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W. Eric Martin
• In 2018, U.S. publisher WizKids plans to continue its policy of releasing a new game every time we have a third quarter moon, thanks to the efforts of game finder Zev Shlasinger.
In addition to a miniature line and board games based on Magic: The Gathering (as covered here) and the Q1 2018 titles Kung Fu Zoo, Team Play, Dark.net, and Blade Runner 2049: Nexus Protocol (covered here), WizKids plans to release many more titles in Q2 2018, such as Fungeon Party, due out June 2018 from the designer quartet of Tom Jones, Brian Lewis, David McGregor, and Marissa Misura. You can already get a sense of the game straight from the cover, not to mention the title's portmanteau, but in more detail:
Stack dice on your forehead, bounce dice into the box, knock down a meeple surrounded by dice, balance a meeple on a stick — these and many more wacky quests await a traditional dungeon party in the nontraditional dungeon crawler Fungeon Party. Each quest adds 30 seconds to the game, and an average game uses six quests, making this a quick, easy, and fun game to learn and play!
• Another WizKids title that has snuck into Q1 is Letter GO!, a Marcus Ross and Cara Ryan title due out in March 2018:
Each round, players write words on their whiteboards using the available letter cards, but they score points only for the cards they are able to claim before their opponents — and words score only if the player follows the ever-changing rules.
The player who scores the most points at the end of five rounds wins.
• May 2018 will see Maiden's Quest, which I believe bears a player count of 1+, although we might need to wait for final cover design to know for sure. As for the gameplay:
In Maiden's Quest, a maiden — tired of waiting to be rescued — takes it upon herself to fight her enemies and escape.
Maidens use cards from their hands to attempt to defeat an enemy or obstacle. As you play, the game's difficulty grows as enemies of increasing ferocity become active! An innovative turn-and-flip mechanism allows each card to represent up to four items, encounters, or allies.
This fun and easy-to-learn game takes 10–30 minutes if you play non-stop. However, since each encounter is resolved separately, you can stop and stow away the deck at any time, returning to play when and where you left off at a later time! Since no surface is required, you can play while standing in line to get your morning coffee, while you wait for an appointment, or while sitting on the couch at home! Contents include enough for true solo play, co-op, or competitive two-player games, and, with multiple copies, more players can join in!
• Also due out in May 2018 is Curio: The Lost Temple, a 10- to 15-minute real-time game for 2-5 players from designer Ian Zang that presents a new replayable take on escape room games:
A sinkhole formed west of the Tigris river in the heart of Mesopotamia, revealing a large stone door with curious, unknown markings. A special team of archaeologists, from all over the world, ventured to the site to solve its puzzle, allowing them inside. Therein, a massive man-made cavern, stretching for what seemed to be a mile straight down, could be seen. But just as the team decided to leave, the door slammed shut, sand slowly started filling the room, and the team was faced with new puzzles to solve. Can they do it in time?
In the real-time cooperative game Curio: The Lost Temple, players take the role of the archaeological team as they try to escape the Lost Temple. To do this, they need to communicate and collaborate to solve an unending slew of puzzles.
Unlike other games in this genre, Curio: The Lost Temple is endlessly replayable, even by the same players. Using a unique module-based system, players manipulate, sort, rotate, and search puzzle components to arrive at a distinct answer.
• Endless Pass from newcomer Nuria Casellas is due out in April 2018, and it checks off the "viking" theme box for the year:
Enter the Endless Pass, survive the never-ending horde of the Endless, and compete with other vikings to claim the title of Conqueror of the Pass!
In Endless Pass, players fight the scaly Endless to gain glory. The pass is also filled with weapons and runes to aid in defeating Endless, while allowing you to heal yourself. Combined with your action cards like attack, defend, evade, steal, and hide, you have more ways to defeat, evade, or defend against the Endless. However, whatever Endless are not defeated continue to plague the other vikings as they walk the Pass! You may also battle the other vikings. After all, you are fighting for glory and a place in Valhalla.
The last viking standing or the first to acquire ten glory, while surviving the turn, wins the game. If none of the players survive, then the player with most glory is declared the Conqueror in Valhalla.
• And where vikings lead, surely Lovecraftian beings are sure to follow, as is the case with another April 2018 release: A'Writhe: A Game of Eldritch Contortions, a design by Jay Treat that bears this description:
Summon the Great Old Ones by having them align their bodies over Arkham.
In the game A'Writhe: A Game of Eldritch Contortions, players gather in teams of two. Each team consists of a cultist player and a Great Old One player. The cultist is assisting the Great Old One and attempting to summon them to our plane. To do this, the cultist instructs their deity, with great veneration, to place an appendage on top of an Arkham landmark to complete a specific pattern. The problem is that it is nigh impossible to have one Great Old One form this pattern by itself; that's why if another deity is touching any parts of your pattern, you can use that appendage to complete your own pattern!
Up to three teams of two can play in this contortionist battle of positioning.
• Another May 2018 release is Doppelgänger from Stephen Avery and Robert Burke, which is a hidden role game for 4-8 players that's described as akin to a "co-operative dungeon delve":
Each player takes the role of an intrepid adventurer who will help the group overcome great perils. However some among them are conniving doppelgängers who work against the party to bring their downfall.
Each turn the players confront a challenge requiring a combination of cards. The party leader selects which adventurers will help him win the encounter. Everyone selected contributes a card to the pool and others are added from the draw pile. Success brings rewards and moves the party closer to uncovering the hidden truth. Failure brings pain and moves the doppelgängers one step closer to victory.
• Finally — for now at least — is Susumu Kawasaki's Spy Tricks, which first appeared in 2016 from the designer's own Kawasaki Factory brand. Shlasinger published a trio of Kawasaki titles — Traders of Carthage, Stack Market, and the ingenious R-Eco — in the mid-2000s when he ran Z-Man Games, and now he has another clever Kawasaki design.
Spy Tricks is a trick-taking game, but the tricks are merely a tool as your real goal is figuring out which card has been removed from the deck, and winning tricks gives you more control in your guesses. Here's an overview of the game that I recorded in 2016 after the game debuted at Tokyo Game Market:
This post is about a game I've invented called Bug, a two-player game on a hexagonal board in which you build shapes that then eat each other. The shapes that survive grow into different, larger shapes until one player runs out of space to grow (and thus wins).
You can find the rules toward the bottom of this post, but first I'll discuss the game's origin. It involves concepts I've not seen connected with game design, so maybe I have something new to say. Here goes:
Perceptual Binding, Identity, and Meaning in a New Sort of Polyomino Game
Bug was birthed from my belief that a class of polyomino games is waiting to be invented. There's no shortage of polyomino games already — here are more than one hundred — for at least two good reasons:
First, due to the variable way they fill space, polyominoes are champs at creating tactics.
Second, our brains handle polyominoes well. One key way we process spatial information is by dividing it into localized chunks and memorizing/operating on the chunks, e.g., Joseki in Go or Hex Templates or words in sentences.
Joseki — a local pattern in Go constituting a balanced position between the players
Polyominoes are particularly easy for us to handle this way, thanks to a phenomenon called perceptual binding. We automatically perceive certain spatial patterns, including polyominoes, as unified objects. When we perceive a pattern as an object, we can more easily remember it, distinguish it from others, and manipulate it in imagination. Try closing your eyes and rotating a polyomino in your mind, then try rotating some random, non-contiguous speckling of cells in your mind. Most people find rotating the speckling harder:
Thanks to perceptual binding, it's easier to mentally rotate the contiguous group of same-color cells (left) than the non-contiguous group (right)
Perceptual binding is a key reason polyominoes feel friendly to many people. Tetris would be harder if it were played with spackle-patterns instead of polyominoes.
Why Are Polyominoes Subject to Perceptual Binding?
