There is a whole genre of games in which all players play a card at the same time, then reveal them. Whether you played the right card or not depends entirely on which cards the other players have played.
Most of those games take some time to get started because the cards have special abilities, and you need to know all of them and how they interact before you can play. I wanted to take the core experience of such games and build the simplest possible game around it — a game that could be explained in a minute.
The basic concept I came up with was this: Each player has six tokens of three different colors, and they want to get rid of these tokens. In each round, each player secretly plays one of their remaining tokens, then reveals them. They are trying to fulfill some "goals" that are unique for the round, such as "Be one of exactly two players to play a black token" or "Be the only one to play an orange token". If you succeed, you get rid of the token you played. If you are down to one token, you win. There is no difference between what the colored tokens do, so there is nothing to explain about them.
Initially, the goals were given by cards. Each round, a new card was drawn to decide the goals for the round. All goals were about being a certain number of players playing a specific color token. And since you always needed some way to win with any kind of token you played, I found that it worked well when cards had a rule like "If none of the other goals succeed, anyone who played an orange token gets rid of it." (That's what the star means on the bottom of the card at right.)
My tests showed that all the cards that worked best basically had the same formula, so it didn't feel like I was taking proper advantage of the cards. Also, you would need quite a lot of them for variation. I wondered whether you could draw several cards and combine goals, but then a friend suggested I use dice instead. That worked much better. Rolling dice is quick, there is no card shuffling, and you get a lot of different combinations.
But how should the dice be designed? One of my first designs looked like this:
The stars still meant "If none of the other goals succeed, anyone who played an X token gets rid of it", but many dice rolls gave only one choice as to what was correct to play because you could win with only one color. I realized that the "star" rules should instead be implicit. If a color didn't have a goal — that is, if it wasn't represented on any of the dice — you could get rid of it if no other goals succeeded. In that way, you could always in principle get rid of any color.
The dice above never gave the possibility of "1 or 2 white" because all the white goals were on the same die, so I figured that dividing the dice by "amounts" instead of colors would work better.
I wanted some blank spaces, so the amount of goals would vary, but I always needed at least one goal, therefore one of the dice should have no blank spaces. I found that the goal of being the only one to have chosen a specific token was the most fun, so I wanted to make sure there was always such a goal by making this die:
Which meant that I needed to leave blank spaces on the other dice:
On my first playtest, I expected the game to be a very "thinky" game, one in which you would go through endless loops of "He'll probably do this, so I should do this, but he expects that, so I should probably do this instead..."
But what I found was that the winner of the game would most often be the one who best followed their gut instinct instead of trying to think everything through. This is probably the reason why the game turned out to go so well with non-gamers — and of course the simplicity of the game also helps with that.
I found that the winning condition of playing down to one token had a problem: If you ended up with two tokens of the same color, you no longer had a choice of what to play. Of course, this situation would be your own fault, but it was an undesirable situation anyway. Thus, I changed the rules so that you would win the moment you had tokens of only one color, instead of when you had only one token.
The theme of the game was weak when I submitted it to FoxMind. The tokens were just the elements earth, wind and fire (black, white, orange). Why no water? Because if both fire and water were in the game, you would expect them to interact, which they wouldn't. You would expect water to beat fire somehow.
Luckily FoxMind had a better idea and turned the design into a potion-brewing game with a nice brewing bottle, which is both part of the gameplay and at the same time functions as the game box. We are on different continents, so I have not yet held The Potion in my hand, but I can't wait...
The 2018 BGG@SEA cruise to Alaska was so popular that BGG decided to run two back-to-back one-week cruises during the dates June 22-June 29, 2018, and June 29-July 6, 2018. My husband Snoozefest and I went on the first week's cruise since we had planned to meet up with our Australian friends Peter Hawes and his S.O. Dominika, whom we had visited and traveled with at the end of 2014. We all signed up for the first week together. (Ironically, I have no photos of them since they were on a different meal plan — more on that below — and were too late in signing up for the BGG excursions; we did manage breakfast, lunch, and a couple of games together, though.) Also, my husband and I had planned to go to the Gulf Games convention in New Orleans, leaving for that trip only a few days after returning from the cruise, so the first week was just better for us. This was our first cruise!
There were 262 BGGers for the first week's cruise and 224 for the second week. The cruise left from the Seattle port with the following planned stops: Juneau, Alaska; Skagway, Alaska; Tracy Arm Fjords/Sawyer Glacier (although we were rerouted; details further below); and Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Photo from plane, flying into Seattle
For gamers who were in Seattle on Thursday, June 21, and stayed at (or stopped by) the Hyatt Place Seattle/Downtown, there was gaming off the hotel lobby. Although we did get into Seattle on Thursday, it was rather late (for us anyway), so we just stopped by for a quick chat, then headed up to our room. We disembarked the next day, Friday, June 22. Before leaving, my husband and I walked to the Pike Place Market area and bought some crumpets and scones at The Crumpet Shop. (Highly recommended, but get there early because they can run out...and expect a long line.)
The cruise ship was Explorer of the Seas by Royal Caribbean, with Captain Mal at the helm (that would be Mal Bardsnes, sadly not Mal Reynolds). Price tiers for double occupancy were as follows:
• Interior cabins from $2,700 • Balconies from $4,500 • Suites starting at $6,300
This included taxes, fees, port expenses of $191.61 per person, pre-paid gratuities of $94.50 per person (or $115.50 for suites), and $100 onboard credit per stateroom.
