I don't know why I'm so surprised to discover — or rather re-discover — that Reiner Knizia is an incredibly good designer, but here I am, discovering it yet again in Lost Cities: Rivals, which KOSMOS debuted at Gen Con 2018 through its Thames & Kosmos division in North America.
Roughly a month ago, I raved about Knizia's Blue Lagoon ahead of its Gen Con 2018 debut, but I didn't get to play Lost Cities: Rivals enough times to feel like I could do it justice, so I brought the game to the show and played it six times while I was there. I missed out on playing tons of other new games, sure, but I played something that I wanted to explore in more detail, so it's a win all the same.
In many ways, Lost Cities: Rivals feels like a mash-up of Ra, Traumfabrik, and (of course) Lost Cities. As in Lost Cities, your goal in the game is to travel far on expeditions (as represented by cards of increasing value) with your score mostly being based on the value of those expeditions at game's end, but instead of having a hand of cards, you now need to compete against others to buy them. Abstractly, I suppose we're bidding against one another for resources or information that will allow us to reach a certain destination, but whatever. The story explanation is there if you want it and able to be swept away if you don't.
Another playing in the BGG Hot Games Room at Gen Con 2018
You start the game with a limited amount of money, and on a turn you either add a card from the deck to the pool of cards available for auction or call an auction. Flip or bid. Flip or bid. If you've played Ra, you know how this goes, with the value of the pool fluctuating over time as new cards are added to the pot. The trick, however, is that when you win an auction, you can take any number of cards from the pool, after which you can optionally throw a card in the pool from the game. I like to imagine you torching the place as you pass by — if I can't have this location on my travelogue, you suckers can't have it either! To end your auction victory, you add another card to the pool, giving everyone something new to fight over.
All the money spent on auctions is pooled separately, then redistributed to players three times during the game, similar to how your money ebbs and flows in Traumfabrik. Run out of cash before then, and you'll be left flipping over cards on your turn and watching everyone else buy what you wanted. Sit on your cash forever, though, and you'll never get everywhere. Where's the balance between patience and paying out? That's the question you ask yourself over and over again.
The answer to that question has seemed different throughout each of my eight playings on a review copy from Thames & Kosmos. The cards come out in different orders, of course, and everyone has different ideas of when it's appropriate to dive into this or that trek, partially based on the two random investment cards that everyone receives at the start of play and partially based on who has how much money at any particular time. Sure, you might not have thought about starting that one expedition, but you can pick up two cards relatively cheap and stick a knife in someone else along the way. Is it worth it? Maybe you should add just one more card to see what else you might get...
It is customary, I suppose, to begin a designer diary with where the idea for the game came from, what the impetus was for the design. I wish I could say that it started with a theme or a mechanism or a player dynamic, but the simple and mercenary truth is that I designed Northern Pacific because I wanted to be a full-time game designer.
That's an ambition I had almost immediately after stumbling into the hobby. And, yeah, I absolutely knew how nuts that was, how impossible, how foolish. That didn't change the fact that it was something I wanted and that I was consciously working toward it. The question, of course, was how on earth I would get from A to B, and what steps I would have to take along the way.
The first step would be to get better at designing games. While I think I had some knack for it, it was a very rough sort of talent, and I needed to learn my craft. One of the best ways to do this would be to play lots of different games from lots of different designers and to learn from them. That wasn't really in the cards for us; board games are very much a luxury hobby, and we were very much not a luxury household. I was struggling to support my wife and myself on a part-time municipal job that paid less than ten bucks an hour, so board game purchases were few and far between. I reasoned that if I found a developer who had played a lot of games and who had a lot of experience to draw on, I might be able to expedite that process.
Similarly, I was very conscious of the "auteurist" streak in the board game community and was eager to build up some kind of fan base. I reasoned that if I found a niche publisher that already had a passionate fan base, I could use that to jump start my own reputation.
These two things together — great, knowledgeable development and a built-in fanbase — naturally got me looking at John Bohrer and his company Winsome Games. It also helped that Winsome often licensed their games to other, larger publishers, who would then put my game on more tables. Thus, I decided that the first step toward reaching my ambition would be to design a train game for Winsome.
Great — Now What?
I had never designed a train game before. While I enjoyed playing them, up until that point I had no particular interest in the genre as a designer. I had no idea what kind of train game it would be. I didn't have a particular mechanism or theme in mind, and I wasn't working from some passionate inspiration. And this is why you probably shouldn't design games for purely mercenary reasons!
Because of this, I spent quite a long time trying to figure out what the game would actually be. I'll admit that I also got a little intimidated by the project. Train games are awfully mathy, and I was awfully lousy at math. Probably my income values and my stock values would be all wrong, or I'd give the players too much or too little starting cash and never realize it. What could I possibly add to the genre that wouldn't be hopelessly amateurish, just a shallow imitation of Chicago Express?
I was stuck for a good long while — then I came across Paris Connection, Queen Games' reprint of Winsome's thinky-filler SNCF, and I no longer felt this weight like I had to do something heavy. I could do a light simple filler game.
Frank really wishes you hadn't put that cube there
For thematic inspiration, I turned to my favorite spaghetti western, Once Upon A Time in the West. A big part of the plot revolves around someone investing in land because they guessed, correctly, that the railroad would have to pass through that area. It didn't turn out so great for him (or his kids!), but I thought that the basic premise of investing in an area in hopes that the train would connect to it was enough to build a game around.
The game works like this: On your go, you can either invest in a city or lay track. Multiple players can invest in the same city. There's only one train, and it moves in only one direction. If it passes through a city where you're invested, you earn double your money; if it passes by without connecting, your investment never pays off. When the train reaches the end of the map, the player with the most money cubes wins.
The game played in about five or ten minutes, and this helped expedite testing considerably. If you're meeting with your playtest group for a couple of hours once a week, a five-minute game is going to get a lot more play than a two-hour game. After several dozen tests I was confident enough in the game that I wrote an email to John Bohrer asking whether he'd like to take a look at it. He said yes, and I sent it to him. The day it arrived, he and his group played it, and later that day he let me know that they'd be publishing it in the following year's Essen set, some eighteen months in the future. It was as simple as that.
I was, of course, rather elated by this. I was further elated when, as expected, John and his group went to work on the development. They gave it the title Northern Pacific, having relocated the setting from the American Southwest of my original submission, and they doubled the size of the map. This resulted in a richer and more complex decision space, but oddly didn't alter the core simplicity of the game, and most surprisingly didn't really change the duration of the game. Comparing the new map with my original was a sort of masterclass in the art of multiplayer game design, and was indeed instrumental in me learning my craft.
My Dinner with John
In late 2012, a full year before the game was to be released, John came to Michigan to meet me in person. He explained that he always met his authors before he published one of their games. Mary and I met John and one of his associates at an outdoor restaurant that, if I remember correctly, made a passable Reuben sandwich.