The condition allowing the brain to bind a polyomino into a perceptual object is spatial contiguity of color. In life, regions of contiguous color in the visual field have a statistical tendency to be part of the same object, so our brains evolved to assume such regions belong to the same object. (Visual perception is Bayesian! — which is why camouflage is an effective defense.)
An owl and a tree, perceptually bound
Polyominoes are composed of contiguous, like-colored cells, so we see them as objects, in contrast to joseki, Hex templates, and other spatial patterns that appear in games.
That's probably why most polyomino games come with pre-built polyominoes. We perceive polyominoes as objects, so we create polyomino game pieces which ARE objects. Hence Blokus and Tetris.
A Missed Opportunity
Here's where I think the opportunity has been missed. I can imagine a class of games in which players build and modify polyominoes as they go, and the collective interplay of their changing shapes define the terms of a board-spanning geometrical conflict.
Go-Moku (above) and its many descendants (like Renju, Connect Four, Pente, Pentago, and Connect6) are indeed polyomino-building games, but they focus on trying to build one pre-chosen polyomino: a line segment. These games feel strategically limited to me, and considering how big the universe of polyominoes is, tactically limited, too. What if we could create a strategic game in which a wide range of polyominoes matter and interact (and different polyominoes matter depending on context)?
I think that would be swell, not only because the idea itself is cool (according to me, arbiter of cool), but because, thanks to perceptual binding, it offers a path to solving a sticky design problem.
Specified vs. Natural Powers
Consider Chess, Magic: The Gathering, and Go — three hall-of-fame games. Chess and Magic are generally more accessible than Go, but the reason isn't obvious. Go has the simplest rules of the three, after all.
Here's where I think the difference lies: Chess and Magic have rules that specify units of play with differing powers, while Go's rules don't. I'm referring to Chess' piece-powers and Magic's card-powers here. The pieces and cards have specified identities (the rules tell us what they are), and specified meanings (the rules tell us what they do). Because they're explicit, they act like big flashing arrows, pointing players toward tactics and strategy.
Go also has units of play with differing powers, such as the aforementioned joseki or the opening patterns called fuseki, but they're not explicit. These powers aren't in the rules; instead they're a natural property of gameplay. I call these natural powers. All good strategy games have them; they're just heuristics, but I'm calling them natural powers to highlight that their role in gameplay shares a key function with specified powers: They comprise a collection of tools, and figuring out how to use those tools offers a bunch of interacting puzzles that drive gameplay.
However, natural powers don't offer the guidance Chess' piece-powers or Magic's card-powers do because you must discover them before you can use them. You have to train yourself to see them, and after you do, they can be harder to remember because you perceive them as situations rather than things.
Does that mean game designers should always specify some powers? I hope not. Specified powers have their own problems: They add rules, they feel inelegant and often arbitrary (to me), and they tend to make a game feel opaque before you've memorized them.
Contemplating this, I've wondered whether I could create naturalish powers that needn't be specified individually, but which are nonetheless recognizable and thing-ish like specified powers are. Here's where polyominoes come in: Because they're perceptually bound, we see them as distinct things, which could have, with the right rules, distinct meanings.
So my goal is to create a polyomino-building game in which building a polyomino grants you a power particular to that polyomino, but I don't have to spell out the powers individually. I now have several designs that approach this idea from different angles, with varying success. Below I discuss three.
The first, Papagra, sort of embodies the idea, but not really.
The second, Carnivores, is one of my favorite games, but it has specified powers and doesn't meet the objective.
The third, Bug, which I'm presenting for the first time here, seems to succeed.
Papagra was my first polyomino game. The goal is to create pairs of groups of empty spaces with identical shapes – sort of negative polyominoes. (In Papagra the polyominoes are hexagonal, so they're called polyhexes.) The player who constructs the biggest pair first wins.
When you see a polyhex has formed or will form, it gives you a goal and a lens through which to see the rest of the board. The power of a polyhex is it gives you an opportunity to win by making a matching polyhex.
However, groups of empty spaces don't feel like "things" and they aren't as perceptually bound as normal polyhexes, so your brain can't handle them well. That defeats the purpose. Plus the "power" you get from building a polyhex doesn't feel much like one, not in the least because you don't own it and the other player can use it, too. In sum: blah.
After a long polyomino vacation, a notion rekindled my interest. I dreamt of adjacent polyominoes capturing each other. It was simple and intuitive, and it embodied a cool metaphor: The polyominoes would be like an ecosystem of creatures, eating each other and struggling for survival.
So I started building polyomino-capture games and hit on Carnivores, which the abstract games community on BoardGameGeek voted Best Combinatorial Game of 2015. In Carnivores, differently-shaped polyhexes eat each other according to a diagram around the board, called the Circle of Life, which includes all polyhexes size 4 or smaller:
Each polyhex can eat only one other polyhex, as indicated by the arrows in the Circle of Life; if an arrow points from polyhex A to polyhex B, then A can eat B when A and B are adjacent on the board.
Obviously, these powers are specified, but they're not arbitrary. The Carnivores are arranged on the Circle of Life according to how difficult they are to build. If I could say in the rules "Each Carnivore eats the Carnivore that's the next-easiest to build (and the easiest of all eats the hardest)", then the powers would be closer to what I'm looking for — but no one can "see" how hard it is to build a polyhex. It took major ergs just to figure out how to do the "hardness" calculations, which required constructing this nutty diagram:
As specified powers go, Carnivores' are cool: They're naturally ordered, they're a complete set, and the Circle of Life conveys them in a compact, easy-to-reference, pictorial way. Carnivores has twice the specified powers as Chess, but you don't have to look up the rules or puzzle over what they do because you just look and see as you play.
They're about as natural as specified powers get, and Carnivores remains one of my favorite games, but it didn't meet the objective, so I kept thinking.
I thought for two more years. Then one day I got stoned and Bug came to me. It's like Carnivores but with more natural powers: Each polyhex's power is to eat polyhexes of the same shape, so the shape implies the power.
Why didn't I just do this in the first place? Well, if nothing else happens after a polyhex eats an identically-shaped one, you can easily get infinite tit-for-tat eating cycles, including from the first turn when single stones eat each other recursively forever. I didn't know how to fix that in a way that felt right, but eventually I saw the way: After a polyhex eats, it should grow. Growth eliminates cycles and ensures the game will end. Bug fell right into place after that.
It has a chance to be my favorite of all my abstract games. It has the spark, and other features I like:
A natural win condition that doesn't require counting or calculation.
It's fundamentally strategic (you can't win locally), but there are lots of tactics and lots of signposts along the way (like securing an uncapturable shape or forcing your opponent to clear a bunch of your stones at once so that you have the placement freedom to make a strong counterattack).
It's finite (as each game is guaranteed to end).
Game-length is variable, which creates tension and variety.
Ties are impossible, but…
It's hard to prove which side has the theoretical win, and the game seems quite balanced for the two sides.
Thanks to some piece-cycling, you can play interesting games on small boards, but…
It scales well to larger boards as you gain experience.
It doesn't play like other games I know. (Carnivores is closest, but there are big differences and Carnivores itself is fairly unique.)
After much ado but without any further, the rules:
Bug is for two players and is played with white and black stones on any hexagonal tiling. I strongly recommend starting with the board pictured in the images below. (Here's a PDF – it prints on a regular sheet of paper, for full-size Go stones.) Once you've grown skilled, try this larger board.
1) A bug is a group of connected, same-color stones on the board. A single stone is also a bug.
2) The size of a bug is the number of stones it contains.