It also included dining with other BGG@SEA group members every night (if desired), a welcome reception, access to overflow gaming space in the Main Dining Room on days 2, 3, and 6 from 7:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m., access to BGG@SEA exclusive group shore excursions, a farewell reception, a commemorative BGG@SEA 2018 badge (color-coded to participation level) in a neck wallet, and a draw-string bag.
Gaming access prices per person were as follows:
• Adult (12+) game room badge $150 • Child (4-11) game room badge $75
A game room badge allowed a person to get into the traditional BGG@SEA gaming area in the dedicated convention space (located on deck 2). BGG decided to separate this charge in case family members wanted to go on the cruise but did not want to game; this way they didn't have to pay for a badge they weren't going to use. Game badges also included one game request (via traditional GeekList in advance of the cruise) to be added to the BGG@SEA Library from the full BGG Library, as well as the ability to check out one game at a time from the BGG@SEA Library to play elsewhere on the ship. (There was no need to check out games played in the convention space.)
Explorer of the Seas was built in 2000 and last refurbished in 2015. It is scheduled for more refurbishing in 2018 as follows:
On Sports Deck 13, Royal Caribbean's signature waterslides Cyclone and Typhoon will be installed next to the FlowRider simulator and on Spa Deck 12, a new Slashaway Bay kids aqua park will be added. (This is an interactive water play area with cannons and geysers, replacing the Outdoor Youth Area.) Explorer of the Seas is one of the Voyager-class Royal Caribbean ships, which also includes Adventure, Mariner, Navigator and Voyager. Explorer of the Seas has a total of 1,557 staterooms for 3,114 passengers (max capacity is 3,840 guests), served by 1,180 crew/staff. The ship has 14 passenger accessible decks, 15 lounges and bars, 4 swimming pools, 7 jacuzzis, and 14 elevators. Check out the official deck map for an idea of how the ship was laid out.
Passenger elevators were in two areas of the ship. Although 14 may seem like a lot of elevators, not all are available to passengers, and more importantly during high movement times (boarding the ship, disembarking for excursions, meal times, etc.) the elevators were jam-packed. The first time going to our stateroom we tried three times to get on an elevator before deciding to take the stairs up to our tenth deck suite. (We boarded the ship on the second deck, so this was quite the haul.) Unfortunately, once we got to our room, we had trouble with our room keys (note: they had lost our original sea pass/room keys and had to make new ones before we even boarded the ship) – it took two more trips down to the fifth deck to get in line for customer service and back up those stairs again before someone was sent to take apart the entire door mechanism, replace some parts, and get it working. For our trouble, we did receive a bottle of wine and an upgraded dinner for the two of us (more on this later). The upside was that with all the stair climbing, I didn't gain any weight on the cruise! Yay!
The ship is huge, which might be one reason we ended up at further docks at ports. Also, there were other cruise ships at closer docks; possibly they arrived earlier and received a better position. There were shuttles to town at an extra charge, but we just walked (average about a mile each way at each stop).
Ship in port at Juneau - further from the other docks
This was not one of the fancy all-inclusive cruises. However, the price was lower because of this. One of the reasons BGG chose this cruise was so that families and those on a budget might be able to better afford the trip (another consideration being the size of the convention/meeting space). As such, the food was just average/good. There were premium restaurants available at an extra charge (about $5 to $30 per person). We joined a group of friends at the Italian restaurant with our free upgrades — the food there was very good. Ben and Jerry's ice cream was available at an extra charge (but soft serve was free). There were also extra charges for drink packages and internet access. (If you didn't purchase the internet package, you had to buy access per day – I think it was around $15.)
Regarding dinners, there were a couple of options: My Time Dining and Main Dining. Since this was my first cruise, I hadn't realized there was actually a choice. If you went with the default, Main Dining, you were assigned a table for dinner every night with other BGGers (same table and people for the duration). My Time Dining gave you more time flexibility; you just had to make your own arrangements, e.g., if you wanted to sit with other My Time Dining friends. The cruise had two formal dress dinner nights. The food was a bit better than usual on these evenings (for example, one night they had a soufflé for the recommended desert). On our cruise, there were a lot of staff from India. This worked to our advantage since our waiter, finding out that we love Indian food, brought out several dishes from the staff dinners each night for us. The rest of our table was pretty thrilled as well. (Sometimes we even shared with neighboring tables.) This was some of the best food we had on the cruise.
Once everyone was on board the ship, there was a mandatory guest assembly drill. The purpose was to help passengers to familiarize themselves with the safety protocol, i.e., by gathering in their assigned meeting places in the event of an emergency.
Schedule (first week; second week was similar)
Some of the BGG group just before boarding the Explorer of the Seas (pictured in background)
BGG@SEA attendees were invited to a welcome reception on the first day of the cruise. Hot and cold canapés were served and there was an open bar. Jeff Anderson made some announcements, then told everyone that it was his wife Kristine's birthday. He had arranged for a keyboard and mic – and some fancy blue and gold lights – so that he could sing Billy Joel's "She's Got a Way" to her. It was very sweet.
Jeff Anderson sang to his wife Kristine for her birthday
Stronghold Games, as a sponsor, gave one game to every stateroom: a copy of Rogue Agent, given out at the welcome reception. Also, if you signed up for excursions, you received an additional game per excursion, cleverly themed to match:
We signed up for all three BGG excursions, so we received four games! Yay! It was a bit tricky getting them home on the plane, though, as we brought carry-on bags only. We actually gave one to friends in the Seattle area when we met up with them for lunch after the cruise...