Now, prior to meeting John in person, I knew that he was a smoker — his "cigarette smoker" microbadge on BGG kinda gave it away — and that gave me some cause for worry. Neither Mary nor I smoke ourselves, and we find the smell of it to be extremely irritating. I particularly have a madeleine-in-tea association with the smell, as my father, a heavy smoker, died of lung cancer at age 38. I saw my father die — it was a messy and ugly death — and the smell of cigarettes causes a vivid involuntary memory of that moment.
Going into it, I was worried that I might give offense by asking him not to smoke, that I would come across as overly fussy or, if I had fully explained the reason for my aversion, that I would come across as overly dramatic. I wanted to make a good first impression, especially as, at least at that time, I was famous for making bad ones.
So John was sitting in the outside dining area, and he was indeed smoking one cigarette after another, but I never smelled it. It never irritated my throat, it never attacked my nostrils, and it never brought back my father's dying moments. Partially, this was because of the way John smoked, holding the cigarette away from the table, blowing the smoke softly and gingerly upward and away. We didn't tell him that we had a problem with the smoke; he just politely and naturally directed the smoke away from everyone. I sat across from him, and Mary next to him, and when, on the way home, I marveled at how he smoked and that I'd never encountered a smoker who was actually considerate of others, Mary expressed surprise that he was smoking at all. She hadn't noticed. (And man, let me tell you, Mary notices everything!)
But partially, it was because of how charming and down-to-earth John is. His stories that night were entertaining, his insights into the various larger publishers were acute, and even as he drove the conservation and had the best lines, he made you feel like you were the center of attention. Those are rare talents, and I think they've served him well.
Initial Release and Reception
The game came out in Winsome's 2013 Essen set. I was fully expecting everyone to fall in love with it, and was more than a little surprised at how divisive it was. Some folks were quite charmed with it, and some folks were very much not charmed with it. That didn't bother me too much. My general philosophy at that time, which remains my philosophy today, is that if the people who like it like it, it doesn't matter who all doesn't care for it. Interesting games rarely achieve consensus.
But those who dug it said some nice things about it. Cole Wehrle wrote a very nice article about opening theory, which concludes by saying:
Unlike most games, one positional mistake will sink you in this seemingly light filler, but that shouldn't shy away interested players. It's refreshing to encounter a game which gives such clear feedback so quickly on lessons well worth learning.
It was through that article that Cole and I first made one another's digital acquaintance, and hold onto that because it will come up again later in the story.
I was also quite taken with a review by user Claudio that got at the meat of the thing:
I've described Northern Pacific to people as a story written from the middle and told in halting spurts. I've described it as a zipper being yanked violently — and, as with your own zipper, you don't want to get the timing wrong or it is going to hurt. I've described it as "group-think" and "emergent alliances" and "moves as offers" boiled down to a ball-bearing-like essence. It is all of these things.
...What path will the train take? When will it leave the Twin Cities? Each cube placed alters the tensions of the story, the potentialities.
But this is the writing. And the revisions can get downright nasty until the story is told and the type set. Your goal is to trigger — or cause to be triggered — the telling of that story at a point where there is certainty that you will win out. Once the train starts to move, it tends to keep moving. Most track is unidirectional, so the forward motion is relentless. Each player tends to play his or her part in what has been written until the script peters out. This spurt is the boundary between one set of possible possibilities and another. The buildup begins again until the balance is tipped again and the zipper zips further.
Cube or train, and don't let the other guys win. It is all just so simple. So Spartan. So completely lacking in guile or nuance or...game. Maybe it isn't a game at all but merely a brash statement about all multiplayer games — that good play depends on good play which depends on good play, ad infinitum.
If one thing did bother me, it was that last bit — folks wondering whether the game was "really" a game. Some, like Claudio, meant it sincerely as a compliment, while others were far less charitable. And from my point of view, well, of course it's a game. What else would it be?
"Well", I said to myself as North Pac's BGG rating started to hover in the mid-sixes, "that's what I get for designing a game for purely mercenary reasons. That's one game that's not likely to get licensed by a big publisher like Rio Grande."
The Game Gets Licensed by A Big Publisher Like Rio Grande
Fast-forward three years. In those three years, a lot has happened: I got a new and better day job that at last let my wife Mary and I breathe a little. Said day job mostly consists of looking at photos of dead animals, moldy drywall, and bathtubs filled to the brim with human feces, involves ten hour days including Saturdays, and is an hour away from my house — an hour's drive every morning, an hour's drive every night — but it pays the bills until I can make board games a full-time concern.
Speaking of the board games, things were going all right in that front; I had over a dozen published designs to my credit, including three Winsomes. I had just finished a two-year stint as the editor of a wargames magazine, and Mary had spent several months running a print-on-demand ziploc games company where she oversaw the publication of fifteen titles. Between the two of us, we had enough practical knowledge that we decided to make a go of it ourselves with our company Hollandspiele. We've published a few games since then.
Here's some doofus holding the games we published in our first year in business
While we were getting all the pieces in place to launch our endeavor in the summer of 2016, I got an email out of the blue from John Bohrer letting me know that Rio Grande Games had licensed Northern Pacific. This was really a quite unexpected surprise. (The royalty advance, which was more than I had made for all my previous designs combined, was also a nice surprise!) A digital introduction was made by Rio Grande's Jay Tummelson between myself and the game's developers for Rio Grande: Scott Russell and Kevin Wemyss.
Before you ask, Scott Russell and I are not related, though we are both Michiganders. A few months later, Scott reached out to me to arrange a meet-up so that he could go over the changes they had made in development. I will admit that I was a little wary at first because this was, after all, a game that had two rules ("cube" or "train"), and its simplicity was part of its charm. But meeting Scott in person put those fears to rest. The change he suggested involved adding a "big cube" to a player's stock that counted double, and I thought it was really quite clever. He clearly understood the game, and I knew it was in good hands.
The only other thing they were trying to figure out was some kind of scoring method in which players would chain together multiple games. That made sense to me from a commercial point of view because if you tell someone a game plays in five or ten minutes they're going to balk at plunking down their cash for it, whereas if a game's duration is closer to an hour, it's more acceptable to the consumer. Since people tended to play multiple games in a row anyway — so it usually does see the table for an hour or more — that made sense.
Game board in the Rio Grande edition
I had planned to follow-up with Scott as that process continued, but shortly thereafter I got into a very nasty car accident on the way to work. I was stopped on the interstate when someone rear-ended me going close to sixty miles an hour, wrecking the suspension on the car and not doing my back any favors. It's a miracle I walked away from it at all. This prompted a sort of existential crisis on my part: Why was I driving all this way to a job I hated?
I started to wonder if it wasn't time for me to make good on my ambitions and try to make it as a full-time designer. By this time, Hollandspiele had been around for about six months, and our monthly sales were starting to approach how much I was bringing home through my "real" job. When that real job disciplined me for being absent the day of my near-fatal accident, they more-or-less made up my mind for me.