The board starts empty. Black begins the game by placing one black stone on any empty space. Then, starting with White, the players take turns. Each turn has three steps, taken in order: 1) Place, 2) Eat, 3) Grow
1) Place: You must place one stone of your color on an empty space such that the resulting bug isn't larger than the largest bug on the board (regardless of color) prior to placement. Example:
The placement on the far right is illegal as it would create a size-4 bug, larger than the largest bug on the board (size-3) prior to placement
2) Eat: All your bugs that are adjacent to one or more enemy bugs of the same shape (but not necessarily the same orientation) must eat (capture) those enemy bugs. Return eaten bugs to your opponent. Example:
Black's bug in the lower-left is adjacent to an identically shaped white bug; therefore, the black bug eats the white bug
Note that mirror-image bugs count as the same shape. For example, the black bug eats the white bug here (assuming it's Black's turn, which is the case in all examples here):
3) Grow: Increase the size of each of your bugs that ate by exactly 1 by placing a stone of your color on any empty space adjacent to each such bug. Example:
In this example, the black bug in the lower-left eats the white bug in the lower-right, then grows by 1 stone
If eating would unavoidably force a bug to grow by more than 1 through a merger with another bug of the same color, no eating occurs. Example:
Normally, the size-1 black bug would eat the size-1 white bug adjacent to it, but the black bug cannot grow without merging with another black bug after eating, so instead it doesn't eat
If, after growing, a bug is adjacent to an identically-shaped enemy bug, it must eat the enemy bug (and grow again) if possible, and so on. Example:
In this example, a size-1 black bug eats a size-1 white bug, then grows to size-2, then eats a size-2 white bug, then grows to size-3, all in one turn
End of the Game
The first player who CANNOT place a stone in the placement step WINS. That is, you win if you've filled the ecosystem with so many of your bugs that you can no longer expand.
In a former life I was a neurobiologist. A key lesson I carry from that life is that we don't see reality; we see whatever is evolutionarily useful for us to see. Consequently our "reality" is sculpted and contorted in a thousand ways of which we're mostly unaware.
Perceptual binding is one of those contortions, and knowing about it offers fruitful avenues for thinking about game design, but this is just one example among many. I invite game designers to learn about the quirks of perception and to exploit them to make better games. I'm certain game design would improve if such knowledge was more widely dispersed.
Since this post is about spatial strategy games, I recommend this book about the quirks of visual perception to start — and since our biases aren't limited to spatial vision, I also recommend a study of more general cognitive biases. Here's a good starter list of such biases on Wikipedia. Behavioral economists have discovered a load of valuation and prediction biases waiting to be exploited in economic games.
In any case I hope you got something from this. I'm in love, resolutely, endlessly, pointlessly in love with combinatorial games. I've adored being witness to their quiet renaissance, and it's been the signal thrill of my intellectual life to take part in it. I'm greedy to contribute more. I'd be overjoyed if someone stumbled into this post and it helped them see a little of the beauty I see in these games.
W. Eric Martin
SPIEL '17 ended six weeks ago, so it's time to start looking ahead to what's debuting at SPIEL '18, right? Nusfjord is old news, yes? So let's move on to what's next from designer Uwe Rosenberg, specifically Reykholt from German publisher Frosted Games.
The game description is meager for now, but we have a few months ahead of the game's release to find out more. For now, we have this:
In Reykholt, players run vegetable farmhouses on an island while trying to attract the most tourists.
Let the speculation begin!
W. Eric Martin
Yes, six weeks after SPIEL '17 ended, we're still posting game demonstration videos that we recorded during that convention. Our SPIEL '17 playlist on YouTube boasts more than 170 videos so far, and I still have at least sixty more to post.
In 2015 and 2016, we ended up with more than three hundred videos in each SPIEL playlist, so we probably have even more than sixty in the pipeline. I have several on my camcorder, for example, and someone else is processing all the day-long feeds that we recorded at SPIEL '17 and chopping them into individual game segments, feeding the parts to me bit by bit on our YouTube channel so that I can add thumbnails and publish them. We ran into a slight delay ahead of BGG.CON due to hard drive backup issues that made it tough to pull off files, but now we're hobbled only by the massive quantity of videos.
I'm still not sure whether this publication schedule makes more sense than dumping a few hundred videos on BGG and YouTube all at once, but in any case ideally we'll finish everything before Christmas to give us (and you) a break before we head to the Spielwarenmesse fair in Nürnberg, Germany at the end of January 2018 to start the convention cycle all over again...
W. Eric Martin
• Tokyo Game Market took place on Dec. 2-3, 2017, and this was the first time that the event lasted two days. Some exhibitors rented booth space on both days, and some were present only on one day and not the other, which isn't surprising given that many exhibitors come with a small quantity of games and sell out within hours of the show opening.
Arclight, the Japanese publisher that owns Game Market, reports a visitor count of 10,000 on Sat. Dec. 2 and 8,500 on Sun. Dec. 3. To put those numbers in context, Japanese publisher Kocchiya has posted the following summary of attendance numbers from 2012 to present:
The fourth column from left shows the attendance figure for each show. The light green highlights the early year shows in Osaka or Kobe, the pink highlights the spring shows in May, and the blue highlights the autumn shows in November or December. The column at right shows the percentage increase over the same show from the previous year.
The third column from left shows the total number of exhibitors at a show: 572 on the first day of the most recent Game Market, and 497 on the second day. Each Game Market day lasts only seven hours, so seeing even a small percentage of games on hand is tough to do in that time. Nevertheless, I plan to return to TGM in 2018, with the next Tokyo show taking place on May 5-6, 2018.
• 1843 is a bimonthly magazine about ideas, culture, and lifestyle published by The Economist, and in November 2017 it featured "Table-Top Generals", an article by Tim Cross that serves as an excellent introduction to modern games. An excerpt:
One reason for the tabletop-gaming boom is simply that the products have improved. The best modern games are sociable, engaging and easy to learn, but also cerebral, intriguing and difficult to master. The slow triumph of what used to be called "nerd culture" – think smartphone gaming and "Game of Thrones" on television – has given adults permission to engage openly in pastimes that were previously looked down on as juvenile. And the increasing ubiquity of screens has, paradoxically, fuelled a demand for in-person socialising. Board gaming is another example of an old-style, analogue pastime that, far from being killed by technology, has been reinvigorated by it.
The revival began in the 1990s, says Matt Leacock, an American game designer responsible for Pandemic, as the internet began spreading into people's homes. Leacock was a programmer at Yahoo! at the time. Germany, he says, is the spiritual home of board-gaming. "For whatever reason there has always been a culture there of playing these things, of families sitting around the table at a weekend," he says. The internet helped that culture spread: "I remember we used to rely on these little hobbyist websites that would do amateur translations into English of all the new German games that were coming out," says Leacock. As with everything from Japanese cartoons to Jane Austen fandom, the internet helped bring together like-minded people all over the world.
• In October 2017, The New Yorker published an article by Neima Jahromi titled "The Uncanny Resurrection of Dungeons & Dragons" that summarizes the forty-year history of the game and its 5th Edition rebirth in a way that is 100% New Yorker. An excerpt:
When mainstream American culture was largely about standing in a factory line, or crowding into smoke-stained boardrooms for meetings, or even dropping acid and collapsing in a field for your hundred-person "be-in," the idea of retiring to a dimly lit table to make up stories with three or four friends seemed fruitless and antisocial. Now that being American often means being alone or interacting distantly—fidgeting with Instagram in a crosswalk, or lying prone beneath the heat of a laptop with Netflix streaming over you—three or four people gathering in the flesh to look each other in the eye and sketch out a world without pixels can feel slightly rebellious, or at least pleasantly out of place.
Thirty or forty years ago, people reached through the dice-rolling mathematics of Dungeons & Dragons
for a thrilling order that video games, and the world at large, couldn't yet provide. Today, the chaos of physical dice is reassuringly clunky and slow compared to the speed with which you nervously tally the likes under a Facebook post. Rejecting your feed for an evening isn't like rejecting the God-fearing community that reared you, but something heretical lingers in this lo-fi entertainment.
• Marcus Beard at UK site Best Play fed more than 80,000 games in the BoardGameGeek database into a neural network, then shared the results in an article illustrated with images seemingly shot through a Monopoly filter. An excerpt:
[A neural network] takes a huge chunk of text and then attempts to figure out what the next character should probably be. It can then infinitely generate text that looks a lot like huge chunk you gave it — but completely original.