One of the best things BGG@SEA has over other cruises is that during the "sea days", you can play games! Although there are plenty of ship activities, nothing beats friends and board games (in my opinion).
There were over five hundred games and expansions in the BGG@SEA library. Some people brought a few games of their own as well. As far as organized events go, Jeff Anderson arranged a Poker tournament and a Duplicate Tichu tournament. Jeff also ran a series of games called "The 504 Experiment". I played in the Duplicate Tichu tournament, a type of tournament that I had never tried before, and I think it lasted about three hours. It was run like a Duplicate Bridge tournament: Each table played with fixed hands that would be scored against other teams playing those same hands. There was a bit too much accounting for my tastes, but I'm glad I tried it. I much prefer regular Tichu tournaments, even though they tend to be much longer. By the way, Jeff and his sister came in first... hmm. (My partner and I came in second.)
Fun Fact (courtesy of Jeff Anderson): During the second cruise week, one of the couples got engaged! If you know the couple, maybe you could post some details in the comments?
There were quite a lot of ship activities, far too many to list, but here are a few: Bingo, ice skating show, open ice skating, rock climbing wall, FlowRider (boogie boarding), mini-golf, comedy shows, movies, dancing, and seminars (although usually combined with selling).
If you wanted to work out, there was a nice fitness center, plus a running area marked on the deck. (I think it was a one-mile track.) There was also a spa but it was quite expensive. I won a $250 gift certificate for the spa by attending one of the many raffle drawings (this one was part of a spa tour). My husband and I signed up for a 75-minute couples massage. It used up the certificate, our $100 ship credit (included with BGG@SEA), plus $100 more! They tacked on a 20% gratuity, which I would not have given since I was quite unhappy with the massage and my masseuse. Not only that, before we could leave, the two masseuses cornered us for a hard sell of their products — as in they trapped us against the back wall of the room, blocking the only exit, made us sit down (they were standing), told us about their products, then when we declined, asked us why we didn't want to buy products that would make us feel better…and I quote, "Don't you want to feel good?" When I told them we were flying home with only carry-on luggage, they told us, "No problem, we can ship the products to you." So kind of them.
We went to only one show, the ice skating show "Spirits of the Seasons". I don't know if it was a particularly bad night, but the skaters fell at least six times (of those I saw – you couldn't watch everyone since they would spread out on the ice). And no, it wasn't because of ship movement – we had a pretty steady ride. Another couple who went at a different time said they saw only three falls. Well, at least it was entertaining.
On three of the nights, we were treated to a cute towel animal, placed on our bed as part of the turndown service. For some reason, I looked forward to these silly things.
Every evening (also with the turndown service) the Cruise Compass newsletter was delivered. It was a good idea to read this pretty carefully. It contained the schedule, including eating times and dinner dress code, for the next day. Below are copies of the Cruise Compass for the first day of the cruise.
Click to enlarge!
After a full day of cruising (and board gaming!), we arrived at our first stop: Juneau, Alaska. Since we had time before our excursion, we decided to walk around town a little, then check out the Alaska State Museum. One thing about this cruise (and probably many other cruises) is that there is a lot of advertising and up-selling (e.g., for future cruises). Mostly this turned us off, but there is one slightly positive note — many of the jewelry stores gave out free charms and other inexpensive jewelry. If you are so inclined, you can stop by the stores listed on a coupon sheet, included in your Cruise Compass, and receive an inexpensive charm, necklace, ring, or other small trinket at each store you visit. The drawback is that you will likely have to listen to some spiel and up-selling; some even make you try on a piece of expensive jewelry before you receive your "free charm". Most were not too bad, but a couple were hard sells where you would basically have to be rude in order to extract yourself from their virtual grip. I did, however, gain quite a collection of souvenirs.
My collection of souvenirs from various jewelry stores in Juneau and Skagway
One interesting type of jewelry that I was slightly tempted to buy was something made with gold quartz. Gold quartz can be found in the Juneau gold belt.
Fun Fact from Wikipedia: "The Juneau gold belt is located in the southeastern portion of the U.S. state of Alaska. This belt is approximately 100 miles (160 km) in length, north/northwest-trending, and extends from Berners Bay southeastward to Windham Bay, 60 miles (97 km) southeast of Juneau, and includes Douglas Island. The belt contains over 200 gold-quartz-vein deposits with production nearing 7,000,000 ounces (200,000,000 g) of gold. More than three-quarters of Alaska's lode gold was mined from the Juneau gold belt."
One of the better places to spend some time in Juneau is at the Alaska State Museum, otherwise known as SLAM (State Library, Archives, and Museum). Rebuilt in 2016, the new $140 million building contains four times the floor space as the old museum, including a gift shop, museum galleries, cafeteria, auditorium, classroom, reading room, research room, historical library, and state archives. It is a great place to learn about Alaska's history and cultures.