Once Hollandspiele became a full-time job, I didn't have as much time to follow-up with Scott and Kevin regarding Northern Pacific since our own games took up all my time. This only became more true as our company's profile continued to grow over the course of 2017. When Northern Pacific's reprint was finally publicly announced earlier in 2018, I was as pleasantly blindsided as anyone else. I knew it was coming, of course, but had no idea when.
I said up top that I designed Northern Pacific with the intention of it being the first step toward my goal of working full-time in the games industry. Now that I've achieved that goal, the question is, how instrumental was this game in getting me there? It's hard to chart a course from Northern Pacific that leads to the founding of a print-on-demand wargames company like Hollandspiele. It's far easier to draw the line to our work for previous wargames companies.
But on the other hand, a big part of our company's success story is the game An Infamous Traffic, designed by Cole Wehrle, who as you'll recall also wrote a nice article about Northern Pacific after its initial release. That was the point where we became aware of each other. If not for North Pac, I don't know whether we would have ever asked Cole to design a game for Hollandspiele, and if not for North Pac, I don't know whether he would have said yes. Traffic got us in the black and got more eyes on all our games, and it is a big part of why we were able to go full-time as quickly as we did.
Ergo, if I hadn't designed Northern Pacific back in 2010, I wouldn't have achieved my dream in 2017. Sometimes it pays off to be purely mercenary after all.
Gen Con 2018 was a whirlwind of activity, with the BGG team recording two hundred or so game overview videos over the four days of the show. I imagine those videos will start popping up on YouTube and on the individual game pages before too long, but for now we have only this episode of The BoardGameGeek Show, which Scott Alden, Rodney Smith, Steph Hodge, Lincoln Damerst, and I recorded on Thursday night after we had kicked out our last guest for the day.
The big news of the day was the revelation of Richard Garfield's KeyForge, which Fantasy Flight Games had revealed during its In-Flight Report on Wednesday night before Gen Con opened. I've already written a long piece about this game, mostly focusing on the game's production and not its design, but that's mostly because I had played only twice at that time. (I've still played only twice at this point, alas. Too much Gen Con work and SPIEL '18 prep getting in the way!)
We cover a few other games that we saw at the show as well, while probably being ready to fall asleep in the process — or maybe that was just me?
00:23 Introductions 00:51 KeyForge - Richard Garfield - Fantasy Flight Games 09:04 Fireball Island: The Curse of Vul-Kar - Rob Daviau, JR Honeycutt, Justin D. Jacobson, Chuck Kennedy, Bruce Lund - Restoration Games 10:50 Victorian Masterminds - Antoine Bauza, Eric M. Lang - CMON Limited 12:58 Newton - Simone Luciani, Nestore Mangone - CMON Limited 14:00 Ghost Fightin' Treasure Hunters: Creepy Cellar Expansion - Brian Yu - Mattel 15:15 Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team & Warhammer: Age of Sigmar 2nd Edition - Games Workshop Ltd. 16:10 Blitz Bowl & Space Marines Adventures & Lord of the Rings Adventure Game 16:30 Talisman: Legendary Tales - Michael Palm, Lukas Zach - Pegasus Spiele 17:00 Doomseeker - John Cadice, David Freeman - Ninja Division 17:15 Warhammer 40,000: Heroes of Black Reach - Yann and Clem - Devil Pig Games 19:05 Audience question about Imaginarium release 19:25 Tokyo Highway to be distributed by Asmodee North America 20:45 Stone Age: Anniversary Edition announced 21:40 Blank Expansion: Blankdemic - Matt Leacock - Hub Games 23:30 Audience Questions 26:15 Good-byes from Gen Con 2018 26:40 Discussion with Ani & Sebastian
My blog at Faidutti.com is not as visited as it was these last years. I have only an average of three hundred daily visitors in 2018, half of what I had three years ago. I'm not sure if it's because everything is moving on Facebook, Twitter and, when it's about board games, BGG, or just because I'm getting older and less relevant. It's probably a bit of both.
Anyway, I've decided from now on to post at least my designer diaries also on BoardGameGeek, which has always been a very friendly place for my games. I'll start in the coming days with my most recent games: Greedy Kingdoms, Fist of Dragonstones, Dragons, and the Persian language edition of Citadels. This doesn't mean I'm abandoning my blog, which will still be the place to read about my games before I post here, and the only place where I'll post reflections that are not designer diaries. I even have some hope that this will bring me some more visitors.
I still consider Citadels to be at its best with four or five players, and I've never been really fond of the two-player rules. Many players like them, so they must not be really bad, but they're not for me.
In 2016, after having finished work on the new edition of Citadels, I discovered Greedy Kingdoms, a small two-player card game designed by Hayato Kisaragi and first published in 2009. I owned the game for quite a long time, but hadn't looked at it before. Mechanically, Greedy Kingdoms has little in common with Citadels, but both games are based on character cards, are about building buildings (can you say this?), and rely on the same psychological dilemmas. As a result, they feel somewhat similar.
With a Japanese friend, I played Greedy Kingdoms a lot, and in the end I took it over to make my own version. I didn't change much with the hero abilities, but I largely redesigned the other cards: buildings, citizens, and magical items. There is a specific and relatively lazy pleasure in designing, one after another, cards to fit an already existing system. I had the same fun working on Greedy Kingdoms that I had on Warehouse 51 and on revisiting older designs such as Castle or Fist of Dragonstones. This is so much easier and rewarding than creating a brand new system.
Greedy Kingdoms first edition
We've never actually met, but it's not the first time I worked with Hayato Kisaragi since he designed the Japanese Mythos cards for my Battle of Gods / Mythos game that was published in a Japanese game magazine and in the French comics magazine Lanfeust. (There's no English version yet, but there has been some talk about it.) I haven't played Hayato's best know games, Grimoire and Lost Legacy, but I've read the rules. In many ways, they seem to be a bit like my best designs, with lots of bluff, fun card effects, and more tactics than strategy.
Two Japanese cards from my Mythos game
At Gen Con 2017, I talked a bit here and there about Greedy Kingdoms, which I decidedly enjoyed, and I finally decided to contact the first edition's designer and publisher to see what could be made from my tweakings and ideas. They answered me that a new edition was already in the works, to be published by AEG, but that my developments were welcome. I wrote down all my ideas and sent the files to Hayato. He discussed a few things, but in the end agreed on almost all of my many minor changes. The idea was to keep the basic systems but to make the game clearer, more dynamic, and to tweak the balance to make it less unforgiving. I hope all those who enjoyed the first version of the game, of which there was only a hard-to-find bilingual Japanese/English edition, will appreciate the changes. With a big publisher and nice components, I also hope this will be an opportunity for this so-far hidden gem to find new players.
