one of those games being three-player and the remainder two-player), and the game has delivered pretty much what I thought it would: a seesaw feel in which you slowly add tiles to your collection, lamenting the randomness of the bag as you draw not quite the right tiles from it and wavering over exactly how much you want to build before tearing the whole thing apart.

In feel, No Return bears similarities to Lost Cities and Qwixx, two games in which you must take an action on your turn even though the urge to pass sometimes smothers your desire to do anything else. In all three of these games, you're often confronted with the option to commit in a color, knowing that doing so cuts off potential scoring in everything you're leaping over. Do you play the 4 or 5 in Lost Cities, risking a penalty should no other cards appear in that color, or do you throw it away, instead risking your opponent scooping it up for double or triple points and an eight-card bonus?

Opponents can't grab the tiles that you toss in No Return, but all too often you realize many turns later that you could have just played those tiles to your collection since you never drew any more tiles of that color anyway — yet you couldn't have known that would happen, so was it really a bad play? Maybe it was, but with only eight games experience, I feel like I'm still getting the rhythm of the game, something that will change with each player count since you'll have fewer of the tiles passing through your hands and more tiles visible in play to better let you weigh the odds of which action might be the right one to carry out.

For more on the game, here's a video overview I recorded, which shows the size of the tiles and lets you see that the pink and red colors are too close to one another, a problem that has stymied many publishers in many games:

Update: Despite me describing the game correctly in the description above, when I played the game, I somehow transformed the "discard up to four tiles" rule into a "discard exactly four tiles" rule. Thus, I'm now describing an unintended game variant in the video below. I'll have to get this title back to the table post-SPIEL '19 for more games by the rules...


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Tue Oct 15, 2019 7:55 pm
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Designer Diary: Ocean Crisis, or Designing a Thematic Game with Social Impact

Chi Wei Lin
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In early 2019, a game we designed called Ocean Crisis went on Kickstarter with a funding total of 68k USD. While that result won't get us hyped on a crowdfunding list, in the end we achieved some amazing milestones and managed to create social impact with this game.

Hello, guys! My name is Chi Wei Lin, the founder and director of Shepherd Kit, Inc., a publisher of children and family games from Taiwan. Ocean Crisis is one of many thematic games I've developed with designers Jhao-Ru Chen and Hsien Pu Jan that focus on simulating real world issues. In brief, Ocean Crisis is a co-operative worker placement game that depicts the real-life marine ecosystem disaster caused by pollution. The game also includes six side missions and scenarios, mainly for saving ocean animals.

Ocean Crisis took us three years to develop, with 20+ re-makes. For this project, we also worked with over a dozen environmental organizations, government departments, and ecology experts. In the end, our efforts truly paid off as we developed a game that's not only fun, but has a social impact.


How We Started

In 2016, the Department of Environmental Protection in Taiwan asked us to develop a game that talks about ocean pollution for the public. It was a time when the topics of ocean waste and plastic pollution started to take part in the mass/social media and a time when the public started to be aware of such matters. Before this project, we had no idea of what the causes and effects of ocean pollution were, but after a half year of research and discussion with government experts, we decided to adopt these principles:

1. Co-op: The game has to be co-operative. Though countries and organizations sometimes compete on environmental stats, we don't want to encourage any local wins. Instead we wanted players to focus on how to win together because the responsibility belongs to everyone.

2. No Total Solution: As a fan of Pandemic, I am aware that a "total solution" is always satisfying. However, from our studies, there is no sign of anything close to solving garbage issues on land or in the ocean. We don't want to give a false impression that one day twenty or fifty years later there'll be a savior invention, so we can do whatever we want right now.

3. Irreversible Consequences: Some of the consequences are irreversible. For example, when garbage floods into the Pacific garbage patch, then it's just an impossible situation for the tech we have now.

This is what came out in 2017, named Ocean Guardians:


Further Development of Ocean Crisis

The previous version, Ocean Guardians, was a great success when we brought it into classrooms, with primary and middle-school kids being immersed in the game. They cheered as a team when winning and even cried when their final ocean animal died along with a game failure. We were surprised with the result, and we thought about going further.

However, a big problem for our previous game was that it lacked replay value and character development. In addition, it dealt only with garbage and polluted water issues, without much interaction with the ocean eco-system, which should be the core of environmental issues. It wasn't until we started talking with various NPO environmental groups that we started to see the issue from a different angle.

In reality, the flow of ocean debris is a dynamic process. What's more, the garbage amount is just HUGE. According to the official report released by United Nations Environmental Protection (UNEP), each year there are more than eight million tons of plastic waste leaking into the ocean, equivalent to dumping a garbage truck full of plastic every minute.

This is also why we changed our title to Ocean Crisis.

A random shot from the beach of Penghu Isles, Taiwan; ocean debris is driven by the Kuroshio Current for thousands of miles

To experience all this mess, I went on a coastal clean-up journey with one of our consulting groups where we (400 participants) picked up 1.6 TONS of garbage!