Photo taken at the Alaska State Museum
Fun Fact: Woolly Mammoths – this is what the label in the above photo says, "Mammoths came to North America from Asia, over the Bering Land Bridge, when the oceans were lower because water was locked in glacial ice. Alaska Native traditions recount the hunting of mammoths in Alaska, but thus far, no definitive physical evidence has been discovered. At the Swan Point site in Interior Alaska, one of the oldest sites in Alaska, evidence shows that people and mammoths coexisted there 14,000 years ago. Juvenile mammoth ribs were found there together with stone tools. At several sites in interior and northern Alaska, dating from 14,000 to 300 years ago, tools were found made from mammoth ivory and bone — but these materials were gathered from the surrounding landscape long after mammoths became extinct. Mammoths died out of the Alaska mainland around 14,000 years ago, but survived until around 6,500 years ago on St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea. Mammoth tusks Collected by Martin Matuska at Livengood, near Fairbanks, where many specimens of ice-age megafauna were discovered during placer mining"
Next we walked back to the ship dock to meet up with the BGG group for our first excursion: Mendenhall Glacier and Salmon Bake. We took buses to the Mendenhall Glacier. They allowed us about an hour, so we took the half-hour trail to the glacier. (It was going to be tight, so we walked fast.) The glacier is retreating so quickly that in a few years they will have to move the visitor center, which is already about a mile from the glacier. Check out the Huffington Post article and time lapse video over the last eight years showing the retreat: "Since installing a camera at Mendenhall in 2007, Extreme Ice Survey says the glacier has retreated more than 1,830 feet — about one-third of a mile. Its abnormally fast retreat and deflation shows the effects of climate change in action..."
The trail was easy to walk and in good condition. It was also very pretty, with a scenic point along the way.
After returning to the buses, we were brought to Gold Creek (rainforest and creek area) for a Salmon Bake. (I actually don't eat seafood, but they had chicken as well.) The food was really good; people seemed to really enjoy the salmon too, go figure. I loved the cheesy scalloped potatoes (had a huge helping!) and corn bread. The blueberry cake was also quite yummy. Here's the description from the Alaska Channel website:
You'll also, no doubt, smell your feast being prepared: Alaskan-caught wild salmon grilling over an open, alder wood fire. The all-you-can-eat meal — served under translucent domes, in case of soft rain — includes baked "cheechako" chicken ("cheechako" is slang for "newcomers"), Gold Rush potatoes, baked beans, wild rice pilaf, fresh salads and corn bread. Wash it down with lemonade, coffee or tea — or pay a few dollars extra for beer and wine, including some locally made ales.
As though blueberry cake weren't enough for dessert, you can finish off your meal with perhaps the greatest, yet simplest, delicacy of outdoor dining: roasted marshmallows, which you can prepare yourself over the crackling campfire. The lush scenery of Southeast Alaska's rain forest is another wonderful after-meal complement, along with the folk music performed by local musicians. After dessert, browse for gold panning kits and other mementos in the trading post.
Making smores at the Salmon Bake
From Juneau, we headed to our next port in Skagway, Alaska. Our excursion, the White Pass Railway Tour, didn't leave until 12:40 p.m., so we had time to walk around (visiting a few more jewelry stores), then pick up something for lunch to bring on the train. Skagway really is a throwback to the past. It looks similar to how it looked one hundred years ago, and in fact many of the original buildings are still standing. Take a look at the following photos of McCabe College (Skagway Museum) and the Arctic Brotherhood Hall, then check out the 100+ year old photos of the same buildings (just do a search) on the Klondike Gold Rush website.
Skagway Museum, Skagway, Alaska
Fun Fact: The Skagway Museum above is one of the best museums in a town filled with museums (not exaggerating). Constructed in 1899 by the Methodist Church, it was originally McCabe College, Alaska's first higher education institution. It was the first building in Alaska to be built of granite. After only a couple of years, the school was closed in 1901 and sold to the federal government to be used as a U.S. district court and jail. In 1956, the building was purchased by the city of Skagway. In 2000, an addition was put on the building. Today it houses the city hall, jail, and museum, the latter of which takes up the entire first floor. The museum contains much of the local history, including native Alaskan baskets, beadwork, and carvings as well as the Klondike Gold rush. One of the main attractions is the small pistol that the famous Gold Rush era con artist Soapy Smith kept up his sleeve.
Arctic Brotherhood Hall (AB Hall), Skagway, Alaska
Fun Fact: The Arctic Brotherhood Hall, or AB Hall, was constructed in the summer of 1899. The facade was added in 1900 using 8,883 pieces of driftwood from Skagway Bay. These were removed over the 2004-2005 winter for restoration, although about 40% had to be replaced as they had rotted. It used to be a fraternal hall for the local chapter of the Brotherhood; it is currently a visitor center and gift shop.
For lunch, we went to an excellent Thai restaurant, Starfire. (Yeah, I too was surprised to find this little gem here.) They are known for their Drunken Noodles dish, but it is usually served only for dinner. After some begging and my best sad face, the chef said he would cook us our two orders to-go. Woo-hoo! It did live up to its reputation — and the serving sizes were pretty huge.
The 3.5 hour ride on the White Pass Railroad was absolutely breathtaking. The train cars we were in had tables, so we could play games; I think I played only one though as there was just too much spectacular scenery to see. Below are a few of the photos I shot along the way.