Greedy Kingdom's players are rival kings. Every round, one of them is the attacker and the other one the defender. The attacker plays face down three of their nine hero cards — King, Knight, Traveler, Painter, Baron, Cook, Witch, Bandit, Thief — sending them to battle in order to win the resources — gold, food, honor and land — required to develop the kingdom. Of course, the rival king, the defender, tries to prevent this and also plays face down cards to block and neutralize these possible attackers. Only unblocked heroes can use their abilities. Hard earned resources are used to promote heroes and give them extra abilities, to hire citizens, to build buildings (once more, this sounds strange) and even to buy useful but fragile magic items.
Greedy Kingdoms is a development, tactical and bluffing game, and in the end something relatively involved and sophisticated for a light two-player game. If you like Citadels, but like me don't really enjoy it with two players, you will like Greedy Kindoms. And if you're among the few people who like two-player Citadels, you might find it even better.
My great fear was that the U.S. publisher would want to move the game's action into their homemade pseudo-Renaissance universe, Tempest, which I find bland and unconvincing. I was ready to fight a bit on this, but luckily it wasn't necessary.
Working with AEG was fast, efficient and enjoyable, and I'm happy they decided to keep the original Japanese graphics, and to order the graphics for the new cards from the same graphic team. As a result, Greedy Kingdoms feels like an ironic mirror image of what I have described a few years ago in my essay about orientalism in boardgames. Greedy Kingdoms is indeed "occidentalist", the setting being western Middle Ages as imagined and drawn in Japan. Seen from Europe, the result is cute and fun, with a mix of buildings and costumes from very different periods (and hairstyles from none at all), and even a courtesan who looks like a cheerleader. Dangerous fantasies of authenticity are on the rise again, and that's why this kind of humorous mix is more necessary than ever. I'm all for cultural appropriation as long as it is done lightly, by everyone and in all directions, and the result is fun and colorful.
I love games with simple rules, rules that become invisible as you immerse yourself in the gameplay and focus on what you want to do rather than whether you're allowed to do it.
I also love card games because the sensation of looking at a new hand of cards each round or each game is wondrously like the sensation of opening a present. In general you know what you're getting — a hand of cards, yo — but more specifically you're looking at something that will challenge you in a particular way, and you need to attack that challenge using skills that you can hone over time.
On top of all that, I also love high variability in games, specifically designs that have a solid framework around which is wrapped unexpected construction materials in previously unimagined ways to create something you would not have predicted prior to this specific game. Carl Chudyk's Innovation remains my favorite game of all time precisely because of it having a simple structure that branches in wildly different ways each playing.
No wonder then that I was primed to love Daniel Fehr's Narabi from Lifestyle Boardgames after only a two-minute explanation during Spielwarenmesse in February 2018. As Lifestyle's Olga Volkova described the game, I think that I became more and more excited until I blurted out that I had to play the game immediately. Lifestyle didn't have sample copies on hand, but they got one to me later — an unfinished version with possibly non-final artwork and cards, mind you — and I've now played it ten times to find that my early affection was not misplaced.
Stop me if you've heard this before, but Narabi is a co-operative game in which you need to place cards in numerical order. I know, I know, another one! The main difference between The Game, The Mind, and this game, however, is that Narabi places all the cards face up, with each player having three or four cards in front of them, and on a turn you need to swap one of your cards with a card held by another player — but you can swap your card only according to its rule for this game.
In more detail, at the start of play, you slide a rule card into the sleeve holding the number card, making for a new set of card/rule combinations each time you play. Sometimes you can swap a 0 for a red card, sometimes for a card with an even number, sometimes for a card held by the player on your right, and sometimes not for any other card at all. Once something you own is swapped, you can look at the rule for the new card in front of you, thereby gaining more knowledge about what's possible as the game progresses.
Narabi with fruit bowl and a side of fries
Your collective goal is to place all the cards in numerical order, whether clockwise or counter-clockwise, while ignoring all of the blanks. We've had a game in which we won in four turns, multiple games in which we failed, and many games in which we succeeded in a middling number of turns. Every game seems wildly different, and even after ten games I don't feel like I'm close to getting a handle on how to play well, which means advance mode in which you can't speak at all and in which swapbacks aren't allowed is right out for now.
Lifestyle Boardgames plans to produce a Russian edition of Narabi in mid-2018, with editions in other languages coming from other publishers at some point during the year, but Lifestyle's Alexander Peshkov was not confident of which editions would appear at which times when I last spoke with him in June 2018. Regardless of those releases, the Russian edition of Narabi should be available at SPIEL '18 in October — and if for some reason it isn't, find me. I'll be sure to have my copy in my bag, ready to put numbers in order once again whenever I get the chance...
I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that I was stuck in O'Hare Airport for seven hours longer than anticipated on my way home from Gen Con 2018. The good news is that I used that time to add many more titles to the SPIEL '18 Preview than I would have otherwise. The other bad news is that the BGG system takes a while to publish the preview once I click "publish", perhaps due to so many titles being on the list, but in any case, it's now live! (Update, August 7: If the list isn't showing up for you, I think caching is the issue, as I attempt to explain here.)
I still have to tackle a few dozen more info forms from publishers — a delay caused by me focusing solely on Gen Con 2018 until that show was underway — and hundreds more games will be announced between now and mid-October when I finally stop updating the preview, but this batch of 222 listings will get you started for now. If you want to know how to use the preview to prioritize titles and make a personal shopping list/wishlist, head to this long explanation of the GeekPreview format from mid-2017.
If you are a publisher who did not receive an info request form from me, please Geekmail me or email me at the address listed in the BGG News header, and I'll send it your way.
One note for publishers related to activities that happened in the Gen Con 2018 Preview: Please do not use contests or giveaways to encourage people to thumb items on the SPIEL '18 Preview. Doing so violates the terms of service for use of BGG. Encourage people to check out the games you have on the preview, possibly even suggesting that they thumb games they're interested in playing or owning, but don't tie such suggestions to a potential reward for doing so.
Ten more weeks of SPIEL '18 Preview updates commence now, with a video preview of one such SPIEL '18 release coming on Tuesday, August 7. Onward!
At Fantasy Flight Games' In-Flight Report on Wednesday, August 1, 2018, the day before Gen Con 2018 opened, head of the FFG studio Andrew Navaro and designer Corey Konieczka made a number of game announcements that fit what one might expect from the company — a third edition of Arkham Horror with a modular board and other changes, a Mother of Dragons expansion for A Game of Thrones: The Board Game, new ships and figures for the Star Wars: Armada, Star Wars: Legion, and Star Wars: X-Wing lines — then Navaro introduced a short video that introduced this:
Navaro spent a fair amount of time covering KeyForge: Call of the Archons, a Richard Garfield design that has apparently been in the works for years, because while all of the other announcements already had a context in which people could frame what was being introduced, KeyForge is a new game that had to be covered from the ground up, starting with the setting in which the game takes place: "the Crucible, an artificial world built from the pieces of countless planets across the stars". This world is populated by god-like beings called Archons, who have assembled forces, tools and tricks from three of the seven houses "to find and unlock the planet's hidden Vaults to gain ultimate knowledge and power". Your goal in the game: Collect Æmber so that you can unlock your three keys (thereby giving you access to this metaphorical Vault) before the opponent does.