In Ocean Crisis, we added these new elements:

1. Ocean Current: When we talk about coastal clean-up, more than 90% of the garbage we pick up drifted from the ocean. In reality, the ocean current can bring garbage from Asia to the Midway Atoll, a distance that covers more than half the Pacific Ocean. In the game, it is likely that the garbage will drift away to the garbage patch, but by chance, garbage might drift back to the coast for another clean-up.

Handmade ocean current disk

Actual ocean current disk.

2. Character Development: In Pandemic, characters with different traits are chosen at the beginning of a game. For Ocean Crisis, environmental protection methods are used as personal skills, and they can be learned within a game play. This will also remind the players, who in general includes kids, that they can take part of environmental acts just as their characters.


3. Skill Tree Puzzle: To demonstrate the various environmental methods that cope with garbage disposal, the main map is a tile-placement puzzle on which players can activate functions with global effects or develop personal skills.

Sketch of the land map

Different locations have different effects

4. Missions & Scenarios: The basic game is about cleaning up garbage and preventing it from going into the ocean. With the same core mechanism, six missions and scenarios can be added with only a little addition to the rules. What's more important is that the missions and scenarios complete a full picture of ocean protection from an ecological point of view.




For such complexity, we have undergone 20 game remakes, and a solid 500+ game tests with 1000+ players participating. These test group members include all adult gamers, family members, classroom students with teachers, and children groups from primary schools to middle schools.

A brief intro of the final Ocean Crisis from our Kickstarter video:




Social Impact

Though our design process for Ocean Crisis was long and even a bit tedious, our efforts eventually paid off as we made quite a bit of social impact starting with Taiwan.

Half a year before our Kickstarter, the Chinese version of Ocean Crisis had already succeeded in a crowdfunding campaign in Taiwan with 75k USD. The game was published in January 2019, and at this point, Ocean Crisis has sold more than 3,000 sets locally. Interestingly enough, our orders include purchases from over 500 primary schools and middle schools, making Ocean Crisis a mainstream material for environmental education in schools of Taiwan. A reason for Ocean Crisis' hype throughout education facilities is that the game covers a wide range of ocean environment topics. Also, due to the starting number of meeples, a single game can be extended from five players to ten.

We went on a tour for Ocean Crisis, with a total of eighty events

To further serve the needs of education facilities, we also developed a GIANT version of Ocean Crisis. Enlarging board games isn't anything new, but we managed to mass produce the GIANT Ocean Crisis and sold them to hundreds of schools in Taiwan. In this version, players are the meeples, placing themselves on the map, and the garbage tiles from the games turned out to be real garbage.


In August 2019, due to our long-term endeavor towards educational design such as Ocean Crisis, we were invited to have a conversation with Taiwan President Ms. Tsai Ing-wen on the topic of education through gaming.


In September 2019, we received a letter from the Greenpeace Turkish office. The Middle East region manager then visited us in Taipei, telling us that they are willing to collaborate with us on the public issue of "plastic reduction" by using Ocean Crisis. Should this deal be closed, our game will be seen at Turkish schools and facilities in the near future.


This month, we were invited to be one of the keynote speakers on a SPIEL '19 official panel, the topic of which is "How boardgames make the world a better place". The panel will be held on October 26, 16:00 in the Saal Berlin room. If you are attending SPIEL '19, please come and visit us. (More details on the SPIEL website.)


Frontline Defence: The Mini Version of Ocean Crisis

As an alternative to Ocean Crisis, in 2019 we also worked on a standalone mini-game called Frontline Defence. This new chapter of the design inherits the original's co-op game style, but with a lighter and quicker dice-driven game play for ages as young as 6+. Frontline Defence takes only five minutes to learn and 15-20 to play. The mini-game can be regarded as a prequel of the original one, and it can also serve as a children's version for younger ones to play before Ocean Crisis.


Thank you for reading such a long story from before and after our development of Ocean Crisis! The diary is actually longer than I expected as there was just too much happening over the years of development. Hope you enjoyed my diary!

If you will be at SPIEL '19, please come visit Shepherd Kit to check out Ocean Crisis and Frontline Defence in person at booth 5-E112!

Chi Wei Lin
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Tue Oct 15, 2019 3:33 pm
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SPIEL '19 Game Preview: Minecraft: Builders & Biomes, or Building Blocky Buildings

W. Eric Martin
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As I mentioned yesterday, we're getting into crunch time when it comes to preparing for SPIEL '19, by which I mean that my brain feels like it's getting crunched every time I think of how much I still want to do.

With that in mind, let me present an overview shot of the Minecraft: Builders & Biomes game in play:


Game over


Then invite you to check out my overview video of this Ulrich Blum design that Ravensburger will debut at SPIEL '19, then release in North America in November 2019. I'll have time post-SPIEL '19 to write up something in more detail — but whether I will or not is an open question given that I'll also have another two dozen games to write about. For now, this is what I can offer!


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Mon Oct 14, 2019 10:50 pm
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