White Pass Railway Tour, glacier on top of mountain
White Pass Railway Tour, train going around turn
White Pass Railway Tour, stream and a whole lot of pretty
Not the Tracy Arm Fjord and Sawyer Glacier
After leaving Skagway, the ship headed (overnight) to the Tracy Arm Fjord. The original plan was to stop at the Sawyer Glacier down the Tracy Arm Fjord in the morning and do some turns in the water in front of the glacier for an hour or so. However, we were rerouted to the Endicott Arm and the Dawes Glacier. The Cruise Compass, received the night before, noted "that there has been a lot of ice flow at Sawyer Glacier in Tracy Arm. With this limiting how close we can get to the Glacier in Tracy Arm and the safety of the ship with the floating pieces of ice, Captain Mal will make the decision upon arrival whether to take the option to go to Dawes Glacier at Endicott Arm which is close by. In previous cruises this has been the better option and Captain Mal has navigated the Explorer of the Seas less than half a Nautical mile [.575 miles] to Dawes Glacier giving you a stunning photo opportunity." Hmm. As I told my husband the night before, I had a feeling that we were going to be seeing the latter glacier. In Seattle, I talked with someone who was on another cruise at the same time, different ship, who saw the Sawyer Glacier. My guess is they usually go down to the Dawes Glacier – possibly because of ice flows but also maybe because there are other ships going to that location. (The second week also went to Dawes.)
Here's a pretty spectacular video of the Sawyer glacier on July 6, 2018 (the last day of the second cruise, well after they left the area):
We didn't get to see any spectacular calving, but it was still stunningly beautiful.
Iceburg, glacier ice flow from Dawes Glacier, Endicott Arm, Alaska
Glacier ice flow and the Dawes Glacier, Endicott Arm, Alaska
Near Dawes Glacier, Endicott Arm, Alaska
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada
From the glacier, we started towards our next destination: Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. There was another full day of cruising before we reached our destination on the seventh day. Around 9:30 a.m. we headed to the meeting place just off the ship, for our 10:00 a.m. excursion (4+ hours). We took buses through the city of Victoria to the Butchart Gardens (our bus driver gave us a sort of tour, pointing out the sights as he drove). The first thing we did was have lunch — a gourmet picnic! Each of us were given a huge basket full of food, which was way too much to eat. It was quite good. (There was seafood in main dish; I didn't eat it but there was so much food that I didn't care.)
Butchart Gardens picnic Victoria, Canada; L to R: Ravindra Prasad, Ken and Robin Hill, Mary W. and Lorna W., Steven and Linda Pedlow
The famous Sunken Garden was a former limestone quarry in Jennie Butchart's backyard. She and her husband, Robert, moved to Vancouver Island in 1904 in order to build a cement plant on a rich limestone deposit. Once the limestone was exhausted (circa 1912), Jennie made plans to transform the giant hole into a beautiful garden. According to the Butchart Gardens website, the Sunken Garden took nine years to build; it contains five acres of gardens with 151 flower beds with 65,000 bulbs planted for Spring. Today the Butchart Gardens is a National Historic Site of Canada.
Famous Sunken Garden, Butchart Gardens, Victoria, BC, Canada
Flowers, Butchart Gardens, Victoria, BC, Canada
Flowers, Butchart Gardens, Victoria, BC, Canada
Flowers, Butchart Gardens, Victoria, BC, Canada
After the excursion, the bus returned us to town. We asked to be left off across from the Fairmont Empress (an upscale 1908 hotel), near the British Columbia Parliament Buildings. After a quick peek inside the Fairmont Empress, one couple decided to tour the Parliament, another took a pedicab to a shopping area, while others went to the Royal BC Museum. (My husband and I were in the latter group.) The museum had an awesome special exhibition — Egypt: Time of the Pharaohs — that I was particularly interested in. We also took a stroll through some of the regular collections before walking back to the ship.
Sarcophagus, Egypt: Time of the Pharaohs, Royal BC Museum, Victoria, Canada
Ice Skating and Farewell Reception
When the ice isn't being used for performances, they open up the rink for skating. We went on the last day, just before the farewell reception. Because of safety, they make you wear a helmet and you can't do any tricks (i.e., no jumps). I grew up ice skating, so it was fun to relive my ice skating days (minus jumps). We skated for about 45 minutes or so. With the helmet on and all the skating, my hair was soaked by the time I left (plus I think I was a bit dehydrated). We just stopped in at the farewell reception to say goodbye to some people before heading up to our room to pack; we wanted to get off the ship soon after we docked in the morning, around 7:00 a.m.
The farewell reception was similar to the welcome reception, with hot and cold canapés being served and an open bar. Jeff Anderson announced the next BGG@SEA, planned for August 24-31, 2019. The cruise starts in Miami, FL, and will include St. Maarten, Puerto Rico, and Haiti. It will be on the newest and largest cruise ship in the world: the Symphony of the Seas — a sister ship to the Harmony of the Seas from BGG@SEA 2017. BGG will start taking deposits in late August 2018.
Michelle Alden and Jon Theys, my Duplicate Tichu tournament partner,
with Peter Hendee in the background reaching for a game
For families, this is a fantastic opportunity. There are lots of activities for kids on the ship. The tiered pricing system helps make it affordable. It's also a great way to see other places — the ship is basically your own floating hotel — and to get to know other board gamers (especially if you do the Main Dining). Of course there's plenty of time to play board games, especially on "at sea" days.
A special thanks to Jeff Anderson for providing statistics on the 2018 cruise as well as information about next year's cruise.
With a dedicated director of media — thanks, Lincoln! — we've started posting the game overview videos that we record at conventions relatively soon after the convention ends. Just one week after the curtain fell on Gen Con 2018, for example, we started posting those videos on the BGG YouTube channel.
I've published 26 of those overview videos so far, with the videos also proliferating into the BGG database, and we have ten more still in the can — all from day one! You can see them all in our Gen Con 2018 playlist, which will likely grow to two hundred-ish videos by the time everything has been posted.