Names and icons of the seven houses
The hook of the game, which is part of the reason this game was in the works for so long, is that each Archon is represented by a deck, and each KeyForge deck ever sold by FFG (*) will be a unique combination of cards not available to any other person who ever plays the game. (I'll explain the asterisk below.)
How does this work? The card set for Call of the Archons consists of a few hundred cards — I've seen the number 370 in passing, but I can't find a reference for this — spread across the seven houses, along with a few mavericks that belong to no house. When you buy a KeyForge deck, which will be sold individually for $10 starting in Q4 2018 when the game is released, you'll receive a deck of 36 cards that contains cards from three houses. These houses are indicated by symbols on the Archon card:
What's more, each Archon is named and depicted through some kind of random name and image generator. Each Archon will have a unique name and image, and this name and image is printed on the back of every card in your deck, as you can see in this image from the first game that I played in a demo session following the In-Flight report:
Each Archon Deck as sold is complete, and you cannot swap cards or make substitutions from deck to deck because the backs of the cards won't match and the out-of-place cards will be clearly identifiable. (Yes, of course you can sleeve your cards to hide the backs, but I'm sure in organized play you'll be required to use transparent sleeves and swapping cards goes against the concept of what Garfield and FFG are trying to achieve.) The deck is meant to represent this particular Archon, and by wielding that deck, you are that Archon.
As Garfield explained during the In-Flight Report, this idea of the deck representing the Archon eliminates the concept of net-decking. You can't go out and buy the cards necessary to create a deck that someone else has made. Your deck comes complete with a certain percentage of common, uncommon, rare, and special cards spread across the three houses, and this combination of cards — which is printed on the back of your Archon card and summarized in a QR code — will exist in no other deck in the world. Yes, someone somewhere might contain a deck that differs from yours by only a single card, but given that the deck construction guidelines allow for more than 104,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible decks (according to FFG), you're probably not likely to find that someone, no matter how often you play.
You will find Archons that use the same combination of houses, but even then their decks will differ depending on which houses are most prominent and which particular cards are included.
The decks that competed in my second game
The one exception to all of the decks being unique is that the KeyForge starter set (MSRP $40) contains two pre-constructed decks — Miss 'Onyx" Censorius and Radiant Argus the Supreme — that are intended to help new players learn the game. The starter set also contains two unique decks so that you can become someone new once you're comfortable with the rules, but you can also download the rules from the FFG website and jump into play by buying two standalone decks — or just one deck if someone else you know also desires to be an Archon.
Many people have asked whether all the decks are balanced (which seems impossible) or how you can ensure fair play since one combination of cards might be clearly better than another. FFG has promised that in organized play, it will have a system to handicap decks, with a deck possibly being forcibly retired if it's determined to be too successful. (The QR code on your Archon allows a tournament organizer to upload your deck contents immediately without you having to complete a decklist, and your OP results will be tied to your deck through that QR code.)
You might bristle at the notion of not being able to use a deck that you bought, but you can of course continue to use that deck in casual play. Maybe you can play a pair of matches against someone, swapping decks between matches. If you win both matches, then clearly you're the better player; if you trade matches, then you compare how many keys and pieces of Æmber the loser of each game held.
Whatever, I say. To some degree, the point of the game is the explorative nature of the decks and the ability of the player to best learn how to exploit their cards. I spoke with someone from Asmodee North America about the game, and this person said that Richard Garfield had compared KeyForge to horse-racing. With Magic: The Gathering, Garfield's main contribution to the gaming world to date, a player can buy the cards needed to create a deck they've seen elsewhere; they still need to be able to play that deck well, but you can buy the tools needed to increase your chances of winning.
With KeyForge, you're more like a jockey riding a horse. That horse comes to you complete in one piece, and you can't transform it into a cyborg by attaching a guided missile system and installing a rocket butt. You, as the jockey, need to learn how to get the most out of that horse, and to do so, you need to ride that deck again and again until you know it inside and out. You will know all the tricks it contains and how to dig to find the creatures, artifacts, and spells that give you the best chance of winning.
Richard Garfield explains the game at Gen Con 2018
I've played KeyForge twice with different decks at Gen Con 2018 and am enchanted with the game design itself as well as the concept of the world. What's interesting to think about is that when Wizards of the Coast first released Magic in 1993, the company stated that it thought people would buy just a few starter decks and boosters and be content with that. They would create a deck and while playing other people, they'd discover all of these other cards that they didn't know about. The games would have a sense of discovery as you encountered new cards and found out more about the world of Magic. This concept failed, though, because people bought dozens, if not hundreds, of decks and boosters, and as the online community developed, everyone knew about every card in a new set within 24 hours of the set being released.
Now with KeyForge, you once again have that possibility of discovering something new each time you play. Not because of the individual cards, which you'll see after buying or playing a sufficient number of decks, but because of the combination of those cards into unique arrangements that exist nowhere else in the world. You get to discover those combinations with each new person you play, just as you discover the combinations of characteristics that make up each new person that you meet, and the more you play against a deck — that is, against someone — the more you discover about them and their nature, a beautifully fetching idea that's been embedded in the structure of this game.
• On the eve of Gen Con 2018, publishers are still bringing out more surprises, mostly in the form of previously unannounced games that people can demo at the show. Not content to announce three titles in late July 2018, Plaid Hat Games has added a fourth title to its line-up: Steve Nix' Gen7: A Crossroads Game. Here's an overview of what promises to be a massive game, one that even features "9 Envelopes - Stuffed with Secrets" according to the table of contents on the PHG website:
An international colony ship has left an exhausted Earth, headed for a distant planet in the Epsilon Eridani system. Thirteen generations will be born on this vessel before it reaches its destination, each generation a steward of the hopes and ideals of the human species. For six generations, everything has gone as planned....
Now, just as a new command team takes control of the ship, a terrible mystery emerges that will threaten the entire mission. The commanders of Gen7 are about to discover that everything is not as it seems, and the fate of the human species will hang on the choices they make.
In the tradition of the award-winning Dead of Winter, Gen7: A Crossroads Game is a grand narrative game with multiple possibilities. The choices players make as they play will alter the direction of the story. Gen7 will constantly challenge its players with a variety of unique situations that force them to make difficult moral decisions. Will you compromise your integrity to ensure the safety of your crew? Will you value their lives over the safety of the mission?
• Designer Scott Almes and publisher Gamelyn Games have sprung the latest title in an increasingly large series of small games: Tiny Epic Mechs. The previous entry in this series, Tiny Epic Zombies, will be available for purchase at Gen Con 2018, with this new design available for a look-see ahead of a Kickstarter campaign in September 2018 and release of the game in 2019. To find out what's going on in the game, though, you need to first jump ahead a thousand years:
It's the year 3030, and technology offers humankind unimaginable entertainment. What used to be virtual reality is now reality, and sports that once occupied your flat-screen now occupy the world stage. The largest of them embodies the evolution and integration of athleticism and machinery. Once every five years, hundreds of millions of viewers tune in to witness the spectacle that is M.E.C.H.s: Mechanized Entertainment Combat Heroes.