Of course, the ground-breaking technology was crying out to be used on the ground-breaking medium of board games. We've combed through the BBG.com database many times before, so we've got a bank of over 80,000 board game titles, ratings, details and release dates to feed into the neural network.
After six hours of training on this 4mb text file (!), here's what the brain-simulating model was able to generate:
Park Glorie (2000) 2-4 players Rating:6
Onth & Gean (1981) 2-2 players Rating:7
Minos's Brin-Mini (2006) 2-4 players Rating:6
Munchkin Park Kings (2008) 2-4 players Rating:6
Flip' El Gays (1964) 1-7 players Rating:4
Power Grid: Fordia (2010) 2-4 players Rating:8
The Besterin Landing: Sentinels of the Alest Tente in the Dark 2 (2001) 4-10 players Rating:5
Secrets! Hall (1988) 2-4 players Rating:6
We can make the output even more boring
if we want. When the randomness is turned down all the way, the neural network chooses only the most probable set of characters to insert in the title.
Star Wars Miniatures (2009) 2-4 players Rating:6
The Game (2009) 2-4 players Rating:6
Carcassonne: The Card Game (2009) 2-4 players Rating:6
The Card Game (2009) 2-4 players Rating:6
The Game (2009) 2-4 players Rating:6
The Game of Heroes: The Card Game The Card Game (2009) 2-4 players Rating:6
Carcassonne: The Card Game (2009) 2-4 players Rating:6
Star Wars Miniatures (2009) 2-4 players Rating:6
…and the list goes on and on in this manner. I like to imagine a world where there are only three games to choose from: The Game
, The Card Card
and Star Wars Miniatures
. All are mechanically identical and decidedly mediocre.
#1 on the charts, baby!
W. Eric Martin
• In addition to the Viking-themed game Raids, which I covered in mid-November 2017, designers Brett J. Gilbert and Matthew Dunstan have a second title coming in 2018 from IELLO: the tile-laying game Fairy Tile, which id due out in February 2018. Focusing on the tile-placement is somewhat secondary to your goal, though, as this description makes clear:
Welcome to Fairy Tile, a kingdom of magical lands where a daring Princess, a devoted Knight, and a dreadful Dragon roam looking for adventure. They need your help to discover the kingdom! Help them move further and further to fulfill their destiny and tell their story, page after page.
Develop the kingdom of Fairy Tile by putting new land tiles in play and moving the Princess, Knight, and Dragon across different places such as mountains, forests, and plains. Help them have extraordinary adventures by accomplishing objectives written on the pages of your book. As soon as you complete an objective, develop your story and read the page of your book aloud.
Be the first to read all the pages of your book to win the game.
• Two other titles coming from IELLO in 2018 are Sentai Cats, a 15-minute game for 3-6 players from Antoine Bauza, Corentin Lebrat, Ludovic Maublanc, Nicolas Oury, and Théo Rivière due out March 2018 in which you need to transform your kittens into a team of Sentai Cats to defeat Meka Dog and save the world. Silliness in a small box from the "Tokyo Boys", as they are dubbed on the box.
• The other IELLO title is 8-Bit Box, a 2-6 player game that bears this meager description:
8-Bit Box is a board game that will remind you the golden age of video games as each player has a gamepad to program their actions, using three wheels: direction, symbol, and value.
The base game contains three different games influenced by classic old-school video games.
Something to look forward to seeing more of at the Spielwarenmesse fair in Nürnberg, Germany in February 2018...
• War of the Buttons, due out from ADC Blackfire Entertainment in March 2018, is the first published design from Andreas Steding since The Staufer Dynasty in 2014. The game was inspired by the 1912 novel La Guerre des Boutons by Louis Pergaud, in which gangs from rival villages compete with one another to collect as many buttons as possible from the clothing of the opposing gang members. Strip them of their buttons and laces, then send them home to face punishment from their parents!
The game has only a short description for now: "In War of the Buttons, 2-4 players lead a 'gang' of kids who try to build their own hut. To do this, they use both their own dice and "neutral" dice, while hoping for help from their 'big brother' and for no one to tattle on them at school."
• I know that CAPcolor: Les Pyramides d'Émeraude (The Emerald Pyramids) from Charles Chevallier, Laurent Escoffier, and ilinx éditions is a combination coloring book+game of some sort, but beyond that, I know nothing. Perhaps you score points by doing your best Vincent Dutrait impersonation on the interior pages...
Welcome to the Bamboozle Brothers' designer diary for their latest release Zombie Slam, published by Mercury Games. What terrifying twists and turns did this ghoulish game of quick reaction take before reaching its final, frightening form? Read on, dear gamer...if you dare!
Zombie Slam actually started off as a children's game, if you can believe that! Originally, we called it "Bertolt's Jungle Jam". For over twenty years, I've been performing my own children's show called "The Adventures of Bertolt". When Sen and I started to make games, I thought it would be neat to have a game set in the world of Bertolt that I could sell along with other merchandise at my shows, so we started with a quick reaction game as that mechanism seemed to match my audience and my character.
The brain fart that started it all
We wanted to add something new to this genre as there were already a few notable quick reaction games out when we first started designing "Jungle Jam" about ten years ago. Our twist was that we added audio cues. We wanted to take hand-eye coordination to the next level. Players would have to first hear the clue, process what that meant, locate the correct target visually, then quickly and accurately SLAM the target item! In the case of "Jungle Jam", we were calling out numbers, colors, and types of fruits, with players trying to squash the right things to make delicious jellied preserves!
When we first pitched the game to publishers, we had this grandiose idea that it would come with this big plastic Bertolt-shaped head. Players would press his trademark pith helmet to receive the next request! I distinctly remember our original sales sheet pointing out that this game would be easily transferred to another character or IP! As a proof-of-concept, we had our university roommate, Errol Elumir, make us a simple Flash-based program that would read out lines of random dialogue that formed the requests. We had to retitle the game to "Jam Slam" to avoid confusion with another quick reaction game that had come out around the same time we were pitching this one…
Oddly enough, Jay also had to change the name of his show from "Bertolt the Explorer" to "The Adventures of Bertolt" for similar reasons…
"Jam Slam" was a finalist in the Canadian Game Design Award in 2011. Maybe it was because we included these hilarious hand-shaped swatters we had people use to smack the target cards with? That wasn't enough, however, to get the game signed. While many enjoyed it and several took it for evaluation, the end result was a no. The key piece of feedback we received was that publishers felt that, though the game was good, it was too difficult for the proposed audience. Thus, we were left with a game that worked better for an older audience mixed with a family-friendly theme, suited to a younger audience. It was time to go back to the proverbial drawing board.
While mulling over our collective failure as game designers, Sen took to the forum we use to communicate and keep track of all our ideas and jokingly wrote, after seeing the success of titles like CMON's Zombicide, "Well, why don't we just make the game for adults and make it about zombies?" He was being flippant, but I felt like Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day:
"Pops, you're a genius!"
We busied ourselves converting the once kid-friendly game into an undead-friendly game and, quicker than you can say "Night of the Living Dead", "Jam Slam" became Zombie Slam. The best part of the conversion process is that we came up with new mechanisms due to the thematic switch!
The new, zombie-fied logo
Some of the conversion was simple: the different fruit became different pieces of survival gear; the jam jars you once filled with fruit became backpacks you hauled around with all the stuff you claimed. Easy-peasy. No big deal. Where the magic happened was when we started to let ourselves really play with this theme. What would you really need to do to survive the zombie apocalypse? What might make this world even deadlier than a jungle filled with fruit?