Thanks to the increasing overlap of games being released at both Gen Con and SPIEL — as well as games being previewed at Gen Con ahead of SPIEL — these videos also serve as previews on the SPIEL '18 Preview. If you see a game cover on this preview with the "play" icon on it (as shown at upper right), you can click on the cover to launch the video within the preview. In addition to our Gen Con coverage, these videos come from Spielwarenmesse, Festival International des Jeux, GAMA, Tokyo Game Market, and Origins Game Fair, not to mention the occasional appearance by Rodney Smith of "Watch It Played", BGG's "Game Night!" crew, and one tall-ish news guy.
Many more video overviews to come in the weeks ahead, both from Gen Con 2018 and from sample games that publishers have sent me ahead of SPIEL '18. Only nine weeks remain for preparation for that show. Deep breaths...
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. As a result, I've decided to post the English versions of my new game design diaries on BGG as well. From what I've seen with the first diary, about Greedy Kingdoms, it seems to attract more readers, or at least more comments.
This designer diary first appeared on my blog on July 24, 2018. It has a few more pictures, and it's also in French — for those who care!
There are more and more new games — and mostly good new games — published in recent times. This is why I've been a bit surprised to get, for two or three years now, several offers for republishing older games of mine, including a few whose first version I thought had been forgotten. Queen’s Necklace, Mission: Red Planet, Diamant, Dragon's Gold, Smiley Face (now King's Life) and Vabanque have all had a new version, with updated rules and art. Success has been extremely variable. Mission: Red Planet and Diamant have been great success, selling better than the original versions, while King's Life and the remake of Queen's Necklace went almost unnoticed.
Anyway, if publishers are reading this post, I have a few more which I think could deserve a new edition, such as Boomtown, Draco & Co, Castle and Ad Astra. Serge Laget and I have even already developed new and improved versions of the latter two games.
Citadels is still by far my best-selling game. Since it was first published, almost twenty years ago, publishers have regularly asked me for a new Citadels, though I never really know what they mean by this. Not wanting to repeat myself, I've usually asked fellow game designers to help me revisit this classic.
The first way to do this has been to more or less recycle the character selection system of Citadels, adapting it to different settings and other game systems. The results have been Mission: Red Planet with Bruno Cathala, an area majority game on Mars, and then Lost Temple, a light racing game in the jungle of Indochina.
The second way has been to keep the medieval fantasy setting and to try to generate similar emotions and feelings as the ones in Citadels with different game systems. The results have been Fist of Dragonstones with Michael Schacht, and more recently a collaboration with Hayato Kisaragi to revisit one of his older games, Greedy Kingdoms.
The Lore of the Dragonstones
The setting of Fist of Dragonstones is inspired by old European legends about fairy gold, or fools gold, with this enchanted gold being paid during the day by fairies to humans for goods and services, then disappearing at night from the humans' purses and returning to the fairy land.
In the game, players are adventurers who buy the services of the various inhabitants of the magic forest: dragons, trolls, fairies and wizards of all kinds, each one of them working for the highest bidder. The goal is to find magic gems, the dragonstones, which then will be used to craft even more magical amulets, etc… Nothing new, I know. In the first versions of the game, players were collecting dragon eggs and using them to make magical omelettes, but this was not politically correct enough.
The cards in Fist of Dragonstones look a bit like those in Citadels. There's a witch, a thief, dragons of course, and a bunch of fantasy characters. These characters, however, are not drafted by the players as in Citadels, but recruited one after the other in a special kind of closed-fist auction. In their fist, players can have common gold, fairy gold, sometimes silver, and various enchanted or cursed coins. Even when it's technically an auction game, Fist of Dragonstones plays and feels more like a bluffing game. The real point is not to reckon the exact value of every card, but to outguess the other players.
The rules for this new edition — Fist of Dragonstones: The Tavern Edition — have been reworked a bit to make the game faster, to make the gameplay more dynamic, and to add variety. Fifty new characters, with very different abilities, make every game of Fist of Dragonstones a fresh experience.
When looking at the cover art of this new edition, the only thing I see is the main character's black leather hat, which doesn't seem to belong in the same universe as dragons and wizards.
In 2016, Stronghold Games published a tavern brawl game designed by the Engelstein family, The Dragon & Flagon. When developing this game, the publisher and designer obviously couldn't chose between two settings which both made sense: pirates and medieval fantasy. They finally decided to do both, and even added some oriental characters to round it out. Since I'm becoming every day more wary of authenticity, I can only rejoice in this fun and colorful mix and in this hat which looks a bit out of place in a vaguely medieval tavern.
Fist of Dragonstones is the card game that adventurers play, before or after the brawl, at The Dragon & Flagon tavern. It recalls old legends of forgotten realms, enchanted forests, elves and goblins, witches and wizards, and of course dragons. Whatever the bartender says, the gems it is played with are probably just glass beads, but one can dream they are the precious dragonstones of yore.
• I missed a lot while I was at Gen Con 2018, and what I didn't miss, I mostly didn't have time to write about. Too much work in too little time, followed by a week of crunching SPIEL '18 info for that convention preview.