Tiny Epic Mechs is an arena-style player-vs-player action-programming game. It features ITEMeeples with plastic molded power armors and a Mech suit that the ITEMeeples actually go inside of.
In the game, players take on the roles of highly skilled and athletic Mech pilots. They compete in a free-for-all battle royale over the span of six rounds. In each round, players select four of eight available actions to program. These actions keep you moving around the arena while allowing you to deploy high-scoring defensive turrets, plant explosive land mines with hidden values, collect resources, purchase weaponry, and power up into your Power Armor or eventually the highly-sought-after Mech Suit. While each player has their own Power Armor, there is only one Mech Suit, reserved for the king of the hill.
Your programmed actions are played out one at a time around the table until all players have executed their four actions. When you cross paths with another player, combat ensues. During combat, players exchange fire until one player is out of ammo and must retreat, or they are defeated and forced to reset.
Combat is fast, and you can use each weapon only one time per fight, so the more weapons you have, the longer you'll last. Weapons are categorized into three types, and each type counters one of the other types. If you time your weapons correctly, you can counter your opponent and unleash a more powerful attack and gain an edge over them. Dealing a lot of damage to your opponent will wow the audience and earn you lots of points, which brings you closer to victory. You also score victory points every other round based on area control and who controls the Mech. At the end of the game, you also earn points for each weapon you own.
BGG had recorded an overview of Patchwork Express at Spielwarenmesse 2018, with this design being a modified version of Patchwork with larger pieces for players both younger and older than the audience of the original game.
Farmers of the Moor is a revised version of the 2009 expansion of the same name for use with the revised version of Agricola that was released in 2016. The basic description of the expansion sounds the same as the original — clear peat and woods from your fields, heat your house to avoid getting ill, collect horses in addition to other animals — and I'm not sure at this time exactly how it differs from the original. Ideally I can buzz the Lookout booth in the next few days to get answers.
• Blue Orange Games has landed a companion to the giant-sized version of Kingdomino that it offered in the wake of that game winning the Spiel des Jahres award in 2017, namely a giant-sized version of Queendomino. The box doesn't look that much larger than the original game, but the pieces look twice as tall or long, so perhaps the box is way deeper than it appears.
Surprise! You asked for a giant version of Queendomino, and we answered! We have a very limited amount to sell at @Gen_Con, so ask your local store to order them! And don’t forget to use your coupon for a chance to win the Giant Royal Wedding Raffle! #queendomino#gencon2018pic.twitter.com/Onvgb70P3a
Back in 2013 or so, my oldest daughter got into collecting Pokémon cards. It seemed weird that while so many kids we knew were getting into collecting the cards, few of them seemed to be into actually playing the game.
I can appreciate being a collector of things as I'm a comic book collector. However, I'm the sort of comic book collector who buys comic books to read them, not just gaze at them in shiny plastic bags, so naturally I wanted to actually play Pokémon!
I endeavored to help my daughter learn how to play. I was surprised to learn how complex the game was, and I found myself thinking that a lot of this complexity got in the way of it being much fun to play, at least for me. I know there are many, many people who feel differently about this.
I appreciate the ingenuity and humor of all the strange characters that have been created for Pokémon, and the deck-building is a lot of fun, but I felt the game itself was extremely clunky. My daughter and I found ourselves stripping out some of the rules that did not add to our fun. (We never play with weakness or resistance, for example, as the way they are implemented just bogs things down.)
While I have had many fun games of Pokémon with my daughter, generally it seems like this is in spite of the game rather than because of it. The truly weird characters are awesome, though!
I secretly love Magikarp enough that I carry this card in my wallet. Please don't tell anybody.
In any case, the things that I saw as broken in Pokémon were the initial inspiration that got me to start thinking about what a fun character-battling game would look like to me.
My existing interests made this a natural pursuit for me. While I had dabbled a bit in game design for my own amusement in the past, I've been a cartoonist for as long as I can remember. I've been self-publishing comics and putting them online for for many years.
Basically, I can't help drawing goofy characters all the time for my own amusement, so making a character-fighting game seemed like a fun way to fit this pursuit into a larger project.
What Is Squirmish?
Squirmish is "The Card Game of Brawling Beasties". It takes about a half-hour to play a game, and it is designed for 2-4 players. Players place cards on the table into a mass of cards known as "The Squirmish" and battle them against each other. While the sequence of play is simple, every card is unique, with a different silly character with different attacks and abilities. A great deal of strategy and a great deal of luck is needed to win the game, which players accomplish by knocking out three of their opponents' cards.
You can learn more about the game by reading the rules (PDF). (Both the new Gamewright edition rules (PDF) and the self-published edition rules (PDF) are downloadable for comparison.)
This article is a general overview of the experiences and thoughts I went through creating Squirmish, testing it, self-publishing it, finding a publisher for it, and improving it.
Inspirations for Squirmish
Initially, I had no particular intention to publish Squirmish; I started making the game as a fun thing to share with my daughters. Since I was creating this game for us, I saw no reason to limit my character creation to any one kind of character and just created whatever I felt like drawing or thought was a funny idea. The characters ended up including monsters, bunnies, blobs, kitties, cryptids, and anything else that appealed to me at the time.
Early original art for Squirmish; the initial cards were drawn pretty much to final size, which I do not recommend
I have always had a great affinity for weird and grotesque characters dating back to childhood. A big inspiration for Squirmish (and my art in general) are the Basil Wolverton-, Wally Wood- and Norm Saunders-designed Ugly Stickers published by Topps that I was lucky enough to have my neighborhood ice cream man give out when I was a kid.
Examples of Ugly Stickers published by Topps
Basil Wolverton is a particularly large influence on my work, and hilariously ugly characters have always been a favorite thing of mine to draw. Other inspirational artists of fine ugly would include Robert Crumb and the Zap artists, Big Daddy Roth, and Jim Woodring.
Paradoxically, I also adore drawing exceedingly cute animals and other characters. Walt Kelly, Carl Barks, Dr. Seuss, and George Herriman would be my main influences in that arena (all of whom could draw ugly wonderfully as well).
Before creating Squirmish, I had not realized it was an uncommon thing for an artist and a game designer to be the same person as it seemed pretty natural to me. In addition to being a cartoonist, I have been a long-time lover of games.
As happens with many gamers, my game playing had atrophied a bit as I had gotten older and lost touch with many of my gaming friends. (One of the many great things about having kids is always having a good excuse to play games!) When I was a teenager, my friends and I spent many weekends in dark basements and coffee shops playing RPGs (notably Call of Cthulhu, Champions and Paranoia), strategy games (Diplomacy, Axis & Allies, Illuminati), and plain old Chess. For many years I had played Steve Jackson's Illuminati every Thursday with a group that was hardcore enough to have a traveling trophy that we would battle to keep at the end of the year.