Well, first, we added hazards. At the start of each round, you are dealt out a hazard that you have to resolve by the end of the round. Hazards force you to use up some of your supplies to survive another day. But what if you failed to resolve the hazard? We didn't want player elimination, so we toyed with giving players health points — but that just led to the question of what happens when you eventually run out of health points?
This is yet another example of a lesson we seem to still be learning: Sometimes you just have to do the opposite of what you think you should do. We couldn't seem to design our way out of player elimination in this case, so...what exactly would happen not if, but when, a player died?
One of these players looks less dead than the other...
The key to the game's final design was understanding the goal for players who had now "died". If you were the only human living, then that was pretty simple — you won! But if everyone was a zombie, then there would need to be a way to grade just how zealous a zombie you were in your afterlife.
We developed the concept of human stragglers. You know, like Newt in Aliens? Those characters who are typically plot devices to make the main characters take needless risks and look heroic while doing it? These stragglers would be "attached" to a specific card on the table. If you slammed that card, you would also gain that straggler. As a human player, you would reduce your supply of cards by one for every straggler you had following you — and they persisted from round to round!
Save the stragglers! Or eat them...your choice
As a zombie player, you WANT to slam those cards, absorbing each straggler into your very own zombie horde! The zombie player with the biggest horde at the end of the game wins — but only if all players have become zombies. This worked, and we pushed towards more players becoming zombies by enforcing a simple rule: If you can't have a full backpack (four unique cards) at the end of a round, you turn into a zombie!
Everything was working, but still lacked that certain je ne sais quoi. Zombie players were relegated to slamming cards that had stragglers attached to them. Our playtesters wanted to be able to actively turn the human players into zombies! Being good designers, we listened to our playtesters and came up with the idea that when a zombie player makes a backpack, they immediately shout "Zombie Slam!" and give an additional hazard card to a human player of their choice. This turned out to be the secret sauce!
Players now had more control as they could go for points by slamming cards with stragglers or they could go for cards that filled backpacks to try to make life harder for a human player. Everything seemed to be lurching along nicely now!
We paid homage to some of our favorite zombie films
We started pitching the game again and got immediate interest. We eventually signed with Mercury Games because they were committed to making Zombie Slam an app-assisted game, something we knew would be critical for the best possible play experience. To help with this, we suggested Eric Raue who is not only a seasoned app developer, but a fellow member of the Game Artisans of Canada. We had a strong working relationship with Eric and communicated well with him. It was great to be able to have someone programming the app who understands game design and who's played the game as well! Together with Mercury, we brainstormed ways to really utilize the power of the app.
In its original incarnation, there were only twelve lines of dialogue, repeated in different ways. We wanted to make the game world come alive with interesting characters and settings — more cinematic! To do that, we developed four locations for the game — the hospital, the store, the house, and the gas station — which lead to us designing in unique benefits to each location when using the app. The whole world was becoming more and more cohesive with each addition!
We then asked ourselves who the players really were. Now that we had access to an app with visuals, it felt odd to add another character who just barked instructions to the players, especially if that character could never turn into a zombie. After talking it over with Eric, we figured out how to give each player a character within the app, then have only those characters talk during the game if they're still human. This was all well and good, except it meant we were now creating dialogue for six characters instead of one and in four locations instead of none. Multiply these changes by the new play modes, and those paltry twelve lines of dialogue ballooned into over one thousand unique pieces of dialogue!
And to add to the confusion, there was the possibility that all the players could be zombies for a round or two. Who would then be making requests? Certainly not a zombie! Instead, we created a news reporter who takes over the storyline, narrating everything while making the requests.
We also paid homage to one of our favorite animated shows of all time
So while Jay was recording the dialogue in Vancouver, I was in my studio in London, composing the soundtrack and curating the sound effects. Not only is the dialogue for each location different, but the sound effects vary as well. For example, there are sounds of wheelchairs rolling and scalpels clattering in the hospital that you won't hear in the gas station. It's those little atmospheric touches that give players an enhanced experience that only the app can provide!
Eric was working to plug this all into the app while Paola Tuazon was providing the bulk of the art assets. Every day, something new was popping up from one of them or the publishers as we pushed towards the finish line. After that, we playtested the game with the app build before it was pushed to Google Play and the App Store. Add one last minute rule tweak to the game, and we could finally hit print on this one!
All in all, Zombie Slam was an amazing project to work on. We got to do a lot of cool stuff with dialogue and music, we got to work closely with Eric on creating a meaningful app, and we got to pay homage to some of our favorite zombie shows in that app. Jay and I learned a ton about game design and app integration on this one. You could almost say that we got more...braaaaiiiiinnnssssssss!!!
W. Eric Martin
You will likely see Bruno Cathala's welcoming smile at many conventions and on many videos in 2018 as he once again has a huge number of releases in the pipeline from multiple publishers. It's almost like he's a professional game designer or something. While I don't know the entirety of his release schedule, I can preview six(!) titles coming from Cathala in 2018.
• Let's start with Kingdomino: Age of Giants, which publisher Blue Orange Games dubs the first expansion for the 2017 Spiel des Jahres-winning Kingdomino. No release date is given beyond 2018, but I'm sure we'll find out more details once the early year conventions (Spielwarenmesse, NY Toy Fair) take place. For now, we have this short description:
You might fear the giants who will crush your precious buildings, or you could make them move smartly on your opponent's kingdoms.
In Kingdomino: Age of Giants, new royal challenge tiles allow you to score more victory points in many different ways. This expansion also includes a tile dispenser tower as well as a castle and king for a fifth player.
• I've already talked about Micropolis from Matagot, so let's move from tiny to tremendous on the scale of living bodies and present Jurassic Snack, a two-player title from French publisher The Flying Games that smacks of the two-player Cathala titles of old. An overview:
Young Diplodocuses (Diplos) are fond of the tasty leaves offered by the neighboring pastures. To win, your Diplo team has to eat more leaves than your opponent's team…unless one of you decides to call the ferocious T. Rex to get rid of all his opponent's Diplos!
To set up Jurassic Snack, create a square at random with the four playing boards, place four Diplos of your color on the matching egg spaces, then shuffle the grass tokens and place them face down on the 28 empty spaces. Two actions are available on a turn: moving a Diplo of your color or moving a T. Rex. The players take turns performing two actions each, which can be the same or different, and which can involve the same Dino or T. Rex, or not.
A Diplo has one single goal: eating grass tokens. It moves in a straight line as many spaces as it wishes until it's blocked by another Diplo, a T. Rex, the edge of the playing area, or a grass token. In this last case, the Diplo takes the grass token to eat it and immediately applies one of the six effects: birth, T. Rex appearance, Diplo move, etc.
The T. Rex has one single goal: scaring the Diplos away. The movement rules for the T. Rex are the same as for the Diplos'. When it meets a Diplo, the T. Rex is placed on the Diplo's space, and the Diplo is placed back into its owner's pool.
The game ends when no grass tokens remain in the playing area. The player who has eaten the most grass wins. A game can also end when a player has no Diplo of their color in the playing area.
• Speaking of old-school Cathala games,
French Swiss publisher Ôz Editions is releasing a new edition of Drôles de Zèbres under the name Kiwara, with the title likely to debut during the fair in Cannes in late February 2018. In the game, players take turns placing animal tokens in six territories on the 6x5 board. Lions eat zebras and chase away gazelles, while elephants stand around taking up space and crocodiles sneak across rivers to change places with gazelles. You can place a token only in the row or column indicated by the opponent. When the game ends, whoever has the most tokens in a territory scores points equal to the value of all animals in that territory, whether yours or the opponent's.
Kiwara includes a double-sided game board that lets you create your own territories before play begins, thereby giving you new spaces in which to fight. The game also now includes ten reinforcement cards to give bonus powers to less experienced players.