In any case, let's get to some of the industry news that emerged from Gen Con 2018, starting with the merger of Stronghold Games and Indie Boards & Cards to form Indie Game Studios, self-described in the press release as "one of the largest hobby board game companies in the world". Travis Worthington of IBC will become CEO of Indie Game Studios and oversee the operations of all three studios within this new entity — and I say three studios because Stronghold Games, Indie Boards & Cards, and Action Phase Games (which IBC bought in 2016) will each maintain their own brands, with Worthington continuing to serve as President of IBC and Action Phase and Stephen Buonocore continuing as President of Stronghold Games. Why merge if brand are remaining distinct? To quote from the press release:
"I am delighted to join forces with Stronghold Games," said Travis Worthington, CEO of Indie Game Studios. "Stephen is a tremendous individual that has grown a loyal following over the past decade and we've had a long running relationship of working together over the years. Our skill sets are very complementary, and I look forward to even greater growth as we work together as one team in the future. The timing was critical for both our companies. As the industry consolidates around a few major corporate players, we needed to get bigger in order to compete as an independently owned creator of the world's best board games."
"We have entered a new era in the hobby board game industry," said Stephen M. Buonocore, President of Stronghold Games. "We cannot simply operate as we did 10 years ago. To grow our business, we must acquire 'mindshare' via increasing visibility of our brands, additional customer focus, and hiring new talent. This merger will do exactly this. Indie Game Studios will allow us to increase our global reach, better fulfill gamer needs, and enhance our product development efforts throughout all of our brands. Indie Game Studios is uniquely positioned as an independent entity, ready to battle the giant corporate owned conglomerates of the hobby board game industry."
Buonocore will now serve as spokesperson for all Indie Game Studios brands, while Nick Little of IBC is being promoted to Vice President of Game Development and Manufacturing. A final bit from the press release: "There will be no changes to the Distributor or Retailer terms and conditions for any product lines as a result of this merger."
• In less publicized merger news, during Gen Con 2018 Greater Than Games announced that it would acquire Cheapass Games, with the merger likely being completed in early 2019. I haven't seen a press release from either company yet about the merger, but rather I ran into people during the show who had been authorized to release news about this acquisition. No details yet about whether the Cheapass Games brand will remain active in the GTG catalog, but I've previously spoken with GTG personnel about them trying to consolidate their BGG publisher pages to emphasize the company as a whole, so we'll see.
Galápagos Jogos was founded in 2009, and its press release announcing the impending acquisition notes that it's Brazil's largest modern board game company, with a product line that already includes many titles released by Asmodee-owned and -distributed brands, such as Star Wars: X-Wing, Ticket to Ride, Dobble, Dixit, and 7 Wonders. To quote more from the translate press release:
Since 2013, when [Galápagos Jogos] started to market its first international games titles, the company had an increase of 800%.
With more than 60 lines of board and card games, the company's success follows the industry's global advancement, which is considered one of the fastest growing segments in the entertainment industry.
"Our purpose of bringing people together through a fantastic entertainment experience is strengthened even further now that we are part of Asmodee. The passion for telling incredible stories is the main factor that unites us. We are very proud to join such an experienced and capable team, "said Yuri Fang, president of Galápagos Jogos.
Interest in Brazil is part of the French group's strategy to consolidate its global presence. This will be its first operation in Latin America. Asmodee has offices in 14 countries: the United States, Canada, Spain, Germany, Italy, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and China. In addition, there are 13 game development studios around the world. Currently, the company distributes its products to more than 50 countries in the world.
The group, established in 1995, sells 34 million games a year, launches 300 new products, and recorded a turnover of €442 million in 2017.
"After five years of a successful partnership with Galápagos in the distribution of our games in Brazil, we are very happy to have them in the Asmodee family. We fully rely on the Galápagos team to further increase our presence in the market and build our platform in the country, "said Stéphane Carville, president of the Asmodee Group.
Time to start looking at some of the titles being placed in the SPIEL '18 Preview — 446 listings to date! — and what better place to start than with German publisher 2F-Spiele near the top of the list.
Designer Friedemann Friese will have four titles at SPIEL '18, with the largest of the bunch being Futuropia, a 1-4 player Power Grid-sized game that presents a fun mind-experiment of a setting:
In Futuropia, players live in a future Utopian society that possesses desirable lifestyle qualities for all of its citizens. Too bad this is not today's reality...
In this Utopian society, we all will work much less. Our robots can do nearly everything already. There is no need for great envy. It is simply about equality, justice, and the fair allocation of the complete and still necessary work, which then gives us ALL more leisure time.
Success means we will have time for the activities we like the most: fishing, farming, fencing, flying, ..., as well as gaming, building, painting, traveling, composing, and more. If somebody wants to work more than needed, they should do that. This is about the freedom! So let us rethink this: joblessness is not a disgrace, it is the new goal!
We are members of a team striving to realize this utopian ideal. We try to develop completely self-sustaining homes that function as efficiently as possible. They must generate enough food and energy to allow the residents the greatest possible freedom (thus, leisure time). The more people in our development who no longer need to work, the closer we are to reaching our goal! The player who builds the best development will win the game, and their development will become reality!
Futuropia is a luck-free economic game. To ensure you always encounter new challenges, we offer multiple game set-up variations, which create a variety of gameplay situations, ensuring new experiences and replayability. The solo game offers you an option to learn the mechanisms and processes of Futuropia before you play it with other players.
Futuropia is due out in October 2018, with Stronghold Games releasing this game — and the other three 2F titles — in English.
FORTUNE is the fourth title in Friese's "Fast Forward" series of games, designs in which you have no rulebook to read but instead have the rules embedded in the deck of cards that comprise the game. The top card of the deck gives you some instruction, then you do stuff until another rule card appears to clarify what you're trying to do or put a twist on what's come before.