Steve Jackson's Illuminati actually ended up being probably as much of an influence on Squirmish as Pokémon, although it is not really obvious. I always liked how the cards in Illuminati branched out in tentacles of cards. That was an inspiration for how the cards in Squirmish are in a mass in the middle of the table, where cards face the player who controls them, and attack cards that are adjacent to them.
Another influence from Illuminati was on the group abilities in Squirmish, which I'm sure was partially inspired by the secret societies in Illuminati and their unique victory conditions.
The biggest influence from Illuminati, though, is in the balance of the game. I always loved that Illuminati involved so much strategy to win — but simultaneously involved just as much luck to win, to the degree that you could rarely fully ascertain whether it was more your skill or your luck that won or lost a game for you. That said, it was clear that both were important. This sort of a game balance is probably kryptonite to a lot of gamers, but many of my favorite games have this sort of dynamic. Squirmish has this element in spades.
While Pokémon was another huge influence, as I said, it was as influential in what I did not like about it as in what I did like about it. What I did like about it primarily was the huge range of wild and interesting characters to battle with, which Squirmish certainly attempts to emulate.
I had never liked the "bench" concept from Pokémon, where you had one card attacking while the rest of your fighters waited in the wings and often were never even used in the course of the game. Rather than Pokémon's sort of "tag-team wrestler" combat, I thought a "Spain Rodriguez illustration of a biker bar brawl" combat mechanism sounded more fun. In Squirmish, you can choose to attack with any card you have in play on your turn.
The crazy brawls drawn by Spain and S. Clay Wilson in Zap comics where everyone seems to be attacking everyone else
were a big influence on how I wanted battles to work in Squirmish
Also, as I mentioned before, I really disliked the (in my view) extreme and unnecessary complexity of Pokémon. So many of the rules in Pokémon seem to add complexity without adding any fun to the game.
I tried to keep the mechanisms of Squirmish as simple and easy to learn as possible. While Squirmish has a lot of complexity, the complexity comes from the effects the individual cards have on the game rather than the simple mechanisms of the game itself. Keeping this distinction in mind does a lot to help make the game accessible to kids, I think.
One thing I liked the most about Pokémon — the deck-building — is not a part of Squirmish. In Squirmish, cards are drawn from a single deck to make the player's hands.
The other game that was a large influence on Squirmish was the Adventure Time game Card Wars — not the actual card version of the game, but the phone app. (The two are utterly different from each other, and the video game is much better, in my opinion.) The main influence from Card Wars on Squirmish was in the wildly inventive modifiers that different cards had on the game mechanisms, often altering the larger game in unforeseen ways. Along with its sequel Card Wars Kingdom, the Card Wars apps are definitely some of the most fun video games I have ever played. It was a much more successful character card-battling game than Pokémon, in my view, in spite of the cards being virtual.
Finn and Jake sit down to do battle in the Adventure Time Card Wars app from Cartoon Network
Character creation is the easiest part of making a [i]Squirmish card (and probably the most fun, although I enjoy the entire process).
Sometimes I will have an idea in advance that I find funny that I want to create. Many of the best characters started as a literal scribble on a piece of paper that I just messed around with until a character came out of it. I love to create characters from scribbles because they are wide open to interpretation and are likely to trigger character ideas I would not come up with otherwise. I find trusting your subconscious to guide you through this sort of chaos is a great asset to an artist. In any event, it seems to work for me!
Occasionally I will come up with an ability that sounds like fun, then come up with a character who seems appropriate for the ability. Usually it is the other way around, and I will figure out what sort of special ability makes sense for the character. I have come up with a lot of abilities that seem pretty novel to me by just thinking about how a particular character's characteristics make sense interpreted into the game mechanisms.
I also come up with characters that work well for a particular group concept, with the Spooner Valley Cryptids being the best example of this. All the characters in that group are cryptids with spoonerisms for names (Figboot, Quazscotch, The Knockless Monster, The Snowbomnible Omen, and Dendwiggo), so those ones were pretty premeditated before they were drawn.
The Spooner Valley Cryptids from Squirmish
One thing about Squirmish that I think is unique are the cards' battle cries. If you say a card's battle cry in a goofy voice before making your first attack with that card, it gives you +1 damage or +1 healing on your attack. This is probably the most fun part of the game for a lot of kids. It is always a hoot for me to watch kids crack each other up saying silly things from the cards to each other. I usually come up with the battle cries after I create the characters and have a better idea what they are all about.
Heed the mighty battle cry of Killgor the Conqueror!
Once I have created the characters, their abilities, and their battle cries, I lay their card out in Photoshop. I draw all of the characters on paper initially because I am old-school like that. I have kind of a weird process for preparing the artwork digitally:
• First, I scan the art into the computer.
• Then I take the art into Adobe Illustrator and convert the art from bitmap to vector art. You can lose minor amounts of detail in converting to vector, but I find it well worth the trade-off, especially since I am the only one who would ever notice the slight, annoying smoothing of my wiggly lines. Converting the art to vector makes it much easier to clean up and color, and makes it so that the image can be scaled to any size.
• Then I take the vector art into Adobe Animate and clean the art up and color it with flat color. Many people would use Adobe Illustrator for this as well, but Adobe Animate is much more intuitive for me. Often I use the handy online Adobe Color Wheel to help me find pleasing color palettes.
• Then I usually export three files from Adobe Animate as .svg files: one containing the line art, one containing the color, and one that contains the entire shape of the figure, usually in black (which fills in any gaps that may appear in the vector art between colors).
• Then I import those files as different layers in Adobe Photoshop as smart objects, line art on top, color in the middle, full shape on the bottom.
• Then, between the line and color layers, I do shading and highlighting on different layers over the color with the brush tool. Usually (but not always) I set the main shading layer to multiply, and the main highlighting layer to overlay.
Like I said, weird process, but it works well for me.
Much of what I learned playtesting the game involved stripping things out of the game that added complexity without a lot of benefit.
The initial Squirmish cards I created were actually quite a bit more complex. Many characters had two or three special abilities instead of one. I quickly found in playtesting that it was too much information to keep track of. It was hard killing some of those abilities that I found funny or interesting, but it made the game much better overall to have less information to read on the cards. Now the only cards that have multiple abilities are group cards, and their group abilities are activated only when more than one member of that group is in play.
Different iterations of the Mr. Bottom card, from original art, to testing prototypes, to the self-published version, to the Gamewright version;
the original art suggests one special ability (KA-POOT), the first prototype has two (BOTTOM DOLLAR and ROYAL FLUSH),
and the rest have one (BUTT OUT)
Similarly, I initially had no limits on how many cards you could have in play at a time, or how many cards you could have in your hand. This was completely overwhelming, and I eventually found it seemed pretty balanced limiting it to five-card hands and a maximum of five cards in play.