• Purple Brain Creations debuted Oliver Twist, co-designed by Cathala and Sébastien Pauchon, at SPIEL '17, but only in a French edition. PBC's Benoît Forget says that he'll have info on distribution of the English-language edition at the start of 2018, with the game likely to be available in the U.S. in mid-2018. For now, you can enjoy this presentation of the game by Cathala and Pauchon in the BGG booth during SPIEL '17:
• In mid-November 2017, Bombyx published this teaser image on Facebook:
Clearly something new is coming for Abyss, which Cathala co-designed with Charles Chevallier. More searching revealed this in my inbox of all places:
I send myself notes all the time, but many of them end up buried due to the huge number of games I see that could be researched. Thus, I overlooked news of Abyss: Leviathan, which Bombyx says will be released in French in March 2018 and in English sometime during 2018. Here's an overview of what changes in the base game thanks to this expansion:
News from the outpost is worrying. The Leviathans, these terrifying sea monsters, are converging towards the border and threatening the Kingdom. Will the Allies and the conscripts, mandated by each of the Guilds, contain them? Exploring is now dangerous: fighting is not easy, and fleeing can be even more dangerous — but the opportunity is unique to prove your worth and use this influence to gain access to the throne.
In Abyss: Leviathan, the threat track is replaced by the border board on which Leviathan cards will be placed. When you explore the depths, if the revealed card is a monster, you can fight a Leviathan on the border. Some new lords and some allies will help you fight, using their power. The player who has killed the greatest number of sea monsters takes the statue and wins 5 extra points at the end of the game — and if you do not fight, you may get injured...
• Finally — for now — we have Imaginarium, a co-design with Florian Sirieix that Bombyx first demoed at the Cannes game fair in Feb. 2017. At that time, I filmed an overview of the game, which then bore the unfortunate title of "Steamers", but the final look of the game wasn't yet in place, a look for which I want to give thanks to Felideus Bubastis:
Holy smokes, this game is gorgeous! And the miniatures!
I'm not a minis guy normally, but these are incredibly detailed and rich with personality. They're like the figure pieces in Eric Solomon's Conspiracy but one thousand times more interesting.
As for the gameplay, you're assembling machines to create dreams, with you needing to pick the right machines to make things happen for you in terms of producing goods, working in harmony with the rest of your factory, and shooting you toward the long-term goals that you're racing against other players to claim. For more detail, here's an updated overview video that we recorded at SPIEL '17:
W. Eric Martin
• Upper Deck Entertainment has already released two games that make use of the myriad characters in the Marvel Comics universe, and come mid-2018 that number will increase by one thanks to the debut of Carmen Bellaire's Marvel Contest of Champions: Battlerealms, a 3-6 player game that bears this description:
Marvel Contest of Champions: Battlerealms is a brand new, unique game set in the "Contest of Champions" universe. In Battlerealms, players take control of a character, roll dice to activate powers, and zoom across different locations to gain points or take points from other players.
I guess that description refers to the 2014 mobile game Marvel: Contest of Champions, but it could mean the comic series that started in 2015 or even the Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions trilogy from 1982 that I still regret buying, although it led to me discovering non-superhero comics, so that was a plus.
• Also due out in mid-2018 is The Mansky Caper from Ken Franklin and Calliope Games, with this being a Prohibition-era game in which 2-6 player gangsters are ransacking the home of mob boss Al Mansky. You might have to split the take several ways as you break into safes throughout the house, but you might also run into traps that can blow your hopes sky-high. Whatever happens, the player who makes it out of the house with the most money wins.
• Little has been made public right now about CIV: Carta Impera Victoria from newcomer Rémi Amy and French publisher Ludonaute other than that it's a deck-building game bearing this brief description:
Carta Impera Victoria is a game of CIVilization and diplomacy in which you develop your own nation. Be the first to reach hegemony in one domain to make history, but keep an eye on your opponents. Forming a temporary alliance might be the best way to prevent a player to triumph…and remember that offense is sometimes the best defense!
CIV is due out in February 2018, most likely debuting at the FIJ fair in Cannes, which BGG plans to attend.
• Hassan Lopez's Infamous from Eagle-Gryphon Games, due out in late 2018, challenges 2-5 players to be good at being bad, specifically by choosing a role as one of five supervillains, building a secret lair from the seventy rooms included in the game, recruiting henchmen attracted by your lair, then trying to complete contracts of evil actions around the world.
Miguel (working on TENNISmind...)
(from Valencia, Spain)
My latest game: Big*Bang, a simple abstract about the first minutes of the Universe
My best-rated game: Tetrarchia, about the tetrarchy that saved Rome
Physics Laws as Game Rules
When I design games, I am always driven by a theme. In fact, when anything catches my interest (book, movie, visit, discussion...), I find myself thinking about what game could be created out of it! Of course, most of the time the idea doesn't go very far, but there are exceptions. My first two games, BASKETmind and Tetrarchia, came out of my two main hobbies, sports and history — and I have science as a third "hobby" (as I'm a nuclear physicist), so...
I have written a recent article for the Game & Puzzle Design journal with the title "Physics Laws as Game Rules" (PDF sample), and this diary will be some kind of summary. As a gamer/designer and physicist, I have always wondered about an apparent contradiction. On one hand, physicists look for simple patterns within complex environments, trying to derive from them laws that are few and simple. On the other hand, game designers try to abstract the events they want to recreate into few and simple rules. Logically, one should expect a lot of board games about physics since the abstraction work has already been done by nature in the form of laws that could be taken almost directly as rules for board games.
So why are (good) board games about physics so rare? How should one proceed in order to make a game from physics laws? Big*Bang was born from my attempt to answer these questions. And if you want to understand the title of this diary, you'll have to keep reading!
Simple Laws But Complex World
The laws that govern a given interaction between two bodies may be simple, but when several kinds of interaction combine, or more than two bodies fall within the interaction range, the interplay between these simple individual "recipes" becomes wonderfully complex.
Take Newton's law of gravitation, for example. A body of mass M attracts other bodies at a distance d inducing an acceleration proportional to M/d^2. This is very simple. Double the mass, double the acceleration; double the distance, quarter the acceleration. However, add other massive bodies, let them all move, and soon things become convoluted. Of course, since the forces are simple and have analytical form, even the most complex trajectories can be calculated using a computer, and thus be implemented in video games — but board games cannot benefit from this assistance.
A good example of a game that tried to use this simple law is Triplanetary. However, even by making it simpler (ignoring the mass dependence and discretizing the distance dependence to either 1 or "infinity"), tracking the movement of the spaceship units required the fiddly use of markers on a laminated map (left):
Even the most simple laws lead to a complex ensemble full of details, and the simulation of all those details should be left to video games. When dealing with those simple laws, board games must make an additional abstraction effort. The challenge for the designer is first pointing out the most characteristic law, then finding a rule that at the same time is simple and intuitive and that lets players feel as if the game pieces actually obey that law. Two good examples are Gauss (center) or Momentum (right). Even if they use plastic pieces and one simple rule, in Gauss players evoke their memories of science classroom with red and blue metal magnets clashing together and spreading away, and in Momentum they feel like they're manipulating a multiple Newton's cradle.
In the end, designing a game (that is fun to play) from a physics law — that translates into a simple rule and leads to gameplay evoking the physics — seems possible!
Gaming the Big Bang
I was looking for a physics case that was fascinating and simple...then I thought about the formation of our universe. No doubt there are simpler cases! However, if one makes the abstraction effort I mentioned above, it can be easily described in broad outline. The main stages of the process are sketched below (from 1 to 6). At some point, a huge explosion we have named "Big Bang" liberated all the energy in our universe, which from then on expanded and saw its temperature decrease to the present 3 K (-270ºC).
The energy from this explosion materialized into equal amounts of matter and antimatter, which then annihilated each other into energy again, following a deadly cycle which could be broken only by a tiny excess of matter. The origin of this slight excess, which is responsible for the matter that we see today and of which we are made, is not fully understood yet. After the first second, the surviving matter had taken the form of protons and neutrons (stage 1). Those two particles began to combine and in the very first minutes formed the lightest nuclei*, mostly Hydrogen and Helium (stage 2), but could go no further.