At Gen Con 2018, I played a few games of FORTUNE on camera with Steph and Rodney during a publisher no-show. On a turn, you either draw a card from the deck or take a face-up card from the table and add it to your hand. If you now have four cards in hand, you must discard a card to the table, with all discards being visible. If six cards have been discarded, everyone reveals their three cards, with the player with the highest hand winning the game. Simple!
Except that some cards provide bonuses if you meet a certain scoring condition or have certain cards in your hand, which other people don't know about initially. You might be working toward a hidden goal, but win or lose, you must reveal those cards at the end of the game, so now everyone knows about them and might take caution with what they discard — except that one player's cards are removed from play after the game while all of the other cards and three new ones not previously seen are shuffled together and placed back on top of the deck to prepare you for the next game. The slot machine motif makes perfect sense for the game because each play is brief, you're playing the odds, and often you don't know what's coming!
Fasat Forward: FORTUNE is the one 2F title due out in September 2018, while everything else is due out in October.
• Fool! is a new edition of Friese's wonderful trick-taking game Foppen, which he released in 1995. I've played the game ten times over the years, which is far too few, but that's the case with far too many games...
Foppen has two twists in the trick-taking formula: (1) the four suits have different numbers of cards in them, which means that players are usually short in the same suit, and (2) whoever plays the lowest card in the trick must sit out in the subsequent trick. The game included a disc that depicts a fool, and typically if you were that round's fool, you'd slide the disc into the trick as your contribution because someone other than you would be claiming it. When one player ran out of cards, the hand would end, with players being penalized for the cards left in their hand. Thus, you want to play in every trick to stay on a trajectory of going out, but the winner of the trick leads to the next one, so if you never win, you might not be able to stay on suit.
Fool! includes more cards in the game, with the play count of this new version being 4-8 players instead of 3-6. You adjust the particular make-up of cards in the deck based on the number of players, and with seven and eight players, you use two fool tokens to ensure that more people are called out as dopes for having terrible cards (or perhaps for playing their awesome cards poorly). The final twist in the game is that the 1 cards count as every suit, specifically the lowest card in every suit, but you don't have to play them to follow suit if you don't want to. If someone leads green, and the next player plays off-suit, then if you have a 1 but no green cards, you can also play off-suit — preferably higher than the player before you! — to save your 1s for future tricks.
You are at the beach during your vacation. Everything is peaceful and in harmony. Out of a pure love of life, you start to build a sand castle. Wait...what are your neighbors doing? Everywhere, sand castles rise up, but it was you who wanted to build the best, highest, biggest sand castle. Suddenly, everybody is in the middle of a competition.
Everybody builds by themself with the materials on hand. Who will deplete all their materials and win the sand castle competition? Every player for themself, and all against each other, that's what's going on here. Frequently, you can "off-load" on your neighbors some unwelcome materials, but ultimately you are your own builders and only the player who uses their options best wins!
Fine Sand uses the "Fable Game System" introduced in Fabled Fruit, and in addition to a stack of starting cards, each player receives a presorted stack of Fable cards. With these cards, you change your card stack from game to game. Continue to play, or reset and play the game again with the same or different groups. Fine Sand includes an addictive solo campaign!
U.S. publisher Gale Force Nine has signed a multi-year licensing agreement with Legendary Entertainment and Herbert Properties LLC to "bring the beloved sci-fi franchise DUNE to the world of tabletop gaming", to quote from the press release. The only details released so far about this deal are all in that press release, so let's quote the rest of it in full:
"Gale Force Nine has consistently demonstrated a skill and passion for building successful tabletop game series alongside category leading partners and we are thrilled to announce this exciting addition to the Dune licensing program," said Jamie Kampel, Vice President of Licensing & Partnerships for Legendary. "Legendary looks forward to a fun and meaningful contribution to this revered legacy property."
The agreement calls for Gale Force Nine to produce original tabletop games drawing from the full scope of the Dune franchise — spanning the many publications from Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson — along with multiple direct tie-ins with Legendary's highly-anticipated film from director Denis Villeneuve.
"This is only the beginning of our big plans in tabletop for this captivating franchise," says John-Paul Brisigotti, CEO of Gale Force Nine. "Dune is a rich and wonderful universe, and we expect to produce an equally expansive and inspired line of games for years to come."
The full range of tabletop games, including board and miniatures games are slated to hit the market just prior to Legendary's theatrical release of DUNE in 2020. In addition, GF9 plans to align with other game companies on numerous categories and formats in the future.
"With this master license, we are excited to collaborate with our peers and leverage their unique expertise to realize a complete spectrum of game types and authentic experiences,' continues Brisigotti. Slated for late 2019, their first collaboration is a tabletop role-playing game from Modiphius, publisher of celebrated games such as Star Trek Adventures, Fallout: Wasteland Warfare, Conan, Mutant Chronicles, Achtung! Cthulhu, and Tales from the Loop.
The Legendary-Gale Force Nine licensing deal was brokered by Joe LeFavi of Genuine Entertainment, who will manage the Dune license on behalf of GF9 and facilitate ongoing business development alongside Brisigotti.
I've already seen comments from some asking whether this deal might lead to a republication of the original 1979 Dune board game from Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, and Peter Olotka, but in response to those questions, I would highlight this phrase from the press release: "The agreement calls for Gale Force Nine to produce original tabletop games..."
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.