Complexity is definitely necessary to make the game fun, but it really requires a careful balance (especially in a game where all the cards are unique). Too much complexity, and the players get bogged down reading cards before they can even figure out what to play (which is especially noticeable in a game aimed at relatively new readers). Too little complexity, and the game is uninteresting.
I like to think I've achieved a pretty good balance in Squirmish. While it is certainly a big advantage to have learned the cards and to know what they do, it is hopefully not too hard for a new player to get their heads around what all they have in a five-card hand.
One weird thing I had done utterly wrong in my initial layouts was to have it so that the layout was not consistent. Sometimes I put characters on the left side of the card, sometimes on the right, according to what I thought looked best. All I can say is it seemed like a fun thing to do at the time!
Not having a consistent layout just made all the information on the cards much harder to take in, so that was quickly scrapped. Hand lettering these also had to go. Thoughtfully considering font, text size, text legibility, font kerning, font leading, general image balance, empty space, color, contrast and other layout concerns is not useful simply to make game cards look good. It also makes an enormous difference in how easy or difficult a game is to play. If you take design decisions lightly at the outset of a big game project (as I sometimes did), it leads to a whole lot of work down the road, believe me.
Some design issues are harder to predict until you sit down and playtest a game, though. Early on I had no symbols to indicate whether a special ability was offensive, defensive, or just weird. Adding icons for these different kinds of abilities next to the abilities made it much easier for players to quickly analyze whether an ability might be useful at a particular time.
I initially did a Kickstarter for the game that failed, which, in hindsight, was a good thing. Since I was not able to fund a print run, I instead opted for self-publishing through The Game Crafter website, which makes it easy for game designers to manufacture high-quality print-on-demand versions of their games. It is a pretty amazing resource. In addition to being able to print your designs on all sorts of things, they also have a huge selection of parts and pieces that can be included in your published game.
The box for the self-published deluxe edition of Squirmish
I'm really glad I went the print-on-demand route for a lot of reasons. While the cost-per-unit is higher in print-on-demand, there is little money needed up front, and you do not risk having a bunch of unsold games filling up your basement. You can print as few as one copy of a game, so print-on-demand is especially great for prototyping and game testing. Also, it makes it so you can easily send polished copies of a game out to reviewers and potential publishers.
The contents of the box for the self-published deluxe edition of Squirmish
I had a mostly-good experience getting Squirmish reviewed. First, I researched which reviewers were out there who were aimed at the right audience for my game (kids and adults who like shorter games). I contacted reviewers before sending out copies to them to confirm they were interested in reviewing the game.
I probably sent out over a dozen copies, and only two of the reviewers did not write a review or do a review video. I learned a lot from the reviews. Many of the comments in the reviews directly led to me making improvements in the current version of the game.
As far as promoting the game goes, in my experience, reviews seem to have much more of a long-term than immediate benefit. I expected to see a significant increase in sales after a review came out, but it was not noticeable. However, I put pull-quotes from the reviews and links to them on the Squirmish website, and I suspect they do a lot to interest people in the game and help people learn about the game long after its initial publication.
I was extremely lucky sending Squirmish out to publishers as I had to send out only one copy. My first choice of publishers was Gamewright as they have made many games my kids and I greatly enjoy (such as Rat-A-Tat-Cat, Pyramix, Sushi Go!, Forbidden Island, and Dragonwood), they market their games to the same audience I was interested in getting my game to (short games that are fun for kids and adults), and they have a wide reach (with five or six games in the Target up the street from me).
I sent Gamewright a copy of Squirmish, and, to my delight, they offered to license it from me for publication.
Collaborating with Gamewright on Squirmish
It has been a great experience collaborating with the folks at Gamewright. Jason Schneider, the vice president of product development at Gamewright, has been a wonderful collaborator to work with. His many years of experience in making games has given him a pretty impressive eye for spotting what is working well and what is not working in a game.
The Gamewright edition added square cards, googly-eye hit counters and custom dice to the game,
along with a host of other more subtle improvements
The most obvious improvement in the Gamewright edition was the frequently-requested change from the rectangular cards of the self-published version to square cards. That made the mechanism of cards being able to attack only cards that are adjacent to them work much more smoothly visually, and the mass of cards in the middle of the game (the "Squirmish") looks much neater.
A game in progress
The other obvious improvement was changing the damage counters to googly eyes. Self-published copies of the game had encouraged players to use cereal for damage counters (inspired by growing up playing poker with my Grandpa for Cheerios), and the self-published deluxe edition had included tiddly-winks for damage counters. I had sent some early review copies of the game out with googly eyes, which was my first choice for them since kids had fun putting the googly eyes over the characters eyes for an amusing effect. However, it had not been an option to do this when I was doing print-on-demand so I was excited to have this change.
Many of the changes are less obvious. The sequence of play change we made was the biggest one, and that came entirely from Jason. The sequence was changed from:
• Draw a card, if you wish. • Place a card, if you wish. • Move or attack. • Resolve any abilities.
• ATTACK! • Resolve any abilities. • Place a card (or move) if you wish. • Draw a card, if you wish.
This was initially a hard sell for me as my kids and I were so used to playing with the old sequence of play, but I have come to realize it was probably the single biggest improvement we made. In particular, it made movement a much bigger strategic part of the game than it had been in the earlier version since people were much less likely to move when it had meant not attacking. Also, moving the attack to the beginning of the turn gets the action going right away, which makes the game more exciting.
Jason also had a lot of good suggestions for balancing the game. Many cards had their hitpoints lowered and attacks increased to speed up the game. The number of cards in the deck was reduced from the pretty overwhelming 108 cards I had in the self-published version to the streamlined 70 cards in the Gamewright version. We also improved the balance of the deck, making it much more likely for multiple cards of the same group to come up in a game (which activates their special group abilities). This is a particularly fun and exciting element of the game, and increasing the likelihood of group abilities being activated greatly increased the fun and strategy of using group cards.
One other change was that in the self-published version of the game the stinkiest player goes first. That was amusing enough, but Jason suggested instead that all players place a card from their hand face-down at the outset of the game, and the player who puts out the card with the fewest hit points goes first. This is another huge improvement in my view as it makes some of the lower hit point cards that a player may be reluctant to play at other points in the game more strategically interesting.
The Future of Squirmish
I'm pretty far on working on an expansion to Squirmish, although whether it will get published of course depends on how successful the initial game is. (The game was released by Gamewright in mid-2018 and is having its official premiere at Gen Con 2018.) I'm currently compelled to make more Squirmish cards regardless of whether they get published as I have so much fun making them. I've created a heap of new cards for the expansion, and I am currently in the process of testing out a new prototype deck of them along with some new game mechanisms.
A sneak preview of prototype cards I have been working on
I'm also hoping that sales will be good enough to justify the publication of booster packs, which I think would do a lot to help Squirmish reach a different audience. Hopefully kids will do more with them than just collect them, though!