* An atom's nucleus is formed by a combination of protons (charge +1) and neutrons (charge 0), each element having a characteristic number of protons. The atom consists of its nucleus surrounded by a cloud of electrons (charge -1). The number of electrons in the cloud equals the number of protons in the nucleus, so that the atom is neutral.
The universe underwent a long and quiet period until electrons were slow enough for them to be captured by those light nuclei, forming the first atoms (stage 3). Then gravity took the lead, and the neutral atoms began to condense into clouds, which further condensed into stars (stage 4). Inside stars, Hydrogen fused again into Helium, and thanks to the strong gravitational fields three Helium nuclei could fuse into Carbon, going beyond the limit reached at the end of stage 2. From Carbon, fusion kept going until the formation of Iron, which can no longer sustain fusion reactions, then stars collapsed under their own gravity and exploded (stage 5).
The extreme violence of these explosions, known as "supernovae", created the environment needed to build up heavier nuclei on top of Iron and up to Uranium, then dispersed them into space. And then back to stage 4: Atoms condensed into clouds and new stars, but now those clouds contained most of the elements, and around these second generation stars there could be rocky planets on which life could develop (stage 6).
This complex process, spanning 14 billion years, can nevertheless be sketched in the six main stages above. What kind of game can be designed out of this? The space and time scales are too vast, the stages too diverse, the interactions governing them too different. I chose to focus on parts of the overall process. Until stage 4, there were only a few well-identified pieces, but a goal for the players had to be found.
A Race to Carbon?
Carbon has a relatively light nucleus, with six protons and six neutrons in its most abundant form, Carbon-12 (C12). If I wanted to design a game about the formation of Carbon, then protons and neutrons should be the natural game pieces. Those pieces appeared at stage 1, formed Hydrogen and Helium at stage 2, then waited until stage 4 to continue forming heavier systems. We can better understand why with the diagram on the right, in which we see all the nuclei that exist up to Carbon-12.
For each combination, the number of protons (red, top line) gives the element name (from 1 to 6: Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, Beryllium, Boron and Carbon), and the number of neutrons (blue, bottom line) defines its mass number (protons plus neutrons). For example, Lithium-8 has three protons and five neutrons.
Only some combinations are allowed, and just a few are stable (white cells). The rest are unstable because the equilibrium of "pieces" is too unbalanced, and after a given time they will undergo radioactive decay in search of balance by transforming a proton into a neutron (pink cells on the upper left) or a neutron into a proton (cyan cells on the lower right)*. The color shades correspond to the varying decay times — the darker they are, the shorter they are, with times ranging from millions of years to tenths of a second.
* This relatively simple type of decay, in which a neutron becomes a proton or vice-versa, is known as "beta decay". There are other types of radioactive decay (alpha, gamma, fission...), but they are not relevant for the case considered here.
At the end of stage 2, free neutrons had disappeared and most of the pieces were in the form of the most stable H1 and He4. The reason why the process stalled is displayed by the forbidden symbols in the diagram: none of their binary combinations (He2, Li5, Be8) are allowed. Due to this quirk of physics, Hydrogen and Helium had to wait a billion years until gravity could play a significant role inside stars, enabling the ignition of more complex reactions and, in particular, the one that fuses three He4 directly into one C12.
For the game, I could then use red and blue pieces on a hexagonal grid, and let the players fuse them into stacks following the patterns above. These were some potential game issues:
• Several combinations are unstable, so in addition to the fuse action there should be a decay action in which a proton/neutron in the pink/cyan stacks was replaced by a neutron/proton. It could be a random mechanism (as the real decay) using dice, or a voluntary choice of the players.
• Players should use the diagram above as an aid in their race to Carbon. They could fuse stacks to increase their size, then choose to follow the stable (white) diagonal or either of the two colored regions, then return to the diagonal via decays.
• Players would not be "red" and "blue"; they would need (and share) all the pieces.
• The quirk of physics leading to the triple fusion of He4 into C12 should be a key ingredient. Players could fuse two stacks along empty straight lines, or three adjacent stacks, and of course the result should be a valid known nucleus.
The components and mechanisms seemed clear, the aim of the players not so much. If the winner was the first player forming Carbon-12 and both players shared the same pieces, then the game could stall with players not wanting to do the next-to-last move. No player would want to fuse two He4 nuclei, enabling the opponent to add the third one.
I could instead award points for the formation of each element as an incentive for both players to contribute to the race, but this would require a detailed balance analysis to determine the optimal number of points per element, or I could make the game a cooperative one in which the players solve a puzzle and try to maximize the formation of Carbon stacks...
In any event, the diagram above was too convoluted to make an effective player aid. Even nuclear physicists would need to constantly refer back to the aid to check what can or cannot be done, and I was looking for a game, not homework! Further, the unstable combinations have decay times ranging from tenths of a second to millions of years (Be10), so I should establish a hierarchy. Moreover, from a practical point of view, moving stacks of up to twelve pieces and replacing pieces inside them would be cumbersome.
Even if the initial idea was good, the game boundaries clear, and the number of pieces small, this "Race to Carbon" was far from the simplicity and elegance of Gauss or Momentum. If I wanted to design the Big Bang for effect, I had to escape this frame.
A Race to Helium?
Returning to the timeline sketched above, using protons and neutrons as the game pieces was the best part of the previous idea, and the complexity of the nuclear chart up to Carbon-12 was the worst. So I kept the good idea, but limited it to stages 1 and 2 to create a race to build Helium-4, one of the most stable bricks in the universe and the precursor of Carbon.
The orange (lower left) region of the diagram above shows how simple the nuclear chart becomes; it contains only two game pieces and four composite stacks, with only one of them (H3) unstable. The player aid becomes trivial even for non-scientists: no more than two protons or neutrons per stack, and not only two of them alone. Players should fuse pieces up to He4, and the decay option would be open only for the neutron and H3, with a straightforward hierarchy (H3 decays more slowly).
This was conceptually closer to Gauss or Momentum, with stacks of at most four pieces. However, forming He4 would be relatively easy, so the aim of the game could not be being the first one to do so. Players could instead aim to make the most He4, sharing the red and blue pieces and keeping track of how many they created — but this could again lead to deadlocks as players would be disinclined to create H2 nuclei near existing ones since the opponent could fuse them into a He4 nucleus.
Player vs. Antiplayer!
I had found an appropriate framework for the game, but lacked a mechanism that generated competition and a clear aim for the players, mostly due to the fact that they shared the red and blue pieces. So what about incorporating other ingredients from the physical scenario as game pieces?
Hidden between the Big Bang and stage 1 on the timeline above, there was a huge production of matter and antimatter in almost equal quantities, followed by a huge annihilation of both into light. The matter we see around us today comes from a tiny, still mysterious excess that survived. If I started the game before stage 1, then I could incorporate such ingredients as "antipieces".
Antiparticles have the same properties as their corresponding particles but the opposite charge. For example, antielectrons are positive and antiprotons negative, but those two particles can combine to form an anti-Hydrogen atom, with properties similar to a standard Hydrogen atom, or an antineutron plus an antiproton can form an anti-Hydrogen-2 nucleus.
The diagram on the right shows the mirrored antimatter images of the nuclear chart up to Helium-4. Again, the nuclei shown in the upper right region are classified by the protons (red, top arrow) and neutrons (blue, right arrow), while their antimatter counterparts shown in the bottom left region are classified by their antiprotons (black, bottom arrow) and antineutrons (grey, left arrow).
This solved the problem of sharing the pieces as one player would use red and blue pieces, while their opponent — the "antiplayer" — would use the black and grey ones. Each player now had a clear aim: Build the most He4*, and there was no longer a need to keep track of exact particle counts throughout the game since both He4 were now different.
* Antiparticles are usually noted with a bar on top, but I use the same symbol for both here, for simplicity.
Moreover, a law of physics provided a new ingredient that lead to lots of player interaction: annihilation. The original idea was based on a "quiet" construction of nuclei, but with these new pieces, players could now not only build their own nuclei in parallel, but also annihilate the opponent's! I could even make it more interesting by forcing the players to choose between these two options, leading to an interesting dilemma similar to that found in the game TZAAR: "Shall I make myself stronger or my opponent weaker?"
A Big (*) Bang!
I had finally found a suitable frame for the game (synthesis of Helium), its pieces (protons, neutrons and their antiparticles), mechanisms of play (fusion, annihilation and decay), and some ideas for its goal (such as building the most Helium). I had also introduced player interaction through matter/antimatter annihilation. However, unlike most games that involve capture, such annihilations resulted in the removal of both players' pieces, which had a somewhat self-defeating feel to it and didn't let players strengthen their own pieces or position. But since annihilation transforms each matter/antimatter pair into light, I could instead use this mechanism as a new aim: Produce the most light.
This allowed two paths to victory: a pacifist path that involved building the most Helium, and a bellicose path that involved annihilating matter/antimatter pairs into light. If each player concentrated on one path, however, the game would not be very fun or strategic and would lead to draws. This could be addressed by introducing a scale with which to compare the relative magnitude of each victory condition, but this would complicate matters and make the game confusing for players. Instead, I chose a third condition.
There is another victory condition that was easy for players to understand and that respected the laws of physics. The formation of Helium was followed by the formation of stars, and those were powered by the fusion of Hydrogen. At the endgame, after particles had disappeared through annihilation and others had fused into stacks, the board would look like clusters of nuclei. If we identified the clusters of each player as their stars, an interesting victory condition would be to form the star with the most Hydrogen fuel. Players should therefore fuse particles into Hydrogen, then Helium, and produce light by annihilating pairs, but at the same time keep some Hydrogen "alive" in some of the clusters that appear towards the end. This made the number of victory conditions odd, so ties would be unlikely.
What about the decay of unstable combinations? With respect to the Carbon-12 game idea, I was left with only two of them: each player's neutron and H3. To add more interaction, I could let players force the decay of the opponent's unstable stacks in order to disturb their plans. Since decay here means replacing a neutron with a proton, this option would be available only when protons would start leaving the board through annihilation. Therefore, the players themselves would regulate the decay "clock" (the timing and impact of decays) depending on how much annihilation they chose, making no two games play the same.
The turn sequence would be:
1. Either fuse a pair of your stacks or annihilate a pair stack/antistack.
2. Force a decay, if possible.
As with Gauss or Momentum, the game was abstract in the sense that it focused on simple concepts that evoke laws governing real processes, so was best played on a regular grid. However, it still had a strong theme, which might be lost on players if the board was a sterile grid. I opted for an evocative background image depicting the Cosmic Microwave Background of stage 3 in the timeline above. This image has been obtained with increasing resolution by the satellites COBE (1992), WMAP (2003) and Planck (2013):
The intermediate resolution of WMAP was a good compromise (left). It represents the oldest light in our universe, with darker (slightly cooler) areas corresponding to the concentration of matter due to fluctuations that gravity amplified to form the first galaxies. For the game grid, I chose an ellipsoidal hexagonal one to match the shape of the image. (For a detailed discussion on the shape and size of the grid, see here.) This left space in the corners of the board for simple player aids and the three victory conditions (see the prototype on the right).
I chose an unusual name — Big*Bang — with an asterisk that evokes the first explosion and the subsequent annihilation, and that sets the game apart from the whole series of games using "Big Bang" in their names. The rulebooks (in English, Spanish and French) are available for download at the game page on the nestorgames website. As usual with Néstor, the production of the game has been a very smooth and constructive process! And also as usual, the result is a very compact, light and beautiful edition:
The Link with Physics Laws
I started the diary with a discussion about gaming physics in general. With all the different compromises I have met in order to keep Big*Bang interesting as a game, has the link with physics been lost?
The huge matter-antimatter clash occurred in the first fractions of a second after the Big Bang, and only later did Helium start forming, while in the game both processes occur simultaneously. Furthermore, our universe seems to consist mostly of matter only, while the game has equal amounts of matter and antimatter.
So is the game totally science fiction? Maybe not. We assume that only one of matter or antimatter could survive the initial annihilation, and since we live in a matter world, we assume that only matter did. But what if the rapid expansion that followed the Big Bang pushed antimatter-dominated regions far enough away from matter-dominated ones?
In that case, annihilation would have halted due to the physical separation of both populations, and the universe would also contain antimatter galaxies. However, since the chemistry of antimatter is identical, those galaxies would look exactly like matter ones. Our only chance to spot them would be their collision with a matter galaxy, through the gigantic annihilation flash that would follow. In fact space missions are searching for the characteristic signals of such a clash, or for antinuclei produced in "antistars", but no evidence has been found yet. Leaving this hypothetical matter-antimatter coexistence aside, what about the other physics laws?
The spirit of the primordial nucleosynthesis is captured reasonably well. The first fusion step is H2, the only stack of height 2. By forming H2, players shield against annihilation by the more abundant individual pieces while threatening the formation of the opponent's H2 nearby, and prepare the way to Helium. (On the right you can see a He4 stack surrounded by a neutron, an antiproton and two antineutrons.) Depending on the annihilation rate chosen, neutrons start disappearing sooner or later, adding angst to the race since you may end up with proton-dominated regions that, without neutrons, will be doomed fusion-wise. However, the third victory condition I introduced gives sense to these Hydrogen areas, too, since they represent the future: a first generation of stars that will generate the ingredients of life, followed by the next generations that will live long enough to witness it.
These simplifications allow only the spirit to be captured, but this was the intended goal. Some add-ons could make the physics more explicit, but once a critical balance between complexity, playability, and theme has been met, adding rules should be avoided. One can still propose variants, though, e.g., electric repulsion could be incorporated by allowing the fusion of stacks with protons only if they are adjacent, or the formation of Carbon-12 could be introduced as an automatic victory condition if a player succeeds in linking three Helium-4 stacks.
Big*Bang is by no means an exact simulation of any part of the Big Bang process. However, at the end of the game, players will have followed the key stages that shaped the first minutes of our universe, the physical laws that guided them, and — from the final board position — even imagine the next steps that followed.
This diary started with a question: Why are (good) board games about physics so rare? Closely mimicking physical laws is not enough to make a good game; this is where mere simulations differ from games. For example, even though the pieces in Triplanetary give the impression of moving as real spaceships would, the result is somewhat fiddly in its implementation. Gauss and Momentum, on the other hand, are examples in which the simulation and the game work well; these games evoke souvenirs from a science classroom when played.
The design of Big*Bang illustrates well the process that takes us from the physics to the game. The physics case was too vast, letting us explore the parts of it that exhibit "simple patterns", the possible pieces and rules that would translate them, and the games that they would make. Sometimes the physical process itself is not well-suited for an interesting game, sometimes clear rules lack a competitive and fun dimension. I reached a dead end first with a game about the "Race to Carbon", then another one with a "Race to Helium".
In the end, it was the introduction of antimatter that solved the playability issues — quite unexpectedly, to be honest — to make Big*Bang work well as a game. In this sense, the game design process mimics the scientific method: trying things that mostly lead to dead ends but that sometimes lead to a happy end. Answering our original question, maybe dead ends are more common in games about physics because the laws are what they are. We cannot tweak them beyond reality as we may do with rules from other themes, and sometimes the laws do not lend themselves to make a game work, however they are implemented.
Maybe good games about physics are rare because the laws of physics are not made for interesting gameplay, but for making our world work!
P.S.: You may want to check my other designer diaries, about BASKETmind and Tetrarchia. These three first games complete the trilogy of my hobbies: sports, history and science!
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